Memories of 21 October 1964 Revolution
By Atem Yaak Atem - October 22nd, 2017
Although South Sudan and Sudan have been two sovereign nations since 2011, their shared history will survive the divorce for many years to come. The October 21 Revolution is one of the landmark chapters that will continue for generations to be told and its place emphasised in the two countries.
Background to the popular uprising
Constitutional relations between the provinces of Bahr el Ghazal, Equatoria and Upper Nile, otherwise known as Southern Sudan and the rest of the country, consisting of Darfur, Kordofan (west) Blue Nile, Khartoum, Northern (central-north) and Kassala (east) lumped up together under the banner of a monolithic North, became the talking point before and after independence. The “North” as a bloc bullied the South, for example, the ruling elite from Khartoum used soldiers from Darfur and Kordofan to fight their wars in the South. Sudanese Muslims and people claiming Arab descent had effective taken control of the country at the expense of the regions which were inhabited by the majority of Sudanese- some Muslim by faith- and who happened to be “indigenous” Africans.
To safeguard their interests, the population of Southern Sudan wanted a federal setup. The “North” opposed the system. Before independence, the Khartoum based power elite made a vague promise that the adoption of a federal system for the country would be given consideration. Later after the attainment of independence in 1956, the gimmick turned out to be what it was: deception. The country had already become independent through a vote in parliament-with the endorsement of Southern representatives- later to be disappointed as the pledge was not honoured.
But the legislators from the South, or at least some of them, didn’t give up. An elected Catholic priest declared in the house that if the South wanted to break away- federation was equated with succession- no power on earth would prevent that from happening. The legislator was none other than Fr Saturnino Lohure from Torit District, who in years to come would be one of the prominent leaders of the Southern armed resistance, that became known as Anya Nya.
The military takeover of 1958
Within parliament representatives from the South built a tactical alliance with their colleagues from what later became known as marginalised areas. When the ruling sectarian parties- Ummah and Nationalist Unionist Party (NUP)- sensed the creeping danger, they plotted a pre-emptive measure: invited the army to take power “for a while”. The understanding was that the soldiers would later return to the barracks after the heat generated by the regional alliance had lost its energy. The head of the armed forces, General Ibrahim Abboud, seized power in what was called a bloodless coup, abolished parliament, dissolved political parties, suspended the transitional constitution and imposed on the country a strictly dictatorial rule by decrees. As expected under such circumstances, freedom of expression and the press, became the first casualties. He and his fellow soldiers had no obligation to return power to the presumed “rightful owners”; after all, being citizens and living in an era when power often changed hands by force- Egypt under Col Gamal Abdel Nasser, for example- they could justifiably claim they had a similar right as the political class.
Features of an exclusivist society
Now firmly in control, the military government set out to define the country’s identity using two parameters, namely race and religion. The regime was in fact adding more building blocks to an already an exclusivist society (prior to that a commission backed by Unesco approved in 1954 that Arabic language should be the medium of instruction in schools all over the country after independence. Another step was that soon after independence, Sudan joined the Arab League of Nations as a full member). That meant the supremacy of Arabic and Islamic (as a state religion) over the rest in a multicultural society Sudan has always been, was then affirmed and consolidated, and anyone objecting those policies structure, could as well emigrate (or go to hell), in the words of Sheikh Ali Abdurrahman of the People Democratic Party, an offshoot of the Khatimiyya sect.
Sunday which was a day rest in the South was abolished, and foreign Christian missionaries, mainly Europeans and North Americans were expelled from the country. The list of the Southern grievances was very tall. One of these was that the Sudanisation of posts to vacated by the departing British administers, the Southern share of jobs was tiny- four medium range jobs against 800 positions of influence, such as the head of the army- that went to the “North”. The aggrieved party was told the mistake was theirs: they didn’t qualify as only very few Southern Sudanese had received formal education, which was modest in most cases, and most lacked experience of working in state institutions. The ratios were therefore a fait accompli. The unfair share of civil service jobs was later cited as one of the causes of the mutiny or revolution, depending on what one makes of the cataclysmic events at Torit on August 18, 1955.
These measures largely provoked members of the Southern intelligentsia into action that later paved the way for a full scale rebellion expressed in guerrilla warfare. For the Northern ruling class, the repressive military policies that denied them the freedom to organise politically and talk freely, began to build resentment against the military rule. It is claimed that the ruthless government policies in the South which galvanised the Northern opposition that led to the confrontation and the final popular uprising in October 1964. That could be taken with some reservation; it was just a pretext. When had the ruling “Northern” elite fallen in love with the people on the edge of the margins, literally and metaphorically?
This is a story with as many versions as it has many heroes and causes. Even when Nimeiri took power in a coup in 1969, he and his colleagues claimed their putsch was a “continuation of the Glorious October Revolution”. What is not in dispute was that a discussion was taking place at the University of Khartoum about the brutal war in the South. Matters came to a head when the situation got out of control and the army or police, moved in and shot a student- Taha el Quraishi- dead. The killing angered the masses as the body was being carried shoulder-high during a spontaneous and angry demonstration. The civil society and political parties, which were being supported by the judiciary, declared civil disobedience; a thundering mass of humanity moved to the streets of Khartoum the capital, demanding an end to the military rule. Stories later emerged, some might have been fabricated by the like of Nimeiri, that the soldiers who were dispatched to disperse the crowd and if necessary to shoot, disobeyed the orders. Abboud, unlike later fellow coup makers, Nimeiri or Bashir, was generally regarded as a humane man; some writers attached the “avuncular” label to him, in describing his behaviour. He ordered members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to give up power peacefully and to sue for a collective amnesty. With their bare hands and strong will, the masses had defeated the military. Many Sudanese began to take pride in being a people who changed a regime through popular uprising or intifadha as it is called in Arabic. Since then, any group attempting to replicate the blue print- people power- to confront dictatorship either under Nimeiri or the Muslim Brotherhood- National Islamic Front (later renamed National Congress Party)- have always ended in defeat and grief for the organisers. These despots, are not Abboud, has been the observation made by a professor of Philosophy at the University of Khartoum.
‘Change of heart’ towards the South
Since the South was being bandied about as the main the cause of the revolution, the “revolutionaries”- a medley of all ideological colours ranging from the Sudan Communist Party to the budding Muslim Brotherhood under Hassan Abdalla el Turabi, and the sectarian parties in between- the marriage of convenience was bound to fail as time later showed. With a “liberal” civilian civil servant as an interim prime, Sirr el Khatim el Khalifa, an educationalist who had worked in the South, the South received some fair treatment; getting three ministerial slots, unlike in the past when the region- whose population was a third of the whole country- used to be represented in just one, and more often than not, the portfolio of Animal Resources. This time round, the three posts for the South included the docket for security: the Ministry of the Interior. Common sense had finally returned, some observers reasoned.
Here our story proper begins.
School relocated to Kodok ‘Concentration Camp’*
The policy of the new government towards the South was conciliatory: the conflictrequired a negotiated settlement, not useof force, the provisional government declared. That meant that “Northern” members of security forces who had become a law unto themselves were ordered to use force only in self-defence when attacked by the Anya Nya rebels. Political detainees were released all over the country; the horrible centre at Kodok was closed down and the internees walked to freedom as they were nursing both physical and mental wounds.
When these events were taking place in Khartoum, this writer was a student at Atar Intermediate School, just 25 miles south of the provincial capital, Malakal. At the time under discussion, the school had been relocated to Kodok. That year- nineteen sixty-four- witnessed a preternaturally excessive rainfall which flooded much of the areas where the school was sited. What worsened the situation was that the land on which the school sat, is sandwiched between the confluence of the White Nile and Khor (stream) Atar, making the area a trough like basin in which water just accumulated and spilled over the brim. By August that year, the whole school had come under a combination of rain water and the water from the rivers which had broken their banks. The school was relocated to Kodok, about 70 miles north of Malakal. The school- students, teachers, cooks and books- were transported by a paddle steamer to their refuge.
While in transit at Malakal we were shocked to learn that our destination was in reality a concentration camp, minus name. Members of Southern educated class- teachers and office workers- in and around Malakal, had been rounded up and taken to a detention centre at Kodok, where they were subjected to excruciating and dehumanising forms of torture. One of the victims, who had been killed there, was Andrew Amum Nyiker, headmaster of Doleib Hill Elementary School. (Amum was headmaster at Malek before, when this writer was a pupil). One of the survivors of the torture chamber was Philip Lomodong, who in the early 1990s was the head of the SPLM chapter in East Africa. Lomodong has written about the horrors of the death camp in an unpublished account which this writer has read).
A week later, we heard through whispered reports that all the school workers- numbering about 30 and who had been left behind on the “island”- had been murdered by the government army. About two days after our departure for Kodok, a small steamer anchored at Atar. The workers were called into the steamer where they were told they were going to receive their pay for August. The workers who numbered about 30, were called, one by one, into a cabin. With the exception of one Peter Othow, who had jumped into the river and hid under a thick mass of water hyacinth, were butchered. The news of the massacre reached us more than a week later. It was Othow, the lonely survivor who revealed the carnage. We weren’t told the reasons for the killing of those workers, most of them family members in their forties or fifties.
From a frying pan into fire
Our accommodation- dormitories and classrooms- were smaller and not really designed for comfort. But the physical discomfort was nothing in comparison with the daily brush by students with the local state security agents who at every turn wanted to provoke us and find an excuse for arrest and dispatch to the dreaded detention centre. In fact, the district commissioner, a man of Turkish origins, soon after our arrival in town, asked our headmaster, Tahir Obeid, to hand over bigger boys among us to be arrested and detained. The headmaster refused, arguing that all the students and their Southern teachers were not rebels. If they were members of the outlaws, as the Anya Nya fighters were known, they would have killed him and the other two Northern teachers on the desolate “island” where we had been marooned. The headmaster prevailed over the DC, we later learned. But we remained under the watchful and seemingly ubiquitous eyes of the security agents within the police force or prison wardens or some among ordinary town folks, who had been secretly recruited to spy on their own people.
Following developments in Khartoum
The school had bought a large radio set for the students. We depended on the set for news and listening to music. The main stations were Omdurman, which was mainly in Arabic. BBC World Service, Radio Vatican and Radio Voice of the Gospel, a Lutheran station broadcasting in English from neighbouring Ethiopia, were our main sources of current affairs as well as general knowledge. Sometimes we would secretly tune into Kol Israel which was banned.
We followed the events very closely, not much different from what a news media reporter does to keep themselves updated with the details and progress of any breaking news items. It was from the State owned Radio Omdurman, where we gathered the news, among other pieces of information on current affairs, that Clement Mboro, a Southerner and the Minister for the Interior, would soon be visiting provincial capitals and major towns in the South. The mission, we learned from the radio, was to explain the policies of the interim government towards the South and second, to acquaint himself with the security situation in the region. Both the government and Minister Mboro repeated the word “tranquillity” many times over. For them, prevalence of peace was a necessary condition for the government, together with political bodies and representatives of the armed opposition, to hammer out a solution to what was known as the Southern Question. The towns the minister was going to visit included Kodok, our temporary home. The students were eager to see the minister in person and hear what he would tell them by how the reign of terror would end once and for all. For all of us, this would be our time to be near an important personage; a minister. Kodok was going to be Clement Mboro’s last leg of his Southern tour.
Rally in Kodok
The minister was travelling by a small plane belonging to his ministry. But a large contingent of supporters, made mostly of former underground cell operatives, who were rebel sympathisers or members of banned Southern political organisations. Most of the “delegates accompanying” the minister came by boat from Malakal. They descended on Kodok, like an army of invaders; some were angry looking fellows, spoiling for a fight, while the majority among them looked serious and behaved responsibly towards everyone they encountered, showing a conduct befitting the occasion that was going to be graced by a VIP.
Since the occasion in general and the reception of the minister was the responsibility of the DC, the students, teachers and the rest of the town’s denizens went to the venue- a makeshift podium under a huge tree that had been fenced off with ropes and poles- to cheer and listen to the speech of the important guest. The district administration was not aware that some attendees had their plans which were totally at variance with the official line.
Before the minister who was seated next to the DC had had time to greet the crowd and speak, a tall man, incongruously nicknamed Long John Silver, rose. We thought he was going to introduce the minister. No. Long John, a junior civil servant at Malakal provincial headquarters, opened an oversized travelling bag. The man who hailed from one of the Southern districts bordering Ethiopia, began to pull out, one by one, human bones, mainly femurs and thigh bones. As he was choking with sorrow mixed with anger, he had a few words beyond “those are the bones of our people killed by the Arabs”. Next to him, was a woman, who punctuated his slow talk with bursts of sobs. We later learned she was a nurse at Malakal civil hospital. It was clear her affected sorrow wasn’t convincing enough.
Not on the agenda, like the presentation by Long John, was our – the Atar students- own show. “We demand freedom with justick! [sic]. We demand complete separation!”, shouted one of our colleagues, who had stepped forward to direct his statement to those around the podium. Although we had never rehearsed such a slogan, we responded in unison. And loud. Repeatedly.
Tahir Obeid, the headmaster, who had not taken a seat among the local notables receiving the minister and the accompanying delegation, was standing not far from the three rows we had formed, also standing. Although a man known for his tight control over his emotions, Tahir Obeid was visibly upset and was struggling to control tears in his eyes. Talk of separation was a taboo. During the military rule which had not yet become history, anyone mentioning secession or anything remotely related to it, ran the risk of being charged with treason. The headmaster must have been wondering: who had put those ideas into the minds of the students? As someone in responsible for those young people, the headmaster stood accused of having possibly failed in his duty to discourage his charges to openly engage in politics.
An angry minister
When Minister Clement Mboro rose to speak, all eyes were on him. With a solid build and medium height and weight, Clement Mboro’s looks, as far as I can recall, resembled those of the South African freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela, whose relatively light skin bore a striking similarity to that of Mboro. However, unlike Mandela, for Mboro, it was not yet time to talk about reconciliation; he suspected the other side hadn’t changed, and that he wanted to remind the audience of how the Northern traders in the South had not confined themselves to business but instead, he said, were actively and constantly giving bad advice to their kin and kith running the administration and security apparatus in the troubled territory.
“You came to this land with a birish [raffia mat for sleeping on] and salt [to sale to the natives]”. Looking irritated, the minister continued his accusation that such petty traders had become rich at the expense of the local people, and that instead of confining themselves to business, the traders were giving wrong advice to the Northern administrators and securities agencies. Such behaviour, said the minister, have been the cause of the suffering of the people. That conduct should stop forthwith, he warned.
Tension was building and the traders who were conspicuous by their dress- jallabiya and turban- were fidgeting. Mercifully, the minister’s speech was not long. It was late afternoon and he had to fly immediately to Khartoum.
What most of us didn’t know then was that when the minister was being driven to the airstrip in Kodok, he was already late in arriving in the capital where a huge crowd of Southerners were waiting to receive him at the airport.The delay, whose duration had never been made known, caused restlessness among the youths at the airport. Soon rumours started to swirl, insinuating that the minister had been assassinated at Kodok. Pandemonium broke out. According the investigation made after the incident that became known as Black Sunday, some of those young men began to attack Northerners at random and parked cars were overturned while others were set ablaze.
The outbreak of violence later extended to the city, where after a while, some Northerners responded in kind. Police had to intervene to stop the fighting, which had then taken an ethnic dimension. And since Southerners were hugely outnumbered, police had to protect them. After the scuffles had died down and several deaths on both sides had been reported, some of the Southerners who had taken part in the fighting, and were now on the run during a counterattack by the Northerners, were taken to stadiums in the neighbouring Omdurman for their own safety. Weeks later a huge exodus of Southern Sudanese headed homeward. Some of the returnees later found their way into the bush to join the rebels of Anya Nya. It was an unplanned eventuality.
Nationalism in the air
The freedom of expression and association, coupled with orders that had removed impunity from the security forces, gave the public a lease of new life. Even freedom fighters as Anya Nya were known, took time off duty, left their weapons behind in their camps in the bush, and went to visit towns and villages where before the revolution, they would have never dreamt of passing through, let alone sleeping in them for a single night.
Because of the changed environment, some Southern Sudanese who were not known to know a single word of what was their mother tongues began to converse fluently in them; a few among those who have converted to Islam began to seek for advice on return to Christianity and rebaptism; yet others who were known to oppose the rebellion began to ape nationalistic jargons. I remember a very dark senior member in the province education office in Malakal whose ethnic origins were not known before. A few weeks after the revolution, the man began to tell whoever he met about his home of origin and how proud he was of his tribe. There were several people who had shed of their borrowed ethnic or religious façade. As innocent boys, such a behaviour was incompressible to most of us. And the phenomenon wasn’t confined to Upper Nile Province and its urban dwellers alone; similar identity U turns were happening in Bahr el Ghazal and Equatoria, at least in the immediate period following the regime change of regime in Khartoum and the government’s apparent softening of attitude towards Southern Sudanese.
Schools in the South closed indefinitely
December, the month in which schools were closed for three months had approached. This writer was a fourth year student. He and his classmates at Atar and all over Southern Sudan were preparing to take the secondary school entrance examination later in December before the school closed. However, students became restive and became more interested in the evolving political climate; sporadic and politically motivated strikes were taking place in several schools all over the South. Because such an environment was not conducive to teaching or holding of end of the year exams, schools had to be officially closed prematurely. We couldn’t sit the exams which had been planned- as usual- for the year end. So we headed to our various districts, on our way home. The closure lasted more than two years. But that is another story for another day.
To be continued.
*The accounts of the floods which forced the relocation of Atar Intermediate School to Kodok and the terror which frequently faced the students and their teachers in the town, which was practically a concentration camp during the military regime of Abboud, are told in full in my forthcoming book, Atar School Days: Recollections of an Alumnus, which is due for release before the end of 2017.
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