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‘A true knight does not replace his horse in the battle,’ according to an old Sudanese saying. However, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who faced one of the greatest threats to his leadership in three decades in power, has abandoned this rule and appointed General Awad Ibn Ouf as first vice president as he struggled to hold on to power.
Ibn Ouf replaces al-Bashir’s old friend and ally Lieutenant General Bakri Hassan Salih, who was his vice president for six years and the first prime minister when al-Bashir seized power in a military coup on 30 June 1989. Of the 15 officers who participated in the coup, Salih was also the only one to stand by the new ruler.
The appointment on 23 February 2019 came as the popular protests against the government entered their third month. The protests broke out on 19 December 2018 in response to the economic crisis and the shortage of bread and fuel. However, the protests soon spread across the country, and the calls for economic reforms became a demand for al-Bashir to step down.
So, who is Ibn Ouf? Why was al-Bashir betting so heavily on him?
Ibn Ouf previously served as defence minister for four years, but he kept a low profile and preferred to stay out of the media, according to Sudanese newspapers. He was born in 1954 in Gerri, 70km north of the capital Khartoum, but his roots lie in the northern River Nile state, from which all Sudanese presidents, including al-Bashir, have come since independence.
Ibn Ouf graduated from Sudan’s Military College as a lieutenant at the age of 20. He served in the artillery unit and later received specialized military training in Egypt. He assumed different military posts throughout his career. He was appointed director of Positive Security in the National Security Apparatus and then director of the Military Intelligence Agency, which is a critical organization in a country that is ruled by an army general who fought civil war on four fronts for decades. Ibn Ouf became deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before his retirement from military service in 2010.
He continued to engage in politics and public work after his retirement. He was appointed as an ambassador in the Foreign Ministry and director of the ministry’s Crisis Management Department. He also played an important role in settling disagreements between Sudan and Eritrea and improving relations between the two countries in his capacity as head of the Security Committee during negotiations in 2011. He was then appointed consul at the Sudanese embassy in Cairo, Egypt, an important political, diplomatic and security post in a country that plays an influential role in Sudanese politics. He then moved to Oman where he served as ambassador. He resigned from the post after less than year, however, because he was named defence minister in August 2015.
This rich and varied military, security, diplomatic and political background is rare in other vice presidents.
However, his biography also shows evidence of his heavy hand.
In 2005, as head of the Military Intelligence, he established, according to a pro-government newspaper based in Khartoum, the Border Guard forces, which were regrouped and included large numbers of Janjaweed militias. These militias, made up of Sudanese Arabs, were accused of committing widespread human rights abuses in the Darfur region against Sudanese of African descent during the civil war.
A United Nations fact-finding mission in 2005 put Ibn Ouf on the list of those responsible for the deteriorating situation in Darfur. As a result, the US has blocked his assets since May 2007, and his name remains on the US blacklist, which could be an impediment to his mission and recall a chapter of Sudanese history that the government is keen to gloss over. Moreover, press reports by Sudanese oppositionists claim that Ibn Ouf collaborated with the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army, which committed serious abuses in Uganda and South Sudan during the war.
Government of internationally wanted officials
Ibn Ouf was appointed on the same day that al-Bashir declared a state of emergency, dissolved the federal and state governments and appointed military governors. Ibn Ouf has repeatedly confirmed his support for al-Bashir in several meetings with senior military personnel since January, stressing that the army will not allow the country to slip into chaos.
“Those taking the lead in the demonstrations are the same faces that [were] hostile to Sudan and distorted its image before the entire world, instigating organizations and providing support to rebel movements that have been fighting the Sudanese armed forces in the past years. Their behaviour today raises doubts about their patriotism,” he said.
In another move that indicates al-Bashir’s vulnerability, he appointed Ahmed Harun as vice president of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and delegated all the powers of the party’s president to him, allegedly so that al-Bashir could keep his distance from the various rival factions within the party and help manage national dialogue.
Al-Bashir and Harun are both wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide during the war in Darfur. At the time, Harun was a minister of state at the Interior Ministry and chairman of the Darfur State Security Committee, which was in charge of handling confrontations with the rebels of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM). Harun has since assumed several important government positions such as governor of Western Sudan, and his inclusion on the list of internationally wanted persons in April 2007 has not excluded him from holding political office.
In short, the president, the first vice president and vice president of the ruling party are all wanted internationally. This is an unprecedented political situation. However, it protects al-Bashir from any attempt by the ruling party to make him a scapegoat in response to the growing protests. Some senior members of the ruling party, including al-Shafi Ahmed, former secretary general, have already publicly supported calls for the president to step down.
Regaining regional acceptance
As defence minister and now vice president, Ibn Ouf has repeatedly stressed that his forces will continue to fight alongside the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, which enhances the chances of Khartoum regaining regional acceptance. This is especially because the recent changes in the regime’s top positions and the state of emergency have distanced Sudan from the Turkish-Qatari Islamist alliance, which is currently at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia and several other countries over Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism.
These strained relations were evident in the strong campaigns launched by the Qatar-based al-Jazeera broadcast network against Sudan’s leadership, notably Lieutenant General Salah Gosh, director of the National Intelligence and Security Service and the regime’s heavy hand.