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The Sudanese dictatorship: twenty-five years of impunity

Once, the plight of Darfur’s two million refugees would have made front page news. Today they seldom make even a paragraph in the inside pages of British broadsheets, although the repression continues unabated.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. Photo: Getty
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who seized power 25 years ago. Photo: Getty

On Sunday, the Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir ordered the release of Sadiq al-Mahdi from jail. There was much rejoicing in Khartoum’s twin city, Omdurman, as the leader of the Umma Party, and great-grandson of the Mahdi who confronted the British in 1890s, was freed. Al-Mahdi’s “crime” in the eyes of the regime had been to denounce the atrocities being committed in the western region of Darfur by the government’s main counter-insurgency unit, the Rapid Support Forces.

Once, the plight of Darfur’s two million refugees would have made front page news. Today they seldom make even a paragraph in the inside pages of British broadsheets, although the repression continues unabated.  “Since January this year, over 300,000 people have been displaced, fleeing villages which are regularly bombed,” Motaz Bargo, Secretary General of the Darfur Union in Britain, told the New Statesman.

It is a quarter of a century since President al-Bashir, then a brigadier in the Sudanese army, launched a coup against Sadiq al-Mahdi, the country’s elected Prime Minister. Al-Bashir had been engaged in Sudan’s long-running conflict with the southern rebels at the time. But he led the coup on behalf of the conservative National Islamic Front. The Front, with its ties to Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, has been the power behind the throne ever since.

President al-Bashir has presided over a brutal but effective dictatorship. When the rebellion in Darfur erupted in February 2003 the Sudanese armed forces – still fighting the southern rebels – were unable to respond effectively. Instead the President turned to the Janjaweed, a cross-border force of Arab camel and cattle herders, with links to neighbouring Chad and Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya. It was the Janjaweed who spearheaded a reign of terror against the Darfuri communities, forcing them into exile and the vast camps on the outskirts of so many Darfuri towns.  They form the backbone of the Rapid Support Force, still deployed in the region.

The Sudanese government suggested that the atrocities were the result of unfortunate tribal clashes over which it had little control. The International Criminal Court (ICC) saw things very differently. In 2008 the court’s prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, decided he had sufficient evidence to bring a case against the president for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur. It was a brave decision and something of a legal landmark: the Court's first indictment of a head of state and its first genocide indictment. Seven years later, the President is still a free man. Moreno-Ocampo’s successor at the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, is left complaining to the UN Security Council that they have failed to support the Court. The world’s efforts to ensure justice in Darfur, she warned on Tuesday, could “go down in history as an indefensible failure.”

Olivia Warham, director of the campaign group, Waging Peace, outlined the consequences of this failure. “Bashir is indicted by the ICC but he continues to massacre, bomb and displace civilians with complete impunity. How many more people have to die before the international community wakes up?”

While the repression in Darfur was under way, President al-Bashir made his peace with the southern rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. The south’s demand not to be excluded and marginalised by Khartoum dated back to independence in 1956 and – nearly fifty years later – this could no longer be resisted. In January 2005 a peace agreement was signed between the two sides in Nairobi.  Six years later, to huge jubilation, the South obtained its independence.

South Sudan, now engulfed in civil war, has been anything but a success.  For the North this outcome was just what they had predicted, but having agreed to independence al-Bashir washed his hands of the mess.

Down the years the president has shown himself to be as shrewd as he is ruthless. When pressure from the United States and Saudi Arabia became too intense in 1996, he ensured that Osama Bin Laden left Sudan for Afghanistan.  Khartoum had been given assurances by the Americans that these measures would lead to improved relations. There were meetings in Washington between the CIA and Sudanese intelligence at which this was discussed.  But events got in the way, and the promises were never fulfilled.

Omar al-Bashir remains entrenched in Khartoum, despite the best efforts of the opposition parties in the capital. Repression continues in Darfur, while a war rages in the Blue Nile and Nuba mountains, but draws little attention in Western capitals. This weekend the Sudanese community in the UK will take their concerns to Downing Street. “We want to break the baffling international community silence towards Sudan atrocities in general and Nuba mountains genocide in particular,” says Ezzeldin Gamar Hussein Rahma, who represents the Nuba community in the UK.