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

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.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.