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

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?

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

David Davis interview: The next Conservative leader will be someone nobody expects

The man David Cameron beat on why we should bet on a surprise candidate and what the PM needs to do after the referendum. 

“I’m tired,” says David Davis when I greet him. The former Conservative leadership candidate is running on three hours’ sleep after a Question Time appearance the night before. He is cheered, however, by the coverage of his exchange with Ed Miliband. “Which country would it be be like?” the former Labour leader asked of a post-EU UK. “The country we’re going to be like is Great Britain,” the pro-Brexit Davis retorted

The 67-year-old Haltemprice and Howden MP is at Hull University to debate constituency neighbour Alan Johnson, the head of the Labour In campaign. “As far as you can tell, it’s near to a dead heat,” Davis said of the referendum. “I think the run of events will favour Brexit but if I had to bet your salary, I wouldn’t bet mine, I’d place it on a very narrow victory for Brexit.”

Most economists differ only on how much harm a Leave vote would do. Does Davis believe withdrawal is justified even if it reduces growth? “Well, I think that’s a hypothetical question based on something that’s not going to happen ... One of the arguments for Brexit is that it will actually improve our longer-run economic position. In the short-run, I think Stuart Rose, the head of Remain, had a point when he said there would be very small challenges. In a few years probably nothing.

“The most immediate thing would likely be wage increases at the bottom end, which is very important. The people in my view who suffer from the immigration issue are those at the bottom of society, the working poor, which is why I bridle when people ‘oh, it’s a racist issue’. It’s not, it’s about people’s lives.”

More than a decade has passed since David Cameron defeated Davis by 68-32 in the 2005 Conservative leadership contest. The referendum has pitted the two men against each other once more. I asked Davis whether he agreed with the prime minister’s former strategist, Steve Hilton, that Cameron would be a Brexiter were he not in No.10.

“I think it might be true, I think it might be. When you are in that position you’re surrounded by lot of people: there’s the political establishment, the Whitehall establishment, the business establishment, most of who, in economic parlance, have a ‘sunk cost’ in the current set-up. If changes they stand to lose things rather than gain things, or that’s how they see it.

“Take big business. Big business typically gets markets on the continent, maybe distribution networks, supply networks. They’re going to think they’re all at risk and they’re not going to see the big opportunities that exist in terms of new markets in Brazil, new markets in China and so on, they’re naturally very small-C Conservative. Whitehall the same but for different reasons. If you’re a fast-track civil servant probably part of your career will be through the Commission or maybe the end of your career. Certainly in the Foreign Office. When I ran the European Union department in the Foreign Office, everybody wanted a job on the continent somewhere. They were all slanted that way. If all your advice comes from people like that, that’s what happens.”

Davis told me that he did not believe a vote to Leave would force Cameron’s resignation. “If it’s Brexit and he is sensible and appoints somebody who is clearly not in his little group but who is well-equipped to run the Brexit negotiations and has basically got a free hand, there’s an argument to say stability at home is an important part of making it work.”

He added: “I think in some senses the narrow Remain is more difficult for him than the narrow Brexit. You may get resentment. It’s hard to make a call about people’s emotional judgements under those circumstances.”

As a former leadership frontrunner, Davis avoids easy predictions about the coming contest. Indeed, he believes the victor will be a candidate few expect. “If it’s in a couple of years that’s quite a long time. The half life of people’s memories in this business ... The truth of the matter is, we almost certainly don’t know who the next Tory leader is. The old story I tell is nobody saw Thatcher coming a year in advance, nobody saw Major coming a year in advance, nobody saw Hague coming a year in advance, nobody saw Cameron coming a year in advance.

“Why should we know two years in advance who it’s going to be? The odds are that it’ll be a Brexiter but it’s not impossible the other way.”

Does Davis, like many of his colleagues, believe that Boris Johnson is having a bad war? “The polls say no, the polls say his standing has gone up. That being said, he’s had few scrapes but then Boris always has scrapes. One of the natures of Boris is that he’s a little bit teflon.”

He added: “One thing about Boris is that he attracts the cameras and he attracts the crowds ... What he says when the crowd gets there almost doesn’t matter.”

Of Johnson’s comparison of the EU to Hitler, he said: “Well, if you read it it’s not quite as stern as the headline. It’s always a hazardous thing to do in politics. I think the point he was trying to make is that there’s a long-running set of serial attempts to try and unify Europe not always by what you might term civilised methods. It would be perfectly possible for a German audience to turn that argument on its head and say isn’t it better whether we do it this way.”

Davis rejected the view that George Osborne’s leadership hopes were over (“it’s never all over”) but added: “Under modern turbulent conditions, with pressure for austerity and so on, the simple truth is being a chancellor is quite a chancy business ... The kindest thing for Dave to do to George would be to move him on and give him a bit of time away from the dangerous front.”

He suggested that it was wrong to assume the leadership contest would be viewed through the prism of the EU. “In two years’ time this may all be wholly irrelevant - and probably will be. We’ll be on to some other big subject. It’’ll be terrorism or foreign wars or a world financial crash, which I think is on the cards.”

One of those spoken of as a dark horse candidate is Dominic Raab, the pro-Brexit justice minister and Davis’s former chief of staff. “You know what, if I want to kill somebody’s chances the thing I would do is talk them up right now, so forgive me if I pass on that question,” Davis diplomatically replied. “The reason people come out at the last minute in these battles is that if you come out early you acquire enemies and rivals. Talking someone up today is not a friendly thing to do.” But Davis went on to note: “They’re a few out there: you’ve got Priti [Patel], you’ve got Andrea [Leadsom]”.

Since resigning as shadow home secretary in 2008 in order to fight a by-election over the issue of 42-day detention, Davis has earned renown as one of parliament’s most redoubtable defenders of civil liberties. He was also, as he proudly reminded me, one of just two Tory MPs to originally vote against tax credit cuts (a record of rebellion that also includes tuition fees, capital gains tax, child benefit cuts, House of Lords reform, boundary changes and Syria).

Davis warned that that any attempt to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights would be defeated by himself and “a dozen” other Conservatives (a group known as the “Runnymede Tories” after the meadow where Magna Carta was sealed).

“They’ve promised to consult on it [a British Bill of Rights], rather than bring it back. The reason they did that is because it’s incredibly difficult. They’ve got a conundrum: if they make it non-compliant with the ECHR, it won’t last and some of us will vote against it.

“If they make it compliant with the ECHR it is in essence a rebranding exercise, it’s not really a change. I’d go along with that ... But the idea of a significant change is very difficult to pull off. Dominic Raab, who is working on this, is a very clever man. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I think even his brain will be tested by finding the eye of the needle to go through.”

Davis is hopeful of winning a case before the European Court of Justice challenging the legality of the bulk retention of communications data. “It’s a court case, court cases have a random element to them. But I think we’ve got a very strong case. It was quite funny theatre when the ECJ met in Luxembourg, an individual vs. 15 governments, very symbolic. But I didn’t think any of the governments made good arguments. I’m lucky I had a very good QC. Our argument was pretty simple: if you have bulk data collected universally you’ve absolutely got to have an incredibly independent and tough authority confirming this. I would be surprised if the ECJ doesn’t find in my favour and that will have big implications for the IP [Investigatory Powers] bill.”

Davis launched the legal challenge in collaboration with Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson. He has also campaigned alongside Jeremy Corbyn, last year travelling to Washington D.C. with him to campaign successfully for the release of Shaker Aamer, the final Briton to be held in Guantanamo Bay.

“I like Jeremy,” Davis told me, “but the long and the short of it is that not having been on the frontbench at all shows. I’m not even sure that Jeremy wanted to win the thing. He’s never been at the Despatch Box. He’s up against a PM who’s pretty good at it and who’s been there for quite a long time. He’s playing out of his division at the moment. Now, he may get better. But he’s also got an incredibly schismatic party behind him, nearly all of his own MPs didn’t vote for him. We had a situation a bit like that with Iain Duncan Smith. Because we’re a party given to regicide he didn’t survive it. Because the Labour Party’s not so given to regicide and because he’d be re-elected under the system he can survive it.”

At the close of our conversation, I returned to the subject of the EU, asking Davis what Cameron needed to do to pacify his opponents in the event of a narrow Remain vote.

“He probably needs to open the government up a bit, bring in more people. He can’t take a vengeful attitude, it’s got to be a heal and mend process and that may involve bringing in some of the Brexiters into the system and perhaps recognising that, if it’s a very narrow outcome, half of the population are worried about our status. If I was his policy adviser I’d say it’s time to go back and have another go at reform.”

Davis believes that the UK should demand a “permanent opt-out” from EU laws “both because occasionally we’ll use it but also because it will make the [European] Commission more sensitive to the interests of individual member states. That’s the fundamental constitutional issue that I would go for.”

He ended with some rare praise for the man who denied him the crown.

“The thing about David Cameron, one of the great virtues of his premiership, is that he faces up to problems and deals with them. Sometimes he gets teased for doing too many U-turns - but that does at least indicate that he’s listening.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.