By hook or by crook
The Sudanese president balances heart with head in his Darfur charm offensive, writes Gamal Nkrumah
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A Sudanese girl walks past a truck carrying leaving soldiers following a visit by President Al-Bashir in the west Darfur state capital of Al-Geneina
He has been hard to ignore. Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir stole the limelight with his triumphant tour of Darfur last week. Hundreds of thousands of supporters turned up to welcome him in a great show of support.
So the Western world thought that the majority of Sudanese want to see the back of Al-Bashir? The Sudanese president's tour of Darfur comes at a time when the West is stepping up its campaign against him, insisting that he must be brought to book for genocide and war crimes committed by his henchmen in Darfur.
However, he has not been easy to write off, as the scenes of jubilation by adoring crowds in Darfur so vividly demonstrated. The generally bellicose Al-Bashir adopted his combative posturing proudly waving his trademark walking stick and swaying to the rhythm of jingoistic Sudanese melodies. Patriotic songs apart, the tenor of his speech was decidedly defiant. He certainly plucked up the courage to mock his Western critics demonstrating that he has ultimate and unbridled authority throughout Sudan, including Darfur.
Al-Bashir's charismatic leadership style and his unparalleled progress through Darfur stole many headlines -- though the policy of carrots and sticks might still fail to bring peace to Darfur. Why should Al-Bashir even consider meeting a new array of conditions when he so blatantly flouted or rejected them in the past? Some may say that the rules should be bent to prop up Al-Bashir's credibility.
The simultaneous change in Darfur seems to have been forced upon him, and so qualifies as only half a turn. Khartoum has spent vast amounts of blood and treasure to little purpose.
Still, instead of buckling under pressure, Al-Bashir has seized the opportunity to wield his considerable powers. In Darfur he was a man of the people and not the aloof leader portrayed in the Western press. No opposition figure dared to upstage him. Moreover, it was obvious that only people who are obsequious to him surrounded him.
The Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the main coalition partner of Al-Bashir's ruling National Congress Party (NCP), has exhibited unswerving loyalty to President Al-Bashir during the crisis of confidence with the prosecutor-general of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Luis Moreno-Ocampo filing 10 criminal charges against the Sudanese president.
In a different context, the SPLM would have fallen out of favour with the Sudanese president. African and Arab nations fear that the ICC insistence on issuing an arrest warrant against Al-Bashir would jeopardise peace efforts in Darfur. Indeed, the Arab League and the African Union have argued that Article 16 of the UN Charter be invoked to halt ICC moves to arrest and try Al-Bashir. The Arab and African countries suspect that the ICC ruling strengthens the hand of the armed opposition forces and emboldens them to intensify their attacks on Darfur. The Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) staged an unprecedented attack in May on Um Dorman on the western bank of the Nile across from Khartoum.
If this suspicion is accurate, then "Sudan is pregnant with trouble" as Umma Party leader Sadig Al-Mahdi, ousted from power in a military coup masterminded by President Al-Bashir, recently told reporters. The challenge is that Al-Bashir's enemies have not been persuaded yet to engage in talks with him.
The tragedy precipitated by the break- up of Africa's largest country remains highly unpredictable and uncertain, warn Arab and African leaders. Once Al-Bashir is locked into proper peace talks with his adversaries in Darfur, Sudan's economic development would proceed at a faster rate. And if he cheats or filibusters, the leaders of the armed opposition forces in Darfur should simply walk out.
Now the world seems very multi- polar. It is against this backdrop that Libya and South Africa spearheaded efforts at the United Nations Security Council to downplay the ICC moves and to prop up the UN-AU peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID) whose mandate expires today. "We have a division in the council at this point," warned US Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad. China and Russia back the Libyan and South African proposals on Sudan.
"It is not Sudan that is demanding Article 16, it is Africa. It is an affront to Africa. It is an insult to the whole continent," contended Sudan's Ambassador to the UN Abdul-Halim Abdul- Mahmoud.
Al-Bashir appears to dig his toes in and refuses to parley with armed apposition groups in Darfur, for the time being. There is, also, more bloodshed and misery for the aggrieved majority of people in Darfur. And, a still more ferocious clinging to power. There have been plenty of mistakes in Darfur, too. That Khartoum is beginning to correct its mistakes is good. And, there is plenty more of that to be done.
However, one source of angst demands a change in attitude rather than a drive to reconstruct the status quo. There are certainly areas where radical change is needed. The real danger is not that Al-Bashir will give up on reform, but that xenophobia will reinforce his worst populist tendencies, abetted by Africa's bafflingly complaisant leaders.
The atavistic nationalist forces that are so prevalent across Sudan point to a process of social and political fermentation. Maybe Sudan is ripe for new cultural and spiritual experiences. In Sudan it is generally taken for granted that people have a perfect right to follow their own religious path. Politically, the country is far from mature. Sudanese democracy is still in the making. Yet, Al-Bashir managed to pass a string of reforms and pledged to promulgate even more radical political reforms.
It is also, in a boisterous way, a success for Sudan. In the event, Al-Bashir is taking full advantage of these changes. The first is that he and his advisers realised, perhaps belatedly, that there is nothing easier than to relapse into a nationalist fever. The problem is that this could re-ignite regional conflict.
The fast-moving events of the past week concerning Sudan were accompanied by the rattling of jingoistic sabres. If Sudanese politicians -- government and opposition -- have slept at all in recent months, their dreams have probably been nightmarish ones. They should have left their political rivals at home and their adversaries abroad to toss and turn a little longer.