alexa Hassan Omar al-Bashir: Sudan's long-serving president - Daily Nation

Hassan Omar al-Bashir: Sudan's long-serving president

Thursday April 11 2019

Omar al-Bashir

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. He came to power in a military coup in 1989. PHOTO | ASHRAF SHAZLY | AFP 

BBC
By BBC
More by this Author

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's career has been defined by war.

He came to power in a military coup in 1989 and has ruled what was until 2011 Africa's largest country with an iron fist.

CIVIL WAR

When he seized power, Sudan was in the midst of a 21-year civil war between north and south.

Although his government signed a deal to end that conflict in 2005, another one was breaking out at the same time - in the western region of Darfur, where President Bashir is accused of organising war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Despite an international arrest warrant issued by the ICC, he won consecutive elections in 2010 and 2015. However, his last victory was marred by a boycott from the main opposition parties.

Advertisement

The arrest warrant has led to an international travel ban. However, Mr Bashir has made diplomatic visits to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and South Africa. He was forced into a hasty departure from South Africa in June 2015 after a court considered whether to enforce the arrest warrant.

al-Bashir

Former Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe holds hands with Sudan's President al-Bashir during the family photo of the EU-Africa summit in Lisbon on December 8, 2007. FILE PHOTO

Before taking the helm, he was a commander in the army, responsible for leading operations in the south against the late rebel leader John Garang.

When he signed the peace deal with Garang and his Sudan People's Liberation Movement, he took pains to stress the deal had not been a defeat.

"We did not sign it after we had been broken. We signed it while we were at the peak of our victories," he said.

His goal was always to keep a unified Sudan, but a referendum on secession for South Sudan was agreed as part of the peace deal.

Omar Hassan al-Bashir

Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir gestures as he addresses a rally to celebrate the 19th anniversary of the formation of the Popular Defence Forces in Wad Medani November 17, 2007. FILE PHOTO

In the January 2011 referendum, some 99% of South Sudanese voters were in favour of separation. The independent state of South Sudan was declared six months later.

While he agreed to let South Sudan go, his attitude to Darfur - where a conflict has raged since 2003 when rebels took up arms at alleged government discrimination - has been characterised by belligerence.

But he denies international accusations that he has backed Arab Janjaweed militias accused of war crimes against the region's black African communities.

For years, Mr Bashir resisted the deployment of UN peacekeepers to Darfur and any criticism from the West tends to make him and his allies dig in their heels.

al-Bashir

Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, wearing a southern traditional dress, listens to the national anthem during a protest with southern Sudanese people against the International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant for him, in Khartoum March 7, 2009. FILE PHOTO

Mr Bashir was born in 1944 to a farming family in northern Sudan, which was then part of the Egyptian Kingdom. He is a member of Al-Bedairyya Al-Dahmashyya, a Bedouin tribe.

He joined the Egyptian army as a young man and rose through the ranks, fighting in the 1973 war against Israel.

Little is known about the Sudanese leader's private life. He has no children and when in his 50s took a second wife. He married the widow of Ibrahim Shams al-Din, considered a war hero in the north - as an example to others, he said.

The long civil war had seen many colleagues fall, and he implored others to marry again so war widows could be taken care of.

al-Bashir

Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir (centre) talks former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika (right) and Yahya Jammeh of Gambia before the closing of a special summit on regional conflicts in Tripoli August 31, 2009. FILE PHOTO

As head of state, his game has largely remained soldiering - the political lead being taken by two other figures.

The first in the 1990s was Hassan al-Turabi, a prominent Sunni Muslim who until his death in 2016 advocated an Islamic state and ushered in a bill introducing Sharia to all provinces but the south.

After they fell out in 2000, Mr Turabi told the BBC: "He's a military person who has been in power for a while and he wants to assert military power."

Then Osman Ali Taha, a politician who negotiated the north-south deal, came to the fore. But his influence has since waned and the president has taken centre stage. "Bashir has emerged as exercising more power himself. There's no one figure that overshadows him," says Sudan analyst Alex de Waal.

His longevity in office, he adds, is probably down to the fact that powerful rivals in the ruling National Congress Party distrust each other more than they do Mr Bashir.

But political unrest has gained momentum recently. Nationwide protests first started in December 2018 after the government announced that prices for fuel and bread would rise.

And, in some circles, this has turned into a wider call for Mr Bashir and his government to step down. Dozens of people have been killed during government crackdowns on protestors while hundreds more have reportedly been imprisoned.

Mr Bashir declared year-long state of emergency in February 2019, reshuffling his cabinet and replacing all state governors with members of the army and security forces. He has so far refused demands to make way for a transitional government, arguing that protestors should replace him through elections.

UNIFORM

It is at public rallies, often dressed in his military uniform, that Mr Bashir seems in his element - waving his walking stick in the air. He is more shy when it comes to the media and rarely gives one-to-one interviews.

Correspondents say this may be because he is not very articulate, unlike his former enemy Garang, who died not long after becoming national vice-president.

"He's a man for whom dignity and pride are very important and he's a man who's quite hot-headed - prone to angry outbursts, especially when he feels his pride has been wounded," says Me de Waal.

But he says the president is often underestimated.

"He is smarter than he appears. He's somebody who apparently has a huge grasp of detail, but he's very conscious of the fact that he's not highly educated," Mr de Waal says.

For a while during his presidency, there were pockets full of dollars as the oil flowed, controls were lifted and the telecommunications system revolutionised. But the economy has floundered since the secession of the south, which took three-quarters of the country's oil with it. Belts are now being tightened in Khartoum.

ICC

Mr Bashir - who became president when it was punishable by death to be found in possession of US dollars - has denied accusations that access to government funds and oil money was an underlying cause of the unrest in Darfur.

"In reality, the gist of the Darfur problem is just traditional conflict over resources, which has been coated with claims of marginalisation."

He was angered and humiliated in May 2008 when Darfur rebels nearly entered Khartoum, his fortress capital.

Many feared the ICC's indictment against him in March 2009 on five counts of crimes against humanity and two of war crimes would provoke Mr Bashir into flexing his muscles.

But in February 2010 he signed a ceasefire with the Jem rebels who attacked Omdurman, just across the River Nile from Khartoum. However, Jem abandoned peace talks soon after, accusing Khartoum's forces of launching new raids in Darfur.

Mr Bashir had said Sudan would not stand in the way of South Sudan's independence, but tension has been rising since the region went its separate way.