Gone! Omar al-Bashir and his failed identity politics

Ethnicity and religion have been the driving force of Sudan’s politics, until now
Sudanese demonstrators chant slogans as they gather in a street in central Khartoum on April 11, 2019, immediatly after one of Africa’s longest-serving presidents was toppled by the army. – Organisers of protests for the ouster of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir rejected his toppling by the army Thursday as a “coup conducted by the regime” and vowed to keep up their campaign. (Photo by AHMED MUSTAFA / AFP)

Ethnicity and religion have framed Sudan’s politics since its independence in 1959. The country’s two civil wars have been understood as conflicts between the predominantly Arab, Muslim North and the largely African, Christian South.

President Gaafar Nimeiry deepened the crisis when in 1983 he decreed sharia would be national law. President Omar al-Bashir cemented the divide with his own aggressively Islamist policies which included harbouring Osama bin Laden in the 1990s. His patent objective was to create an Arab Islamist state but it was met with an equally direct response from the South; a fight for their independence.

The narrative of a Christian South being persecuted by a Muslim north was set and the international community helped to amplify it. The US, facilitated by the bipartisan, congressional “Sudan Caucus”, was especially active in keeping the peace process on the global agenda.  A peace agreement was eventually signed with the backing of President George W. Bush, an evangelical Christian himself.

South Sudan’s independence did not bring an end to the ethno-religious troubles of the country. Atrocities committed in Darfur again received significant international media attention with Hollywood stars like George Clooney, Don Cheadle, Matt Damon and Brad Pitt shining a light on the issue.

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Declaration of war

The coin has two faces and the other side of this one is economic.

Decades of corruption, sanctions, economic ineptness, loss of oil income to South Sudan and the final nail, IMF austerity prescriptions, left Sudan’s economy in tatters.

With 80% of the oil going to South Sudan in 2011, al-Bashir was adamant about retaining the remaining 20%, which lies in South Kordofan, one of three contested regions along with Darfur and the Blue Nile.

Faced with the certain secession of the south, a defiant al-Bashir declared in 2010, “If South Sudan secedes, we will change the constitution, and at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity…Sharia and Islam will be the main source for the constitution, Islam the official religion and Arabic the official language.”

This was clearly not to be countenanced by people already engaged in armed struggle for their cultural, religious and economic freedom.

Kamal Kambal, of Nuba Mountains Solidarity Abroad, responded by saying “this is the reason why the southerners want to break away.” He reiterated that the Nuba (of South Kordofan) had been fighting side by side with the south “to prevent the imposition of sharia law and Arabic culture”.

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“For us, this statement is a declaration of war,” Kambal concludes.

By the time protests broke out in December 2018, al-Bashir’s ethno-religious incitement was a well-established tactic that he must have credited, at least partially, for keeping him in power all those years. So after failing to repress the protests with teargas and live ammunition, Omar al-Bashir pulled out a familiar weapon, ethno-religious division.

‘We are all Darfur!’

In late December a group of 32 Darfurian men were arrested, tortured, and paraded on state media as a Mossad-trained terror cell. Bashir accused the men of planning to bomb the protests they had apparently instigated. No doubt expecting that the well-worn trope of the hyper-aggressive, dangerous and anti-Islamic Darfurian would do its work.

It did not. The Darfurian men were all identified by their university mates as fellow students and the protests took up a new chant, “You racist egomaniac, we are all Darfur!”

This latest uprising against Sudan’s political establishment has been more Sudanese, in the truest sense, than any other before. The protests first began in the countryside, not in Khartoum. They have not been confined to middle class professionals and unemployed students.

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Reports emerged of tea sellers in Khartoum – typically women at the bottom of the societal rung – sharing their daily earnings to defray each woman’s losses as they took turns to attend the protests. People’s transportation costs were crowdfunded online to allow them attend marches and sit-ins.

Images of the protests have shown Sudanese – Arab, Afro-Arab, Arabised Afro, African, Muslim, Christian, Civilian, Military, Men, Women – standing side by side; and on the same side of the country’s historic moment irrespective of their differences.

On Thursday April 11, they won. Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year rule came to an end.

It is only the first victory though. The road to true revolution will be long and perhaps winding but the Sudanese people, together, have begun that journey.

In the end, under the right (or wrong) conditions, people will revolt and longstanding tricks will lose their hold as they did under al-Bashir.

All politicians under-serving their people, should take note.

The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect News Central’s editorial stance.

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