Omar al-Bashir: How Sudanese strongman stayed in power for 30 years, despite overseeing break-up of his country

"He built a regime on survival, and not on governance”

Borzou Daragahi
International Correspondent
Friday 12 April 2019 11:15
Protesters in Sudan rejoice after officials say al Bashir has quit

With cunning and much political guile, Omar al-Bashir survived many attempts to remove him – only to be felled by a popular uprising of ordinary Sudanese alienated by his corruption, incompetence and brutality.

His disastrous decisions would spell the end for many a leader. But even as he lost territory, lost wars and squandered the country’s wealth, Bashir held onto power. But that’s the most that could be said about his disastrous rule.

“Omar al-Bashir will be remembered as a survivor,” said Murithi Mutiga of the International Crisis Group. “He’s ousted several of his allies. His endurance and his capacity to endure in power is the only thing to recommend. He built a regime on survival, and not on governance.”

During the early years of Bashir’s 30-year rule, there was an ongoing debate within the elite about how to address a rebellion by non-Arab Sudanese in the country’s oil-rich south. Some urged reconciliation and outreach, but Bashir rejected such counsel and calculated he could crush the insurgency by force.

Some 20 years later the decision would cost Sudan a huge slice of the country, as South Sudan broke away.

“This was a major miscalculation that led to the deaths of thousands in the civil war and ultimately resulted in the breaking up of the country,” said Mr Mutiga.

Now 75 years old, Bashir has faced multiple wars, palace intrigues by his own armed forces, and political conspiracies by political parties he partnered with and betrayed.

Abroad he was challenged by international sanctions, disapproval of his alliances by powerful Arab states, and the only indictment ever of a sitting president, on charges of genocide and war crimes against non-Arab Sudanese in the country’s Darfur region.

Born north of Khartoum to a Bedouin family, he joined the army in 1960, studying at the military academies in Cairo and Khartoum. A paratrooper, he served in the Egyptian army in the 1973 Arab war against Israel, and later in the military in the United Arab Emirates, before returning to Sudan and rising up the ranks.

He seized power after leading the officers in a bloodless 30 June 1989 coup, suspending political parties and introducing sharia law to win favour with surging Islamists. He took on the mantle of president in 1993, eventually betraying his one-time Islamist allies.

He earned the scorn of the US by allegedly providing sanctuary to Islamic radicals, including Osama bin Laden.

But it his military and security adventures inside Sudan that will likely seal his legacy.

He’s a leader who has relied on repression on a massive scale, arresting and torturing thousands of dissidents. In 2003, when rebels in the Darfur region called for rights, he responded by unleashing militias against them, leading to charges of genocide by the International Criminal Court.

Many Sudanese protesters want to see him brought to justice for all his crimes.

“For now, he will be remembered as the man who got away,” said Ahmed Mahmoud, an activist and journalist in Khartoum. “We will get him back. We need to see him in court.”

In recent years Bashir has cosied up to the Arabian peninsula monarchies who he has supplied with fighters for their conflict and who have invested in his country, buying up agricultural land. Here once again, Bashir’s penchant for survival will likely serve him well.

“It’s unlikely he will be made to face the International Criminal Court, which still has an arrest warrant out for him,” said Mathias Hindar, an analyst at consultancy firm Falanx Assynt.

“Possibly Saudi Arabia will offer to host Bashir once he’s gone.”

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