Omar al-Bashir and curse of power

Saturday August 24 2019


By Moses Khisa

Sudan’s strongman of three decades, Gen Omar al-Bashir, is a vanquished and tortured man. In April, he was ignominiously forced out of power by the same military-might that he relied on for all the time he ruled the country with a heavy hand of coercion.
Now he is facing gross humiliation. He’s standing trial on a slew of charges, including corruption and killing of protestors who turned up in a people power protest movement that prompted the military to overthrow him. Apparently, a cache of dollars were found stashed in his home.
Bashir’s fate is emblematic of the curse of power that has afflicted African rulers for long, and remains the bane for instability and uncertainty today.
The longer African rulers cling to power, the harder it is to contemplate leaving power. Across the continent, only a few African countries have evolved a tradition of routine and peaceful retirement by heads of state.
Staying long in power when not validly elected necessarily requires committing heinous acts and perpetuating a system that buys the ruler time even as problems accumulate and state decay deepens. It means allowing more malfeasance for resources to flow to cabals that work to secure the ruler. The ruler increasingly becomes vulnerable, paranoid and easily manipulated by different groups on whom he relies for his survival.
In Sudan, Bashir engaged in the typical tact of relying on the military. He fragmented it, sponsored militias that operated outside the formal military institutions and played factions against one another. When he faced insurgencies in the Darfur region, his response was to use mercenary militias that were ruthless to the local population as they had no local social ties or familial relations.
Bashir was a military man. He saw politics through the lens of militarism, the same way that our own Sabalwanyi (chief fighter) sees the gun as the source of power. But militarism is a poisoned chalice.
When push came to shove, the same military that had secured him for long instead overthrew him. They had come to the point of seeing him as spent and to be dispensed with.
Here is the thing. The natural course of nature is utterly random. It follows none of the man-made laws or individual idiosyncrasies. It has no regard for exaggerated egos that condition rulers to believe that they can rule for life.
But rulers who survive in power long tend to be oblivious of the inevitability of their departure. Surrounded by sycophants and courtiers who sing praises and perfect the art of flattery, rulers get deluded into believing they are larger than life and invincible.
Our own strongman had a long ‘sworn-enemy’ relationship with Bashir, but in recent years warmed up to him when the International Criminal Court appeared to be taking increasing interest in African rulers. Ideally, Mr Museveni would pick some handy lessons from the fate of his erstwhile nemesis cum-strategic ally.
The Sudan situation is not totally unthinkable in Uganda. Like Bashir, Museveni faces a similar curse of power: He stays on he’s damned, he goes he’s still damned. Yet he will have to go at some point, one way or the other, and does not have full control over how he will leave. It could be forcible and humiliating – the Bashir way. It could be peaceful, but nevertheless deflating – the Yahya Jammeh way, or it could be violent and tragic – the Gaddafi way.
Even then, the thought of the possibility of being forced out propels incumbent authoritarian rulers like Mr Museveni to do everything possible that secures them in power, but merely delays the coming crisis.
Once they get to the point of no-return, it is a unidirectional drive. They can’t contemplate life outside of State House. It becomes unthinkable to live without all the trappings of power especially in a country like Uganda where the president literally has power over everything and everybody.
When the president has excessive power which makes him believe he can solve every problem, it leads him down the path of a self-declared messianic mission from which he cannot afford to disengage. It is a curse.

Dr Khisa is assistant professor at North Carolina State University (USA).