How for­eign back­ing is keep­ing Su­dan’s Omar al-Bashir in power


DAY af­ter day, Su­danese are tak­ing to the streets to protest against the rule of Omar alBashir. The pres­i­dent, who seized power in 1989 when he led a coup, is fac­ing the most se­ri­ous chal­lenge in his three decades in power. Fury at the sharp rises in the cost of bread and fuel, and al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion, have fu­elled the protests.

Thus far, the pres­i­dent has man­aged to re­sist the anger of his peo­ple. But the Su­danese have a long his­tory of over­throw­ing un­pop­u­lar regimes. Twice be­fore — in 1964 and again in 1985 — re­volts led to changes of govern­ment. On each oc­ca­sion the armed forces aban­doned the regime and sided with the peo­ple. This has not oc­curred dur­ing the cur­rent protests for good rea­sons, as univer­sity lec­turer and the au­thor of Civil Up­ris­ings in Mod­ern Su­dan, Wil­low Ber­ridge, points out: “Al-Bashir’s regime clearly learnt from the mis­takes of its pre­de­ces­sors. It has cre­ated a much stronger Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Se­cu­rity Ser­vices (NISS), as well as a host of other par­al­lel se­cu­rity or­gan­i­sa­tions and armed mili­tias that it uses to po­lice Khartoum in­stead of the reg­u­lar army. This set up, com­bined with var­i­ous com­man­ders’ mu­tual fears of be­ing held to ac­count for war crimes if the regime falls, means an army in­ter­ven­tion will not oc­cur eas­ily as in 1964 or 1985. This is one rea­son the cur­rent upris­ing has al­ready lasted longer than its prece­dents.”

But the regime’s sur­vival can­not sim­ply be seen as a do­mes­tic is­sue. He has strong in­ter­na­tional al­lies. The West once re­viled Omar al-Bashir as an in­dicted war crim­i­nal. How­ever, more re­cently it has be­gun to view him as a source of sta­bil­ity and in­tel­li­gence in a trou­bled re­gion. The pres­i­dent also has the back­ing — both po­lit­i­cal and fi­nan­cial — of key Arab al­lies.

Su­danese have tra­di­tion­ally been said to look north to Cairo for sup­port. This cri­sis is no ex­cep­tion. In

“Egypt fully sup­ports the se­cu­rity and sta­bil­ity of Su­dan, which is in­te­gral to Egypt’s na­tional se­cu­rity.”

De­cem­ber 2018, Egypt’s for­eign min­is­ter and in­tel­li­gence chief vis­ited Khartoum, pledg­ing their sup­port for Al-Bashir.

Egyp­tian For­eign Min­is­ter Sameh Shoukry, who flew to Su­dan with in­tel­li­gence chief Gen­eral Ab­bas Kamel, stated con­fi­dently: “Egypt is con­fi­dent that Su­dan will over­come the present sit­u­a­tion.”

This was fol­lowed ear­lier this month dur­ing a re­cip­ro­cal trip to Cairo by the Su­danese pres­i­dent, when Pres­i­dent Ab­del Fatah al-Sisi com­mented: “Egypt fully sup­ports the se­cu­rity and sta­bil­ity of Su­dan, which is in­te­gral to Egypt’s na­tional se­cu­rity.”

But po­lit­i­cal sup­port alone wouldn’t be enough to keep the Su­danese

regime in power. There is also fi­nan­cial back­ing from across the Red Sea. In re­turn for Su­dan en­ter­ing the Ye­meni war, Khartoum is re­ported to have re­ceived in­vest­ments worth $2,2 bil­lion. More than 10 000 Su­danese troops are fight­ing on the Ye­meni front line. Some are said to be child sol­diers who were re­cruited by the Saudis, with of­fers of $10 000 for each re­cruit.

The re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of Al-Bashir in the U.S. goes back to for­mer pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s era. As one of the last acts of his of­fice, he lifted a range of U.S. sanc­tions against the Su­danese regime. The CIA’s large of­fice in Khartoum was cited as one of the key rea­sons for his pol­icy shift.

Nor is Wash­ing­ton alone in this view. As Europe bat­tles to re­strict the num­ber of Africans cross­ing the Mediter­ranean, it has seen the Su­danese govern­ment as an ally.

The Khartoum Process, signed in the Su­danese cap­i­tal, is crit­i­cal to this re­la­tion­ship. In Novem­ber 2015, Euro­pean lead­ers met their African coun­ter­parts in the Mal­tese cap­i­tal Val­letta, to try to put flesh on the bones of this agree­ment.

The aim was made clear in the ac­com­pa­ny­ing EU press re­lease which con­cluded: “The num­ber of mi­grants ar­riv­ing to the Euro­pean Union is un­prece­dented, and this in­creased flow is likely to con­tinue.

“The EU, to­gether with the mem­ber states, is tak­ing a wide range of mea­sures to ad­dress the chal­lenges, and to es­tab­lish an ef­fec­tive, hu­man­i­tar­ian and safe Euro­pean mi­gra­tion pol­icy.”

The sum­mit led to the draft­ing of an ac­tion plan which has guided the EU’s pol­icy ob­jec­tives on mi­gra­tion and mo­bil­ity ever since.

The plan de­tailed how Euro­pean in­sti­tu­tions would co-op­er­ate with their African part­ners to fight ir­reg­u­lar mi­gra­tion, mi­grant smug­gling and traf­fick­ing in hu­man be­ings.

Europe promised to of­fer train­ing to “law-en­force­ment and ju­di­cial au­thor­i­ties” in new meth­ods of in­ves­ti­ga­tion and as­sist in set­ting up spe­cialised anti-traf­fick­ing and smug­gling po­lice units.

These com­mit­ments were an ex­plicit pledge to sup­port and strengthen el­e­ments of the Su­danese state. A Re­gional Op­er­a­tional Cen­tre (Rock) has been es­tab­lished in Khartoum, the chief aim of which is to halt peo­ple smug­gling and refugee flows by al­low­ing Euro­pean of­fi­cials to work di­rectly with their Su­danese op­po­site num­bers. The counter-traf­fick­ing co­or­di­na­tion cen­tre in Khartoum — staffed jointly by po­lice of­fi­cers from Su­dan and sev­eral Euro­pean coun­tries, in­clud­ing Britain, France and Italy — will partly rely on in­for­ma­tion sourced by the Su­danese na­tional in­tel­li­gence ser­vice.

Fi­nally, there is some ev­i­dence of Rus­sian in­volve­ment in the Su­danese cri­sis. Rus­sian troops work­ing for a pri­vate con­trac­tor are re­ported to have been seen on the streets of Khartoum sup­press­ing the upris­ing.

Given the range of sup­port for AlBashir it isn’t sur­pris­ing that he’s man­aged to re­sist pop­u­lar pres­sure to step down.

Much de­pends on how long demon­stra­tions can be main­tained, and how much force the regime is pre­pared to de­ploy to crush its op­po­nents. — The Con­ver­sa­tion.

• Martin Plaut is a se­nior re­search fel­low, Horn of Africa and South­ern Africa, In­sti­tute of Com­mon­wealth Stud­ies, School of Ad­vanced Study.

The West once re­viled Omar al-Bashir as an in­dicted war crim­i­nal. How­ever, more re­cently it has be­gun to view him as a source of sta­bil­ity and in­tel­li­gence in a trou­bled re­gion.

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