Peoples Power in Sudan Throws Out Omar al-Bashir After 30 Years
There would be much rejoicing in liberal circles that Omar al-Bashir has departed into history, brought down by people’s power right at his doorstep.
Earlier he provided refuge to Osama bin Laden, who allegedly planned his terror attacks in Africa - conducted after he was boarded out of Sudan for Afghanistan – while in Sudan.
A fugitive from the clutches of the International Criminal Court, al–Bashir’s toppling would be seen as prelude to his receiving his just desserts for his handling of the rebellion in Darfur.
However, there are two counts on which he could well be remembered favourably alongside.
The first is his realistic shepherding of South Sudan to independence after three years of peace talks that ended Africa’s longest civil war and six years of implementation of the outcome.
The second is his maturity in enabling that fledgling state to find its feet after two bouts of civil war in its short history of a mere eight years.
al-Bashir earned his spurs fighting the southern Sudanese rebels in the oil rich provinces the Greater Bahr el Gazal. Here he squared off a young colonel against John Garang’s Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army in the second round of the Sudan’s civil war that began at Garang’s home station and place of posting, Bor, in 1983. In 1989, al-Bashir toppled a civilian head of government, Sadiq al Mahdi, a grandson of the legendary Nubian religious leader Mahdi.
Lacking legitimacy, al-Bashir, as military coup makers elsewhere, such as in our neighbourhood, Zia ul Haq, flirted with the religious right. This flirtation with Hassan al-Turabi, led to Omar al-Mahdi falling out with the West, especially as the civil war continued in southern Sudan with the imposition of sharia as one of the root causes.
The attempt at President Mubarak’s life while he was visiting Addis Ababa, led al-Bashir to distance himself from these forces, even prior to the launch of missile strikes by the United States (US) in 1998, including on a factory manufacturing pharmaceuticals, for complicity of extremists in the terror strikes at US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Instability spread to western Sudan by African, though Muslim, tribes in Darfur taking on the state. The Sudanese military, lacking in strength and professionalism and spread thin, resorted to use of irregulars, called Janjaweed militia, against the Darfuris.
This culminated in what a US’ secretary of state, General Colin Powell, terming ‘genocide’. This characterization was not bought into by the UN, which by mid 2000s had deployed a peacekeeping mission in Sudan to oversee the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) arrived at between al-Bashir and John Garang in Kenya.
Hilda Johnson, who was later the secretary general’s representative in South Sudan when the state got independence in 2011, in her account of the period in her book Waging Peace has a cryptic paragraph that almost testifies to the suspicion in Sudan watchers of the period that the Darfuri rebellion was stoked by outside powers in order to soften Khartoum so as to make it amenable to talks with southern Sudanese.
The figure of 300000 dead Darfuris, bandied in order to legitimize another UN mission, for Darfur, is also disputed. This author learnt from a UN official handling the official figure of casualties that at the point when the figure was hyped, it was then at a low five figure mark.
Therefore, while this by no means exonerates the excesses for which al-Bashir is ultimately accountable having been atop the pyramid that committed the atrocities, whether these merited an ICC push against a sitting head of state is worth considering. It is no wonder that African heads of state decided collectively to ignore the ICC in its messianism that could well have had power politics at base.
Recall the Bush administration was then out on a spree to unsettle the Middle East and Arab regimes in order to export democracy. This culminated in regime changes across the region by early 2010s, including by military action in Libya and an attempted replay in Syria.
Despite these provocations and continuing under US’ unilateral sanctions, al-Bashir kept his word on the South Sudan timeline, letting go Sudan’s African half without a reactionary backlash. He naturally could not also fall in line on the Abyei issue – a territorial dispute between the two sister states – and on the Africanised Muslim tribes inhabiting the Two Areas, north of the 1956 dividing line along which Sudan severed.
As with all strongmen and in an assertion of sovereignty in face of interference amounting to proxy war not only from South Sudanese trans-border support for these proxy groups, he asserted himself militarily to retain these areas in Sudan.
This put him afoul of liberals in the west, who pointed to his dismal human rights record in his prosecution of the war in the insurgency prone areas to the west and south. Though the mantra is ‘African solutions for African problems’, western liberals are uneasy when violence figures in such solutions.
That the non-state groups held out with the support of forces outside of Sudan also needs recording. At least one Darfuri warlord canvasses western support from a base in Paris. It is no wonder then that the Sudan Revolutionary Front, along with the civilian side, the National Consensus Forces, of the Sudan Call movement, missed the bus on the African Union blessed roadmap on national reconciliation dialogue and constitution making that al-Bashir initiated in 2014.
Even so, al-Bashir submitted to an African Union led peace process, considering the SPLA North (SPLA-N) issue as a legacy of the CPA period. The African Union appointed high level panel attempted to prevail on the rebels in both Darfur (those out of the wider Qatari led Doha peace process) and the SPLA-N. Several rounds of talks later, the status quo revolves around the questions of sequencing of humanitarian access (with SPLA-N) and the ceasefire and its modalities (with the two Darfuri groups).
The peace process was on the radar of the Obama administration, an assistance in the settlement of Sudanese internal conflicts as quid pro quo for Sudan’s letting southern Sudan go. In the event, the rebels decided on waiting out the Obama administration, anticipating that American energy would falter when the successor comes to power. They turned out right in their assessment of Trump.
Therefore, if the troubles continue in both areas – Darfur and the Two Areas – these need to be attributed as much to hold out rebel elites as to the regimes hardline and not laid at al-Bashir’s door entirely.
Surprisingly, Omar al-Bashir is not unpopular in South Sudan, having redeemed himself in his role as its mid-wife. Even though he fought off South Sudan in a border war in April 2012, he settled with the new state equally quickly in arriving at a raft of peace agreements in September that were to be implemented over the long term.
On his part, though there was some proxy war indulged in by the two states, he did restrain South Sudan rebel proxy groups, returning the Nuer and Shilluk groups in 2013 and refraining from aiding the third, the Murle. The three groups sided with President Kiir in his face off with his one time deputy Riek Machar. In case Sudanese support had continued, the combined forces of Nuer under Machar and the rebels could have prevailed over Juba.
In the event, even the Ugandan forces joining on the side of Kiir’s Dinka forces did not force al-Bashir’s hands, though Uganda and Sudan have been at odds for long, particularly over the supposed Sudanese support once for the depredations of the Lords’ Liberation Army. Not only did al-Bashir refrain from proxy war, but he prevailed on Machar to arrive at an agreement under aegis of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development.
When that agreement broke down because of the SPLA machinations against Machar on his arrival in Juba in July 2016, al-Bashir is one who can be credited with its revitalization. Taking in Machar for recuperation and then handing him over to South Africa in the interim, al-Bashir settled the contextual face-off with Museveni’s Uganda. This enabled the revitalization of the agreement and the subsequent peaceful return of Machar along with a presidential delegation of al-Bashir to Juba.
To be sure, the renewal of flow of oil from oil fields in South Sudan was on al-Bashir’s mind. The last food riots were in late 2013, leading to some 200 killed in street demonstrations. The oil was essential to Sudan’s survival, particularly since it not only gave up ownership to South Sudan, but was dependent on rent from the flow of the oil through its territory.
The border war and dispute over pricing arrangements led to earlier disruptions and the civil war outbreak in South Sudan knocked off the infrastructure. Knowing his political future depended on the economy recovering with oil flows resuming, al-Bashir oversaw repairs with Sudanese help of the oil infrastructure. In the interim, he was faced with peaceful demonstrations, beginning 19 December last.
His predicament could have been eased had the US persisted with Obama’s plan for Sudan, lifting sanctions progressively and mainstreaming the state. In the event, while sanctions were lifted, Sudan stayed on the terror list and quite unnecessarily at that. Thus, US foreign policy lethargy under Trump and its foot dragging in Africa has exacted a price. It is completely out of step, as in most things these days, with his European allies, who found al-Bashir’s most cooperative in helping stem immigration to Europe from Africa, their principal plank in the common security and foreign policy agenda. These culminated in the happenings in Khartoum over this month, leading to the army stepping up and dispatching al-Bashir into history.
While a despot has been evicted, history has not come to an end. Neighbouring Libya is under turmoil, even as UN intends to dispatch an assistance mission to that state this year. Algeria has been convulsed in people demanding an end to a geriatric military regime there. Yemen, over to Sudan’s east, continues in distress.
Thus, an arc of instability has opened up across the Arab lands yet again. As to how this fits in with the Trump plan for the Middle East, to be unveiled by his son in law, Jared Kushner, is yet to be known. The plan perhaps awaited the return of ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu to power, as a lynchpin of stability in a sea of turmoil.
What a brilliant strategy for the national security of Israel, the regional nuclear equipped superpower. al-Bashir who had fended off instability spreading from the Horn of Africa is now no more in saddle. Fearing being engulfed by the instability, the military that has taken over – al-Bashir’s child in a way – has hit itself in the foot by talking of constitution making spread over two years. They may end up emulating General Sisi to the north.
The period could have been shorter (say six months) since al-Bashir was already into constitution making, with a standing invite to the Mahdi led holdouts – underwritten by the African Union high level panel headed by Thabo Mbeki - to join up at will in the process. The story is yet unfolding, but it is without its main character, the ultimate realist, al-Bashir.
Sudan, symbolized best by its name emblazoned across the iconic red-sandstone building at the National Defence Academy, figures in Indian interests significantly for the $2.5 billion investment in oil in the region.
Though India has lost a friend in al-Bashir’s departure, in his successor General Auf, it has another well-wisher at the helm in Khartoum.
India would do well to use its leverage to gently help its Sudanese friends down the road to democracy which they were already embarked on till al-Bashir finally ran out of time getting to. It appears the rug was pulled from under his feet by an array of forces not excluding those of liberal messianism.
The possibility of anarchy at the end of such an enterprise did not deter such forces. Even so, the prayer is for a different outcome in Sudan than witnessed in its neighbours.