On 11 April 2019, the Defense Minister of Sudan, Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, announced that President Omar al-Bashir had been removed from office and was under house arrest along with a few members of his inner circle. General Ibn Auf proposed that a transitional body of military and technicians lead the country for a two-year period after which elections for president would be held. Some have called the events “a recycled coup”.
Omar al-Bashir had come to power on 30 June 1989 in a military coup against the largely civilian coalition government led by Sadiq al-Mahdi, great-grandson of Muhammed Ahmad of Mahdist War fame (1881-1899). Omar al-Bashir was widely considered to be a puppet, the strings being pulled by the Islamic intellectual Hassan al-Turabi (1932-2016). Al-Turabi was an intellectual, educated at Oxford with a doctorate from the University of Paris. A relatively quiet man, more a writer than a public orator, visible leadership had to be embodied in someone at ease in speaking to crowds and who liked to be photographed. Omar al-Bashir fit the puppet role well. He had no ideas of his own, but with a strong body and an ever-present swagger stick, he filled the public role well. Hassan al Turabi could be in the background articulating the ideology and watching closely often as Speaker of the Parliament.
Hassan al-Turabi was close in his ideological positions to the Egyptian Islamic Brotherhood, having been a member in his youth. To gain his Islamic ascendency he had to break the ideological and political power of two Sufi groups – the one led by Sadiq al-Mahdi (who on a personal level was his brother-in-law) the hereditary leader of the Mahdiyya Sufi Order (or Tariqa as these are known in Sudan) and the Mirghaniyya Order led by Muhammed Osman al-Mirghani who claimed descent from the family of the Prophet Muhammad. For al-Turabi, the only way to break the power of the two Sufi Orders with political influence was to develop a non-Sufi Islam, based on traditional Islamic jurisprudence but interpreted in a modern spirit, open to all. For al-Turabi, such a movement would have an influence well beyond Sudan. Al-Turabi taught his doctrine and helped in the training of military, police, academic, and administrative cadres.
This al-Turabi – al-Bashir division of power worked from 1989 to 2000 when al-Bashir thought he had enough support from his inner security circle to be his own man, and he started cutting some of the puppet strings, probably influenced by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who were always worried by the Islamic Brotherhood coloring of al-Turabi’s thought.
After 2000, al-Bashir still had no ideas but faced two related major issues; the on-going North-South civil war and the uneven economic development of the country. The North-South civil war had two major phases. The first phase ran from 1954, the eve of independence from England to 1972 when a ceasefire was organized through the World Council of Churches. The 1972 ceasefire lasted for 10 years. Unfortunately, the 10 years were not used to deal with the basic issues. In 1982, the civil war started again and ran until 2005 when a peace agreement with the southern military leadership was signed.
The civil war drew all the attention and energy of the government, and little attention was paid to socio-economic development. Oil export, largely to China, provided government revenue, and Chinese building projects gave an impression of economic expansion. However, beyond the oil industry, there was little development of other economic sectors such as agriculture, mining, and services.
Sudan is a large and geographically diverse State and would be difficult to administer even with a competent government. The number of provinces has been modified at different times, and their geographic limits changed in the hope of better administration. However, there has never been visible improvements. In 2003, the incompetent administrative policies led to major violence in a largely neglected area of Western Sudan, Darfur.
Darfur (the home of the Fur people) was always marginal to the policies of modern Sudan. In 2000, Darfur’s political leadership had met and wrote a “Black Book” which detailed the regions systematic under-representation in national government and the lack of services, in particular education and health. Despite the facts and recommendations, the “Black Book” led to no steps to increase the political and economic position of Darfur. This lack of reaction convinced some in Darfur that only violent action would bring recognition and compromise as the war in the South had led to concerted attention.
In February 2003, two Darfur movements, the more secular Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Islamist-leaning Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) joined in the hope that a spectacular armed strike would lead the government to take notice and to start wealth-sharing negotiations. Thus in one night, they attacked and destroyed many of Sudan’s military planes based at El Fasher. The Sudan military lost in one night more planes that it had in 20 years of war against the South.
However, the central government’s security elite – battle hardened from the fight against the South but knowing that the regular army was over-extended and tired of fighting – decided to use against Darfur the techniques of arming and giving free reign to militias and other irregular forces. The government started pulling together a fluid and shadowy group called the Janjaweed (“the evildoers on horseback”). To the extent that the make up of the Janjaweed is known, it seems to be a collection of bandits, of Chadians who had used Darfur as a safe haven for the long-lasting insurgencies in Chad, remains of Libya’s Islamic Forces which had once been under the control of the Libyan government but left wandering without pay when the Libyan policy changed, and probably some Sudanese daytime police and military – the Janjaweed acting nearly always at night.
The Central government gave these groups guns, uniforms, equipment and indications where to attack by first bombing villages but no regular pay. Thus the militias had to pay themselves by looting homes, crops, livestock, by taking slaves and raping women and girls. Village after village was destroyed; crops were burned, water wells filled with sand. As many people as possible fled to Chad or to areas in Darfur thought safer.
The evidence of this scorched-earth policy was collected by a United Nations International Commission of Inquiry and the evidence passed to the International Criminal Court. The ICC indited Omar al-Bashir for genocide and war crimes in 2009, the first time an acting head of government has been so indited. However, Sudan is not a party to the Rome Statues which established the Court. It is unlikely that al-Bashir will end up in the Hague. More likely he will end his days in Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. Armed violence still continues in Darfur but on a lesser scale. The violence has lost most of its political coloring to become more banditry.
While the Darfur violence was starting, the more central North-South civil war was coming to an end or at least a major new phase. The new phase led first to an effort to create a con-federal structure. This con-federal structure largely failed due to the death of the southern Sudan leader, John Garang de Mabir in a helicopter crash in 2005. He was replaced by Salva Kir Mayardit, a long-time military companion of Garang but who had few ideas on civilian administration. The con-federal form of government ended with a January 2011 referendum. The referendum vote in the southern part of Sudan was for the creation of a separate State, now called South Sudan.
However, the geographic division between North and South Sudan was never clear; there are related tribal groups on both sides of what was drawn as the dividing line. Since the 2011 creation of South Sudan, the country had developed its own violent conflicts along tribal lines. All administrative functions have disappeared. Thus negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan on oil production and export have broken down.
It is not clear at this stage what form of administration will be created in post al-Bashir Sudan. There are street demonstrations against the idea of the two-year military rule, especially that the bulk of the military leaders served under al-Bashir. All we can safely say is that the many challenges facing the country remain the same and that competent leadership seems in short supply.