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View from Sudan

The Teflon dictator

By Tristan Mcconnell

Sudan’s elections this year are a foregone conclusion: 71-year-old president Omar Hassan al-Bashir will win, as he has in all three elections conducted since he seized power in a military coup in 1989. Victory on 13 April is assured not because of Bashir’s overwhelming popularity but because of the firm – and tightening – grip he has on the country. He is also helped by the decision of most opposition parties to boycott the vote.

The lack of democratic mandate is unlikely to bother a leader who has faced down allegations of genocide from the International Criminal Court (icc), is accused of continuing to indiscriminately bomb civilians and employ scorched-earth tactics in conflicts on three different fronts and who has recently passed laws to increase the powers of the presidency.

“Sudan has long been subject to undemocratic, authoritarian rule but what we are seeing now is the emergence of a one-man dictatorship,” says Muhammad Osman, a political analyst based in the Sudanese capital. Osman questions the worth of the opposition boycott, arguing that only engagement can bring change. “They say the environment is not conducive and they are right. Rallies are not permitted, activists are detained and the press is censored. But this oppressive environment will never change if the opposition does not participate. The elections are a means of resistance that should be used.”

Other forms of resistance were tried but failed. In September 2013, Khartoum, the cauldron-hot capital on the banks of the Nile, saw unprecedented street protests against Bashir’s rule. Some thought the Arab Spring’s overthrow of strongman leaders might be replicated in Sudan. Instead at least 170 people were killed and many more locked up as Bashir squashed the movement before it could gain further traction.

“Protesters expected to be met with the usual rubber bullets and tear gas. Instead the security forces used live ammunition,” says Osman. The result has been a cowed activist community and a muted response to Bashir’s inevitable election win.

In many ways, Bashir is on the up. The icc war-crimes indictment that has hung over him since 2009 is fading after prosecutors suspended their investigation into his long war in Darfur due to lack of cash. Years of intelligence co-operation with western spy agencies have all but erased memories of the 1990s, when Bashir provided Osama bin Laden with a safe haven and the US bombed a factory outside Khartoum in retaliation for al-Qaeda attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Suspicions over his persistent meddling in the affairs of South Sudan, which seceded in 2011, have paled now that the new country has imploded into civil war of its own volition. Meanwhile, the international community is distracted by other, bigger and more recent crises and Sudan’s wars in Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan are all but forgotten.

Since the colonial era, Sudan has suffered from a fundamental problem: the hoarding of national resources at the centre to the detriment of the periphery. All of Sudan’s many conflicts before and during Bashir’s rule have been varied iterations of that disfunction. The Enough Project advocacy group has documented the deployment of a new government militia styled on the notorious Janjaweed used in Darfur. The Rapid Support Forces is commanded by national intelligence rather than the army and uses hit-and-run tactics against rebels and the civilians accused of harbouring them.

Jérôme Tubiana, Sudan senior analyst at the International Crisis Group think-tank, says the stalled national dialogue offers the best hope of political change in Sudan. Within that dialogue, likely lasting years rather than months, he warns that Bashir would inevitably – and necessarily – remain a “pivotal figure”.

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