In Summary
  • Like many military rulers, al-Bashir liked to claim that power had been foisted upon him, and that he wielded it reluctantly.
  • Critics say he left Sudan in much the same condition. Less clear, though, is whether his successors can change it quickly.
  • The tattered economy needs a huge cash injection, and current conflicts in the Sudanese regions of Blue Nile or South Kordofan are unlikely to abate.

Even as he teetered, President Omar al-Bashir loved to tell the story about his broken tooth.

As a schoolboy working on a construction site, he told supporters in January, he fell and broke the tooth while carrying a heavy load. Instead of seeking treatment he rinsed his mouth with saltwater and kept working.


Later, after he joined the army, he refused a silver tooth implant because he wanted to remember his hardships.

“This one,” he said, pointing to a gap in his mouth, as supporters erupted into laughter.

The story was a way for al-Bashir, who was ousted Thursday after 30 years of iron-fisted rule over Sudan, to play up his humble origins—to show that he remained a man of the people who, like him, hailed from dusty farming villages on the Nile.

The folksy image was a jarring contrast with al-Bashir’s image in the West, where he was often seen as a heartless warmonger, as a coddler of terrorists like Osama bin Laden and as the accused architect of a genocidal purge in Darfur that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Since 2009, the International Criminal Court has sought to arrest him on war crimes charges that include murder, rape and extermination.

But global notoriety was never much of a problem for al-Bashir, 75, at home in Sudan, a vast African country with a long history of war and suffering.

He outwitted rivals who underestimated him, steered a decade-long oil boom that swelled Sudan’s middle classes, and forged a network of security forces and armed militias to fight his wars that some likened to a spider’s web with al-Bashir at its centre.

That carefully constructed edifice of power crumbled this week as thousands of protesters massed outside his Khartoum residence, chanting slogans and braving gunfire as rival gangs of soldiers exchanged fire.


The oil money was running low, the economy was in tatters and young Sudanese, in particular, had had enough. The spider had to go.

“Just fall, that is all!” they chanted.

On Thursday morning, the military ousted him, ending his 30-year rule in the face of the sweeping demonstrations. It said it had taken al-Bashir into custody, dissolved the government and suspended the Constitution.

Representatives of the principal protest group, the Sudanese Professionals’ Association, which had been expecting a statement from the military and were preparing to negotiate a transition to civilian rule, greeted the announcement with disappointment.

“What has been just stated is for us a coup, and it is not acceptable,” said Sara Abdelgalil, a spokeswoman for the group. “Our request for a civilian transitional government has been ignored.”

Born into a farming family in a dusty village 100 miles (160 km) north of Khartoum, the capital, al-Bashir served as a paratroop commander in the army.

In 1989, he headed an Islamist junta that ousted Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi in a bloodless coup, Sudan’s fourth military takeover since independence in 1956.

For the first decade of his rule, though, al-Bashir, was seen as a frontman for a more powerful force —the cleric Hassan al-Turabi, a smooth-talking, Sorbonne-educated ideologue with sweeping ideas about embedding Shariah law deep in Sudan’s diverse society and institutions.


International jihadis flocked to Sudan in that period, among them Osama bin Laden, who bought a house in an upmarket Khartoum district and invested in agriculture and construction.

In 1993, the United States blacklisted al-Bashir’s government as an international sponsor of terrorism and imposed sanctions four years later.

In 1999, after a falling-out, al-Bashir outmaneuvered al-Turabi and cast him into prison. He turned back to the army to underwrite his authority, forging relationships that spanned the military, the security forces and the country’s tribal leadership.

Al-Bashir assiduously attended the funerals and weddings of military officers, often sending presents of sugar, tea or dried goods to their families.

He held an open house once a week where commissioned officers could drop in and meet with him, said Alex de Waal, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and an expert on Sudan.

“He’s like the spider at the centre of the web—he could pick up on the smallest tremor, then deftly use his personalized political retail skills to manage the politics of the army,” he said.

Al-Bashir used a similar approach to manage provincial leaders and tribal chiefs, de Waal added. “Most of them became militarized and enmeshed in one of the popular defence forces. He has that extraordinary network, and it’s all in his head.”

That style of personalist autocracy was put to use in battling the insurgency in southern Sudan, where rebels from different ethnic groups with Christian or animist beliefs were fighting for independence.


During the 21-year war, the Sudanese air force dropped crude barrel bombs over remote villages in the south and sided with vicious local militias recruited by al-Bashir and his officers.

At the same time, Sudan discovered oil. After the first barrels were pumped in 1999, living standards gradually rose in one of Africa’s most desperately poor countries. New roads appeared, remote villages gained water and electricity, and shiny buildings rose in Khartoum.

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