Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Rattled Sudan Leader Seeks Backers

Behind the angry rhetoric, President Omar al-Bashir is looking to friends and opponents alike to fend off international arrest warrant.
By Katy Glassborow
The expressions of righteous indignation coming out of Khartoum following the news that the Sudanese head of state could face prosecution for war crimes were only to be expected. Amid all the angry propaganda, there are also real fears that President Omar al-Bashir might respond by ordering a new round of violence, a concern strengthened by recent attacks on international peacekeepers in Darfur

Yet in the short term, there has been more to President al-Bashir’s reaction than sabre-rattling.

In a sign he may have been shaken by the talk of an indictment by the International Criminal Court, ICC, he has been busy rallying support from anyone prepared to offer it, however reluctantly or conditionally.

On the international front, he has been trying to coopt friendly Arab and African states, while at home, he has been engaging political opponents as well as allies to display unity and speak out in his defence – or at least to criticise ICC prosecutors for poor timing.

Significantly, he chose the president of the semi-autonomous region of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, rather than a northerner like himself, to head up a committee leading the diplomatic and legal counter-offensive against the ICC prosecutor’s action. Kiir is simultaneously president of South Sudan and first vice-president of the Sudanese state.


Revealing his allegations on July 14, ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo called on judges to issue an indictment against President al-Bashir for ten counts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity against the Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit peoples of Darfur.

Moreno-Ocampo says he has evidence that over the last five years, al-Bashir masterminded crimes intended to destroy communities in Darfur on ethnic grounds, and that he ordered the destruction of food stocks, shelter, wells and anything else necessary to sustain life.

He says Bashir should be charged with genocide for his government’s actions since 2004, conducted “without bullets or gas chambers” but with “different weapons” – “rapes, hunger and fear”.

“This is the most effective way to commit genocide in front of our eyes. As efficient, but silent,” said Moreno-Ocampo, describing the Sudanese leader’s actions as “genocide by attrition”.

Judges are reviewing the evidence Moreno-Ocampo submitted, which he says proves the president ordered regular troops and allied militias known as the “janjaweed” to murder, torture, rape and forcibly transfer civilians, and inflict conditions calculated to bring about the destruction of nearly two-and-a-half million internally displaced persons, IDPs, living in refugee camps.

Rape was used as a weapon, according to prosecutors, and has been committed “systematically and continuously for five years. Women and girls going to collect firewood, grass or water are repeatedly rapes by janjaweed, Sudanese armed forces or other [government] security agents. They use rape to kill the will, the spirit and life itself”.

Throughout this allegedly genocidal campaign, Moreno-Ocampo says al-Bashir refused to provide meaningful aid to displaced people, blocking humanitarian assistance by denying visas and travel permits to aid workers.

“The goal is to ensure that those inhabitants not killed outright could not be able to survive without assistance… Mortality rates among displaced populations in Darfur remain elevated because of deficient humanitarian assistance. Overall, at least 100,000 civilians have endured ‘slow deaths’ since 2003,” he said.


The day before Moreno-Campo made announced the allegations, the Sudanese cabinet held an emergency meeting at which members reaffirmed their position that they would not recognise any move or statement made by the ICC prosecutor.

Officials said the objective of the meeting was to prepare a “united Sudanese nation” to face anything that came out of The Hague, and to head off internal power struggles.

The same day, July 13, a government-organised protest in Khartoum brought traffic to a standstill.

"With our souls, with our blood we die for Bashir," chanted thousands of protesters as they marched through the streets.

The demonstration was organised by the Sudanese Student Union – linked to the ruling National Congress Party, NCP, and many of the participants were government employees or members of trade unions connected to the NCP.

The message from the government is that indicting the president is equivalent to targeting the country as a whole. Justice Minister Abdel Basit Sabderat said so in as many words, accusing the ICC of trying to ignite trouble throughout the country.

"The ICC is not just targeting the president but the stability of the Sudanese people because the president represents the nation," he told a crowd outside his cabinet office.

Al-Bashir’s allies in government have every reason to stand firm – the ICC prosecutor makes it clear that “the entire state apparatus, including the armed forces, intelligence services, diplomatic and public information bureaucracies, and the justice system” was mobilised in order to create conditions that would “slowly bring about their [IDPs’] destruction”.


One way of rallying support in Sudan is intimidation and coercion. Al-Bashir’s control of the army, police and security services gives him a lot of leverage.

State-run radio and TV stations have repeatedly broadcast messages of solidarity with the president from around and outside Sudan, and the government has tightened its censorship of independent newspapers.

According to sources in Khartoum, new guidance issued by the security services to editors says that “any report or article seeming or suspected of being supportive to the ICC or the prosecutor general will subject the newspaper to suspension and the confiscation of its property”.

As well as the ruling NCP, the al-Bashir administration is counting on support from other political parties represented in the National Assembly, including the Umma Party, whose leader Sadiq al-Mahdi was deposed as president by al-Bashir in 1989, the Communist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, the Baath Party and the southern Sudanese party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement.

However reluctant they are, these parties have little choice but to align themselves with the president.

“Those people are in a very difficult position,” said Abdelbagi Jibril, of the Darfur Relief and Documentation Centre. “The government is using the media which is controlled by the government to make a lot of noise and rally supporters. It would be hard for parties to challenge government policy in public.”

Hafiz Mohammed of the international group Justice Africa says the president has been rattled by the allegations, which have prompted him to talk to a range of groups and even invite the Communist leader to mobilise support.

“Only when he is in real trouble does al-Bashir resort to the Sudanese people to rally behind him and protect him,” said Mohammed.

South Sudanese politicians are an important factor in the equation, given that like the Darfur rebels, they led a protracted civil war against Khartoum. Since the historic 2005 signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, CPA, their political leaders have been in a sometimes uneasy power-sharing agreement in the Sudanese government as well as governing their own region.

At the July 13 cabinet meeting, Kiir and other top SPLM politicians including Sudanese health minister Tabita Butrus came out in support of the president.

The SPLM said it would deploy its foreign contacts to help resolve the ICC problem.

The South Sudanese have strong reasons for opposing an indictment, in case it undermines or delays full implementation of the CPA, and the promise of national elections in 2009.

One key provision of the CPA is a pledge to hold a referendum in 2011 on whether South Sudan should become fully independent of Khartoum. As the date draws closer, many analysts fear the referendum could be derailed, and cite growing clashes in disputed areas such as the oil-rich region of Abyei.

Other opposition groups, too, have an interest in seeing the CPA implemented in full, because it holds out the promise of a fair parliamentary election next year.

As things stand, they have very little leverage if things do go wrong because the NCP is so powerful.

“The NCP controls power in the country with a tight grip, and no other political party is in a position to influence their agenda. It is sabotaging the achievements that the Sudanese people have won [through the CPA], because they know they are going to lose out in the long run” said Jibril.

Thus, al-Bashir’s opponents find themselves in the awkward position of heeding his call for solidarity, even though their own reasons are quite different from his and are founded on concern about what pressure from the ICC would mean for the fragile transition to democracy.

The regime, meanwhile, is happy to gloss over the nuances and present these politicians’ acquiescence as unconditional support.

An analyst in Khartoum, who asked not to be named, said many politicians were motivated by a concern not to lose everything that had been achieved by the CPA so far.

“But the regime propaganda painted all such guarded comments and condemnations of the timing of the indictment as full support for al-Bashir,” he said. “This created a very intimidating situation where even some of the most daring opponents found themselves either silent or nodding in confusing gestures.”


Some commentators have voiced concern that the prosecutor’s announcement could spark more fighting in Darfur.

Bashir could try to take the initiative by launching another offensive in Darfur. There is also the possibility that the Justice and Equality Movement, JEM, one of two main Darfur rebel groups, will feel emboldened by the threat hanging over al-Bashir. In one of their boldest shows of force in recent years, JEM rebels attacked the Khartoum suburb of Omdurman in May.

But if the rebels launched an offensive, they would run the risk of provoking – and to an extent justifying – a ferocious military response from Khartoum.

“One of the unintended consequences of this development is the unification of competing factions within NCP ranks and the revival of the jihad rhetoric, which the rebels know is a deadly combination to go after” said Haydar Badawi Sadig, a Sudanese university professor currently teaching in New York.

A few days before Moreno-Ocampo’s announcement, seven international peacekeeping soldiers were killed and twenty-two injured when an irregular militia force attacked a patrol in northern Darfur. The government is suspected to have been behind the attack, and some analysts drew a direct connection with the impending ICC announcement.

Another peacekeeper was killed on July 16 while on patrol in western Darfur.

The peacekeepers belong to UNAMID, the joint United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur, brought in at the beginning of the year to replace an African Union-only force.

After Moreno-Ocampo’s announcement, the UN pulled non-essential staff out of Darfur, but it stressed that critical personnel engaged in security and humanitarian operations would remain at UNAMID’s bases at al-Fasher, al-Geneina and Nyala.

"We will continue to conduct patrols and security, as well as protect UN personnel and facilities on the ground. We will continue to assist the humanitarian organisations to do their job of rendering humanitarian services to the people in Darfur" General Martin Luther Agwai of UNAMID said in a statement.

At this time of heightened sensitivity, the UNAMID force remains badly undermanned. After protracted negotiations with Khartoum it was finally agreed that 26,000 peacekeepers would start work on January 1, instead of the 9,000 the African Union had in place, but since then the Khartoum government has imposed such crippling conditions on the deployment that force numbers have barely risen.

“We have a third of the troops that are required — 7,828 military personnel and just under 2,000 unarmed police and 2,420 local and international civilian staff,” UNAMID spokesperson Josephine Guerrero told IWPR.

In Darfur, people in the IDP camps voiced fear that the situation on the ground would get worse as a result of the ICC prosecutor’s intervention.

“It is very clear that the coming months will be like hell here,” said a Sudanese psychologist working with torture victims in Nyala.

She added that since the start of this year, the Sudanese authorities had imposed more restrictions on aid workers and peacekeepers, hampering their movements to, and within, camps for displaced people.

“There have been more restrictions on movements and more attacks on peacekeepers. The government will allow peacekeepers from countries like China, but there will be more problems allowing aid NGOs to work properly,” said the psychologist, predicting that “NGOs will leave the region due to security problems”.

An IDP at a camp in al-Fashir told IWPR by phone that people there welcomed Moreno-Ocampo’s announcement but said it needed to be backed by practical protection for the people on the ground.

"They are happy about ICC announcement, but they are still wary about the situation on the ground, [which may get] worse if there is no international forces protecting the IDPs in the camps,” he said.

“How will the ICC, the international community and UN push these issues on, to get justice for Darfurian people? The violence is still on a daily basis, with looting, people arrested by security forces, and women raped in the bush whilst collecting firewood."

Some Sudanese analysts believe the prospect of an ICC indictment might prod the government into behaving better on Darfur. Comparisons have been made with the Lord’s Resistance Army – a rebel group fighting the Ugandan government – which agreed to enter into peace negotiations in 2006 after its top leaders were indicted by the ICC.

By engaging a broad selection of political groups and discussing ways of ending the Darfur crisis internally, al-Bashir might just persuade ICC judges and the United Nations Security Council that he is serious.

“His thinking is that a drastic political improvement will probably influence the decision of the three-judge [ICC[ panel, and later the Security Council,” said Sadig.

If the Security Council bought this argument, it would be in a position to ask the ICC to suspend proceedings against al-Bashir for a year.

Jibril argued Sudanese leaders had their own reasons for seeking a new approach, “It is obvious to them that the military approach in Darfur is a failure. They did that because they wanted to protect their power base, but now their power base is threatened very seriously anyway”.


Apart from rallying domestic support, the Sudanese leadership has been busy seeking assurances from Arab and African states. Vice-President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha said at a July 14 press conference that Sudan would continue talking to the African Union about the problem.

In a July 12 statement released after a meeting in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council expressed its “strong conviction that the search for justice should be pursued in a way that does not impede or jeopardise efforts aimed at promoting lasting peace”.

The Arab League warned against "politicising" the ICC, with spokesman Hisham Yussef telling reporters that that Secretary-General Amr Moussa was in consultation with Arab and African foreign ministers over the issue. Arab League foreign ministers will hold an emergency meeting to discuss its reaction on July 19-20.

The Arab Lawyers’ Union had already laid its cards on the table, saying an ICC decision to charge al-Bashir with war crimes would represent "a flagrant violation of international law, norms and human rights”.

According to sources in Sudan, foreign ministry spokesman Ali al-Sadiq claimed this week that the African Union summit in Egypt two weeks ago “anticipated such negative developments” and “came up with the recommendation that no African head of state may under any conditions be extradited to be tried outside the African continent".

Human rights organisations including the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, FIDH, have reacted furiously to this closing of ranks. In a letter to both the Arab League and the African Union, FIDH reminded them of their “legal and political responsibility to support efforts to put an end to the genocide”.

Countering the often-made argument that the need for peace can override demands for justice, FIDH argued that al-Bashir’s record on obstructing peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts meant that protecting him from prosecution would not be conducive to peace and stability.

“Massive and systematic crimes continue to be committed against civilians, in the few villages still existing in Darfur and in the internally displaced persons' camps,” said the open letter, which was signed by human rights groups in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrein, Kuwait and Zimbabwe.

“Therefore, the argument that the court's action could possibly undermine peace efforts in Darfur is not valid. Before the prosecutor's announcement, such efforts were not clearly sought by the Sudanese authorities, for a variety of reasons which are not related to the ICC.”

Katy Glassborow is an IWPR international justice reporter in The Hague. Additional reporting from Sudan was provided by local journalists, who have not been identified out of concern for their security.

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