Bashir Becoming Burden for Khartoum

Some of president’s allies said to be turning against him since he was indicted.

Bashir Becoming Burden for Khartoum

Some of president’s allies said to be turning against him since he was indicted.

Tuesday, 17 March, 2009
Despite their united front, some Sudanese politicians are saying privately that President Omar al-Bashir is becoming a burden for the country since being indicted by the International Criminal Court, ICC.

A minister with the president’s National Congress Party, NCP, said that members were left reeling by the announcement of an arrest warrant issued against Bashir by ICC judges on March 4 for atrocities in Darfur.

“We received the court’s decision [to indict Bashir] in shock and disbelief without having any specific strategy to face it,” said the minister, under conditions of anonymity.

He told IWPR that tentative discussions have begun about who should replace Bashir as head of state.

“[The party is] trying to appear united in public, but I am afraid this is not the case,” he said.

ICC prosecutors allege that for the last five years, Bashir has mobilised the country’s armed forces, intelligence agencies, diplomatic services, media and the justice system in an attempt to destroy the population of Darfur. An estimated 300,000 people have been killed as a result of the conflict, and 2.5 million are living in displacement camps.

The Sudanese government downplays the violence, and puts the death toll at around 10,000.

Bashir – who rose to power through a military coup in 1989 – leads the NCP, the biggest party in Sudan’s national unity government.

The coalition includes the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, SPLM, from South Sudan, the Umma Party, the Popular Congress party and some other smaller parties, but the NCP dominates, threatening those who challenge its position.

In public, NCP members say support for Bashir has not wavered since his indictment.

“Any talk about differences and division within the NCP is nonsense. All the party’s officials are working in harmony and accord to confront the warrant and its consequences,” said the party’s political secretary Mandour Elmahdi.

This view was echoed by Sudan’s foreign ministry spokesperson Ali Elsadig, “Those who think the decision will divide the NCP are losers and hopeless; we are firmly united.”

But according to a minister from another party, who also preferred not to be named, the president’s position has been seriously undermined by the arrest warrant.

“[Bashir’s] position has become [affected] and he doesn’t enjoy respect – [he] is now labelled with war crimes and crimes against humanity,” he said.

“He is becoming a burden to his party, and internally, within the NCP, discussions have started [as to what should be done].”

Although Bashir’s supporters say he must stay in place to oversee peace deals, national elections planned for later this year and a 2011 referendum on self-rule for South Sudan, the minister said that Bashir was no longer a credible leader.

He said that by failing to engage with the ICC and the international community at an earlier stage, the president missed a chance to avert the arrest warrant.

“A few months ago, we had a better chance to bargain and negotiate a settlement with the international community,” he said.

The United Nations Security Council may have put ICC proceedings against Sudan on hold for up to a year if members had been convinced that it was pursuing genuine peace and justice initiatives, according to reports.

Meanwhile, the NCP minister pointed out that international pressure was mounting on the country to end the conflict in Darfur. Some politicians, he said, fear sanctions if atrocities against civilians in the region are allowed to continue.

“[The party] cannot continue to challenge the international community while the situation is not improving in Darfur. They cannot continue to demand support from inside [Sudan] when crimes are continuing,” he said.

But even if support for Bashir is ebbing, it is unclear how he could be removed from power.

Although the first elections since 1986 are set to take place this year, there’s no certainty these will go ahead, or if they will be free and fair. Observers say the president can only be overthrown in some sort of coup. But given the tight rein on any form of dissent, this seems unlikely.

When Popular Congress party leader Hassan al-Turabi recently called on the president to cooperate with the ICC, he was imprisoned for two months. When asked why other politicians were not speaking up, he told reporters “they've been paid or bought, and they probably fear detention”.

Threatening a return to the NCP’s brutal reign during the early Nineties – when the party adhered to a form of Islamic fundamentalist rule – intelligence chief Salah Gosh recently announced that anyone who attempted to support the ICC would have their hands, feet, and heads cut off. Those Sudanese who lived through this period know this is not a hollow threat.

The Popular Defense Force, an armed pro-government militia, is reported to have said it “cannot guarantee the safety of any individual or group that acts against the interests of our nation by taking advantage of the indictment made by the ICC [to undermine Bashir]”.

Sudanese journalist Fathi al-Daw said newspapers are reporting that an application has been made for a fatwa against the ICC prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, and those who support him, stating that “anyone who desires to split Muslims and distract them from their religion should be killed”.

Clearly, this kind of rhetoric discourages politicians from expressing an opposing view.

“When a few journalists and writers dared to write against the government, members of the national security banned their articles,” said Daw, who now lives in the United States.

The minister from the NCP’s coalition partner said it was highly dangerous for anyone to challenge Bashir openly.

“There are intimidating statements from NCP officials and security officers, who threaten whoever shows support to the ICC,” he noted.

Observers say that even if replacing Bashir was a possibility, there is no obvious candidate within the NCP to take his place.

Potential replacements include Vice President Ali Osman Taha – seen as the architect of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, CPA, between the north and the semi-autonomous south of the country, as a result of which the unity government was formed.

Another possibility is Assistant President Nafi Ali Nafi, who controls Sudan’s security apparatus. A hardliner, Nafi was behind the move to expel NGOs aiding the civilian population in Darfur after the ICC issued Bashir’s arrest warrant.

Other high-profile politicians who might take over include Defense Minister Abdul-Rahim Hussein, presidential advisor Bakri Hassan Salih and intelligence chief Gosh.

But as all of these men are thought to be implicated in crimes committed in Darfur, none is a viable alternative to Bashir, said Sudan analyst Alex De Waal.

According to De Waal, the most likely scenario is that the NCP will remain in power, reshuffle its ministers, and keep Bashir safely within the fold.

“If Bashir goes to The Hague, the whole thing would fall down because he knows everything. He would be so bitter that he would pull the [government] down,” said De Waal.

He added that removing the current president would have little effect anyway, as complicity in war crimes was so widespread.

“If you take out Bashir, it makes no different to the system. Ocampo has [accused] the whole state apparatus,” he said.

Neither do any of the governing parties seem capable of seizing power from the NCP.

Significantly, South Sudan’s president and SPLM leader Silva Kiir – who was made vice-president of Sudan thanks to the CPA – is unlikely to favour a regime change for fear of jeopardising progress made towards securing representation for politicians from the south. He will also be keen to ensure that the 2011 referendum to resolve South Sudan’s status is not disrupted.

While his party is ostensibly in favour of ICC cooperation, Kiir appeared to sit on the fence in a statement following Bashir’s indictment.

“These charges will profoundly affect any human being no matter whether they are well founded or not. It is therefore heartening that Brother Bashir has borne this burden with fortitude,” he said.

Katy Glassborow is an IWPR reporter in The Hague. Tajeldin Abdhalla is an IWPR contributor.
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