The 30 years of Bashir repression, recasting  of Sudan’s character

Saturday June 15 2019

The Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary force backed by the Sudanese government to fight rebels and guard the Sudan-Libya border, in South Darfur province on September 23, 2017. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Sudan was the largest country in Africa, approximately the size of Western Europe, but is now the third largest.

Since Independence, Sudan has been roiled by civil war almost continuously. This war was initially between Northern Sudan and the South, which objected to its isolation and lack of development in comparison with the North.

Following the military coup that brought Omar al-Bashir to power in 1989, his National Congress Party (NCP) spurred an Islamist revolution that empowered the centralisation of security and business interests among a small closed elite in Khartoum at the expense of rural areas.

In the first few years after the coup, Bashir ordered the detention and interrogation of his opponents, real and imagined, in the infamous “ghost houses” where dissidents were tortured.


Two Sudanese journalists working for CNN, Yousra Elbagir and Nima Elbagir, write in a CNN report that Bashir also reinforced his rule through the forced recruitment of Northern Sudanese young men as he waged war against the country’s South, depicting it as an existential battle for the Muslims of Arab decent in the North.


“As different conflicts erupted across the country throughout his rule. Darfur, South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains, Bashir became increasingly worried that his army could not be trusted to back him. Its ranks were filled with boys and men from historically marginalised regions, where Bashir’s Arab-centric imagery and tribal leader self-mythologising rang hollow,” they said.

In doing so, a new paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Force, was created out of the remnants of the Janjaweed tribal militias of Darfur region. Their leader, Mohammed Hamdan “Hemeti” was made an adviser to the president, in spite of accusations of his involvement in atrocities in Darfur. Elite units known as “Abu Tayra” were added to the police force. The country’s national security agency also gained a Special Forces unit under the guidance of Sudan’s commander-in-chief Field Marshal Omar al-Bashir.

The analysis of the two Sudanese journalists shows that the newly built supplementary units were directly controlled by Bashir rather than the country’s law enforcement agencies, and largely consisted of young men from tribes of Arab descent, playing directly in to Bashir’s policy of tribally dividing and conquering Sudan.

Atem Simon, a Khartoum-based analyst, said Bashir managed to stay in power for almost three decades because of his alliance with the Islamic movement of late veteran politician Hassan Al-Turabi and the international Islamic movement led by Osama bin-Laden — the international terrorist — to wage war against the rebels in Sudan. The same groups appeared with bin Laden in Afghanistan under the Al-Qaeda organisation.

He said the Islamic movement was both powerful politically and economically.


So, the NCP coalition of military and Islamist under the al-Bashir regime redefined Sudanese identity in the Constitution as an Arabic and a Muslim country where ‘’others’’ were denied rights as equal citizens and Sharia law was enforced on non-Muslims and the non-Arab majority in Sudan.

Mr Simon traces how Bashir came as the commander of the official army known as Sudan Armed Force or SAF and the Islamists came with the public defence forces that were formed largely of Muslim- civilians.

This group, according to Mr Simon was established by bin-Laden.

“After the killing of bin laden, Bashir used his Islamic militias as insurgencies in Somalia, Mali and Chad to topple the governments in those countries and replace them with Islamic states.

“Inside Sudan, Bashir was using his loyal Islamists to serve in the civil service after firing the opposition experts through the politics of empowerment which means using his own cadres in the government institutions whether they were civil or military like the national security,” Mr Simon testified.

Tom Rhodes, a British journalist who has extensively covered Sudan, said al-Bashir was a master politician, pitting adversaries against one another, while supporting a complex network of security outfits, all designed to ensure he remained in power, a feat he managed for nearly three decades.

"When members of the Sudan Armed Forces grew disgruntled, for instance, Bashir focused his support on converting the paramilitary groups, the Janjaweed and (to a lesser extent) some of the Border Guards in Darfur into a remodelled security force that answered directly to him. This was the Rapid Support Force.’’

Until his ouster in April this year, Bashir had still a say in the leadership.

Experts believe that Bashir is to blame for Sudan’s current conundrum: People are calling for civilian rule but the artillery and access to resources remains in the hands of a militia once designed to do Bashir's bidding.


Sudan has never really enjoyed a free press but this was especially so during Bashir's reign when no independent broadcasters were allowed and pre-censorship of newspapers was the order of the day. State censors would actually review newspapers at the printers before printing and cover over any article deemed worthy of censorship.

During the ongoing protests before the downfall of Bashir in April, the Sudan Journalists Network decried the continued punitive measures and reprisals against the press in the country.

The international press watchdog, Reporters without Borders, has recorded over 79 arrests of journalists in Sudan since the protests started and several newspapers that were barred from publication.