RVI Fellow Magdi el-Gizouli on the return of President Omer el-Bashir from South Africa
President Bashir’s return to Khartoum after the drama of his ‘missed’ arrest in Johannesburg was to say the least anticlimactic. The microphone set up for him to address the ‘spontaneous’ crowd which gathered at the airport to greet him home did not work. Turned to mute by a mysteriously untimely intervention, the president shouted a few sentences from the roof of a white pick up and that was it. To the disappointment of journalists there were no defiant sentences to quote for next day’s headlines. The only memorable picture was Ghandour, the former senior presidential assistant and new foreign affairs minister, wiping what seemed like tears from his eyes in a press conference to announce the president’s return. The government, fresh in office, was by no means ready to grant the big man a hero’s welcome. I guess, everybody was a bit exhausted. In a sense, the entertainment was cut short, no fiery speech and no jellabiya groove and ceremonial ululations.
I wonder what he did for the rest of the day. The president probably needed time to rest from the agitations of his South African adventure, and most likely sought the assuring company of family and relatives. Well-wishers of all sorts probably stalked him wherever he eventually settled. At seventy one years old, Bashir is in a position to enjoy the full catalogue of patriarchal privileges in Sudan, projected in this case to the national scene. Indeed, one of his favourite leisure time activities is to attend the formalities of marriage consummation restricted to males and to carry them out himself as trusted elder. Hassan al-Turabi and al-Sadiq al-Mahdi are in the same business. Turabi, the sheikh, invites both bride and bridegroom to the mosque attend the declaration of their marriage ‘contract’ breaking with established tradition whereby an ‘agent’, in the rule father or uncle, represents each. A scholar of constitutional law and a ‘victim’ of constitutional violation Turabi has come, at his twilight, to consider the idea of ‘contract’ paradigmatic for Muslim dealings in the world, from the private sphere to the market and the state! Sadiq al-Mahdi, on the other hand, crosses into a matriarchal role to play grandmother and officiate the the ancient fertility rituals of jirtig. Bashir is no innovator in these affairs but is famously keen to attend wedding parties and mingle with the ladies, almost always accompanied by his former defence minister, Abd al-Raheem Mohamed Hussein.
Why did Bashir take the risk, it must be asked. Seemingly, the president was sure he could count on South African government cooperation in evading judicial challenges. Events played out in such fashion, and Pretoria was left to deal with the domestic consequences of its African Union (AU) commitments. Overlooked in the debate over the toothless International Criminal Court (ICC) and the political and diplomatic bargains that frame its actions or inactions is Bashir’s investment in the ICC indictment. While perceived by Bashir’s many foes, domestically and internationally, as a threat, even if in waiting, the ICC has paradoxically become one of the president’s resources, a propaganda tool that he invokes at will. Over time, the efficiency of the handy tool has worn off though as evident in Bashir’s inglorious return home. Only Ghandour has maintained the ICC passion alive. Just appointed foreign affairs minister and arguably among a handful of surviving Islamic Movement politicians in Bashir’s government, he has a lot to lose. When the indictment was announced back in 2009, businessmen paid for advertisement pages in Khartoum’s newspapers ridiculing the former ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo and declaring solidarity with the president. A government board of religious scholars even issued a fatwa forbidding the president to travel to the League of Arab States summit in Doha in March 2009, his first foreign trip after the ICC indictment. Attention to the issue has since waned off considerably, and the president’s foreign travels have remained restricted to safe regional neighbours and allies.
The elections last April were supposed to rejuvenate support for the president and the ruling party but were effectively a register of absent voters. NCP candidates competed among themselves in the pre-election jockeying for nominations and the president was more or less campaigning against his own twenty six years record in government with a negative argument warning voters of the political void that awaits them if he vacates the seat of sovereignty. Designed to help the NCP adjust its alliances on the basis of a managed expression of popular will, the main outcome of the process was the cynical abstinence of the electorate. The government pretended to hold elections and people pretended to vote as it were. According to NCP figures, total voter turnout was lower than the number of registered party members as if the ballot was a fard kifaya, an obligation of all that is absolved when performed by some.
The elections however offered the president an opportunity to settle scores with the more demanding leaders of the party, the remaining Islamic Movement politicians who still had the nerve to imagine an autonomous space for politics aside of his will after the purge of December 2013 in which he dismissed the NCP high priests, Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, Nafie Ali Nafie, Awad al-Jaz and others. The new cabinet was further expunged of old-timers and staffed with a pick of NCP juniors and leaders of allied parties who have only the president to thank for their careers. Ali Karti and Mustafa Osman Ismail will now have to make do with parliamentary incentives and prepare for political retirement and the storytelling expected of figures from the past. One can already imagine Mustafa Osman Ismail welcoming Turabi to preside over the marriage contract of a daughter or son, Sadiq al-Mahdi to lead the jirtig, and awkwardly catering to the rayes Omer (al-Bashir) and his buddy Abd al-Rahim (Mohamed Hussein), appropriately rewarded with a retirement package as governor of Khartoum, when they crash into the wedding party. To seal the fate of parliament, the president favoured Ibrahim Ahmed Omer as speaker of the house, while rumour was strong that Taha was the lead candidate for the position. The NCP bloc in parliament voted handsomely in favour of the the soft-spoken veteran of the Islamic Movement who eagerly avoids controversy and probably even opinion; voting against him would be simply inappropriate. For the party, Bashir chose the former agriculture minister Ibrahim Mahmoud Hamid to replace Ghandour as deputy chairman for executive affairs. Ghandour was compliant but a chattering media man. Ibrahim will adorn compliance with the virtue of silence. Signalling a further downgrade of the party’s influence over the presidency, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) acting chairman Mohamed al-Hassan al-Mirghani, son of the ailing Mohamed Osman who withdrew to London after the September 2013 protests, was appointed senior presidential assistant, a position usually reserved for a deputy chairman of the NCP. Taha and Nafie doubled as deputy chairmen of the ruling party and vice president and senior presidential assistant respectively while Ghandour was deputy chairman of the NCP for executive affairs and senior presidential assistant.
The ICC-shadowed trip to South African was the president’s response to the political malaise left behind in a political arena cleansed of able foes and capable allies alike and the accelerated bureaucratisation of the NCP. Indeed, the ruling party, thanks to Bashir, is shedding off advantages of the third tareeqa it aspired to become and slowly but surely assuming the features of Nimayri’s Sudan Socialist Union (SSU), a party of the state under the authority of one man. The president probably calculated that the adventure would bring him back home a hero. Well, he pretended, and people pretended not to notice. In fact, he would have gained more from yet another late hour mingle with the bold and beautiful of the capital, iPhones zapping in WhatsApp time the gold shine and glitter on the background of magnificent tobs and dazzlingly white jellabiyas on selfies with #Bashir.