Bashir faces increased pressure to step down

Sunday March 3 2019

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir delivers a speech to the nation on February 22, 2019, at the presidential palace in the capital Khartoum. PHOTO | ASHRAF SHAZLY | AFP 

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Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir this past week declared a state of emergency to cushion his government from the mounting protests by groups opposed to his regime, but that did not stop the protesters from hitting the streets.

On Thursday, thousands of Sudanese rallied in some of the most widespread protests of a two-month revolt against President Bashir, as emergency courts tried hundreds late into the night.

Early on Friday, President Bashir delegated his power and authority as head of the ruling National Congress Party to deputy head Ahmed Mohamed Haroun, until the party’s next general conference, the party said in a statement.

Mr Haroun, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes committed in Darfur, was elected by the NCP as its deputy head this past week. Before then, he was governor of North Kordofan state.

The decision comes after a week of successive measures aimed at combating an unprecedented wave of protests threatening President Bashir’s three-decade rule, including declaring a nationwide state of emergency, and sacking the governors of Sudan’s 18 states and replacing them with military and security officials.

The protests, initially over high bread prices, have taken place nearly every day since December 19, and developed into the most sustained challenge that the president has faced.

Security forces have used live fire as well as teargas to disperse protestors. At least 33 people have been killed, according to official statistics, including three security personnel. Protesters believe the true toll is higher.

On Thursday, crowds gathered in and around Khartoum in the first protests since President Bashir set up the special tribunals this past week. They were heeding a call by the Sudanese Professionals’ Association, the main protests organiser, to challenge the establishment of the courts.

Over 800 people have been sent to trial, the Democratic Alliance of Lawyers, part of the Sudanese Professionals’ Association, said in a statement on Thursday. Trials continued late into the night, with verdicts ranging from release to jail time.

On Monday, the president issued a raft of edicts banning unlicensed public gatherings and giving tough new powers to police. The new courts, as well as emergency prosecutors, were established across every Sudanese state on Tuesday.

As he fights to survive until the end of his term, President Bashir will be looking to three key institutions — The Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), and the ruling party. These powerful entities are responsible for keeping him in power, but they may not agree on his successor.

Mathias Muindi, an independent political risk analyst focusing on the Horn and the Great Lakes, told The EastAfrican that by declaring the state of emergency till February 2020 —two months to the elections — President Bashir is telling the world that he is ready to go, but he is determined to finish his term in April 2020 so that he can manage his succession.

Potential successors

“The challenge is that the opposition organising the protests does not trust anybody with deep links to the NCP and the military, while the armed forces won’t allow a successor fronted by the opposition,” said Mr Muindi.

President Bashir — who appears to have abandoned the plan to amend the Constitution to allow him to contest in 2020 — is believed to have narrowed down to four names as potential successors.

These are Mr Haroun, newly appointed First Vice-President and Defence Minister Awad Ibn Ouf, NISS Director Salah Abdallah Gosh, and former governor of Gezira State and Prime Minister Mohammed Tahir Ayala, whom he had picked as his successor in 2017 but saw him rejected by the NCP.

But President Bashir’s biggest challenge is how to manage the transition. He must take into account the mood within the SAF, which has people indicted for atrocities and war crimes by the ICC and humanitarian agencies.

Mr Gosh, a 62-year-old veteran, has been involved in Sudan’s intelligence services since the 1980s. The NISS is in charge of the former Janjaweed operatives who have been renamed Rapid Support Forces. They are said to be responsible for violently quelling the protests, and arresting and torturing opponents. They would prefer a transition that does not see them held to account over these allegations.

Mr Gosh headed Sudan's national intelligence service for about a decade until 2009, when he was appointed presidential security adviser. He was dismissed from that post in 2011, and later in 2012 was arrested for allegedly planning a coup. The president later pardoned him and he was reinstated in February 2018.

New PM Mr Ayala is an administrator who has the total trust of President Bashir and who has been entrusted with governing the food basket of Gezira and the Red Sea State, which host Port Sudan.

President Bashir will also be careful not to upset the powerful forces within NCP. While former first vice-president Bakri Hassan Salih has been cast aside in favour of Mr Ouf, he was one of the guards who was with President Bashir in the 1989 coup and who still retains influence within the party.

Mr Muindi says that President Bashir has three options. He could use the one-year state of emergency to negotiate with the NCP, some members of the opposition and the international community on the guarantees and safety for his family and close allies who could be implicated in corruption, human-rights abuses and financial mismanagement.

Second, he could leave now but seek to be allowed to pick his successor — which could bring division between the NCP and armed forces. And third, he could hang on until the bitter end, by increasing repression.