The Downing of Omar al-Bashir


Imran Yawer

After nearly four months of protests, a prolonged sit-in outside the military headquarters in Khartoum, and dozens of deaths at the hands of security forces, the Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir, was defenestrated in a military coup and placed under house arrest on April 11. Following the ouster of Bashir, Defense Minister, Lt. Gen Awad Ahmed Ibn Auf, took over as the interim President and head of the Transitional Military Council, pledging to steer the country to free and fair elections over a period of two years. Under the provisional administration, the Military Council suspended the constitution and declared a state of emergency for three months.

The initial jubilation of the people quickly soured as they learnt with dismay about the vague roadmap for political transition announced by the military. The enflamed protestors viewed the military take-over as perpetuation of the regime and vowed to continue protests until such time as the deposed leader’s entire elite coterie was done away with, and power was handed over to an independent civilian leadership structure to lead the political transition. To placate the public outrage, Lt. Gen Auf – a close confidant of Omar al-Bashir – resigned the next day, on April 12 and was replaced by Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah AbdelrahmanBurhan as the interim leader. The army announced that it had no political agenda for the country and called on the people, civil society and political players to engage in a dialogue that would find a solution to the country’s economic infirmities. The response of the people was to celebrate Auf’s departure while chanting “it fell again.”

Sudan’s popular uprising was symptomatic of the domestic failures and inadequacies of the Bashir government. It started as a protest against the government decision to lift subsidies on essential commodities, and quickly morphed into a country-wide outpouring of dissent against a social order in which corruption, exploitation, unemployment and repression were ubiquitous. The movement brought together protestors from a broad array of political and civil society organisations, some already well-embedded in society, while others were formed during the course of the protests.These groups of protesters eventually coalesced into a well-organised and disciplined movement, unified in their rejection of the ruling system and in their demands for radical democratic change.

The military coup brought an end to a president who came to power in a coup of his own in 1989. Despite enabling the ouster, the new administration does not fulfil the expectations for a civilian transition government, which is what the protesters advocated for. The people want an arrangement that transcends legal and constitutional frameworks to radically challenge the sclerotic system in place. The present set-up is viewed as a revised version of the old venality and politics of a parasitic accumulation. For this reason, the forces of change and resistance need to preserve their momentum to force the interim military set-up to yield to the people’s demand for a system change that envisages the complete removal of the old political guard.

The present situation in Sudan remains precarious and fraught with a number of possibilities.  The people need to be wary of the intervention of the army as a counter-revolutionary measure in the pattern of Egypt, where Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi justified his coup against MohamadMorsi, Egypt’s democratically elected President as a vindication of popular aspirations.  Under the military structure in place, people’s expectations are for a functioning democracy with free and fair elections, and constitutional freedoms that are unlikely to come to fruition under the current rule. The country’s new leader is no democrat, therefore his commitment to enforce an early return to civilian rule appears suspect. In this backdrop, it remains uncertain if al-Bashir’s ouster would lead to democracy in Sudan or the country would relapse into yet another prolonged period of dictatorship.

Omar al-Bashir ruled Sudan for three decades. In 1989, he deposed Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi in a bloodless coup that was Sudan’s fourth military takeover since gaining independence in 1956. Al-Bashir has been elected thrice as President in elections that have been under scrutiny for electoral fraud. In March 2009, al-Bashir became the first sitting president to be indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Darfur. The arrest warrant from the ICC was, infact, one of the reasons that prevented his voluntary exit. Though an adroit politician, al-Bashir completely underestimated the magnitude and resilience of the civil uprising. He believed he could ride out the protests and quell the movement through use of brute force. According to reports, the ousted President was contemplating constitutional amendment to perpetuate his administrative leadership beyond 2020; a leadershipthat has been characterised by personalization of government and the politicization of state structures to facilitate the misuse of power.

Sudan’s successful transition will depend a lot on the politics of the region. Al-Bashir had close and personal ties with important Arab leaders, particularly the Saudis, Emiratis and Egyptians. Sudan’s paramilitary Rapid Support Force remains deployed in Yemen on the Saudi Arabian payroll. However, in a surprise move last year, Sudan allowed the establishment of Turkish facilities in the port city of Suakin on the Red Sea, which unnerved the three capitals that denigrated it as the “Turkey-Iran-Qatar axis” meant to undermine the stability and security of the “Sunni moderate alliance”. Relations with Egypt are already acrid over the Hala’ib Triangle border dispute, Sudan’s backing for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile, and Sudan’s support of the Muslim brotherhood. More so, Sudan’s relations with Iran soured after al-Bashir joined the Saudi led coalition. Yet it seems that Sudan values its relations with Qatar, which actively mediated in the Darfur crisis. The Middle Eastern rivalries will probably heighten in the post Bashir Sudan as regional contenders jockey for influence in Sudan, and other countries on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.This could potentially drive the region into new proxy conflicts.

In response to the current political upheaval in Sudan, the African Union Commission condemned the military takeover as unconstitutional, indicating that Sudan’s membership would be suspended, whilethe US, UK and Norway have issued separate statements calling for a quick transition to democracy.

Sudan’s uprising has been unique in its massive scale, peaceful character and national appeal. The protestor’s revolutionary vigor reaffirms their commitment to democracy and the rule of law. And while the people’s movement has vanquished the despot, their fight to unravel the system is far from over. Indeed, their struggle is a reincarnation of the revolutionary zeal that scoured the Arab lands in the last decade, starting from Tunisia and moving on to Egypt and a dozen other countries.

Omar al- Bashir’s ignominious ouster runs closely parallel to that of Algeria’s long entrenched President, AbdelazizBouteflika who was also deposed earlier this month. They were the last vestiges of the leaders in the Arab world who sought to become ‘president(s) for life’ by manipulating their countries’ constitutions and disregarding term limits. They abused the rules of incumbency, exploited the system, frustrated the process of development, and governed in the interests of a small clique. In the past, similar resistance to democratic transfers of power have resulted in the brutal demise of regimes, whether it was the fall of Tunisia’s Zain el Abidine (24 years in power), Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh (34 years), Libya’s Mummer Gaddafi (42 years) or Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak (30 years). Today, sub-Saharan Africa is home to some of the world’s longest-ruling heads of state, which include TeodoroObiangNguemaMbasogo in Equatorial Guinea (40 years in power), Paul Biya in Cameroon (37 years in power), and YoweriMuseveni in Uganda (33 years in power), all of whom have used the trappings of democracy to prolong their stay in power.

The writer is a former Ambassador.