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The downfall of Omar Bashir

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04 May 2020 10:05:50 GMT9
04 May 2020 10:05:50 GMT9

Jonathan Lessware

  • After 30 years in charge, the leader was removed by the military after mass protests


On April 11, 2019, Sudanese dictator Omar Al-Bashir was overthrown in a military coup after a year of popular protests, which were met with brutal repression by his regime and were triggered by rising prices and a failing economy.

Al-Bashir, a former general in the Sudanese Army who had himself seized power in a military coup 30 years earlier, was arrested along with his entire Cabinet, and his government replaced by a Transitional Military Council.

Imprisoned in Sudan on charges of money laundering and corruption, Al-Bashir, 76, may now also face trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where in 2009 he was indicted on multiple charges, including genocide, related to his suppression of the rebellion in the Darfur region of Sudan.

LONDON: During his 30 years in charge of Sudan, Omar Al-Bashir seemed to thrive on conflict. Whether it was with the southern half of his country, the people of Darfur, the US, or the Islamist ideologues who had helped him to power, the former paratrooper ruled amid a perpetual state of military and political war.

When the Sudanese people took to the streets against him for a final time at the end of 2018, it was a battle too far for the then-75-year-old. Al-Bashir was removed from power in April 2019 by the military after months of protests against his rule. That some of his closest confidants were among those who ousted him showed how his pillars of domestic and international support had collapsed from beneath him.

For the protesters who had braved the security forces to voice their desire for change, the moment was bittersweet. Al-Bashir had gone, but military and senior figures from his regime were now in control.

His legacy was one of bloodshed, extremism, international isolation and economic ruin. At the time of his downfall, he was the only leader of a nation wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of crimes against humanity and genocide.

Born to a farming family north of Khartoum in 1944, Al-Bashir joined the military after high school and rose through the ranks to become a member of an elite parachute regiment. He was deployed to fight alongside Egyptian forces in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and in the 1980s he was involved in campaigns against southern rebels as part of Sudan’s decades-long civil war.

In 1989, he led the military overthrow of the democratically elected government of Sadiq Al-Mahdi. The coup was orchestrated by Hassan Al-Turabi, an Islamist scholar and leader of the National Islamic Front, an offshoot of the Sudanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Key Dates

  • 1

    Sudanese Army Gen. Omar Bashir seizes power in military coup.

    Timeline Image June 30, 1989
  • 2

    Arrest warrant for him is issued by International Criminal Court, charging him with war crimes in Darfur.

    Timeline Image March 4, 2009
  • 3

    Bashir is deposed and arrested in military coup.

    Timeline Image April 11, 2019
  • 4

    He is transferred from house arrest to maximum-security prison.

    Timeline Image April 17, 2019
  • 5

    Bashir is charged with “inciting and participating” in killing of protesters.

    Timeline Image May 13, 2019
  • 6

    Convicted of money laundering and corruption, he is sentenced to two years in reform facility.

    Timeline Image Dec. 13, 2019
  • 7

    Sudan’s military-civilian Sovereign Council hints it is prepared to hand over Al-Bashir to ICC on charges of war crimes and genocide related to his role in Darfur conflict.

Despite banning political parties and dissolving Parliament, Al-Turabi and his party were the ideological spine of Al-Bashir’s new regime. He swiftly introduced a hardline interpretation of Islamic law — a move that served to intensify the war raging in the south, where most of the population is Christian or animist. The conflict is estimated to have killed at least 2 million people.

Al-Bashir extended his allegiance with hardline Islamism by hosting Osama bin Laden between 1992 and 1996, after he was expelled from Saudi Arabia. It was a move that was to prove disastrous for his country as the US placed Sudan on its list of “state sponsors of terrorism” and went on to impose comprehensive sanctions against the country.

In 1999, Al-Bashir’s alliance with Al-Turabi crumbled, and the president removed him from his position as Parliament speaker and threw him in jail. Within a few years, Al-Bashir was to oversee the darkest episode of his rein.

Rebels in the Darfur region in the country’s west took up arms against the government in 2003. Al-Bashir’s response was swift and brutal. His regime deployed militias known as the Janjaweed to unleash a scorched-earth policy of murder, rape and looting against local populations.

The UN estimates that around 300,000 people were killed and 2.5 million displaced in the conflict. In 2009, the ICC indicted Al-Bashir, accusing him of “an essential role” in the atrocities.


A page from the Arab News archive showing the news on April 12, 2019

In a televised address, Defense Minister Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf announced ‘the toppling of the regime’ and said Bashir had been detained in ‘a secure place.’

From a story on Arab News’ front page, April 12, 2019

For many, it was the breakaway of South Sudan in 2011 that marked the beginning of the end for him. The secession took with it much of Sudan’s oil-producing regions, depriving Khartoum of a key source of revenue and precipitating a steep economic decline.

He was forced to try and rebuild relations with the West and China, and to shift allegiances in the Middle East away from Iran and back toward Arab Gulf countries, from which he had managed to ostracize himself.

Years of economic problems came to a head in December 2018, when his government tripled the price of bread and the protests began. Al-Bashir desperately clung on, appearing at a rally in January in which he called the demonstrators “traitors” and “rats.” During the months of protests, dozens were killed by security forces and thousands thrown in jail.

On April 6, 2019, tens of thousands set up camp outside the Defense Ministry in Khartoum, where Al-Bashir’s residence was also located. Early on April 11, he was informed that the country’s most senior military and security officials had removed him from power.

The historic moment dominated the front page of Arab News the next day, a mark of both the scale of the story, and the political and economic links between Saudi Arabia and Sudan. “The end of Sudan’s 30-year nightmare” was the headline story, accompanied by a photo of a smiling girl waving the Sudanese flag amid celebrations in Khartoum. 


A page from the Arab News archives showing the news on April 12, 2019.

The front page also carried an opinion piece by the newspaper’s Editor-in-Chief Faisal J. Abbas, which asked “What next for the Sudanese?” The article highlighted the number of Sudanese he had met who had fled Al-Bashir’s regime to Europe and beyond — often highly educated doctors and professionals, who would never return. 

“The Al-Bashir regime did not mind watching institution after institution fail,” Abbas wrote. “It oversaw Sudan’s becoming one of the poorest in the region, despite its abundant resources.” Since his downfall, Al-Bashir has been held at Khartoum’s Kober prison — the same facility where many of his opponents were detained after he had ordered their arrests.

Al-Bashir’s legacy was one of bloodshed, extremism, international isolation and economic ruin.

Jonathan Lessware

Outside the prison’s walls, Sudan has struggled to move forward, with protests continuing until a deal was struck in August that led to a transitional government of both civilian and military officials.

Al-Bashir was sentenced to two years in prison in December on corruption charges, and he faces further charges related to the killing of protesters and the coup in 1989 that brought him to power. As for his crimes in Darfur, it is still unclear whether Sudan will hand over the 76-year-old to the ICC, or whether charges will be brought domestically.

During an interview in 2015 with the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper where I worked as foreign editor at the time, Al-Bashir spoke about the terror threats of Daesh and Boko Haram to his country. He then launched into far-fetched conspiracy theories accusing the CIA and Mossad of creating Daesh, ignoring the fact that he had provided a safe haven for Bin Laden to train extremists and build his global terror empire.

For the Sudanese people, the slogans chanted during the uprising were far more straightforward. “Freedom, peace and justice” was one of the most common. Time will tell if after 30 years these basic principles are finally delivered in their country. 

  • Jonathan Lessware is Arab News’ London bureau digital editor and former foreign editor of The National in Abu Dhabi. He helped oversee Arab News’ digital coverage during the Sudan uprising.
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