Omar al-Bashir, World’s Worst Dictator, Overthrown at Last

Friday, April 12, 2019
Omar al-Bashir (photo: S Sibeko, Reuters)

Back in 2006, I wrote a book called Tyrants: The World’s 20 Worst Living Dictators. I gave the dubious honor of first place to Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. Now, 13 years later, Bashir has finally been overthrown. Unfortunately, the man who led the military coup that overthrew Bashir is General Awad ibn Ouf, who, since 2006, has been financially sanctioned by the U.S. government for his role in the genocidal attacks carried out in the Darfur region of Sudan.


Still, it is worth reviewing the history of Sudan and how Bashir came to power. So, I am publishing here the original chapter I wrote about Omar al-Bashir. Some things have changed, most notably the creation of the independent nation of South Sudan in 2011. However, sad to say, most of the article is still relevant. Readers with little interest in background history might want to scroll directly to the section “The Man.”




THE NATION—Sudan, by size, is the largest nation in Africa and the tenth largest nation in the world.  It shares borders with nine different nations; only China, Russia and Brazil have more neighbors than Sudan.  Since achieving independence in 1956, the nation has experienced only ten years of peace.  The rest of the time it has been plagued by a series of overlapping civil wars.  Since 1983, an estimated two million Sudanese have died of war-related causes, while five million have been forced from their homes.  Since 1993, Sudan has been the world’s leading debtor to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.  Sudan’s population of about 38 million is deeply divided ethnically and religiously.  Although 52% of the population is black, the nation has always been ruled by the minority who are Arabs.  Seventy percent of Sudanese are Sunni Muslims, 25% follow traditional religions and 5% are Christians, mostly Catholic.  A census taken at the time of independence identified 50 ethnic groups, 570 distinct peoples and the use of 114 languages, although more than half the population speaks Arabic.


SLAVERY—In recent years, the media has devoted a good deal of attention to the killings in Darfur in western Sudan.  One of the most disturbing aspects of this tragedy is that the exploitation of black people by Arabs in the Sudan has been going on for more than 1,400 years.  The word “Sudani” in Arabic means “black.”  This term, along with the words “Nuba” and Nubia,” which relate to one of the areas in southern Sudan populated by black Africans, have all entered colloquial Arabic with the meaning of “slave.”

            Christian missionaries arrived in the region in the 6th century and Islamic missionaries in the 7th century.  As early as 652, a treaty was signed in which Muslim Egypt would provide goods to Christian Nubia in exchange for Nubian slaves.  Slave raids in southern Sudan continued almost without a break for the next 1,300 years, no matter who ruled the region: Egyptians, Turks or local sultans.  Muhammad Ali, the Albanian-born ruler of Egypt, invaded Sudan in 1821, leading to sixty years of Turco-Egyptian rule.  During this period, which saw the introduction of domestic slavery and the development of slave soldiers, an average of 30,000 southerners a year were seized in slave raids.

            Muhammad Ali also founded the city of Khartoum at the confluence of the White Nile and the Blue Nile.  In 1885, the forces of Mohammad Ahmed al-Mahdi (the Messiah) captured Khartoum and overthrew the Turco-Egyptian regime.  Al-Mahdi died the same year and was replaced by Khalifa Abdullahi.  The Mahdists expanded the practice of slavery, driving millions from their homes.  They also set an unfortunate precedent by demanding that citizens take a personal, religious oath of loyalty to the Mahdi and the Khalifa and condemning non-followers, even fellow Muslims, as “unbelievers.”  When British and Egyptian troops invaded Sudan, these rejected Muslims were glad to help overthrow the Mahdists.

            The Anglo-Egyptian forces, led by General Horatio Herbert Kitchener, defeated the Mahdist army at the Battle of Omdurman on September 2, 1898, and the Sudan became a possession of the King of England.  The British abolished slavery, outraging the Arabs in northern Sudan who considered the practice not a question of human rights, but a cultural tradition that was being disrupted by foreign invaders.  The British also halted the spread of Islam to new areas and assigned separate zones to Catholic and Protestant missionaries, most of whom arrived from Austria, Italy and the United States.  The Americans distinguished themselves by their unusual obsession with clothing the natives.

            The Mahdists had never established control over southern Sudan, and it took the British a long time to deal with it themselves.  As part of their pacification campaign, the British-led army occasionally burned down villages in the south, just as the Egyptians and Mahdists had done, and they were even known to seize cattle just to prove they had the power to do so.  In 1930, the British declared a Southern Policy that stated that the region was African rather than Arab, but because there were few hereditary rulers in the south, it remained difficult for the British to establish consistent authority.  In the north, meanwhile, tensions developed between the British and their junior partners, the Egyptians.  In the 1920s, the British expelled Egyptian soldiers and administrators and, to counter the growing influence of Egypt in Sudan, they brought back the posthumously-born son of the anti-Egyptian Mahdi.  The grand qadi (judge) of the religious courts was always an Egyptian, but the British ended this monopoly in 1947.  After World War II, the British came up with a novel tactic for stemming the threat of Egyptian power in Sudan:  they proposed that the Sudan be granted independence, even though few Sudanese themselves had demanded it.  When formal negotiations for independence began in 1952, Egypt was included, but the black Sudanese in the south were not.

            Sudan’s first election, held in 1953, was generally fair, although women were not allowed to vote.  (Women’s suffrage finally occurred in1967.)  The National Unionist Party, which advocated political union with Egypt, emerged as the largest single party, but they failed to gain a majority of the votes, and a coalition of anti-unionist parties turned union into a dead issue.  The new, pre-independence government also showed no interest in sharing power with the black Sudanese and appointed northerners to all leadership positions in the south.  This continuation of the Arab view that the southern tribes were not fit to be partners led to a shocking incident in the summer of 1955.  When the northern government ordered southern soldiers in the state of Equatoria to transfer north, they refused. In what became known as the Torit Mutiny, the soldiers went on a rampage against the administrators from the north, killing 450 people, including women and children.  The northern authorities were outraged, but not enough to ask themselves what could be done to mitigate southern anger.

            Great Britain practically forced Sudan to declare independence on January 1, 1956, before a constitution had been written and before the achievement of anything that could be even remotely considered a national consensus.  The southern Sudanese were understandably wary of the northerners’ intentions towards them.  Southern leaders pushed for a federal system that would allow them some regional control, but the northerners took the position that giving the south any power at all would lead eventually to secession or that it would, at the very least, threaten the master-servant relationship that they considered part of their “traditional culture.”

            Less than two months after independence, an incident took place that would serve as an awful harbinger of the violence that has cursed Sudan ever since.  Police in Kosti locked 281 striking tenant farmers in a room.  By morning, 192 of them were dead.

            The first post-independence election, in 1958, exposed Sudan’s deep divisions, as the ruling alliance fractured, and the southerners established their own party.  A

nationwide strike, led by labor unions, the tenant farmers’ union, students and the Communist Party, brought the country to a standstill.  On November 17, 1958, the military, led by General Ibrahim Abbud, seized power and declared a state of emergency.  This came as a relief to both the Western powers and the USSR, who found a democratic Sudan difficult to deal with.  The new government set out to Arabize and Islamicize the south, using Arab traders and Muslim missionaries as a vanguard and then sending in the army to burn villages and to arrest and torture civilians.  They also ordered that the day of Sabbath be changed from Sunday to Friday.


THE FIRST CIVIL WAR—In 1962, southern Sudanese living in exile, including students and ex-mutineers, formed the Sudan African Nationalist Union (SANU), which eventually included a guerrilla wing known as Anyanya, which is a type of poison.  SANU appealed to the West for support, but the Europeans and Americans were not interested.  SANU also received little help from fellow Africans because the Organization of African Unity had pledged to retain all colonial boundaries and SANU’S call for “self-determination” was judged counter to this pledge.  Anyanya managed to acquire weapons by hijacking Sudanese government convoys that were transporting arms to pro-Arab rebels in the Congo.  Fighting between the southern rebel forces and Sudanese government forces began slowly.  The first major rebel attacks started in September 1963.  Both sides were ruthless in their tactics.  However, along the way, Anyanya discovered the Maoist strategy that guerrillas can survive by befriending the locals and becoming “fish in a sea of people.”

            Meanwhile, back in Khartoum, things were not going well for Gen. Abboud, who was not the most competent of leaders.  Student protests, street demonstrations and a general strike finally led to a popular uprising that overthrew Abboud in October 1964.  A transitional government was formed by Communists and unions of tenants, workers and farmers, which allowed women to obtain some political rights.  Six months later, an election was held, but only in the north.  The newly-elected government made clear their intentions in the south by approving the first large-scale massacres of civilians.  When war broke out between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Sudan supported the Arabs, broke relations with the United States and turned to the Soviet Union, which led to a drastic decline in foreign aid.  As the war in the south grew to eat up one-third of the national budget, Sudan’s foreign debt doubled between 1964 and 1969, putting great pressure on the northern poor.

            Another election was held in 1968, but few in the south were able to vote.  By this time, the rebel movement had grown large enough to develop bickering factions.  They did find it easier to acquire weapons and training because enemies of the Sudanese government, such as Israel, Ethiopia and Uganda, were happy to supply the rebels.

            In March 1972, the government and the rebels signed a settlement, the Addis Ababa Agreement, that ended the civil war.  This was the first negotiated settlement in post-colonial Africa, but eventually the southerners would come to regret it and consider it a failure.  The agreement provided for the gradual absorption of the Anyanya guerrillas into the national army, but northern troops did not leave the south and many guerrillas chose to go into exile in Ethiopia.  Economically and politically, the promises of the Addis Ababa Agreement would turn out to be illusory.


NIMEIRI AND THE INTERLUDE OF PEACE—On May 24, 1969, Colonel Jaafar Nimeiri overthrew the elected government of Sudan by bringing together the military and the Communist and Socialist parties.  Nimeiri would prove to be a completely self-serving politician who would make or break an alliance with any group, so long as it helped him stay in power.  For example, by 1970 he had booted out of office all of the Communist ministers who had helped him with his coup d’état.  Nimeiri civilianized himself by staging a phony election in September 1971 in which he won 99% of the votes.  Not surprisingly, the traditional political parties turned against him, so he countered their potential strength by reaching out to the southern rebels and negotiating the Addis Ababa peace agreement.  Nimeiri then shoved through a new constitution in April 1973 that created a one-party state.  That party was Nimeiri’s Sudan Socialist Union.  He put himself in command of the armed forces and made the judiciary completely answerable to the president (Nimeiri).  He also gave the security services broad powers of search and arrest and set up a large network of informers.

            Another group of growing influence whom Nimeiri chose to co-opt was the Islamists: religious radicals led by Hassan al-Turabi, a man who would rise to great power after Omar al-Bashir took over as dictator of Sudan.  To appease the Islamists, Nimeiri released Turabi from the prison where he had been languishing for seven years.  Nimeiri began incorporating the Islamist agenda into his own.  He supported Arab Iraq in its war against non-Arab Iran and, in September 1983, he imposed Shari’a law on Sudan.  He also sold out the southern rebels, supporting the 1978 Camp David Accords so that Israel would stop supplying the southern guerrillas.  In 1983 he abolished the system of regional councils that had provided the southern Sudanese a modicum of power.

            Nimeiri made friends with the U.S. government, which viewed him as a counterweight to pro-Soviet regimes in Ethiopia and Libya.  Fully aware that U.S. president Ronald Reagan would support any government that was “anti-Communist,” Nimeiri convinced the Reagan Administration that the southern rebel forces were Communists.  This earned him $1.4 billion in aid, including US-made aircraft that he used to attack southern troops.  In exchange, Reagan was able to use the “defense of Sudan” as his excuse for bombing Libya in 1986.  Vice-President George Bush visited Nimeiri in Khartoum in 1985 while accompanied, rather bizarrely, by American televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.  It was during a return trip to the United States in April 1985 that, after 16 years in power, Nimeiri’s luck finally ran out.  After a government-imposed rise in food prices, a popular uprising led to a coup that overthrew him.  It was little realized at the time, but the most horrible aspect of Nimeiri’s legacy was his creation of the practice of supplying tribal militias to fight as surrogates so that he could deny that the Sudanese army was fighting anti-government forces. The current Sudanese government is still employing the same tactic in Darfur.

            One year after the 1985 coup, Sudan held another election, although only half of the south took part.  Sadiq al-Mahdi, the leader of the UMMA party, emerged as the prime minister.  Sadiq committed Sudan to becoming an Islamic state.  Upon his election in April 1986, he put it bluntly:  “Non-Muslims can ask us to protect their rights—and we will do that—but that’s all they can ask.  We wish to establish Islam as the source of law in Sudan because Sudan has a Muslim majority.”  This was an unusually bold, or one night say, rash statement, considering that the non-Muslim rebel groups in the south were dramatically gaining strength.  In fact, the civil war, which had recommenced, was turning horrifically ugly.

            The largest of the rebel groups was the SPLA, led by John Garang, who had earned a doctorate in agricultural economics at Iowa State University and had also attended a U.S. Army infantry officer’s course at Fort Benning, Georgia.  The SPLA represented the largest of the southern ethnic groups, the Dinka.  In 1985 and 1986, the SPLA, desperate for supplies, staged a series of vicious attacks against civilians.  But then the SPLA learned a miraculous lesson:  if you treat civilians well, they might actually support you.  As obvious as this may seem, it is a fact that continues to escape the Sudanese government.  In 1987, the SPLA changed tactics.  Instead of attacking villages and seizing food and other goods, they imposed a food tax that, once paid, protected villagers from seizures.  Since the Sudanese army continued to attack people’s homes, the popularity of the SPLA grew and, in 1988, for the first time, they were no longer viewed by other tribes as a purely Dinka army.

            The government-supported Murahalin militia, on the other hand, were engaging in grotesque tactics, burning to the ground Dinka villages and killing civilians.  They regularly abducted Dinka and sent them north to be kept in slavery or traded, while children, who had been raised non-Muslim, were forced to attend Islamic schools and adopt new names.  Captured women were forced to endure genital mutilation.

            One particularly infamous atrocity, the Ed-Da’ein Massacre, was carried out on March 28, 1987.  Two thousand Dinka villagers, fearing an attack by a Muslim tribe, the Baggara, asked for police protection.  The police told them to take shelter in nearby railway freight cars.  That night, the police stood by and watched as the Baggara set fire to the railway cars, killing at least 1,000 people.

            In 1987, the SPLA scored a stunning defeat of the Murahalin and the Sudanese army, which responded to the humiliation by attacking unarmed Dinka refugees in Southern Darfur.  Sadiq al-Mahdi had never had the full support of the army, and he further alienated them with his dependency on tribal militias.  As the military situation deteriorated and the SPLA took the fighting north to areas previously controlled by the government, the army demanded that Sadiq meet with John Garang and try to negotiate a ceasefire.  Sadiq finally agreed.  This decision infuriated one of the parties in his ruling coalition, Hassan al-Turabi’s National Islamic Front (NIF), which withdrew from the coalition.  On June 30, 1989, before Sadiq could meet with Garang, a group of Muslim army officers, led by Brigadier Omar al-Bashir and supported by the NIF, staged a coup.  The coup leaders called themselves the National Movement for Correcting the Situation.


THE MAN—Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir was born in 1944 in Hoshe Bannaga, 100 kilometers northeast of Khartoum.  A member of the Ja’aliya tribe, he came from a rural working-class family and attended Ahlia Middle School in the town of Shendi.  Bashir’s family moved to Khartoum, where he attended secondary school and worked in a garage.  Bashir found his niche in the military world.  Admitted to a military academy for training as a pilot, he graduated from Sudan Military College at the age of 22 and then earned two master’s degrees in military science, one from the Sudanese College of Commanders and the second in Malaysia.  By 1973, he was serving as a paratrooper in the Arab-Israeli War.  Bashir was jovial and well-liked, and his natural affinity with fellow officers would serve him well in the decades to come.  He was particularly friendly with those officers who were sympathetic to the National Islamic Front.  In late 1985, military intelligence identified Bashir as a potential leader of an NIF coup, and he was transferred to remote garrisons, including Muglad, which was used as a base for operations against rebel forces in the south and the Nuba Mountains.  As a sign of his solidarity with his own forces, Bashir would choose as his second wife the widow of a fellow officer killed in the fighting.

            In 1988 Bashir was promoted to brigadier and put in command of the 8th Infantry Brigade that was fighting the SPLA.  He was one of the few senior officers who did not oppose Sadiq al-Mahdi’s use of tribal militia,s and he even proposed formally incorporating them into the regular army.  However, he was critical of Sadiq’s conduct of the civil war, as well as his decision to negotiate with John Garang.  In the middle of June 1989, Bashir returned to Khartoum, supposedly on his way to a training course in Cairo.  Two weeks later, he was the leader of Sudan.


TAKING POWER—At first, the 1989 coup in Sudan appeared to be just another power grab by a group of junior officers, the sort of event that happened all the time in Africa.  The Egyptian government, mindful that Egypt had given Bashir a military decoration for his services against Israel in 1973, praised Bashir and offered its support.  Likewise, Saddam Hussein, within hours of the coup, rushed off a shipment of weapons as a gesture of thanks for Sudan’s support of Iraq during its war against Iran.  Libya sent 440,000 tons of oil, enough to last Sudan the rest of the year, while Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iraq threw in some oil for good measure.  The United States was required by law to suspend non-humanitarian aid to Sudan because an unelected government had overthrown an elected one.  However, the U.S. was reassured by Bashir’s personal pledge to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Herman Cohen that he hoped to emulate secular Turkey.

            For his own part, Bashir acted like a typical leader of a successful bloodless coup.  He immediately promoted himself to general and appointed himself premier and defense minister.  He promised to fight corruption and embezzlement, and he offered amnesty to SPLA members if they turned in their weapons.  In his first public appearance, Bashir spoke in favor of pan-Arabism and expressed solidarity with Sudan’s Arab neighbors, Egypt and Libya.  In a surprising gesture of diplomacy, Bashir visited non-Arab Iran and secured aid for a road building program in exchange for “cooperation with security and intelligence.”

            Domestically, Bashir pursued policies that were also typical of newly installed military dictators.  He suspended the constitution, banned all political parties and trade unions and closed down the formerly free press.  When the presidents of eight labor unions and professional associations submitted a petition for the democratic election of union officials, Bashir had them all arrested.  He banned the Sudanese Bar Association, took charge of the appointment of judges (who had previously been chosen by sitting judges) and imposed an Islamic judicial system on the entire country.

            To the outside world, the change of government in Sudan was hardly worth noting, and few, if any, observers could have predicted that Omar-al Bashir would still be in power more than fifteen years later.  For the people of Sudan, however, particularly those in the south, it soon dawned on them that this was not a typical military coup.  Bashir decreed that Arabic should replace all other languages and that although Christians would still be allowed to practice their religion because they were “people of the book,” Sudanese who followed traditional religions would be forced to convert to Islam.

            Bashir set up a three-part government.  The first part, the Revolutionary Command Council, was made up of the fifteen officers who carried out the coup, with Bashir as their chairman.  The second part was a more formal national government with twenty ministers, who were either anti-corruption technocrats or members of the National Islamic Front.  Over the next four years, NIF members would replace each of the technocrats.  But the real power was held by the third part of the government, the semi-secret Council of Defenders, also known as the Committee of 40, which consisted of NIF members and young military officers.  Chaired first by Bashir’s old friend from military school, Ali Osman Muhammad Taha, and then by Hassan al-Turabi, the Council members served as “advisors” to Bashir.

This fusion of the Sudanese military with the radical NIF gave Bashir and Turabi the ability to carry out an aggressive Islamist agenda.  Students, teachers and professors of all ages, along with civil servants, were forced to undergo six weeks of military training, during which they were subjected to endless lectures on Islam.  In March 1991, Bashir’s government issued the Public Order Act of 1991, which set forth an Islamic Penal Code.  He restored flogging and amputation and formalized the death penalty for a wide range of offenses, including adultery, embezzlement, dealing on the black-market, the vague charge of “corruption” and organizing strikes, not to mention apostasy, the giving up of Islam.  Emergency courts were authorized to seize illegal vendors and flog them in public on the spot.  Bashir declared that God supervised his judiciary system because He is “all-knowing and all-seeing.” 

The new laws were not kind to women.  They prohibited social gatherings in which men and women danced together or mixed freely.  In Khartoum State, police broke up wedding parties.  Women were excluded from public life and had dress codes imposed upon them.  Bashir issued a presidential decree that forbade women from wearing perfume or trousers and required them to wear veils and dresses down to their ankles.    Some women tried to continue wearing colorful traditional dresses called thobe, but the NIF’s Guardians of Morality and Advocates of Good began flogging women in the streets.  Women who defied other rules were arrested, jailed and tortured. 

The government also banned the teaching of art and music because it spread western and African culture and closed down the Institute of Music and Drama at Khartoum University because the NIF objected to classical Arabic music.  Needless to say, Bashir’s government banned alcohol.  But in February 1995, the ministry of health took this restriction even further, forbidding the importation of medicines containing alcohol, including the anti-malarial drug chloroquine, which led to a widespread epidemic of malaria.  Eighty percent of pharmacies shut their doors and so many doctors left the country that the government banned all travel by medical personnel.


THE MAN BEHIND THE THRONE—To most Sudan watchers, it was difficult to imagine that the thuggish Omar al-Bashir could create on his own the principles of a new rigid Islamic state.  Many found it easier to categorize Bashir as a mere front man for the better-educated and more sophisticated leader of the National Islamic Front, Hassan al-Turabi.  Although Bashir would prove to be wilier than he at first appeared, Turabi’s influence on Sudanese politics is undeniable.

            Born in 1932, Turabi was the son of an Islamic judge and grew up in an orthodox family that opposed the more tolerant Sufi branch of Islam that was popular in Sudan.  He graduated with a B.A. in law from Khartoum University and went on to earn a master’s degree in law from the London School of Economics and a doctorate in law from the Sorbonne in Paris.  When Turabi returned to Sudan in 1965, he was appointed dean of the Law School at the University of Khartoum.  He was also the secretary-general of the Sudanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, an activist orthodox group founded in Egypt in 1928 and to whose ideas he was first exposed in London.  At the university, Turabi taught students to give up Sufi mysticism, reject the formalism of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini and instead interpret Islam and their own behavior according to Shari’a law. 

Turabi was particularly popular with foreigners, who enjoyed his lively good humor.  In 1970 Jaafar Nimeiri had Turabi thrown into prison, where he remained for the next seven years until Nimeiri decided that he needed the support of the Islamists.  Turabi immersed himself in the creation of an Islamic banking system in which depositors are given a partnership rather than interest.  Three months after Nimeiri’s fall in 1985, Turabi founded the National Islamic Front.  He led the party in the 1986 elections, campaigning for Shari’a and universal conscription.  This platform did not appeal to the Sudanese majority, and the NIF did so poorly that Turabi himself lost in his own constituency in Omdurman. 

Two years after the election, the victor, Sadiq al-Mahdi, who happened to be Turabi’s brother-in-law, appointed Turabi attorney general.  In this position, Turabi was able to institute a law that outlawed apostasy, in other words, being a Muslim who gives up Islam.  However, the wording of the bill was sufficiently vague to be interpreted to include opposition to the current Islamic government.  He also banned public demonstrations by the populist National Alliance, a party that advocated peace negotiations with John Garang and the SPLA.  In February 1989, Sadiq promoted Turabi to deputy prime minister and foreign minister. 

            When Bashir took charge in the 1989 coup, the Revolutionary Command Council had Turabi put under house arrest.  However, this was merely an empty gesture of false impartiality, as Turabi’s followers continued to operate the bureaucracy for the Revolutionary Command Council.  He was released the following year.  Turabi tried to promote Shura, Islamic democracy, which he described as government by consultation with learned males who come to a consensus, thus eliminating the need for passing written laws.  He and his wife, Wisal al-Mahdi, founded the International Organization of Islamic Women.  According to their interpretation of Islamic feminism, female subservience has no place in Islam, and women can own property, attend public meetings and take part in political affairs.  Non-Muslim women on the other hand, are nothing more than the spoils of war, property to be owned and disposed of.

            The presence of the troops of the United States and other western nations on the soil (or sand) of Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Gulf War, served as a great marketing tool for Islamist leaders, who distributed tapes of their speeches throughout the Arabic-speaking world.  Turabi’s tapes did not achieve the widespread popularity of a Saudi businessman named Osama bin Laden, but Turabi did develop a substantial following.  In December 1990, he visited Chicago, where he attended a conference of the Islamic Committee for Palestine and spoke on “Islam: The Road to Victory.”  One of Turabi’s protégés was Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and future lieutenant to Osama bin laden in Al-Qaeda.

            In April 1991, Turabi, with some financial backing from bin Laden, organized the first general assembly of the Popular Arab and Islamic Congress (PAIC), which brought together delegates from 45 nations.  Although the PAIC would soon gain infamy as a meeting place for terrorists, at the 1991 congress Turabi pulled off a diplomatic coup by bringing together intelligence officers from Iran and Iraq for the first time since the two nations fought a horrific war, and Iran announced that it would end its ten-year blockade of Iraq.


HASSAN AL-TURABI IN AMERICA—In May 1992, Turabi arrived in North America for a tour that would highlight his position as an important intellectual power broker.  Little suspecting that his life was about to take a dramatic turn, he began by attending a scholarly roundtable at the University of South Florida.  Lecturing on “Islam, Democracy, the State and the West,” some of his statements seemed so divorced from reality that they left many participants speechless.  Completely ignoring the ongoing civil war, he declared, “In Sudanese society, ethnic minorities tend to disappear,” and added “the Sudanese are Arab in culture….There is no Arab-African divide anywhere in the Sudan.”  He called the worldwide Islamist movement “highly democratic…. Islam shuns absolute government, absolute authority, dynastic authority and individual authority.”  He called the 1991 Gulf War “a blessing in disguise because Islamist movements around the world were “turned into mass movements” and were “radicalized.”  Confronted with accusations that the Sudanese government practiced torture, Turabi, rather than deny the charge, shrugged it off and stated that “This behavior is typical of police around the world.”

            Turabi moved on to Washington D.C., where he appeared before the Africa Subcommittee of the House of Representatives and repeated his opinions, leaving many committee members bewildered.  In an interview with New Perspectives Quarterly, he again contradicted reality by intoning, “We have no interest in terrorism….Islam can have nothing to do with terrorism.”  Flushed with his rhetorical successes, Turabi flew to Toronto, where he was scheduled to have meetings with government officials and representatives of the oil industry.


HASSAN AL-TURABI’S UNFORTUNATE ENCOUNTER—On the morning of May 25, 1992, Turabi flew to Ottawa to meet with functionaries in the Department of External Affairs.  His appearance was met by a demonstration of Sudanese exiles protesting the policies of Turabi and Bashir.  That evening, one of the protesters, 35-year-old Hashim Badr el Din Mohammad, was dropping off a friend at the airport when he noticed Turabi sipping coffee with two companions.  A Sufi who was infuriated by the impositions of Turabi’s intolerant brand of Islam, Hashim rushed towards Turabi yelling, in English, “Murderer, murderer, slave master!  Terrorist in Canada! Fascist in Canada! Slave master in Canada!”  And in Arabic, “Stop.  Where are you going to? I will never let you go.” 

Unfortunately for Turabi, Hashim was not just another oppressed Sudanese; he was a 6’8” karate coach with a seventh degree black belt.  One of Turabi’s companions, a Muslim minister from Chicago named Ahmed Osman Makki, lunged at Hashim, who knocked him to the floor.  Turabi tried to hold off Hashim, but the latter smashed him in the side of the head and sent him flying through the air.  Turabi spent the next four weeks in an Ottawa hospital and could not speak or control his movements.  Although Turabi eventually made a full recovery, the second PAIC General Assembly, scheduled for the autumn, had to be cancelled.  As for Hashim, a sympathetic jury acquitted him on the charge of assault on the basis that Makki and Turabi had struck him first.


CARLOS THE JACKAL—Illich Ramírez Sánchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal, was an anti-Israeli Venezuelan Marxist who became the most notorious terrorist of the 1970s and mid-1980s.  His most famous act was a 1975 attack on OPEC headquarters in Vienna, during which he and five accomplices took more than sixty hostages.  Sometimes working on a for-hire basis, Carlos organized a variety of bomb attacks, most of them in France.  He also shot to death an informer and two Parisian policemen who had come to arrest him.  By 1990, Carlos was considered over-the-hill and inactive.  However, he was still wanted for the crimes he had committed when he was younger. 

After being expelled from Syria, he was given refuge, in August 1993, in Sudan, where he was welcomed by Bashir and Turabi.  However, as he settled into life in Khartoum, it became clear that Carlos did not exactly pursue a lifestyle that was consistent with Islamist ideals.  In fact, he was an alcoholic and a womanizer.  But Carlos had an even worse strike against him:  he was being tracked by the Western world’s leading spy agencies.  The CIA informed French intelligence that they had pinpointed Carlos’ location in Sudan.  The French confirmed the identification at the PAIC General Assembly in December 1993.  Initially, Bashir’s government refused to acknowledge that Carlos was in the country.  However, the French produced photographs of Carlos engaged in behavior that did not reflect the regime’s values and threatened to reveal to the Islamic world that Sudan was harboring a debauched Marxist terrorist.  Bashir capitulated and turned over negotiations to Turabi, who agreed to hand over Carlos to the French.  In exchange, France gave Sudan military equipment, police training, a desalination plant, a grant to Sudan Airways and access to aerial photographs of SPLA troop positions in the south.  The French also agreed to publicly praise Hassan al-Turabi for his role as a mediator with Algerian Islamists.

            In August 1994, Carlos checked into Ibn Khalmud hospital for minor surgery relating to a low sperm count.  While he was recovering, security personnel informed Carlos and his wife that his life was in danger and he had to be transferred to a military hospital.  From there he was moved to a private villa and then, in the middle of the night, he was snatched by French agents and flown to Paris, where he was tried for the murder of the French policemen, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment; and it is in prison that he remains today.

The success of this deal would inspire Bashir and Turabi to offer for trade another terrorist to whom they had granted sanctuary:  Saudi businessman Osama bin Laden.


OSAMA BIN LADEN IN SUDAN—It would appear that bin Laden first met Hassan al-Turabi during a visit to Sudan in 1984.  Four years later, he opened an air charter company in Khartoum and in late 1989, after the coup that brought Omar al-Bashir to power, bin Laden established the Wadi al-Aqiq holding company and deposited $50 million in a previously minor bank in Khartoum.  Before long, bin Laden started investing that money.  He opened thirty businesses, including a trucking company, a furniture manufacturer and a bakery.  He also exported from Sudan fruits, vegetables, sesame, wheat and cotton, and imported into Sudan honey, sweets, farm equipment and, oh yes, arms.  He arranged to send Sudanese cotton to the Taliban in Afghanistan in exchange for weapons that were supposedly captured from Soviet troops.  Coming from a family that made its fortune in the construction business, it was not surprising that he also received the contract to build an airport at Port Sudan and to construct the road from Port Sudan to Khartoum.  Some of the deals between Bashir and bin Laden may have helped the Sudanese government, but they were damaging to the Sudanese people.  When the government could no longer pay for the roadwork bin Laden’s company was doing, they gave him instead a million acres of farmland in the Gash River Delta on the Eritrean border.  Bin Laden then hurt the area’s poor farmers by overplanting watermelons and driving down the price, and he hurt the rich farmers by gaining a monopoly on sesame exports.  In fact, he brokered a deal that sent the entire Sudanese sesame crop to Russia in exchange for arms.  Bashir also granted bin Laden tax exemptions on all his businesses.  And bin Laden took Hassan al-Turabi’s niece as his third wife in exchange for duty-free importation of construction equipment and vehicles.

            Of course, Osama bin Laden had other interests besides making money.  After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, bin Laden wrote a ten-page letter to Saudi defense minister Prince Sultan offering to use the skills he learned fighting the Communists in Afghanistan to train Saudis to defend themselves.  He even offered the use of his family’s construction equipment to dig trenches along Saudi Arabia’s border with Iraq.  The Saudi royal family, wary of giving the popular bin Laden too much power, instead hired the United States and its allies to defend the country.  By 1991, Osama bin Laden was no longer welcome in his native Saudi Arabia.  After sojourning in Pakistan, he arrived, at the invitation of Turabi, in Sudan, assuring himself the best of Sudanese hospitality by donating $5 million to Turabi’s National Islamic Front.

            In March 1990, Bashir announced that all “Arab brothers” could enter Sudan without a visa.  Bin Laden knew how to exploit this ruling.  He established a “farm” on the Blue Nile south of Khartoum that was actually a group of training camps to teach the use of weapons and explosives.  There were 23 camps for Islamists who had fought in Afghanistan, three camps for Al-Qaeda and training courses for terrorist groups from Egypt and Algeria, insurgents from Yemen and Eritrea, Palestinian fighters for Hamas and Hezbollah and anti-Gaddafi Libyans.  Bin Laden donated $2.5 million to operate the Port Sudan airport in exchange for the right to use it to ship arms to sympathetic groups in Somalia and Yemen.  He also funded a program that, under the auspices of the NIF, provided forced military training of university and secondary students.

            In 1994, bin Laden was stripped of his Saudi citizenship and settled in Sudan.  By 1996, however, Bashir and Turabi concluded that bin Laden was too hot to handle.  Considering how much they had gained by their betrayal of Carlos the Jackal, they decided to try to make a similar deal for Osama bin Laden.  First they tried to extradite bin Laden to Saudi Arabia, but the Saudi royal family refused to take him.  Then they asked the Saudis to act as go-betweens for a deal with the United States.  In fact, a representative of Bashir, Al-Fatih Urwah, did meet with the CIA in Virginia.  However, the Bill Clinton Administration, noting that in the U.S. bin Laden was only an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and distrustful of the Sudanese government, turned down the offer to negotiate for bin Laden.  On May 18, 1996, bin Laden left Sudan at the request of the Sudanese government and moved to Afghanistan.  A bitter bin Laden claimed that the Sudanese owed him millions of dollars, and he characterized the Bashir-Turabi leadership as “a mixture of religion and organized crime.”


SUPPORTING TERRORISM—It was nice to have Osama bin Laden’s money, but Hassan al-Turabi was perfectly capable of supporting terrorist groups without it.  The second PAIC General Assembly, delayed because of Turabi’s Canadian injury, was finally held in December 1993 and brought together a veritable who’s who of terrorist groups.  Turabi would boast, “I am close to …every Islamic movement in the world, secret or public.”  In 1992, Ayman al-Zawahari acquired funding from Iran to establish three training camps in Sudan, including one in Omar Bashir’s childhood hometown of Shendi.  While people in Sudan were trying to cope with food shortages, the PAIC sent a thousand tons of food and medicine to Somalia’s Islamic Unity Party.  When, in October 1994, a bus bomber killed 22 Israeli civilians in Tel Aviv, Turabi called it “an honorable act.”  As a matter of record, this was a year and a half after he organized a conference on religious tolerance.

            With the end of the Cold War, the U.S. government no longer saw a need to support the Sudanese extremist government.  One month after the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993, terrorists bombed the World Trade Center in New York, killing six people and injuring about 1,000.  Four months later, U.S. authorities arrested a member of the Sudanese delegation to the U.N. and charged him with planning another attack.  They caught red-handed bombmaker Siddiq Ibrahim Siddighli, who had been Turabi’s bodyguard during his 1992 visit.  The U.S. State Department added Sudan to its list of states supporting terrorism, a group that Turabi referred to as “a list of honor.”  In addition to supporting terror in the U.S., the government cited the fact that Sudan provided sanctuary for, among others, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Islamic Jihad, the Algerian FIS and terrorist groups from Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen.

            In 1995, Bashir and Turabi almost went too far when they tried to assassinate the dictator of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak.  On June 24 of that year, Mubarak was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for a meeting of the Organization of African Unity when two Egyptian assassins based in Khartoum fired at his limousine.  They were themselves shot to death, as were three accomplices.  Another three were arrested and three more escaped.  An Ethiopian investigation determined that the assassins were staying in a house rented by a Sudanese citizen, and that their weapons were delivered by Sudan Airways.  The incident led to two days of fighting between Egyptian and Sudanese forces.  Eventually, the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on Sudan for refusing to extradite the three escapees.  By this time, Bashir had alienated almost every other government in the world.  Out of the entire community of nations, Sudan’s only remaining allies could be counted on the fingers of two hands:  Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, China, Syria, Yemen, Qatar and Malaysia.

            On August 7, 1998, terrorists bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 263 people, including twelve Americans, and wounding 4,000.  In retaliation, two weeks later, President Clinton ordered missile attacks against Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.  For reasons not fully known, he also bombed the Al-Shifa Pharmaceutical Industries plant in Sudan, claiming that it was financed by bin Laden, and that it produced precursor chemicals used in the manufacture of VX nerve gas.  The owner of the plant, Salih Idris, denied involvement in the making of weapons, invited foreign journalists to visit his plant and hired a US. firm to prove that he had no connection with Osama bin Laden.  In May 1999, the U.S. government quietly released the $24 million of frozen funds that Idris had invested in U.S. accounts.

            After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Omar al-Bashir came to the conclusion that terrorism was the new equivalent of Communism and that one could gain the support—and money—of the United States by offering to become an ally of the U.S. War on Terrorism.


THE SECOND CIVIL WAR—For all the time and effort that Bashir and Turabi put into transforming Sudan into an extreme Islamist state, they still had to deal with a monster of a problem:  the growing rebellion among non-Muslims in the south.  The second civil war had broken out in 1983 and it was dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war, and with the threat of negotiations, that led to Bashir’s ascension to power in 1989.  Once Bashir gained control of the nation and its military, he had to match his words with action.  The southern rebel groups had no intention of waiting for Bashir to get himself organized.  In October, the SPLA defeated government forces at Kurmuk and threatened the Roseires Dam that supplied most of the electricity for much of the north.  Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi sent weapons and military supplies to shore up the Sudanese armed forces in exchange for the freedom for Libya to use the borderlands in Darfur to support rebels who were fighting Gaddafi’s enemies in Chad. 

Saddam Hussein also gave Bashir military support.  Bashir supported Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, but this decision backfired.  Iraq no longer had weapons to share with Sudan, while Bashir lost the support of Saudi Arabia and the other wealthy Gulf states, which was a critical blow to the Sudanese economy because most of the 750,000 Sudanese who had been working in the Gulf states and sending money home were expelled.  In addition, the Gulf nations stopped buying cereals and livestock from Sudan, which was forced to impose grain rationing at home.  By this time, African Watch had reported that 500,000 Sudanese had died as a result of war or famine, and the group condemned both government and SPLA troops for gross human rights violations.

The SPLA was growing in strength, but in 1991 two unexpected developments would save Bashir’s forces from collapse.  In May, in Ethiopia, the government of  Mengistu Haile Mariam, which had supported the southern rebels, was overthrown and replaced by a government that was sympathetic to Bashir.  Almost overnight, the SPLA lost important bases and supply routes, and 200,000 refugees, who had been living in Ethiopia, were forced to return to Sudan.  Bashir reacted quickly to this humanitarian crisis:  he sent his air force to drop bombs on the refugees.  The outside world was desperate to help the refugees, but Bashir and his government had a policy for dealing with this problem that they would follow forever.  Their strategy was to burn down villages, force the inhabitants into camps, classify them as refugees, apply for disaster relief and then distribute the relief goods to pro-government areas, giving it to displaced families only if they agreed to convert to Islam.  Bashir would ultimately bungle his relations with the new Ethiopian government by boasting to the BBC that anti-rebel attacks were being launched from Sudanese bases in Ethiopia.  This was true, but the Ethiopians had intended the fact to remain secret.

            Fortunately for Bashir, the SPLA would soon receive another setback.  John Garang may have been the military leader of an oppressed people but, despite his American education, he was a thug and a dictator, just like Bashir.  He even modeled his internal security apparatus after that of the Sudanese army.  In August he was “overthrown” by Riak Machar, a member of the second largest southern tribe, the Nuer.  Machar accepted weapons and supplies from Bashir’s government, but when this became known, Machar lost credibility.

            The split in the SPLA helped Bashir, but the war was drastically depleting the Sudanese economy.  Military spending, which accounted for 4% of the national budget between 1985 and 1990, rose to 13% between 1990 and 1995.  The per capita GDP of Sudan was about $100, almost all of which was actually emergency aid. 

            In late 1991, the war spread to the Nuba Mountains, home to 1.5 million people who spoke fifty different languages and dialects.  Although most of the Nubian tribes were Muslims, they followed Sufism and so, in the eyes of Turabi and Bashir, they were really anti-Islam.  Bashir ordered the destruction of mosques in the Nuba Mountains and the prohibition of the use of local languages.  The government seized land, sold it to Arab businessmen and forced the local people into camps, which they called “peace villages.”  Almost one third of the population was displaced.  Non-Muslim men were circumcised, and their children were forced to attend Quranic schools.  According to Amnesty International, troops used civilians as human shields.  In order to justify this jihad against fellow Moslems, Turabi arranged for the issuance of a fatwa that broadened the definition of apostasy:  “An insurgent who was previously a Muslim is now an apostate; and a non-Muslim is a non-believer standing as a bulwark against the spread of Islam, and Islam has granted the freedom of killing both of them.”  Thus, people who had, for generations, identified themselves as Muslims found themselves redefined as the mortal enemies of Islam.

            The National Islamic Front had created the Popular Defence Force (PDF) to supplement (and eventually replace) the regular armed forces.  In fact, they were used as cannon fodder in the fighting against southern rebels.  The PDF was made up of NIF volunteers, Arab tribal militias and conscripted students and civil servants.  In a 1993 radio broadcast, Bashir praised the PDF as “the school for national and spiritual education.”  He added that through the PDF, “the Sudanese citizens’ mind can be remodeled and his religious consciousness enhanced.”  Bashir tried to boost the spirits of his army by declaring that soldiers who die in battle are martyrs who “irrigate the land of the south with their blood so the land may sprout dignity and honor,” and he promised them that they would ascend directly to paradise.  Just to be on the safe side, he allowed war booty to be divided among the soldiers, with officers being given double shares and bonuses given to anyone who impregnated a non-Muslim woman.  As unpaid fighters, militia members were allowed to include as booty not just cattle and grain, but humans.

            Still, the number of casualties on the government side was so high that the number of volunteers began to dwindle.  Bashir declared all males aged 18 to 30 draftable and then seized them off the streets and dragged them off buses.  When some military leaders complained to Bashir that these tactics lowered the quality of the army, Bashir had the complainants arrested.

            Bashir and Turabi also turned their wrath against Christians.  Television commentators warned non-Muslims that they would go to hell.  In February 1992, all Christian schools were nationalized.  During the “Arabization” of Juba in Equatoria state, children were shot to death as they fled and, their bodies were found floating down the Nile with their book bags still on their backs.  In one particularly notorious case, a Christian pilot, Giorgis Yustus Butrus, who was the son of the Coptic bishop of Khartoum, was charged with possessing foreign currency.  He was offered a pardon if he would convert to Islam.  He refused and was executed.  Thousands of Muslims joined with Christians in his funeral procession through Khartoum.


A CLASSIC DICTATORSHIP ELECTION—By 1996, the concept of democracy had spread around the world, and even dictators felt obligated to hold elections.  Sudan actually had a history of elections going back more than forty years.  Bashir and Turabi were wise enough to know that if a truly free election was held, the National Islamic Front would lose.  So, they concocted a strategy that assured their victory in 1996.  There were 400 national assembly seats to be “contested,” so that 201 were needed for a majority.  The national congress of the NIF chose 125 of the assembly members.  Elections in the south were cancelled because of the war, so Bashir personally selected the 46 southern representatives.  The government announced that the number of candidates for the remaining seats would be limited because competition in politics was damaging to the “cohesion of the community.”  Fifty NIF candidates ran unopposed, automatically giving the NIF 225 seats—a majority—before the voting even began.  To be on the safe side, security officials stored the ballot boxes in their office each evening and no records were kept of who voted.  As for the presidential election, there were fifty candidates, but they were forbidden from campaigning in 25 of the 26 Sudanese states.  Since the government had complete control of all aspects of the media, it was almost as if Omar al-Bashir was the only candidate.  Not surprisingly, it was announced that he had won 75.7% of the votes.  With the annoyance of democratic elections out of the way, Bashir could go back to ruling the country.


THE FINAL BATTLE…WITH HASSAN AL-TURABI—It was inevitable that conflict would eventually break out between Bashir and Hassan al-Turabi.  Turabi, the Islamist theoretician and politician, had come so far, and only Bashir stood between him and his goal of becoming the official ruler of Sudan, free to speak not just at scholarly roundtables, but at the United Nations and other international forums.  But Bashir was not about to step aside voluntarily.  In his first 2½ years as leader of Sudan, he suppressed five separate coup attempts, including one in April 1990, to which he responded by arresting 28 army and police officers.  Within 24 hours they were all tried, convicted, executed and buried.  Bashir was not going to submit to Turabi’s political ambitions without a fight.

            In January 1993, Turabi pressed for the dissolution of the Revolutionary Command Council in a strategic attempt to weaken the power of the military.  Bashir agreed to this nine months later, but installed himself as president of the new civilian government.  While publicly maintaining an image of unity, Turabi and Bashir engaged in an ongoing series of chess-like moves.  As an example, as part of Turabi’s campaign to crush Muslim groups with which he did not agree, in February 1994 he ordered an attack on a mosque belonging to Ansar al-Sunna, a puritanical sect related to Saudi-supported Wahhabism.  Turabi’s gunmen murdered 26 followers inside their mosque.  Later that year, Bashir, in search of allies against Turabi and the National Islamic Front, allowed Ansar al-Sunna to resume activities.  Once, in July 1995, Bashir was invited to speak at Khartoum University.  His appearance was met by protests led by the NIF-controlled student union, leading to suspicions that the invitation had been a Turabi trick to publicly embarrass Bashir.

            The Bashir-Turabi power struggle accelerated in 1999.  Reaching out to exiled opposition leaders, Turabi met with Sadiq al-Mahdi (his brother-in-law) while Bashir invited Jaafar Nimeiri to return to Sudan and offered him a pension.  In an attempt to reduce the power of the president (Bashir) and to put the military under civilian control, Turabi pushed through a law allowing the introduction of political parties and had himself elected secretary-general of the National Congress Party.  He also offered to meet with leaders of the southern rebel groups—in Mecca.  Since they were all followers of Christianity and traditional religions, they declined the invitation.  Meanwhile Bashir countered by returning confiscated property to the leaders of the major Islamic opposition parties.

            Turabi instigated a debate in parliament to create a new constitution with a strong prime minister and a strong parliament.  Bashir responded by dissolving parliament and declaring a state of emergency.  He also closed all offices of Turabi’s National Congress Party, whereupon Turabi created a new party, the Popular National Congress.  In February 2001, Turabi and his new party signed an agreement with John Garang’s Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Movement.  After 11½ years of killing each other’s supporters, Hassan al-Turabi and John Garang were suddenly partners.  Bashir immediately had Turabi arrested and charged him with “communicating with the enemy.”  Exposed as a self-servicing hypocrite to hard-core Islamists, Turabi lost his power base and, languishing in prison and house arrest, he ceased to be a player in Sudanese politics.  Observers who had viewed Bashir as nothing more than a front man for Turabi were forced to accept him as the undisputed dictator of Sudan.


OIL—When asked what could save Sudan, Hassan al-Turabi once replied, “God… and southern oil.”  Although exploration began in the 1960s, Chevron achieved its first significant strike, in South Kordofan, in 1980.  Two years later, another strike was made on the margin between Arab Sudan and black Sudan.  In 1984, southern insurgents killed four Chevron employees, leading Chevron to withdraw from the country.  Still, the lure of huge profits was too great to be ignored.  Talisman Energy of Canada filled the void left by Chevron.  Oil companies from China, Sweden, France and Malaysia would also ultimately take their chances in Sudan.  In November 1989, United Nations Human Rights Rapporteur Leonardo Franco reported that the Sudanese government had cleared the 100 kilometers surrounding the southern oil fields by using the Talisman airfield to launch fighter jets to bomb the villages near the oil fields.  Similar actions were taken by the military and militia to clear out black Sudanese in 1992.  The following year, Bashir’s government used a more subtle tactic to gain control of oil fields in South Kordofan:  they redrew the state boundaries to reposition oil-rich areas so that they would fall under the control of Arab-dominated regional governments.  After much struggle and fighting, Bashir inaugurated an oil terminal south of Port Sudan in August 1999, and a pipeline from the oil fields went fully operational at the beginning of 2000, reducing Sudan’s dependence on Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf oil states.


PEACE AS A TACTIC IN THE ENDLESS WAR—The immensity of the carnage in the Sudanese civil wars has been so great that periodically the international community has tried to interfere and promote a negotiated settlement to the fighting.  For Omar al-Bashir, ceasefires have proven useful as a means to resupply and reposition troops and to plan the next offensive.  The signing of peace agreements serves the purpose of pitting one rebel group against another and impressing foreign governments with his moderation (particularly in comparison with Hassan al-Turabi). 

This manipulation of the peace process reached its peak in 2005, when Bashir, less than four years after jailing Turabi for “communicating with the enemy,” signed a peace agreement with John Garang that gave Garang the position of vice-president of Sudan.  Exhausted foreign diplomats hailed the agreement as a great step forward and there were mass celebrations in Sudan.  However, a simple reading of the text of the agreement between Bashir and Garang revealed that it was as flawed as the one that ended the first civil war in 1973.  To begin with, it made no provision for the removal of northern troops from the south.  It did promise the southerners that they could vote for or against secession…in six years’ time.  Given Bashir’s record, the chances for such an election actually taking place, seemed slim.  What’s more, the agreement was only signed with Garang and did not include other southern rebel groups, much less groups fighting Bashir’s government in the east and the west.  Finally, Garang, a dictator himself, appeared to sell out his followers.  After more than twenty years of fighting for the right of non-Islamic southerners to choose independence, upon assuming his role as vice-president, he began speaking in favor of a united Sudan.  Garang’s intentions will remain forever unknown because, only three weeks after his inauguration as vice-president, he was killed in a helicopter crash.


DARFUR—Bashir’s pledge to end the civil war in the south appeared particularly insincere considering the horrific atrocities that his troops and associated militia were committing in the western state of Darfur, a region of more than 3.5 million people inhabited by non-Arabic Muslims.

            For hundreds of years, from the 15th century until World War I, the region was ruled by the Fur Sultanate.  It was finally incorporated into Sudan in 1916.  The Fur and other tribes may have been followers of Islam, but to the Arab rulers of independent Sudan, they were black, just like the traditionalists and Christians in the south, and were thus subject in the best of times to disregard and in the worst of times to slavery and slaughter.  A long drought that stretched from the mid-1970s into the early 1980s forced Arab cattle-herding tribes into the traditional territory of non-Arab tribes.  Rather than mediate this problem, the Sudanese government sided completely with their fellow Arabs and even refused to acknowledge the ensuing famine, which so infuriated the governor of Darfur that he resigned in protest.  By the time Bashir took power, slave-trading in Darfur was so widespread that the price of a slave boy had dropped from $90 to $10. (Cows went for $100.)  Thousands of Fur were killed, and locals who resisted the government troops and government-supported militia were dismissed as “bandits” and “outlaws.”

            By 2003, there were two major rebel movements operating in Darfur.  To counter their influence, Bashir launched a ghastly campaign of destruction and ethnic cleansing.  Government fighter jets and helicopters bombed villages, and minutes later government-supported militia, known as the Janjaweed, communicating by satellite phones, arrived on horseback and camel to murder, torture and rape the villagers.  The bombers targeted hospitals and schools, and the Janjaweed burned crops and threw dead bodies into wells in order to contaminate the water supply.  On February 9, 2004, in a George W. Bushian “Mission Accomplished” moment, Bashir declared the Darfur war finished, although in reality the killing continued.  By the end of 2005, human rights groups estimated that 180,000 people had died, and two million people were left homeless, while not a single Janjaweed member had been arrested for his crimes.

            The United States has a hapless history of dealing with such Sudanese atrocities.  On November 3, 1996, President Bill Clinton announced a ban on the importation of goods and services from Sudan.  However, he made an exception for gum Arabic, of which Darfur is a major source, because it was considered vital to the manufacture of soft drinks, adhesives and other products.  On July 23, 2004, the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution declaring the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed guilty of genocide in Darfur, but by then the invasion and occupation of Iraq had led to the loss of U.S. credibility and the U.S. was unable to find allies for action.  In a sad commentary on the Darfur catastrophes, in July 2005 Andrew Natsios of the U.S. Agency for International Development declared that the burning of villages in Darfur had all but ended…because there were no more villages left to burn.



“The ideal Sudanese woman “should take care of herself, her children, her home, her reputation and her husband.”             

January 1990


“What we now apply in Sudan is God’s will.  We will never satisfy humans to displease the Almighty God.”            

September 1992


“We will not relinquish power unless through the barrel of a gun.”  

                                                            September 30, 1995


“We respect human rights in Sudan… Perhaps our understanding of human rights differs from your government’s.” 

                                                    To U.S. Ambassador Don Petterson, November 10, 1992


-David Wallechinsky


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