Even the most loathsome tyrants are occasionally admired for their charm, their guile or perhaps their intellect. The same cannot be said for Sudan’s Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir who heads one of Africa’s biggest and potentially richest nations. Part blowhard, part thug, al-Bashir is a graduate of the ‘Idi Amin School of Dictators’.
When General al-Bashir seized power in a sudden military coup on 30 June 1989 there were nagging doubts about his ability to take charge of the mammoth war-torn nation. A youthful 42 at the time, he had been one of the key figures in the Sudanese military assault on black southerners.
Sudan is a country divided between mostly Muslim Arabs in the north and Christian or animist black Africans in the south. The southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) launched its drive for secular democracy and self-determination in 1983. Since then, the Government (even before al-Bashir became leader) has conducted an all-out war against southern dissidents. Amnesty International estimates 2 million people have died in the carnage while 4.5 million have become internal exiles and another 0.5 million have fled the country.
Al-Bashir was an eager, early player in this mayhem. He was born into a peasant family in the small village of Hosh Bannaga, 150 kilometres north of the capital Khartoum. As a young man he later joined the army and quickly vaulted to the top of the command structure. He studied at military college in Cairo where he also became a crack paratrooper, later serving with the Egyptian army in the 1973 war against Israel. Back in Sudan, al-Bashir led a series of successful assaults on the SPLA in the early 1980s and soon was appointed General – a scant 20 years after leaving military college.
Al-Bashir toppled Sadeq al-Mahdi’s democratically elected government in 1989 – ‘to save the country from rotten political parties’ as he said later. With the backing of Hassan al-Turabi, the fundamentalist leader of the National Islamic Front (NIF), the General immediately took steps to ‘islamicize’ the state. Al-Bashir dissolved parliament, banned all political parties and shut down the press. He also stepped up the scorched-earth campaign in the south while courting his fundamentalist supporters. All opponents were dismissed as ‘agents of imperialism and Zionism’.
Like his fellow Middle-Eastern demogogues, al-Bashir loves nothing better than a good anti-Semitic rant. He once claimed that ‘Jews control all decision-making centres in the US. The Secretary of State, the Defence Secretary, the National Security Advisor and the CIA are all [controlled by] Jews’. In March 1991 al-Bashir reinstated strict Islamic religious law (sharia), pleasing al-Turabi who was appointed speaker of the country’s jerry-rigged parliament.
But not for long. Jealous of the influential cleric’s growing power in the NIF, al-Bashir declared a state of emergency in December 1999 and ousted al-Turabi from the party. He followed this with showcase elections a year later which he won easily. Not that difficult a feat given that all major opposition parties were in hiding and SPLA-controlled areas in the south didn’t take part at all.
Meanwhile, both international outrage and the death toll in the civil war continues to mount. The General’s regime has been buoyed by infusions of cash from the petroleum industry which has refused to bow to international pressure and continues to pump oil along a 2,200-kilometre pipeline to Port Sudan on the Red Sea. Al-Bashir shrugs off UN sanctions and the loss of World Bank aid, secure in his new-found oil wealth. Sudan, he crows, has entered ‘a new stage. We have learned to rely on ourselves.’
Not quite. There would be no oil money to grease the war machine without the co-operation of a consortium of foreign oil companies led, shamefully, by Canada’s Talisman Energy. Arms imports have skyrocketed with the new oil money – as has Government bombing of southern civilians. President al-Bashir has openly declared his intention of using petrodollars to win the war. One press report noted that ‘troops backed by tanks, helicopter gunships and aerial bombardments are torturing, slaughtering and burning men, women and children in a drive to evict all non-Arabs from oil-producing areas.’ To add to Sudan’s misery, food shortages, rooted in war and exacerbated by drought, are widespread and a deadly, biblical-style famine now threatens millions.
But never mind. Omar al-Bashir seems unperturbed. While he was bombing his fellow Sudanese citizens in the south he decided to honour his own success. On the tenth anniversary of the coup that brought him to power he decorated himself with a national medal.
Sources: UPI, 29 Nov 1998; The Observer, 16 April 2000; Amnesty International Annual Report 2001; Sudan: The Human Price of Oil, Amnesty International, 2000; Reuters, 10 Sept 1998; AP, 28 Sept 28 1999; BBC News Online, see www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa
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