May 30, 2009 / 3:01 PM / 10 years ago

Sudan's former president Nimeiri dies

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Former Sudanese President Jaafar Nimeiri, who brought Islamic law to Sudan and became a close U.S. ally before he was ousted in a coup in 1985, died on Saturday, government officials said.

Former Sudanese President Jaafar Nimeiri, 69, gestures during an interview with Reuters in this May 4, 1999 file photograph. REUTERS/Stringer

He was 79-years-old.

“We were expecting this for a time, he had developed an illness. Today he died,” presidential assistant Magdi Abdel Aziz told Reuters.

The funeral will probably be in Khartoum’s Omdurman area on Sunday morning.

“He was too ill to be taken out of the country for treatment,” his secretary Makkawi Ahmed said, without giving any further details of his illness.

Nimeiri came to power in a 1969 coup that ended five years of civilian rule marred by corruption and economic problems.

He spent 16 stormy years as Sudanese leader until he was himself overthrown in 1985 and granted political asylum in Egypt.

A devout Moslem, Nimeiri began his rule as a left-wing admirer of Egypt’s late president Gamal Abdel Nasser but he gradually shifted to the right to become a U.S. ally, smashing insurrections by Moslem groups and leftists.

He imposed Islamic sharia law in 1983, an act that is widely seen as the major catalyst for a 22-year-long war that pitched the Muslim north against the mainly Christian south.

Sudan’s economic growth ground to a halt during his rule with long queues for petrol and other basic commodities.

By early 1985, his problems were compounded by a foreign debt of nine billion dollars, an influx of refugees from neighboring countries and a devastating drought.

The execution of liberal theologian Mahmoud Mohamed Taha for sedition also whipped up opposition to his rule.

When he flew to Washington less than a month before his overthrow to seek more aid from the United States, riots broke out, leading to his downfall.

After a period of civilian rule, Sudan’s current President Omar Hassan al-Bashir seized power in 1989.

Nimeiri returned to Sudan in 1999 after 14 years in exile in Cairo and made calls for national unity but he played little role in Sudanese politics after his return.

Reporting by Skye Wheeler; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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