Home | Comment & Analysis    Saturday 28 August 2004

Omar al-Bashir: The ruthless survivor


By Andrew England, Financial Times

As the United Nations considers whether the Sudanese government has fulfilled its pledge to curb the Arab militia terrorising civilians in Darfur, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Sudan’s president, may be inclined to cast his mind back six months.

On February 9, a year after a violent rebellion in the west of Africa’s largest country, he sought to reassure his people: "The major military operations are now over and your armed forces are in full control," he said in a televised statement. Delivering that message had special meaning for the president, after the humiliation of his cherished army at the hands of the insurgents. But it turned out to be little more than rhetoric from a dictator who has ruled ruthlessly for 15 years since he came to power in a coup and who only this month took the top rank of field marshal. The rebels continued to launch raids and, just as importantly, pro-government Arab militias, known as the Janjaweed, continued their horrendous attacks on civilians. The Darfur crisis has since claimed international attention amid allegations of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The Janjaweed were accused of committing the worst atrocities and the government was alleged to have armed and supported them. Amid international concern, the Security Council passed a resolution on July 30 that gave the Islamic regime 30 days to prove its commitment to disarming the militia and protecting civilians or face economic and diplomatic action. Under intense pressure, the government grudgingly accepted the UN’s demands. The deadline is Monday and the Security Council will decide next week if the al-Bashir regime has fulfilled its pledges.

The government has insisted it is complying, but as always with Field Marshal al-Bashir’s style, many will question whether he is simply taking the world for a ride. The 60-year-old president is certainly no stranger to western, or even Arab, hostility. His government hosted Osama bin Laden in the 1990s and is on a US list of state sponsors of terrorism. The US imposed sanctions since he seized power and added a trade embargo in 1997. A year later, Sudan got another taste of US hostility when cruise missiles destroyed a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum. Washington’s claims that the factory produced precursors for chemical weapons remain unproven. There have been other sanctions and suspensions of western aid. Yet Field Marshal al-Bashir, often against the odds, has survived.

"Bashir is meticulous, calculating and decisive when his power is threatened," said Ted Dagne of the US Congressional Research Service. "He is also one of the luckiest politicians in Africa - not only has he survived his enemies from within, he managed to survive three American administrations, years of international isolation and sanctions."

Now, his challenge is to survive the Darfur crisis at a time when his government appears most vulnerable. Few observers see the son of a farm labourer as the true power, but more as a figurehead for an elitist, Islamist ruling clique. The coup that propelled Field Marshal al-Bashir into the presidency was instigated by Hassan al-Turabi, an Islamist ideologue and leader of the National Islamic Front which had been covertly recruiting army members since the 1970s. The coup highlighted army dissatisfaction with the civilian government, particularly over the conduct of the war in the south, and Mr al-Turabi knew a military man was needed to advance his quest for power. Field Marshal al-Bashir, then a relatively unknown paratroop brigadier and Islamist, was an obvious choice, viewed as jovial, popular in military circles and a man who would follow orders. For the next decade, Mr al-Turabi and his coterie ran the politics; the president, described by former colleagues as non-combative and hands-off, seemed content ensuring the army’s loyalty. He still lives in his residence at army headquarters and often dons his military uniform. He even took a second wife, marrying the widow of an officer killed in the south, as a sign of solidarity to the forces. His relationship with Mr al-Turabi, however, was destined for a messy break-up. In 1999, a power struggle erupted between the military man and the ideologue. To widespread surprise, it was Field Marshal al-Bashir who survived.

Backed by many of Mr al-Turabi’s former protegées, who felt alienated by their mentor, Field Marshal al-Bashir sacked Mr al-Turabi as parliamentary speaker, disbanded the National Assembly and declared a state of emergency. Yet even with Mr al-Turabi in the opposition and later, in prison, few believed the president had become the chief policy maker. Instead, they saw Vice-President Ali Osman Mohammed Taha, a former lawyer and an al-Turabi supporter, as the new power behind the throne.

Critics deride the president as a simple man who allowed himself to be manipulated by the Islamists. One described him as a "pleasant man to meet in the street or at social function" - he is a regular fixture at weddings and funerals - but an "ugly man" in office. "He’s a man of the system, of the party and you cannot see him as separate. He is a tool of the machine, he is not his own man," said a Sudanese academic.

Some people who know him say this is an oversimplification, arguing that while he may have been open to manipulation, he is intelligent and self-aware. Another well-connected Sudanese said the president himself called the shots in Darfur, driven by a desire to avenge humiliating attacks on the army: "He was extreme, very unlike himself. He made it a personal vendetta", he said. The Darfur crisis has caused thousands of deaths and forced 1.4m people from their homes. But the president may yet prove strong enough to weather it.

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