x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Dictator called to account: Omar al Bashir

The president of Sudan is now the first sitting head of state to face formal charges of genocide, and he finds himself firmly in the sights of a bright, and determined lawyer.

Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

A general election looms in Sudan this year, but given the ease with which President Omar al Bashir has seen off his domestic political rivals in the two decades since he seized power in a bloodless military coup, that is not expected to be too much of a challenge. In truth, he has bigger fish to fry than in seeing off upstart political opponents at home. Bashir makes much of how he has restored the democratic process in Sudan, but he still controls the mechanism. Elections in North Africa tend not to go ahead unless the man in charge is confident of winning.

And for now, the once dashing army paratrooper, who fought with the Egyptians against Israel in the Yom Kippur war, is locked in a form of guerrilla warfare with the entire western world and its judicial outrider, the nascent international criminal justice system. Bashir is used to being hated - by the black, largely Christian population of the south of his country, and more recently, and potently, by the inhabitants of Darfur to the west. He is also used to being treated with contempt by respectable liberal opinion in Europe. He seems rather to relish the opprobrium he receives for what his regime has done in Darfur, where the UN says some 300,000 have perished in a genocidal civil war that he has overseen.

Thus far he has brushed those criticisms off as the witterings of neo-colonial, western-dominated institutions. But after an unexpected development at the International Criminal Court this week, Bashir has an acute and quite specific problem. He is now the first sitting head of state to face formal charges of genocide, and he finds himself firmly in the cross hairs of a bright, and very determined Argentine lawyer by the name of Luis Moreno-Ocampo.

Moreno-Ocampo has the full weight of the 600 staff of the ICC in The Hague at his disposal, though it is true that, like the Pope, he has no battalions, and indeed, in his case, not even a single policeman. But he has a determination honed by his years working as a young public prosecutor in the 1980s investigating the crimes of the Argentine military junta, and taking on rich and powerful vested interests in his homeland. He is, says one American activist engaged in Darfur, "a Don Quixote figure", scrutinising global conflicts, "one man, working alone, taking on the world with a great vision of what he can do".

His tenacity is already evident in his dealings with Bashir. When the ICC initially issued an arrest warrant for Bashir last year for his government's actions in Darfur, the specific charge of genocide was omitted. This week Moreno-Ocampo persuaded an appeals chamber of the ICC to instruct the judges to review that omission. "President Bashir's intention is to destroy the Fur, Masalit, and Zagawa" ethnic groups, Moreno-Ocampo said. "Hunger and rape are his weapons. This is genocide."

Publicly, the Sudan regime dismisses the move as an attempt to corrupt this year's general election. But despite the bluster, this is a problem for Bashir. Ruling a country such as Sudan, which offers few of life's natural joys and where 40 per cent of the population lives in grinding poverty, can lose its lustre. Flashing around the world in presidential jets for shopping trips and summits tend to be the main perks, and these are now denied to Bashir.

Though Bashir remains a welcome visitor in much of Africa, the Gulf and wider Arab world, and in China - which buys most of Sudan's oil - his options are curtailed. He could not attend Jacob Zuma's presidential inauguration in South Africa last year because Pretoria is a signatory to the ICC, and would therefore have been required to arrest him. This is a humiliating snub for a man who fancies himself as a pivotal figure ruling a country at the very junction of the Arab and African worlds.

There is no obligation upon Sudanese dictators to share details of their private lives with their subjects, and remarkably little is known about Omar Hassan Ahmad al Bashir. He was born 66 years ago when Sudan was still part of an Anglo-Egyptian condominium, so a sensitivity to colonialism is in his blood. He was sent to secondary school in Khartoum, before joining the army. He is married to a cousin, Fatma Khaldid, and took a second, rather younger wife, which was the talk of Khartoum when word leaked out three years or so ago.

The coup that he led in 1989 was initially peaceful, but it was uncomfortable for the failing political elite under Sadeq al Mahdi. Bashir banned poltical parties, then four years later dissolved the military junta he used to bring himself to power, and appointed himself civilian president. Once at the helm, Bashir flaunted his adherence to Islam. He incorporated parts of Sharia into the legal code in the north of the country and vested executive powers within a new body with a name bordering on self-parody, the Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation.

He also set about annoying western governments, offering sancturary to the murderous Carlos the Jackal, and then to Osama bin Laden, who lived in Khartoum in the 1990s. But the mystery remains as to what really drives Bashir. He adopts causes close to the heart of the more militant Islamist strands, but quietly drops them when they cause him trouble. When Preisdent Bill Clinton, desperately in need of a futile gesture in the midst of the Monica Lewinski scandal, ordered missiles to be fired at what turned out to be a factory in Khartoum, Bashir got the message that if he continued to coddle terrorists, his regime would be taken out. Bin Laden was shown the door.

"What you have to understand about Bashir is that the only thing that drives him is the obsessive need to stay in power," says one western diplomat. "If this means imposing Sharia, or killing 300,000 civilians in Darfur, he will do it. But what he really wants is to cling on, and avoid the fate of Saddam Hussein." American churches and civil rights groups continue to agitate for the Obama administration to act on its election rhetoric and get tough with Khartoum for the atrocities in Darfur. But the truth is that Bashir has now morphed into a doughty US ally in the fight against al Qa'eda.

Whenever the Interinational Criminal Court issues judgements against Bashir and his circle, Sudan's embassies around the world write furious letters to local newspapers about western colonialism and ICC chicanery. "The ICC's decision is a nail in its own coffin. It has created a situation, whereby it has actually shot itself in the chest," went one recent denunciation, even more powerful because of the exquisite mixing of its metaphors. "Hopefully, it will implode before it becomes Europe's Guantanamo!"

Paradoxically, as the ICC court ruling sends Bashir and his circle into ever deeper international isolation, Sudan itself is growing economically. China is pouring money into infrastructure projects in Khartoum. There is big money to be made, and fortunes to be lost, for Bashir and his circle. In this new reality, there is no place for getting cosy with Islamist terrorism. "Don't say this too loud," says one defence official, "but the CIA loves Bashir these days because with the oil flowing, he has no time for al Qa'eda."

Assuming, as we can, that Bashir romps home in this year's election, he will still face a doughty enemy in the guise of Moreno-Ocampo, who is said by friends in The Hague to play a very long game. Bashir may try to belittle him, but the generals and torturers in Argentina made that same mistake 25 years ago, and many paid heavily for that miscalculation. * The National