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BSR: Omar al-Bashir - the ouster of a tyrant

April 11, 2019

 

It must be an exciting time for the Sudanese and probably a confusing moment, too. A long-serving tyrant has just been deposed, something that looked impossible for long periods of his thirty years in office.

 

Like other autocrats before him, Omar al-Bashir had a carved up a near-permanent seat in power, accorded strong protection from the claws of international justice by his African peers. Like all tyrants, past and present, he lived up to Lord Acton's dictum of absolute power corrupting absolutely.

 

It seemed like he would never go and some may have long resigned to him staying on for life. He must have believed it too, given the arrogance with which he carried himself in office. But everything changed when a few said enough was enough before more and more joined in their thousands.

 

Now he is gone and there is a huge sigh of relief and collective excitement.

 

But then, at the same time, the relief and excitement are promptly qualified by the immediate consequence of military rule. What began as a people’s movement against a dictatorial regime has become a military coup. Amid the multitudes, when all is said and done, it is really the military that has taken over the reins of power. The military is part of the establishment. They simply got disaffected under al-Bashir and decided that the costs of continuing to support him were greater than any benefits. They saw an opportunity and seized it, in the name of the people. They made a rational choice, in their own interests.

 

If you are an ordinary civilian, this presents a conflict. You are happy to see the tyrant gone but you are deeply uncomfortable with military rule. You know, of course, that in the not so distant past, the same soldiers could have brutally suppressed the protests, in aid of the tyrant. You were probably surprised by their newfound friendliness and support. They allowed you to march. They even defended you against some of their counterparts when you were attacked. They were the good guys. It was a strange and surreal coalition, an unlikely romance between the ordinary people and the armed forces.

 

You are not alone. As a Zimbabwean, it’s a profoundly familiar experience. For us, your cousins who are thousands of miles away in the south of the continent, it's like a déjà vu moment, albeit indirectly through you. I have watched the events and while there are admittedly some vast differences, I was also struck by some of the uncanny similarities.

 

The love-in with a previously hostile military was one of the hallmarks of the process that preceded the removal of our former leader, Robert Mugabe in November 2017. Our own military tried to be more subtle, by presenting a façade that Robert Mugabe had left power voluntarily, but even that could not obfuscate the fact that it was a coup. Your generals have shown less interest in such subtleties. Not that it makes a big difference, no. 

 

Like you with al-Bashir, we were tired of Mugabe’s lengthy rule. In power for 37 years, and with an economy in tatters and human rights violations, he had outlived both his welcome and purpose. Like Mugabe, al-Bashir's departure will not be mourned by many around the world. Both had, for a variety of reasons, acquired a deep international notoriety.

 

When news of Mugabe's “resignation” arrived on 21 November 2017, there was great euphoria in the streets of Harare and the rest of the country. Many Zimbabweans around the world joined in the celebrations. It was the end of an era, or so it seemed. I see that it is the same in Khartoum and elsewhere. Do savour the moment, but remember it's only a moment. 

 

Indeed, in our case, the soldiers were feted as heroes and saviours. Some of us were a little cautious over the military coup and the future role of soldiers in government. We argued that Mugabe was part of a system and that system had not changed. The military men who had taken over were an integral part of that system. The soldiers would not give up power now that they had usurped it, we warned. But such thoughts were notoriously unfashionable at the time. In that atmosphere of euphoria, the mood was hostile to any cautionary notes. Why rain on a people’s party?

 

It did not take long, though, before the true colours of the new rulers emerged. As they began to smell blood, senior officials of the establishment told stunned political opponents that “chinhu chedu” (it’s our thing) claiming exclusive title to the removal of Mugabe. Opposition politicians had also joined in the euphoria, claiming a stake in the removal of Mugabe, probably hoping for a shair of the spoils.

 

But even as some in the establishment chose to be bashful, others were coy, presenting a deceptively soft face. When a general appeared on state television on the morning of 15 November, he told the nation that it was not a coup; that the president was safe and that they were only targeting alleged “criminals around him”. They feigned benevolence.

 

They promised a New Dispensation but, in fact, the old order persisted, complete with the practices and rituals of authoritarian rule. There was a new president but the institutions of repression continued. In fact, the same characters who had propped up the old establishment had simply ascended to the top. Mugabe had gone but Mugabeism had remained intact. Al-Bashir may now be history too, but if our experience is anything to go by, you will have to ask whether he has taken al-Bashirism with him, too.

 

The truth is that it is extremely hard for members of a tyrannical establishment to unlearn bad habits acquired under the old regime, as we Zimbabweans have discovered over the last year and a half. Old dogs struggle with new tricks. Your struggle is only half-done unless the entire system gives way. You wanted the tyrant to go, but the price for it can’t have been a retention of the system.

 

The annals of history have a familiar narrative: when the military takes power, it first undertakes to rule temporarily before handing over to the civilian authorities. But as one leader is reputed to have said, the truth is that power is sweet, and because of that, it is hard to let go. If there must be a transitional authority, demand that it be a truly civilian authority, not a military one. It rarely ends well. Don't let the people's revolution get hijacked by the establishment. Don't them run away with it.

 

Meanwhile, other tyrants around the continent will not be sleeping easy tonight. There is a wind blowing across the continent and it is deeply uncomfortable for their species.  

 

WaMagaisa

 

wamagaisa@me.com 

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