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Sudanese President's visit to Russia: What was Al-Bashir thinking?

November 27, 2017 at 8:07 pm

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and President of Sudan Omar Al-Bashir shake hands as they pose for a photo during their meeting in Sochi, Russia on 23 November 2017. [Kremlin Press Office/Handout ]

As the Sudanese President returned home from his trip to Sochi to meet Russian leader Vladimir Putin, the world’s media overwhelmingly seized on his plead that Moscow should provide protection to Sudan against the aggressive actions of the United States of America.

Other news outlets quoted Al-Bashir’s veiled invitation to the Russians to establish a military base on Sudanese territory near the Red Sea; a political and diplomatic move that has emboldened Russia and put the rest of the region on alert. For what emerged from the presidential discussions were startling, to say the least, and has provoked a plethora of positive and negative reaction.

Al-Bashir’s comments began by the statement that the visit to Russia had long been dreamt about and that Sudan was primarily opposed to the US interference in the domestic affairs of Arab countries, in particular US intervention in Iraq.

Al-Bashir blamed the US for the problems being faced in the region and said the Darfur and South Sudan problems take their roots in US policy that split Sudan into two parts and made a bad situation worse. He went on to welcome Russian intervention in Syria which he said would be lost without Moscow’s assistance and he also welcomed Russian assistance to reequip the Sudanese armed forces. Lastly, he said in his official closing remarks:

Sudan may become Russia’s key to Africa. We have great relations with all African nations and we are ready to help. We are also interested in developing relations with BRICS.

On social media #Sudan saw no shortage of condemnation of Al-Bashir and his comments.  Social media guru, Greta van Susteren told her 1.5 million followers in response to a photograph of the two leaders shaking hands: “Putin welcoming mass killer #Sudan Pres #Bashir – he should be arresting him.”

However, Sudanese diplomatic circles expressed a quiet satisfaction that the US was meted out a taste of its own medicine and a feeling was that Al-Bashir’s stance was the sign of a “bold and courageous” politics.

Read: Sudan’s Al-Bashir reiterates pledge to give up power in 2020

Further examination of the drivers behind Al-Bashir’s decision to paint the United States as a carnivorous predator threatening the region and responsible for the partition of Sudan, reveals the sense of injustice that Al-Bashir is said to feel and is reported to have been holding back for some time.

A press conference in Sudan after the US decided to lift sanctions on Sudan [Ebrahim Hamid/Anadolu]

A press conference in Sudan after the US decided to lift sanctions on Sudan [Ebrahim Hamid/Anadolu]

First, Al-Bashir and the Sudanese government appear to be angry that despite the US decision to lift 20-year old economic sanctions last month; in practice the flow of hard currency is not actually being permitted. This week Sudan has had to put in place emergency measures to stop the effective devaluation of its currency. After falling to an all-time low of around 27 pounds to the dollar on the informal “black” market, it strengthened at the beginning of this week to about 24 pounds in anticipation of the new measures.

One diplomat, who wished to remain anonymous, told MEMO: “We thought after the lifting of sanctions we would be on a level playing field, but whilst in principle the economic sanctions have been lifted; in practise, very little has changed!”

Second, according to a journalist and political commentator close to the ruling party, Abbas Mohammed, Al-Bashir wanted to send a strong message to the United States and the Gulf countries that Sudan’s foreign relations policy was entirely a matter for Khartoum. “He wanted to show that he’s still in charge despite being side-lined in the negotiations to lift sanctions. He wanted to show that Sudan’s foreign policy could not be dictated by the United States, the Gulf nations or any other country for that matter,” he said.

Observers have not failed to notice that Al-Bashir used US Thanksgiving Day to launch a stinging attack on Washington. Unconfirmed reports suggest the US has told Khartoum that no further concessions including the removal from the state sponsor terror list would come from the US while Al-Bashir remains in power.

Read more: Sudan distances itself from ties to terror

A few weeks ago, comments made by Al-Bashir were widely reported as indicating that he would be stepping down at the end of his turn and would support Mohammed Tahir Ayala, the governor of Gezira. However, political commentators have been quick to point out that Al-Bashir’s comments were made in the context of the ongoing dispute between the Governor and the State’s legislative assembly. The message was a signal to parliamentarians of his strong support for the Governor’s position over and above the position taken by lawmakers.

Commentators say the statement was not intended to signal that he would be stepping down from power. In fact, just days later the governor of Gezira himself said that if the president chose to run again, Al-Bashir had his support. Confirmation of Al-Bashir’s intention to run was further evidenced by the Information Minister’s Ahmed Osman Bilal statement in which he said: “A constitution is not like the Holy Qur’an, it can be amended at any time.”

His reference was to the 2005 constitution which only allows the President to serve two terms; but any hope that 71-year-old Al-Bashir will be out of the picture soon is by no means certain. The noises coming from his party and supporters suggest that Al-Bashir is being strongly encouraged to stay put as head of the National Congress Party. A diplomat told MEMO: “The country is still technically at war and therefore needs a strong army man to be in control, a return to rule by a civilian president would not be in Sudan’s interest.”

The visit to Sochi is being strongly seen as Al-Bashir’s hard ball tactics to demonstrate a willingness to join the Russian BRICS block against the rest of the world, if Sudan is not given what it needs by the US Western alliance. The current listing on the state sponsor of terror may be the US leverage over Sudan to force it to continue to comply with the wishes of Washington, but Al-Bashir’s Russia pronouncements appear clearly to be a calculated attempt to play the two sides against each other and force one side or the other to provide Sudan with the assistance it needs.

Nevertheless, there are concerns that the US may not play ball and might continue to impede Sudan from the debt relief and the investment opportunities it so badly needs. While support for Russia and Bashar Al-Assad will alienate the Arab world and politically marginalise Sudan. Al-Bashir may have therefore made the wrong diplomatic move but it is clear he has given all stake holders in Sudan’s future some serious food for thought.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.