It Takes a Village to Make a Monster
Omar al-Bashir is gone—but he was never the key to Sudan’s oppression to begin with.
The world loves to hate a villain, and Sudan’s recently ousted president, Omar al-Bashir, is a villain worthy of despise. During his 30 years of autocratic rule, he presided over the deaths of millions of Sudanese citizens, oversaw the establishment of proxy militia that have devastated communities across the country, and fostered a ruthless security apparatus that has tortured thousands of dissidents. The demise of this villain, however, means less than many casual observers in the West might imagine.
Set up to fail by the administrative policies of British colonialists, Sudan has been in a state of near-perpetual civil war since its independence in 1956. Last week’s ouster of Bashir marked the fifth military coup in the country’s post-independence history. And while it is certainly a milestone, Bashir’s exit from center stage does not make a dint in the structural pathologies he nurtured.
Sudanese themselves know well what their compatriot the scholar Francis Deng described so eloquently in his treatise, War of Visions: Sudan’s governance challenges stem from an “acute crisis of national identity.” In a country of extraordinary ethnic, religious, cultural, and linguistic diversity, different regimes have attempted to control the country through a process of divide and conquer. Rather than foster an inclusive national identity, entire regions of the country have been repeatedly marginalized on account of actual or perceived ethnic or religious differences.
The coup that brought Bashir to power in 1989 followed this basic pattern. Initially named the National Islamic Front (subsequently rebranded the National Congress Party, or NCP), the group behind the 1989 coup sought to cast Sudanese identity in terms of its hard-line Islamist vision. In its view, true Sudanese were Arabs from the center of the country who followed a particular brand of Islam that was foreign to much of Sudan’s Muslim population. Views differ on whether this was a vision that Bashir himself had any particular ideological commitment to. While he described himself as an Islamist, he came to power as a military man, largely beholden to the political skill of the NCP’s leading Islamist, Hassan al-Turabi. Only a decade later, after Bashir had Turabi arrested, did Bashir’s own political prowess come to the fore.
It was about this time, in 1999, that Sudan began to benefit from oil reserves in its southern region. Rather than use the influx of wealth to serve Sudanese citizens, Bashir fostered a kleptocracy. It became clear that the NCP, adrift from its ideological Islamist roots, was an awkward coalition held together only by a self-interest in survival. Bashir’s skill was to ensure that he was the least disliked among them.
Exquisitely attuned to potential threats to his rule, Bashir developed a patronage system that kept elite rivals at bay. Those who might have challenged his leadership were granted control over parts of a powerful and unaccountable security apparatus, the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), which routinely detained and tortured NCP opponents. Meanwhile, ordinary Sudanese in the country’s peripheral areas were excluded from the economic boom. Those who sought to rebel against the central government were killed or displaced by a combination of Sudanese military and proxy militia forces.
Still, these tactics—of paying off elites, pitting rivals against each other, and destroying communities on the periphery—could not stem external pressures on Bashir’s rule. A coalition of African, European, and American diplomats persisted, year after year, to support the efforts of leaders in the south of Sudan to bring the NCP into a peace agreement. These efforts bore fruit with the 2005 signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, formally ending the civil war between the north and south of the country and promising southerners the chance to vote for independence.
Bashir believed that in signing the agreement, he would be heralded by the international community. In particular, he expected a rapid improvement in relations with the United States, which had labeled Sudan a state sponsor of terrorism back in 1993 during a period when the NCP provided a home base to Osama bin Laden. But pressured by activists, the George W. Bush administration refused to overlook the ongoing violence against those who had sought to rebel in Sudan’s western region of Darfur.
Beginning in late 2003, U.S.-based anti-genocide activists had put an unprecedented spotlight on the atrocities underway in Darfur. But as the years wore on, with no sign of an end to the conflict, activist leaders struggled to keep a distracted American public engaged in the plight of those in a remote region of Africa. Their advocacy campaign gained a new hook, however, in 2009, when the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for Bashir’s arrest. The ultimate villain, Bashir’s face appeared on wanted posters on subway platforms, and online platforms were designed to track Bashir’s movements.
The focus on Bashir as an individual helped bolster a weary advocacy movement for a period. “We’ve put a face on evil” is the way that one activist described it to me at the time. But it also fed into an emerging narrative that placed Sudan’s multilayered crises at the feet of just one man. It was a narrative strengthened by Bashir’s seeming invincibility.
Long before the Arab Spring, pro-democracy activists protested against the Sudanese regime. But each time it seemed they were gaining traction, detention and torture by NISS agents depleted their ranks. And as long as oil from the south of the country continued to flow, wealthier Sudanese calculated that protesting was not worth the cost.
Bashir’s demise finally set in after southerners voted for independence in 2011. With southern oil money no longer filling Khartoum’s coffers, even efforts to secure funding from Arab sponsors in the region were not enough to stop the economy heading into free fall. And when the government removed bread subsidies last December, a broad swath of Sudanese society took to the streets.
With Bashir now out of power, it is tempting to imagine that a brighter future is just around the corner. But as the protesters understand, Bashir’s brutal rule was more a symptom than a cause of the governance problems that plague Sudan. That is why the news of his ouster, while met with cheers, did not lead the protesters back to their homes. In defiance of the curfew set by the transitional military council that took control from Bashir, the protesters stayed on the streets through the night.
Their determination quickly led to some cosmetic changes. Understanding that the protesters saw the head of the transitional council, Gen. Awad Ibn Auf, as too close to Bashir, the council replaced him with Lt. Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan. But, like all who have risen through the ranks of the Sudanese military, Burhan does not have clean hands. And while his public statements have acknowledged the protesters’ demands, the demonstrators have rightly understood this to be nothing more than lip service. In his latest announcement, Burhan said the transitional council would include a civilian prime minister. But changing the individuals at the top of the system is a far cry from dismantling the system itself.
The protesters are demanding the dissolution of the vast security apparatus and the militia forces that have been built up over the course of Bashir’s reign. This will not happen quickly, and it brings attendant risks of its own, but it is an essential component of a peaceful new Sudan. Equally essential is the development of an inclusive vision of Sudanese identity to guide the country through the coming transition and beyond. This, too, will take time, and it cannot happen while the military remains in charge. This is the work of a transitional civilian government, filled with women, young people, people from the periphery—in short, people who represent the stunning cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity of Sudan.
Bashir may be gone, but his legacy is very much alive. Undoing this legacy means dismantling the self-serving institutions he fostered, taking power and wealth from those who are accustomed to it, and building a vision of governance that places the state in the service of all Sudanese. This undertaking will be a decades-long process. Wrong turns will be taken. Commitment from those outside Sudan will waiver. The risk of violence and of a return to the status quo is extraordinarily high. But the resilience and unity that enabled the Sudanese people to topple Bashir should inspire faith in their ability to overcome these challenges.
Finally, for those of us outside Sudan, it is worth reflecting on our role as citizens of nations which, in the interests of “stability,” of “counterterrorism cooperation,” and of a myopic construction of our “national interest,” facilitated the length of al-Bashir’s rule. The least we can do now is stand in solidarity with the Sudanese people for however long the complicated process that lies ahead of them may take.