The vultures are circling around Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir. He’s faced problems before, of course, but a perfect storm of resistance and discontent brewing in and out of his country is the most serious threat to his rule yet. SIMON ALLISON takes the liberty – not that such liberty’s are usually allowed in Bashir’s Sudan – of explaining to the Sudanese strongman the precariousness of his position, and second-guessing his solutions.
For three decades, there has been one man at the centre of Sudanese politics. As rebels have come and gone (some co-opted, some killed), as cabinets have been reshuffled, as former friends have been made enemies and enemies friends, as international envoys have changed faces and messages, through famine and civil war and genocide and secession, there has been a single presence in the eye of the storm that has been Sudan’s last few decades. Take a bow, President Omar Al-Bashir. The least we can do is recognise your tenacity, holding on when many around you couldn’t.
But we won’t applaud you for it. Yours hasn’t exactly been a stellar rule, characterised by divisive and alienating policies, a frequent resorting to extreme violence and the elimination (often literally) of any sign of dissent. The International Criminal Court wants to try you for war crimes, in relation to the hundreds of thousands of people that were killed in Darfur. Some call it a genocide, and all evidence points to your direct involvement. This, perhaps, is why you’re still around 23 years after you seized power in that military coup: you’re simply more ruthless than anybody else.
But unfortunately for you and the clique of generals and businessmen that feed off your position (and help sustain it), things are beginning to unravel faster than you are able to deal with them. It began with the breakaway of the south last year, a compromise that circumstances (and, some argue, a rare political miscalculation) forced upon you. Since then, it’s all been going wrong. Most importantly, the south took with them most of the combined Sudan’s oil wealth. Khartoum has enough oil in its control to meet domestic demand, but that’s not really what the oil is about; it’s about extra cash to sweeten your friends and manipulate your enemies. Thanks to the secession, your regime is bleeding around $32-million per day in lost oil revenue. That figure is even higher now that the south has turned off the taps completely, refusing to let its oil go through the pipeline that runs to Port Sudan. Using this pipeline means paying transit fees to Khartoum, and no one can agree on what they should be: you are demanding exhorbitant payments, but the south’s figure is just as unrealistic. It didn’t help when you unilaterally seized over US$200-million of the South’s oil as ‘reparation’ for the unpaid transit fees; in response, Juba shut down all oil production and announced plans to build a new pipeline through Kenya. Surely they’re bluffing, you must be thinking; they can’t afford to have no oil money whatsoever for the next year. But their government is poor, knowing how to operate on straitened budgets. They’ve also got a vast reservoir of goodwill to call upon after leading the fight against Khartoum, and they’ve got some powerful international backers. Maybe, just maybe, they’re thinking about sitting tight on the pumps for the next year; this was certainly the impression given at the recent African Union summit, where sideline negotiations with the south went absolutely nowhere.
Then there’s the rebel problem. Your government has never had many genuine fans, but popular opposition to it is reaching unprecedented levels. There’s Darfur, of course; not even a genocide could solve that tricky little problem. There are still a few armed groups fighting against your government. It’s a low-level insurgency, but requires troops and time and money to deal with. And strangely enough, your biggest recent victory in this war – the killing of infuential rebel leader Khalil Ibrahim – might have made this headache even worse, as it appears to have stalled the ever-stuttering peace talks. And in the new south of the country, on the border with South Sudan, is more serious insurgency headed by a breakaway faction from South Sudan’s ruling party. Your armed forces are going at them with everything they have, including the old trick of indiscriminately rolling bombs out the back of old Russian transport planes, but so far have made little dent. In fact, these rebels feel so confident, they recently kidnapped 29 Chinese workers from a construction site; a huge embarrasment for you given that China is your closest and most powerful ally. You don’t want to make life in Sudan difficult for them, but you are powerless to solve this problem – so much so that China eventually went begging to South Sudan for help. Worse, these new southern rebels have teamed up with some rebel groups from Darfur to create a rebel alliance against Khartoum. It’s early days yet, but this could eventually be the fulcrum for a coordinated uprising.
But that’s not too much of a worry for you, because in your heartland of Khartoum and central Sudan you remain as strong as you ever were, with a population united behind you in the knowledge that the quality of their lives (relative to their other countrymen) is dependant on you retaining power. But wait – what’s that we hear? Yes, emanating from the very core of your support are the unmistakeable rumblings of discontent. It started with the bread protests. Your dire financial straits made it difficult to guarantee low bread and fuel prices, a luxury to which central Sudan’s mostly compliant population have become accustomed. Prices rose, and the people weren’t happy; you had to send in the security forces to keep the peace. Here’s an interesting historical parallel for you, just in case you missed it: popular protests against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt started with bread riots. And look where that got him. And while we’re on the topic of bread, what about the increasingly strident warnings being issued by the international community about an impending famine in some areas on the border with South Sudan? Your officials deny the problem with a smile, but it’s almost certainly there, and will bring even more unwelcome international attention on your government – and, consequently, more international support for those looking to bring it down.
But a little domestic disturbance can be contained. The people have never been the real source of your power, which comes instead from an all too predictable direction, given your military background: the army. The armed forces in Sudan receive a ridiculously large proportion of the budget, and in return keep your government in power. It’s a cosy relationship, in which everyone benefits except the rest of the country, and it’s stayed strong for as long as you’ve been in charge. But even here, at the very source of your strength, there are problems. We know that a 700-strong group of army officers sent you a warning letter recently, saying that the army was simply not equipped to go to war against the south. Merits of this argument aside, such an open challenge to your authority is unprecedented. And if the army army gets tired of you, it’s pretty much game over. Publicly, you’ve written off this threat as the work of just a few disgruntled soldiers, but inside you must be worried. Your regime is being challenged on every level, and it doesn’t look like you have the money or the support to deal with it.
So what to do? Well, you’ve been in tricky situations before, and always emerged unscathed. Your usual tactic is simple, but effective: raise the stakes. Fight fire with bigger fire. Hence your comments in an interview on Friday: “The climate now is closer to a climate of war than one of peace,” you said. “We will go to war if we are forced to go to war. If there will be war after the loss of oil, it will be a war of attrition. But it will be a war of attrition hitting them before us.” You’re talking about war with South Sudan, of course, and you went on to outline your casus belli: a fuzzy but emotive argument that the south is stealing Khartoum’s rightful share of its oil.
But this isn’t just about the oil. This is about everything: the rebels, the south, the famine, the bread protests, the economy, the army, the people. You hope that by bringing the spectre of war closer, you can solve all those problems in one: keep the army busy, create a war economy, emphasise the already existing seige mentality and ultimately keep yourself in power.
You probably don’t want to actually go to war – those insubordinate officers were right, your army is unlikely to cope – but you will if you have to. This is, after all, how you’ve solved all your previous problems: shoot first, and ignore questions later. But the questions are already being asked. What’s your answer going to be this time? DM
- The Sudans: government by war in the Sudan Tribune.
- ‘We could be worse than Somalia’, warns Sudan’s ambassador on Daily Maverick.
Photo: Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir better watch his back. There are murmours of discontent from many corners – even a few unexpected one’s. REUTERS.
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