Fate, destiny and the last dance of Sudan’s President
Thursday 5 March
By Mohamed Hassan Bashir
March 4, 2009 — Ironical as it may seem, the original candidate to lead 1989’s coup d’état was another Brigadier named Osman Ahmed Al Hassan, because he was the leader of the Islamist group in the Sudan Armed Forces at the time. However, he was hastily replaced just a few days before the coup, because Osman wanted the army to have complete control over political power in the country. Nevertheless the civilian plotters had second thoughts and they selected Omer Hassan al Bashir, considering him an easygoing officer who could be effortlessly controlled and manipulated. Al Turabi used to say, “Al Bashir is a gift from God to us”.
In ancient Aztec tradition the most handsome of the prisoners captured on the battlefield would be made king. Protected by guards and dressed in robes, his every need was satisfied for a whole year. Then the king was lead to the top of the temple pyramid. Here, stripped naked, he was stretched out on an altar, his torso was sliced open and his heart torn out and offered to the gods. This ritual celebrated the return of spring. These Aztec rituals now haunt the unfortunate second choice of the 1989 coup because little did he know that he would now be experiencing the pain that once was felt at the top of the temple pyramid. Following the ICC indictment, his soul has been sliced open for the entire world to see. In the Aztec case the King lost his life, in Sudan’s case the leader has lost his soul and dignity.
The unknown 45-year-old coup leader delivered his first statement in 1989 to the Sudanese people and said: "the coup was to save the country from rotten political parties. Your armed forces have come to carry out a tremendous revolution for the sake of change after suffering that has included the deterioration of everything to the extent that your lives have become paralyzed". The coup was also aimed at preventing the signing of a peace treaty with John Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in July 1989. As a result the country paid a heavy price, a million died and more millions were displaced and uprooted. Suffering had arrived in Sudan.
Omer Hassan Al Bashir was born in January 1st 1944, in Hosh Banga, a small village on the banks of the river Nile located 80kms north of Khartoum. He went to primary school in Shandi, a nearby town, and then moved with his family to Khartoum and enrolled in a secondary school there. His father was a dairy farm worker in Kafori, north of Khartoum. Hassan al Bashir struggled to feed his large family of eight boys and four girls, but working hard in his early days in Khartoum he eventually succeeded in educating his kids. His father was regarded as a follower of the Khatmiyya sect and a committed supporter of the Democratic Unionist party. However Omer seems to have chosen a radically different path from his father’s and he joined the Muslim Brothers organization at an early age, as did many of his siblings. Young Omer also seems to have been fascinated by the military and after graduating from secondary school he joined the Sudan Military Academy and graduated in 1967.
For a period he lead an uneventful life like most of his follow citizens, and progressed normally in different military posts, including military attaché in the United Arab Emirates (1975–79), garrison commander (1979–81) and head of the armored parachute brigade in Khartoum (1981–87). In 1987 he was appointed as a commander of the 8th brigade in South Kordofan. But his fate was changed forever in late June 1989 when he was chosen to lead an Islamist backed military coup, since then his life would never be the same.
In the 1990s he submitted to the role of merely a token head of state, while his mentor Al Turabi was the real force behind the throne. But in the late 1990s he finally got fed up with the role of a front man. He wanted to lead and he has severed his ties with Al Turabi since then. To his credit, he has yet to develop the typical megalomaniac characteristics of his predecessor Gaafar Nimeiry, and other regional dictators. He does lack a natural leadership charisma, although he is described by his associates as an affable, humorous and laid-back kind of person, a “true Sudanese”. Sometimes he can get very emotional, in his recent visit to the River Nile state a local woman offered him her child, the childless president lost control of his emotions and cried openly.
According to his press secretary Al Bashir has an unforgiving and short temper. In many public rallies he has frequently managed to embarrass his aids with unscripted outbursts. As a reaction to the ICC in a rally last month in the state of Sennar-South Eastern Sudan, he said, “I swear to god I will not surrender even a single cat from Sudan”. Regarding the court ruling he said, “They can soak it in water and drink it”. After each rally Al Bashir performs a customary dance, one of his favorite songs is a traditional Sudanese one whose lyrics go something like this: “They entered [the battlefield] and the vultures fly [over the enemy’s dead bodies]”. The words try to describe the horrible death of the enemy and how their bodies are left for the vultures to rip to pieces. The song conjures up a disturbing image, and if you have just been accused of war crimes and dance to such a tune, not many people will be able to distinguish between the image and the reality. There is something in the President’s recent behavior that almost makes you feel sorry for the guy. He looks like someone who has completely lost his composure. No one seems readily at hand to tell him, “Pull yourself together man!”.
From his supporters’ point of view, if you fast-forward 20 years, the accidental coup leader is now considered a national icon, a symbol of the country’s sovereignty. The future and the destiny of the nation were linked with his fate, because he rules “through God’s will”. Of course, throughout human history and across cultures, rulers, monarchs, Kings and Queens have all claimed they are somehow supernaturally ordained – that they are “chosen by God to rule”. Even in the USA a recent survey conducted in 2006 by Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion in Texas, found that 19% of Americans think that, “God favours the United States’ international politics”. The Shah of Iran claimed to be the Shadow of God on Earth – he was eventually deposed by the quintessential men of God. Now Al Bashir has become God’s much loved being in Sudan… if you ever wondered what blasphemy means, then such an outlandish claim is the answer.
Now the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for the Sudanese President for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur – many observers have identified three possibilities:
Firstly: that a state of emergency may be declared; the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) and the UN/African Union Hybrid Forces (UNAMID) may be expelled from Sudan; independent civil society organizations may be harassed; and the elections may be postponed while the regime declares a confrontation with the international community.
Secondly: the indictment of the president will weaken his position and will make him a liability to his own party. This may open the way for his removal in a palace coup d’état.
Thirdly: “Nothing will happen on the Sudanese front”, argued the moderate Islamist Al Tayyab Zein Al Abdin in his article for Al Saahafa newspaper. He asserted that the government is far more pragmatic than people give it credit for. In his opinion the exaggerated claims that the government will react “impulsively” will not happen, anarchy will not engulf Darfur, the CPA implementation will continue. However, what will take place? “A few demonstrations here and there and it will die away in matter of days”, says Zien Al Abdien. “A normal life will return to Khartoum”.
Many in Sudan share Zein Al Abdin’s view, the government rhetoric is designed to achieve three things: (a) to appear militant in front of their local and regional followers, (b) to blackmail the international community that has invested heavily in the peace process in Sudan and, (c) to prevent the effect of the ICC ruling.
PEACE AND JUSTICE ARGUMENTS
On the international level many believe the government rhetoric; Julie Flint and Alex de Waal, warned the international community of the appalling consequences if an arrest warrant were issued against Al Bashir. Following the indictment of Slobodan Milosevic in 1999, Ian Black and Stephen Bates wrote an article in the Guardian on 28 May 1999 predicting that, “War crimes move dims peace hope”. They also argued that, “Prospects for a negotiated solution to the Yugoslav conflict were thrown into doubt last night after Slobodan Milosevic was accused of murder”. Many human rights activist also observed that, “There seems to be something approaching a universal rule that whenever a politician comes close to being charged with genocide or war crimes, someone somewhere will wring their hands and talk about the impracticality of it all, and the threat that this supposedly poses to ‘peace’”.
Many among the leaders of the NCP accept that crimes were committed in Darfur. Unfortunately, they have underestimated the seriousness of the international community’s and Darfur victims’ response to these crimes. They have made countless diplomatic blunders that ended up in the ICC. However, they are also aware of the hard realities of Sudanese and regional politics and they cannot afford to scare away the foreign investment that has been attracted to Sudan in the last five years. And they do not want to risk their own stake in the country’s wealth. In short, they simply cannot afford anarchy in Sudan, let alone encourage it. And another reality, peace and justice are neither mutually exclusive nor sequential; they are more often inter-linked and simultaneous. Above all, impunity for the guilty is not an option that the victims of Darfur are willing or can afford to accept.
Now the naive Brigadier of 1989 is paying a high price for his role in an adventure written and composed by others. His own former mentor, Al Turabi, now cynically supporting his arrest. In retrospect, his mother was reported to have said in shock, following the news that her own son was the leader of the military coup in 1989, “What is wrong with my son Omer? This country is a river corpse [i.e. can not be resuscitated]”. If he ever listened to her, maybe he would have had a different destiny. But, wait a minute, if you’re a gift from God then maybe there was nothing you could have done to change your fate in any case.
The author is a Sudanese based in Italy