Sudanese strongman Omar al Bashir appears to be growing increasingly interested in global politics, often at the expense of his country’s domestic problems. To be sure, this week Bashir risked angering his ally to the north – Egypt – when he publicly clarified his position on the prospect of an Ethiopian-constructed dam on the Nile. On 22 June 2013, Bashir claimed that the controversial, so-called Renaissance Dam would “not stop the water from Egypt”, a serious area of concern for Cairo, which views the Nile as its lifeblood. Not stopping there, Bashir suggested that Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia would not only benefit from the project energy-wise, the development would also further cement the ties already binding the three Nile-based nations. For Bashir, the dam would spell disaster for Israel – a view contrary to that held by Egypt, whose President Mohamed Morsi previously claimed that the Ethiopian project was merely a US and “Israeli plot” aimed at circumventing his country’s influence in the region.
Of course, all this shows is that Bashir, understandably, looks happy to meddle in the affairs of his Nile neighbours. The real testament to the Sudanese leader’s interventionist polices is to his willingness to allow the full use of his country as a battleground for Iran and Israel’s competing influence in Africa. Bashir’s own people, meanwhile, are left to fend for themselves.
The Iranian Dimension
As if to further provoke the ire of Tel Aviv, it has been alleged that the dictator has given the green-light for Iran to oversee the construction of a Hezbollah-run logistical base in Sudan. Shockingly, Western intelligence officials claim that Bashir has already allowed Iranian Revolutionary Guards free reign of Port Sudan, where Tehran spooks are allegedly working in conjunction with their Hezbollah brethren to construct a base, the aim of which is to shift intelligence, personnel and weapons into Syria. According to reports on 24 June 2013, Iranian engineers have apparently been spotted “overseeing Sudanese workmen” who are in the process of building the facility.
Lessons Learned from an Israeli Strike
Bashir, of course, is not naive. Reports suggest that, knowing full well that his decision to allow Tehran to build a military base might open Sudan up to Israeli attacks, he and Iran are now undertaking a number of precautionary measures to ensure that the military base will actually resemble some non-descript shipping post. For Sudan, a discretionary approach would be wise. Indeed, analysts believe that Israel has launched two strikes on Sudanese assets in the past three years alone. The latest strike, which occurred on 23 October 2012, allegedly involved the deployment of Tel Aviv’s National Air Force, which, when alerted of a possible Hezbollah-run weapons factory, employed surgical air strikes on Khartoum’s Yarmouk military complex, an event which left at least two people dead. Tel Aviv has, as per usual, failed to confirm or deny these allegations. Indeed, its reluctance to comment on the matter is par for the course for the Jewish state, which prefers to leave an air of intrigue with regard to its military exploits. Nevertheless, Bashir’s administration, which has been accused of helping smuggle weapons through Egypt, became so convinced of Israeli involvement that he promised to present the case to the UN.
Feeling sore from the Tel Aviv response, and the subsequent brush off by the international community, Bashir and Iran have now reportedly applied their “lessons learned” approach to the alleged new Port Sudan base, some of which involve a few clever safeguarding techniques. Firstly, reports suggest that Iran and Bashir have specifically called for the base to be built next to South Sudan’s “oil-exporting installations”. The rationale is that the Israeli military would hesitate to strike on the proposed Iranian (and Hezbollah-linked) facility, as this would risk hurting its ally, South Sudan, a nation which uses revenue procured from oil sales to purchase weapons from Tel Aviv. To further protect the Iranian base from attacks, intelligence officials claim that Tehran is looking to outfit the base with advanced air defence systems, a must-have in the event of another Israeli surgical airstrike. That is not all: Iran is also supposedly disguising its Sudan base’s military character by using “commercial” vessels to ship its weapons from the base into Syria, where Tehran continues to prop up the detested regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Bashir Ignores the Pleas of His Citizens…
The latest developments arguably show that Sudan’s Bashir is ignoring his country’s domestic problems in favour of his desire for international political prowess. To be sure, whenever protests ignite against the leader (who, by the end of this month, will be celebrating his twenty-fourth year in office), Bashir conveniently draws attention away toward Sudan’s real (or perceived) threats. These include the usual accusations of US and Israeli influence, as well as the apparent slights from South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir Mayardit. That latter, of course, was noted on 21 June 2013, when an angry Bashir once again threatened to prevent South Sudan from using his country’s much-need pipelines in order to export its oil. For Bashir, Kiir refuses to stop supporting rebels, an accusation which the South Sudanese leader naturally (if erroneously) denies. For the people of Sudan, however, Bashir is actually ignoring the real issue: the plight of his fellow countrymen.
…At What Price?
Whilst Bashir busies himself with the great geopolitical game, the Sudanese people are growing angry. For almost two weeks, locals have taken to the streets in the capital, Khartoum, to demand that Bashir step aside. These protests are not new. Sporadic episodes of civil unrest have gripped Sudan, and more appropriately, its strongman Omar al Bashir, since the country’s own version of the so-called “Arab Spring” first erupted, and failed, in Omdurman on 23 January 2011. In the years since, Sudanese citizens from all walks of life have still tried to get their views across, only to become the target of a heavy-handed police response. Since the escalation in protest action, human rights groups have also reported numerous cases of abuses at the hands of Bashir, with some accusing his regime of torturing 2,000 or so anti-government protesters whilst in prison. Not willing to change tune, when more than 2,000 people began demonstrating once again in July 2012, Bashir’s presidential assistant Nafie Ali Nafie took to using the tried-and-true conspiratorial excuse that “Zionist institutions inside the United States and elsewhere” were provoking an “economic earthquake” in the country. This, of course, was not the real story the protesters wanted Bashir to hear. Citing frustration over decades-long rule of Bashir, coupled with the soaring cost of food, a sky-rocketing unemployment rate of nearly 16%, the people are still trying to speak – if only Bashir would listen.