Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

President Omar al-Bashir

Sudan- Omar al-Bashir
President Omar al-Bashir / Photo AFP

Al-Bashir has dominated the country’s politics since coming to power in a military coup organized by the Sudan-based National Islamic Front (the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot in Sudan) against the democratically elected government for three decades. His 30-year tenure makes him the longest serving president in Sudan’s history.

Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) announced in August 2018 that it was ready to nominate President Omar al-Bashir for a new term in the 2020 presidential elections and to amend the constitution stipulating that the presidential term be no longer than five years and that the president may not serve more than two terms. That effort failed.

During this period, al-Bashir, initially a brigadier general who promoted himself to the rank of lieutenant general on the morning of the coup and later to marshal, has shown remarkable staying power, removing rivals and opponents and deftly manipulating disputes to further his own interests. He has also been adept at prevaricating, evading the many crises and controversies that have surrounded his rule, such as the outbreak of civil war in Darfur in 2003 and the secession of South Sudan in 2011. One of his few achievements is the exploitation of Sudan’s petroleum resources.

He is now preparing for a new presidential term which could be his seventh, despite promising in 2010 that he would not run in the 2015 elections and confirming again in 2015 that he would not run in the 2020 elections.

Revolutionary Command Council

Al-Bashir took power in 1989 as leader of the Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation, which consisted of 15 members, all of them army officers. He appointed himself defence minister. The Revolutionary Command Council exercised its legislative and executive powers with a cabinet consisting of both military and civilian personnel secretly but strongly backed by the Islamic Movement. The movement, led by Hassan al-Turabi, initially denied links with the military coup although it effectively controlled the regime.

The Revolutionary Command Council was dissolved in 1993. The designated Legislative Council, headed by one of the members of the Revolutionary Command Council, appointed al-Bashir as president and General Zubair Muhammad Saleh as vice president. This was seen as an attempt to weaken Sudan’s military authority and cement the Islamist influence in the government. However, the equation changed at a later stage.

In search of popular and constitutional legitimacy, presidential and parliamentary elections were held in 1996, in which al-Bashir won 75 per cent of the votes and did not face any serious competition. Opposition parties, which were effectively banned, boycotted the elections. Al-Turabi was elected parliamentary speaker.

The Political Divide

The disputes and power struggles between al-Bashir and al-Turabi began early but were exacerbated after Saleh, who played an important role as mediator between the two men, was killed in an unexplained plane crash in southern Sudan in 1998.

In December 1999, what the Islamists described as ‘the divide’ (al-Mufasala) reached its peak with al-Turabi’s attempt to curb al-Bashir’s authority and make a constitutional amendment allowing the direct election of the state’s governors instead of the president appointing them. The dispute ended with the dissolution of the parliament, after most of al-Turabi’s followers sided with al-Bashir. Al-Bashir cemented his victory by detaining al-Turabi – the first of several such detentions.

Many wondered why al-Turabi’s faithful followers had abandoned their historical leader. According to some accounts, many of al-Turabi’s senior aides, notably Vice President Ali Osman Taha, were trying to save their own necks as they were linked to the assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in June 1995. In addition, they were unwilling to give up the powerful positions that enabled them to pocket millions in public funds, according to accusations al-Turabi made later.

Peace and Separation of the South

In 2000, al-Bashir was re-elected president. He was given a free hand to monopolize power, and he could relieve himself of the burden of Islamists without excluding them, relying on the loyalty of the army and security services. He was preoccupied with the civil war in the south at the time, mobilizing thousands of young men who were killed under strident Islamic and jihadist slogans without achieving the decisive military victory he had promised. Local and international pressure for a peaceful and negotiated solution escalated until the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was reached on 9 January 2005. Al-Bashir was again forced to accept power-sharing with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) led by Colonel John Garang, a veteran political and ideological opponent of al-Bashir’s who received strong national and international support. However, the 2005 transitional constitution guaranteed al-Bashir an additional five years in power without elections. Garang assumed the post of vice president but he died in a helicopter crash on 30 July 2005. Al-Bashir was re-elected in 2010 after the mysterious withdrawal of his rival, SPLM candidate Yasir Arman.

The promises of joint action and unity between al-Bashir’s government and the SPLM evaporated, and five years of squabbling and obstruction followed until the south separated from the north following a referendum on 9 January 2011. It is rare in recent history that a president has retained his position after part of the country seceded because of his policies, but here too al-Bashir was successful.

First President wanted on Criminal Charges

The most complicated issue facing al-Bashir is the international isolation he has faced since the decision in 2008 by Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, to indict him on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the civil war in Darfur. The indictment was welcomed in the troubled areas of Sudan and among opposition groups. However, the opposition leaders in the capital Khartoum were not able to openly support the ICC’s decision. Only al-Turabi dared to demand that al-Bashir hand himself over to the ICC, for which he spent several months in jail.

As a result of the indictment, al-Bashir could not visit any Western country. However, he was free to travel to the rest of the world, including most African and Middle Eastern countries, Iran, China and Russia. Dozens of United Nations resolutions were issued against Sudan too. Moreover, the United States imposed economic sanctions that have cost Sudan $50 billion, according to Sudanese sources.

Master Manipulator

Al-Bashir has always known how to exploit disagreements between the people around him in order to manipulate and settle scores with them. For example, he used Vice President Taha to oust al-Turabi. He also sought the assistance of Saleh, the only coupist military member who continued to support al-Bashir, to subsequently marginalize Taha and the top aide Nafie Ali Nafie after leaving them to fight one another for some time.

Al-Bashir is known for showing no mercy toward his opponents. He ordered summary executions of 28 army officers a few hours after the failed coup attempt in April 1990. His rule has also been marked by the worst forms of abuse against political detainees in ghost houses. He arrested and detained Salah Qosh, head of the National Intelligence and Security Service, who helped al-Bashir remove al-Turabi in April 2012, before reinstating him to the same post in February 2018. His security forces killed dozens of peaceful protesters on the streets of Khartoum during demonstrations in September 2013 that lasted less than a week. He ordered the bombing of Darfur villages, killing hundreds of thousands of residents who opposed him, and he did the same later in the Nuba Mountains.

At the same time, he was quick to offer generous bribes to his supporters, allowing them to become rich through corruption, suspicious deals and the purchase of public property that was privatized at low prices.

He has taken the same manipulative and opportunistic approach to foreign relations. For example, he initially supported former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and was in alliance with Iran, opening Sudan’s ports to Iran’s warships and establishing an Iran-backed military industries complex. He then expelled the Iranians from Khartoum to ally with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and he sent the Sudanese army to participate in the war in Yemen in exchange for financial aid from Riyadh. However, he still flirts with the anti-Saudi Turkey and Qatar, maintaining warm relations with the former. He forged an alliance with the Eritreans against Ethiopia at the beginning of his reign, but he later reversed his position to become an ally of Ethiopia against Eritrea.

Biography of the President

Al-Bashir was born in January 1940 in the village of Hawash Banga, 180km north of Khartoum. He belongs to the large Jaaleen tribe. He is the second of 12 brothers and sisters. His father had a simple writing job at a company in Khartoum. His younger brother Osman was killed in the South War during his presidency, and rumours circulated about the fortunes his other brothers amassed after he took office.

Al-Bashir graduated from the Sudanese Military Academy in 1967. He received a master’s degree in military science from the College of Command and Staff in 1981, then a second master’s in military science from Malaysia in 1983. He worked in the United Arab Emirates for some time in the 1980s. He served in many army units across Sudan and scored an important victory during the South War when a force under his command took over an SPLM base in the Mayum region in 1988. That was the first time that al-Bashir made an appearance in the Sudanese media. His relationship with the Islamic Movement strengthened during the 1980s, but the movement was allowed to participate in the military coup only a few days before it took place.

Al-Bashir has two wives. His first wife is his cousin Fatima Khaled, whom he married in the early 1970s. He married Wadad Babeker in March 2002. Babeker is the widow of Colonel Ibrahim Shamseddin, a member of the Revolutionary Command Council who was killed in 2001. Al-Bashir does not have any children.

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