Al-Bashir, Bouteflika and Change in Africa
AS part of international delegations, I met Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir thrice when he was President of Sudan. At the first meeting, the gate had opened and there was a land rover-like jeep with a handful of soldiers. I had reflected that the State House seemed lightly guarded. Even state governors in Nigeria seemed far better protected. We were ushered into what I thought was a waiting room. We chatted and were waiting to be ushered to the president’s presence, only for him to appear.
On those occasions, the discussions were free-flowing and some of my colleagues appeared quite familiar with him. On the third occasion, when I was introduced to him as the Secretary-General of the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity, OATUU, he shook me warmly and asked what had happened to his friend and namesake (my predecessor, Alhaji Hassan Sunmonu)
He seemed to be a pan-Africanist of the sort who was quite interested in happenings on the continent and what groups and movements can do to solve our continental problems. I was not really surprised because he had been a paratrooper in the Egyptian Army which had been greatly influenced by Nasserism. Bashir came across as an African president who could have been quite useful under different circumstances. But his administration was crowded by lots of crises, some predating his government that turned him into a leader striving to survive and thereby playing sometimes, contradictory games.
For instance, the Sudanese Civil War between the mainly Muslim North and primarily Christian South had begun in 1955 and ended in 1972 with the Addis Ababa Agreement. It resumed in 1983 and the Bashir government had to sign the Nairobi Comprehensive Peace Agreement on January 9, 2005, granting South Sudan autonomy for six years. On July 9, 2011, a referendum split the country into two independent states. It was a trying period first because the coup that brought Bashir to power was on the back of an anti-South Sudan Independence Movement.
Secondly, most of the country’s rich oil wells were in the South. It was partly due to his deft diplomatic moves that shortly after the split, he became a mediator between the two warring parties in newly independent South Sudan who had turned the guns on themselves. Another major challenge he faced was the herder-farmer conflicts following droughts in the Darfur Region. The quite violent conflict between the pro-government Janjaweed militia and the anti-government rebel groups like the Sudanese Liberation Army, SLA, and the Justice and Equality Movement, JEM, claimed many lives and displaced nearly a third of the Darfur population.
In March 2009, the International Criminal Court, ICC, indicted Bashir for crimes against the Darfur populace. The ICC said he was: “suspected of being criminally responsible, as an indirect co-perpetrator”. The African Union, AU, rejected this indictment and a subsequent warrant of arrest, not only because the ICC did not provide any conclusive evidence against al-Bashir and his government, but it also saw it as a flagrant intervention in a conflict the AU and the United Nations had intervened and taken steps to send in peacekeepers.
President Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, who was AU Chairman said the indictment was a type of terrorism and an attempt by the West to recolonize Africa. Ironically, when in 2011, the West moved against Ghadaffi using Islamic terrorists and street gangs, the Bashir government supported the rebels on the basis that Ghadaffi once supported rebels in Sudan.
The same tendency to betray principled people, apparently in an attempt to get the West off his back, had played out in 1994 when Bashir sold out the inimitable pro-Palestinian fighter, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez better known as Carlos the Jackal to the French Secret Service. The French kidnapped Carlos in Sudan, smuggled him to Paris and slapped three life sentences on him.
Bashir’s main undoing was not knowing when to quit. When a peoples’ revolt broke out in December 2018 initially demanding cheaper bread and a better economy, before snowballing into a demand for his removal, the general could not read the situation correctly. But “thawra!” (Arabic for revolution) had come; it swept him off on April 11.
Abdelaziz Bouteflika, President of Algeria for twenty years from 1999 until a mass peoples’ movement forced him out on April 2, was a political giant in the country. In 1962, at 25, he was appointed the Minister of Youths and Sports. He later became Defence Minister, Foreign Minister, and in 1974, President of the United Nations General Assembly. He was also Prime Minister and had the distinction in 2002 of ending the quite bloody Algerian Civil War by roundly defeating the Islamic terrorists and ending the state of emergency in 2011. I was in Algeria a couple of times and witnessed a highly respected President even after he had a stroke in 2013. At 19, he joined the National Liberation Army, the military wing of the National Liberation Front which wrestled the country from French colonialists in one of the bloodiest wars of the 20th Century.
As Chairman of the AU, he successfully pulled off the Algiers Peace Treaty that ended the Ethiopia-Eritrea Border War which claimed 70,000-120,000 lives. He was quite sick in 2005 and suffered a stroke in 2013. Despite this, he contested and won the presidential elections in 2014 by 81 per cent. Although unable to run the affairs of state, he ill-advisedly announced on February 10, 2019, that he was seeking re-election. That was his undoing. Mass protests brought him down.
Despite these events, Algeria and Sudan are a few of the best run African countries we have with a sense of historical duty, responsibility to the populace and a pan Africanist spirit; many like Nigeria have simply collapsed into the neo-colonial mode, swimming along with the dictates of foreign masters and the tidal waves they unleash.
The hope is that the middle class and the masses that have triggered the tidal waves of change in both countries, can steer the course and enthrone genuine pro-people change so that the revolutions are not aborted like those in Egypt and Tunisia. Africa needs genuine, people-centred, development-oriented change. Not the cosmetic changes with lots of motion without movement as in Nigeria, or from the frying pan to fire like in Egypt.
Change in Egypt has been a monumental tragedy; from a secular dictator, Hosni Mubarak, to a religious fanatic, Mohammed Morsi, to a brutal fascist, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi who has no restraints in his rule books. But as Africa arose from the ashes of the slave trade and the grave of colonialism, so shall she rise from its current tragedies. Change is natural; its genuine winds shall blow through our mother continent.