Africa, Politics

Sudan: the dangerous logic of Bashir’s belligerence

By Simon Allison 25 April 2012

As tensions escalate, war in the Sudans looks inevitable. In fact, Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir already thinks so. Not that he minds too much, judging by his belligerent attitude as he addressed his troops. After all, violence has always been the panacea to all his problems, and right now he’s got all sorts of problems. By SIMON ALLISON.

The beleaguered citizens of South Sudan might be wondering what the point of this independence thing really is. Not even a year after the joyous celebrations that greeted the birth of South Sudan, the war clouds have descended once again as both sides, led by the regime in Khartoum, fall into the familiar old pattern of violence and aggression.

But there is a point, and it’s an important one. There’s a lot more interest this time because suddenly the conflict has become more than just a civil war. The very fact of international borders, poorly defined though they are, and our deep-seated, almost unconscious respect for the sanctity of borders raises this from a mere domestic dispute to something altogether more significant – an international war.

By way of contrast, a conflict far more bloody and vicious than anything played out between the armies of the two Sudans in recent weeks has been festering in South Kordofan, a Sudanese province on the border with the south where rebels have been challenging Khartoum’s dominance for the last year. Thousands have died, tens of thousands have been displaced, but the fighting has received little to no attention internationally. But when South Sudan puts its toes (and a few tanks) across an international border, the news leads bulletins and front pages.

For this, at least, South Sudan’s citizens can thank their hard-won independence. Of course, this very independence created the tensions that are now threatening to explode, so perhaps it wasn’t such a good thing after all. Despite the decades of fighting that led to it, the south’s secession was a rush job. Many crucial issues were left unresolved, “to be confirmed” scribbled in the margins of negotiators’ notes. Most troubling was the failure to define exactly where the border lay. This is worth repeating: South Sudan became independent without knowing where exactly its northern border is. Trapped in the confusion, in what is effectively no man’s land, are hundreds of thousands of people, huge swathes of land and a not insignificant share of someone’s oil wealth.

This is hardly a good start for any new country, and – especially given the fractious relationship between Khartoum and Juba – was always going to provide a rationalisation for conflict, if anyone was looking for one.

Enter Khartoum. Omar al-Bashir’s government is at the very heart of everything that’s wrong in both Sudans. Ruthless, devious, calculating and dishonest, Bashir runs his country with one goal in mind – to keep himself in power. Over the years, this has involved the suppression of free speech, the elimination of serious opposition, a brutal war against the south, the denial of food aid during humanitarian crises and instigating what some describe as a genocide in Darfur.

Violence has kept Bashir in power for two decades and it comes as no surprise that he’s resorting to violence again as his regime is faced with the most serious combination of threats in its history. Economically, the state is struggling to recover from the loss of a whopping 85% of its oil revenue, compounded by the loss of transit fees after South Sudan put a halt to oil production. The price of basic commodities like bread and petrol are increasing rapidly, fuelling a small but growing protest movement in central Sudan. There have even been whispers of discontent from within the army, traditional guarantors of Bashir’s power, over poor equipment and funding. Diplomatically, Sudan is almost entirely isolated thanks to international sanctions and the arrest warrants from the International Criminal Court hanging over the heads of Bashir and some of his top men.

Sudan’s only real friend is China, and even China’s support is not guaranteed. China was caught off guard by the secession of the south, suddenly realising that its assiduously (and expensively) cultivated ties with Khartoum weren’t nearly as valuable once most of the oil was in the south. So China made friends with Juba too, leaving it squarely in the middle with the rest of the world looking to it to broker some kind of compromise. This is a role China is reluctant to play, nervous of too obviously violating its reputation for non-interference in other countries.

All this leaves Khartoum in a decidedly precarious position. Not that you would know this from Bashir’s swaggering performance in front of his troops on Monday, at the newly “liberated” Heglig oil field. Heglig was taken by South Sudanese troops in a surprise attack last week, despite its official status as part of Sudan. South Sudan claims it withdrew its troops; Sudan says it won the oil field back, killing hundreds of southern troops in the process. Reporters from both AFP and Reuters described the area as strewn with bodies, lending credence, for once, to Khartoum’s propaganda.

Either way, Bashir was celebrating – and in defiant mood. “We will not negotiate with the South’s government, because they don’t understand anything but the language of the gun and ammunition,” he said, threatening to destroy the “insect” government in Juba – an insult uncomfortably reminiscent of the way Hutus referred to Tutsis as “cockroaches” before and during the Rwandan genocide.

Bashir is not afraid of war. For decades violence has propped up his regime and a proper war might be just the thing his struggling presidency needs. War has a strange habit of curing all kinds of political ills, especially when it’s framed in the paradigm of nationalism, ethnicity and religion. Bashir knows this, and with his back against the wall might well feel that sending in troops and bombers is his only option. To avoid a war in the Sudans, we need to find him another option. DM

Read more:

  • Scandalous international hypocrisy on Sudan in the Sudan Tribune
  • Sudan market bombing “a declaration of war” on Reuters.
  • Showdowns and shakedowns in the Sudans on Daily Maverick.

Photo: Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir addresses supporters after receiving victory greetings at the Defence Ministry, in Khartoum on 20 April 2012. REUTERS/ Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah.


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