President Omar Hassan al Bashir has been in power for 29½ years. The median age of Sudanese citizens is nineteen years: well over half of the Sudanese have known no other leader. Only the small percentage of Sudanese aged over fifty were able to vote in an election in which Bashir was not the leading candidate (the last such election was April 1986). Bashir took power when the Berlin Wall was standing, when Nelson Mandela was in prison, when the debris was scarcely cleared from Tiananmen Square.
It’s time for President Bashir to step down.
He has lasted nearly three decades in power through a combination of moderated ruthlessness, tactical political intelligence, and luck.
Pres. Bashir has pursued ruthless and bloody wars in the south of Sudan, the west, the east and the center. Hundreds of thousands of Sudanese have died by violence and starvation during his tenure, and when South Sudanese were given a chance to vote to be no part of his realm, they overwhelmingly made that choice. Bashir began his rule by throwing virtually the entire elected government and civil society leadership in prison. Some were tortured terribly. That was decades ago, but there is no statute of limitation on accountability for such violations.
Bashir has also been careful to manage the political elite of Khartoum. Among the officer class of the Sudanese Armed Forces and the cadres of the National Congress Party, the president has the reputation of never sacrificing one of his own. An individual may be dismissed or rotated, but will rarely be thrown into the wilderness for long, and never handed over to a foreign power nor (since the early days of military rule) executed. Among the rivalrous, scheming ruling cabal, everyone wants to be the president—but everyone’s second choice is Bashir, because they trust that they are personally safe with him.
Bashir’s greatest asset is an encyclopaedic knowledge of who’s who in Sudan. During the 1985 Popular Uprising—the Khartoum Spring that peacefully overthrew the kleptocratic and discredited rule of President Jaafar Nimeiri—Bashir went to the headquarters of the intelligence service, found all the secret files on everyone, and took them home. He knew what he was doing. Bashir has a stupendous memory for people and astonishing sociability—he has long kept open house for army officers two evenings a week—which has given him an unmatched mastery over the political arena. He knows everyone’s weak point. Tactically, he can always think two or three steps ahead and anticipate his opponents’ gambits. He can reliably construct a potential alliance of the moment, and bring it to fruition.
Bashir is like a skilled seaman who can keep his boat afloat in any storm. He just cannot sail it across the ocean.
Bashir’s tactical acumen has kept him in power but has meant that Sudan has squandered every asset and opportunity. The oil boom was misspent. The peace agreement with South Sudan has been wasted. At every turn, Sudanese politics has become more corrupt and monetized. The nation’s resources have been diverted more and more into the political budget reserved for staying in power, while public spending for services and development withers.
Over the last two years, three stratagems aimed at helping the regime stay in power have failed—each time undermined by systemic corruption. Two years ago, the U.S. began lifting sanctions on Sudan. This should have been a chance for the country to encourage foreign investment and begin an economic recovery. Money flowed—and was pocketed for private gain and political payout. Then, Bashir manoevered closer to Saudi Arabia, for money and political cover. More than 7,000 Sudanese fighters (Darfurians from the Rapid Response Force) were sent to fight in Yemen, sustaining high casualties. But the financial payout went to the middlemen, not to the treasury. And in the last year, Bashir has used his formidable skills as a political retailer to engineer a series of bargains that might just bring an end to the civil war in South Sudan, with the bonus (for Khartoum) that it entails expanding South Sudan’s oil exports through the north—with transit fees paid in dollars. Again, it’s unlikely that the benefits have gone further than the cronies close to the deal.
Several times, fortune has intervened to save Pres. Bashir. He somehow managed to stay out of the line of fire when, just a year into his tenure, Turabi overruled him and supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iraq. He managed to duck the political bullets when his security agents were caught trying to assassinate Egyptian President Husni Mubarak. He managed to get Usama bin Laden off his hands in the nick of time. When he was staring military defeat in the face in early 1998, his two most formidable adversaries—Eritrea and Ethiopia—went to war with one another.
Bashir was fortunate in facing a series of opposition parties as feckless and divided as any dictator could have wished for. He was lucky (or perhaps unlucky) in having the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court as his would-be nemesis. When Luis Moreno Ocampo demanded an arrest warrant against Bashir in 2008, it ensured that Bashir would step down from office only if he could be certain that his successor would not hand him over to face trial. Amid the uncertainties of the 2010 election, on the eve of the secession of South Sudan, there could be no such successor. Sudanese dubbed this the ‘ugly election’ because NCP candidates’ unflattering campaign posters showed them scowling—the less handsome they appeared, the more that the voters understood that they would sit close to their famously unattractive leader, and maybe garner some payouts for their own constituents.
In the run up to the 2015 election, Bashir chose a trusty lieutenant, Gen. Bakri Hassan Saleh, as heir apparent. Unfortunately, loyalty and competence had become mutually exclusive qualities among the ruling cabal, and Bakri wasn’t up to the job. Visibly weary, and pressured by his acolytes, Bashir stayed on. The airbrushing of his election posters took at least a decade off his age.
This is perhaps Bashir’s enduring legacy: he has cultivated mediocrity, corrupted the country and its ethics, and created—by longevity as much as by design—a political apparatus that only he can run. Sudan deserves better.
Tagsadvocacy Africa African Union arms trade atrocities AU book review Bosnia conflict data corruption Covid-19 elections Employee of the month Eritrea Ethiopia famine Fletcher voices foreign policy gender genocide Global Arms Business human rights memorial Indonesia intervention Iraq justice Libya mediation memorialization migration new wars peace political marketplace Re-Framing the Debate Saudi Arabia Somalia South Africa South Sudan Sudan Syria trafficking UK UN US Yemen