Washington — The United States is getting quietly embroiled in a dangerous situation in the Sudan. Washington's ties to the erratic regime of Gaafar al-Nimeiry are increasing at a time when his own populace and other allies are distancing themselves from it. Unless current trends are halted, there may be major trouble in the Sudan.
President Nimeiry came to power in a military coup in 1969 and soon established himself as a master tactician. In remarkable acts of reconciliation, he brought into the Government in Khartoum two of its main opponents, the Christians and the Moslem fundamentalists. In 1972, he ended a 17-year civil war in the south by giving the Christians greater autonomy in the regions they dominate; five years later, he brought in the fundamentalists by promising stricter application of Islamic law.
With peace, foreign lenders flocked to the Sudan and offered great sums for development projects. For a few years, the country enjoyed a small boom. Then, the debts came due. The Government had made poor investments and soon fell behind on payments. The problem rapidly grew out of control. Since 1979, the debt has more than doubled, to $9 billion, because of unpaid interest alone; it now equals the total value of all goods and services produced annually in the Sudan.
Rather than confront this catastrophe. Mr. Nimeiry, beginning in late 1982, undertook a series of short-sighted steps that greatly aggravated the economic situation. He established the Military Economic Corporation ostensibly to use military resources for commercial purposes. In fact, it is a mechanism for military officers to enrich themselves at public expense, and the Government thereby has lost revenues.
Worse, Mr. Nimeiry destroyed the peace in the Christian south by splitting the region into three provinces; a transparent stratagem to divide and rule. Then in September 1983 he suddenly proclaimed the full application of Islamic law, alienating most of the population. Christians and nonobservant Moslems were upset; even some Islamic fundamentalists resented the state's appropriation of Islam.
Last September, Mr. Nimeiry imposed a fundamentalist Islamic order. Because they had not been tried by Islamic law, 13,000 criminals were released from jail. On the other hand, more than 1,500 people were arrested on prostitution, drug and alcohol charges after emergency law was declared in April. The hands of a number of thieves have been amputated.
President Nimeiry's actions have destroyed Sudan's one bright economic prospect; the oil industry in the south. Soon after the Christians resumed their rebellion against the Government, they attacked installations belonging to Chevron and forced the company to shut down nearly all its operations. Islamization also upset basic economic practices: Limited liability was abolished, interest on debts made unenforceable by law and income tax replaced by an Islamic religious levy.
Many leading political, military, business, intellectual and religious figures who protested the new order are in jail. Opposition to Nimeiry policies quickly spread abroad. The Saudi Government privately expressed its concern and halved its annual aid to the Sudan. Egyptian officials pointedly ignored Mr. Nimeiry in recent statements and declared support for "the Sudanese people." Western Europeans cut back on aid programs.
But America has stayed at Mr. Nimeiry's side. Washington now provides military assistance worth $45 million and economic assistance worth $190 million. It has put pressure on Saudi Arabia, Japan and Western Europe to increase aid. In addition, it has proposed a 10-year moratorium on debt repayment to all creditors by the Sudan. When rebels attacked Chevron installations, America sent in a secret "security evaluation and assistance" team to help the Government build "an effective Sudanese counterinsurgency capability."
The chances of a coup d'etat increase as Mr. Nimeiry pursues Islamization, and the likelihood that a change in government will take an anti-American turn increases as America becomes more closely identified as his patron.
Opposition forces in the Sudan are still favorable to America, though they will be less so as time passes. At the moment, Mr. Nimeiry is not America's only friend in the Sudan; our bonds to the country need not be limited to concern for the welfare of his regime. We should use our leverage to influence him to change his course. If he insists on pursuing his folly, our aid to the Sudan should be reduced.
Daniel Pipes lecturer on history at Harvard University, is author, most recently, of "In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power."