Profile: Sudan's Omar al-Bashir

  • 5 December 2011
  • From the section Africa
President Omar al-Bashir
Omar al-Bashir led the army before seizing power

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's career has been defined by war. He came to power in a coup in 1989 and has ruled what was until this year Africa's largest country with an iron fist ever since.

When he seized power, Sudan was in the midst of a 21-year civil war between north and south.

Although his government signed a deal to end that conflict in 2005, another one was breaking out at the same time - in the western region of Darfur, where President Bashir is accused of organising war crimes and crimes against humanity.

"He's a man for whom dignity and pride are very important and he's a man who's quite hot-headed - prone to angry outbursts, especially when he feels his pride has been wounded," Sudan analyst Alex de Waal told the BBC News website.

Despite the international arrest warrant, he was re-elected as president in April 2010.

Before taking the helm, he was a commander in the army - responsible for leading operations in the south against the late rebel leader John Garang.

When he signed the peace deal with Garang and his Sudan People's Liberation Movement, he took pains to stress the deal had not been a defeat.

"We did not sign it after we had been broken. We signed it while we were at the peak of our victories," he said.

His goal was always to keep a unified Sudan, but a referendum on secession for South Sudan was agreed as part of the peace deal.

In the January 2011 referendum, some 99% of South Sudanese voters approved were in favour of separation. The independent state of South Sudan was declared six months later.

While he agreed to let South Sudan go, his attitude to Darfur, where a conflict has raged since 2003 when rebels took up arms at alleged government discrimination, has been characterised by belligerence.

But he denies international accusations that he has backed Arab Janjaweed militias accused of war crimes against the region's black African communities.

For years, Mr Bashir resisted the deployment of UN peacekeepers to Darfur and any criticism from the West tends to make him and his allies dig in their heels.

"We are telling those people who are saying that they want to put pressure on the Khartoum government that we will remain firm and never bow to anyone except the Almighty God," he told cheering crowds in 2004.

Stick waving

It is at these rallies, often dressed in his military uniform, that Mr Bashir seems in his element - waving his walking stick in the air.

He is more shy when it comes to the media and rarely gives one-to-one interviews.

Correspondents say this may be because he is not very articulate, unlike his former enemy Garang, who died not long after becoming national vice-president.

But this means, says Mr de Waal, that the president is often underestimated.

"He is smarter than he appears. He's somebody who apparently has a huge grasp of detail, but he's very conscious of the fact that he's not highly educated," Mr de Waal says.

He is said to enjoy a better relationship with Garang's successor, Salva Kiir, precisely because the two men are career soldiers - ill at ease with clever, well-spoken politicians.

Born in 1944 into a farming family, Mr Bashir joined the army as a young man and rose through the ranks. He fought in the Egyptian army in the 1973 war against Israel.

As head of state, his game has largely remained soldiering - the political lead being taken by two other figures.

The first in the 1990s was Hassan al-Turabi, a prominent Sunni Muslim who advocates an Islamic state and ushered in a bill introducing Sharia to all provinces but the south.

After they fell out in 2000, Mr Turabi told the BBC: "He's a military person who has been in power for a while and he wants to assert military power."

Then Osman Ali Taha, who negotiated the north-south deal and is now first vice-president, came to the fore. But his influence has since waned and the president has taken centre stage.

"Bashir has emerged as exercising more power himself. There's no one figure that overshadows him," says Mr de Waal.

His longevity in office, he adds, is probably down to the fact that powerful rivals in the ruling National Congress Party distrust each other more than they do Mr Bashir.

Oil money flows - and leaves

Little is known about the Sudanese leader's private life. He has no children and when in his 50s took a second wife.

He married the widow of Ibrahim Shams al-Din, considered a war hero in the north - as an example to others, he said.

The long civil war had seen many colleagues fall, and he implored others to marry again so war widows could be taken care of.

Mr Bashir has presided over a flourishing economy. When he became president, it was punishable by death to be found in possession of US dollars.

For a while, there were pockets full of dollars as the oil flowed, controls were lifted and the telecommunications system revolutionised.

But the South took three-quarters of the country's oil with it and belts are now being tightened in Khartoum.

Mr Bashir denies accusations that access to government funds and oil money was an underlying cause of the unrest in Darfur.

"In reality, the gist of the Darfur problem is just traditional conflict over resources, which has been coated with claims of marginalisation," he has said.

He was angered and humiliated in May 2008 when Darfur rebels nearly entered Khartoum, his fortress capital.


Many feared the International Criminal Court's indictment against him in March 2009 on five counts of crimes against humanity and two of war crimes would provoke Mr Bashir into flexing his muscles.

But in February 2010 he signed a ceasefire with the Jem rebels who attacked Omdurman, just across the River Nile from Khartoum.

However, Jem abandoned peace talks soon after, accusing Khartoum's forces of launching new raids in Darfur.

Mr Bashir had said Sudan would not stand in the way of South Sudan's independence, but tension has been rising since the region went its separate way.

Both countries have accused each other of causing violent clashes around the new border.

But while the rest of the region has been experiencing the tumultuous events of the Arab spring, Mr Bashir has faced little political unrest.

"Those who are waiting for the Arab Spring to come [to Sudan] will be waiting for a while," local media quoted him as telling a meeting of his National Congress Party in November.

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