On the prowl
Arab and African leaders view with alarm Western attempts to fashion their African Karadzic, says Gamal Nkrumah
Inevitability and a notoriously tempestuous temperament have been the hallmarks of the regime of Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir. From the Sudanese perspective, the West has long had the Al-Bashir regime in its sights. The 1998 bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in which scores of innocent civilians lost their lives was a characteristic assault. The international media is having a field day now that International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor-General Luis Moreno-Ocampo has filed 10 criminal charges against Al-Bashir.
So much that has transpired during Al-Bashir's last year in office has been predictable. Currently he is on a two-day inspection tour of Darfur. Parallels were drawn with ex-Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic whose arrest this week marked a watershed in Serbia's relationship with the West. Sudan is egged on to follow suit. Nobody in Sudan believes that Moreno-Ocampo has more modest goals. Khartoum, however, is intransigent and its fellow African and Arab sister-nations do not take kindly to Western bullying. Moreno-Ocampo' s statements are causing unease in Africa and the Arab world.
Matters came to a head with concerted efforts by the Arab League (AL) and the African Union (AU) to contain the crisis. The Sudanese government solicited the assistance of its fellow African and Arab nations at international forums. Sudan was gripped by nationwide demonstrations, and in spite of insinuations in the international media that the protests were orchestrated by the Sudanese government, the vast numbers suggest that Al-Bashir does have considerable support inside the country.
And there is no sign that his luck is about to run out. Seen in this light, Al-Bashir's political prospects might well be soaring high in the weeks ahead. Indeed, Al-Bashir hopes to turn the distraction over Moreno- Ocampo's charge into an opportunity. On the face of it, there is much to be said about the efforts of the AL and AU to buttress the Sudanese government and help it reassert its claim as a sovereign nation. The point, however, is whether the Sudanese government would fare well if free and fair elections were held. That, Al-Bashir promised shall be granted in due course.
His genius has been to understand what he needed and work out how to obtain it. Those qualities have never been on public display as they have been this week. There is nothing to suggest that his grip is weaker. His readiness to mobilise his supporters for his cause proved a devastating advantage. There is a strong sense in Sudan, however, that better days lie ahead for this benighted country and its long-suffering people. "Sudanese" has long become a euphemism for wretchedness and anguish. In truth, the swelling optimism is based partly on the depressing recognition that matters could hardly get any worse. That is most certainly the case in Darfur. But, the oil revenues have inculcated an expectation of economic prosperity and well-being. Now even the optimists fear this wonderful prospect of an economically buoyant Sudan may be a mirage.
There is no doubt that Moreno-Ocampo upset things. The Sudanese political establishment and especially the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) have ingeniously used the incident, however, to show that Al-Bashir is a dynamic leader. Indeed, Al-Bashir's Darfur policy has shown some circumspection of sorts. Doesn't he promise to sort out Darfur by means of direct talks at the highest level, a necessary step that his political opponents have so far never agreed to take?
It is hard for the NCP to admit that its leader, a seasoned statesman renowned for political cunning, has erred repeatedly over the treatment of his non-Arab subjects. The problem for Moreno-Ocampo is that Sudanese snobbery does not preclude Al-Bashir's talent for pragmatism. Despite Western hounding, he's no Radovan Karadzic. The Sudanese are a highly politicised people. The real threat, they recognise, is not Moreno-Ocampo, or compromising Sudanese sovereignty, but globalisation and Western avarice and hegemonic designs.
The crux of the matter is that many Sudanese will run almost any risk to prevent an outside power that repeatedly calls for the disintegration of the Sudanese state from acquiring the wherewithal to bring that end about. Moreno-Ocampo' s verdict is widely regarded in Sudan as instigating the eventual destruction of Sudan as we know it. But there is less to some of this than meets the eye. With oil prices at their present highs, the last thing anyone in Sudan wants to hear is that conditions in Sudan could be about to take a turn for the worse. Unfortunately, they could.
Most governments agree that unanimity is the surest way to success. Even so, the ultimate endorsement by all Sudanese of Al-Bashir's Darfur policy has so far eluded him. Thousands of Sudanese took to the streets in support of Al-Bashir. Their outbursts were indicative of the public mood, but were far from a resounding show of unanimity. "The crisis in Darfur is inextricably linked to the question of democratisation in Sudan. The Moreno- Ocampo ruling is a sideshow," Farouk Abu Eissa, former head of the Arab Lawyer's Union and currently Sudanese MP, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
So, does that now look set to change: could the Sudanese opposition take advantage of Al-Bashir's predicament and hand him over to the ICC when the time is ripe, just like the Serbs did with Slobodan Milosevic and now with Karadzic? Would the Sudanese stab him in the back? He replied, like the careful lawyer he is, that it was hard to make a connection solid enough to stand up in a less biased court of law. The Sudanese -- government supporters and opposition forces -- have vowed to make a great dream of peace and political stability in Sudan come true. "We shall overcome all hatreds," Abu Eissa added.
Al-Bashir is treading a similar path. His Islamist 1989 coup d'état changed the political map of Sudan. But he has since been forced by hostility from secularist opposition forces and southerners to water down his original Islamist agenda. The splashiest single event of the Al-Bashir presidency was the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed on 9 January 2005 with his coalition partners in government, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement. The defining test is whether southerners would vote in a referendum scheduled for 2011 to secede. The claim to national sovereignty is as pressing as ever.
Al-Bashir has always been sniffy about his subordinates' political agendas and ideas. His summarily dismissal of his onetime mentor Sheikh Hassan Al-Turabi demonstrated Al-Bashir's impatience with those who cross swords with him. On these occasions, the pragmatic Sudanese strongman, a skillful circuit breaker, would kick in. Al-Turabi, too, is no walkover. Hectoring and irascible, Al-Turabi refuses to be silenced. To choose such formidable foes in the autumn of your life takes bags of self-belief.
Many African leaders, like Al-Bashir, stick around even as the continent moves on and their powers fail. Why was he singled out by Moreno-Ocampo? "Nowhere else in the continent do we have such suffering on such a massive scale," the ICC prosecutor-general told the Weekly. The question is whether the Al-Bashir regime could woo Sudan's urban intelligentsia and inculcate it with an invincible sense of nationalism. Al-Bashir has had the good fortune to be perfectly suited for his time -- but many suspect that he is less equipped for the collaborative and fragmented era of a truly democratic Sudan.