Military Strengthens Grip on Sudanese Regime

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s cabinet reshuffle has strengthened military commanders’ grips on power ahead of presidential elections, helping to protect regime leaders from prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC).


 Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum, Sudan, Thursday April 22, 2010 to inaugurate new divisions of a military hospital [AP Photo/Abd Raouf]



Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir’s recent changes to his cabinet resulted in the exit of seven major regime actors, sparking questions about hidden agendas because the changes were limited to civilian members of the government. The military’s role was enhanced by this shuffle, casting doubt on the criteria under which the civilian members of the cabinet were dismissed. The urgency of these substantial changes indicates Bashir is working under an undisclosed but important imperative that is associated with the upcoming presidential election as well as the desire of the incumbent Sudanese leadership to protect itself from prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC).


In the past quarter of a century, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir has reshuffled his government three times, most recently on December 8, 2013. This latest round will shift the power structure and internal balance of power as well as cast a shadow on the country’s political future. This paper outlines the changes to the government, examines the reasons for Bashir’s actions and ends with projected scenarios which could arise after the latest shakeup.

The old and the new

This section of the paper examines the losses and gains of Bashir’s imposed changes as well as gives a brief history of Bashir’s three major structural changes. In this most recent change, the first vice president Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, the regime’s second-in-command, was removed, as was Nafie Ali Nafie (third-in-command). Both also held leading positions in the ruling party. Ahmed Ibrahim Tahir, speaker of the National Assembly office and the second deputy president, Haj Adam Youssef, both left office. Many of the figures which had permanent presence in the cabinet over the past two decades – including the electricity and water, minerals, agricultural and irrigation, and finance and national economy ministers – were also removed during Bashir’s most recent reshuffling.

To put this shake-up in perspective, it is important to understand what occurred during each of the three major changes during Bashir’s rule. In the first round of structural adjustments to the institutions of power, Bashir ousted Hassan al-Turabi, leader of the Islamic Movement of Sudan, in 1999. In 2005 came the second shift, when the Sudanese government signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and shared power with the SPLM leader, John Garang who took the post of vice president. This third time, seven of the regime’s major players were removed.

Perhaps the most significant trademark of the new line-up is the rise of military power – Bashir appointed General Bakri Hassan Saleh as the first vice president – a man who had been Bashir’s paratrooper teammate in the Sudanese armed forces. In another surprising move, Bashir did not remove the minister of national defence, General Abdul Rahim Mohammad Hussein, despite poor performance and widespread civilian and military official criticism.

It was not surprising that Bashir took the step of making changes to the regime’s structure this third time, particularly in light of announcements he made about reforms after the successful first wave of Arab Spring revolutions which saw the removal of Tunisia and Egypt’s presidents. It was also not surprising given the youth protest movement which began March 2011, prompting corruption probes into even members of the president’s family, as well as a promise from Bashir that he would not run in the 2015 presidential elections. Surprising, however, was the sheer magnitude of changes, particularly because the regime looked solely inward at its core elements rather than expanding participation to reformers within the ruling party as well as from the political opposition. 

Military’s power grip strengthened

This section of the paper examines the reasons that constitute this change a major shift in Bashir’s career as well as discusses expected implications on the future of his rule and Sudan’s political situation.

The military has been strong since Bashir came to power through a military and civilian coup by the Islamic Movement of Sudan. While Bashir gave up the title of commander-in-chief in 2010, he only gave it up for legal reasons and remained supreme commander by virtue of his presidential post. Thus, the latest shuffle served only to enhance and not newly introduce a strong military government in Sudan’s political landscape.

The second significant observation in terms of this shuffle is that the regime officials who left government are well-known for their leadership in the Islamic Movement. The exit of these prominent Islamic leaders from decision-making was widely seen as a deliberate move by the regime’s military wing to remove the last remnants of the Islamic Movement, but even this explanation is difficult to believe given Bashir’s supreme leadership position (created by now-ousted Taha) within the party. Thus, rather than label Bashar’s changes as a military coup against the pro-regime Islamic movement, it is more accurate to view the changes as a way for Bashir to reassert himself as chair of the ruling party, supreme leader of the army and leader of the Islamic Movement while simultaneously installing new figures who may be Islamists but don’t carry the same historic weight as those who departed.

The regime justified the change by claiming that it seeks to revitalize the institutions of governance and create space for young leaders to take over governance. Taha, for example, said publicly he gave up his post to achieve envisioned changes. All official statements deny differences within the ruling party that led to these developments. However, the fact that the eliminations were limited to civilians in government and that two of the new promotions (Saleh and Hussein) are over 65 indicates these justifications are cover-ups for hidden forces at play.

Finally, Bashir was careful to implement the change within the legal framework – in other words, he was very keen that the decision be passed by a meeting of the ruling party’s central bureau so as to give the impression that all seven officials were removed voluntarily. The urgency with which this occurred, however, prompts a look at the ruling party’s calendar. With presidential elections in 2015, next year’s (2014) general conference will be quite important, as the party will choose its new leadership during that time.

Precautionary measures in face of ICC warrant

In 2009, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant against Bashir on charges of war crimes and human rights violations during the Darfur conflict. While the African Union (AU) officially supported Bashir when the warrant was issued and the UN Security Council accepted the AU’s request that African heads of state not be tried during their constitutional terms, the ICC recently put Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto on trial for involvement in abuses following the country’s 2007 elections. Kenya did not reject the principle of cooperation with the international tribunal, in contrast with Bashir who continues to refuse to cooperate, putting him at risk for prosecution as soon as he leaves office.

And while Bashir has announced he would not run for the presidency, he has not taken any formal steps in this direction, such as confirming this intention within the ruling party, leaving the door wide open for him to be nominated again at the party’s general conference. Furthermore, the non-candidacy announcement led to splits within the regime. Taha’s group maintained Bashar was serious and would stick to his decision, Nafie’s group called on the president to remain in his position and Ghazi Salah al-Din (recently expelled from the party for reform demands) insisted that Bashir could not run again as this would violate the constitution which limits the mandate of the president to two terms.

With the 2015 election approaching and the absence of a decisive stance on his candidacy, Bashir has taken precautions to rearrange the ruling party and reset the balance of power. It could be that Taha and Nafie in particular were targeted because they had previously expressed interest in succeeding the president and Bashir does not trust them. One theory is that Bashir fears that either wouldn’t hesitate to make a deal with a third party for his extradition to The Hague in exchange for the facilitation of their personal rise to power. In light of this, it can be understood that Bashir trusts only his military companions would not extradite him if he steps down, explaining his choices in the shuffle.

Finally, absent from the changes were new government policies and programmes. The changes were limited to replacing figures, which means a continuation of government policies, despite the criticism that these policies were the root cause of the current crisis. The change does not address the roots of the national crisis represented in the continuing war in Darfur, and in the regions of Blue Nile and South Kordofan, along with the deteriorating economic situation, the sharp political polarisation and the need to achieve national reconciliation, peace, stability and security.

Maintaining status quo

The following scenarios could emerge in Sudan in light of this change, but given the concessions the regime would have to make under each scenario, it is likely the status quo will be maintained. In particular, any of these scenarios could erode the regime’s current solid support from the military, something Bashir is not willing to risk.

1. Bashir continues to force his hold on power and strengthen his position during the ruling party’s general conference so as to earn a nomination.
If this occurs, either he or Saleh will be nominated for the next election. This scenario assumes all other factors remain unchanged and that the new government will succeed in addressing, even partially, the crises facing the country, particularly the economic ones. It is highly unlikely that vice president Saleh will assume the presidency unless Bashir cannot perform his duties for health reasons. Saleh simply does not enjoy enough popular support to allow him to control the government.

2. The ousted members of the regime refuse to be dismissed and attempt to return by rebuilding the ruling party’s grassroots.
This scenario will increase competition and conflict among estranged figures of the ruling party as well as between them and Bashir, ending in a confrontation between the two sides which will increase tension and political instability. This will force Bashir to provide partial concessions to competitors at the expense of the military. Again, however, this scenario is not likely given that those ousted seem to have approved the change.

3. Bashir will try to build new alliances with some opposition forces under pressure as a result of the political, economic and military crises in the country.
If Bashir’s regime fails to address the crises in the country, he may reach out to al-Mahdi’s Ummah party and Turabi’s People’s Congress to bear part of the burden with him in exchange for protection from being handed over to the ICC. The third scenario is doubtful because the opposition has been unable thus far to build bridges of trust with Bashir. Oil revenues also give the regime flexibility to absorb popular discord and prevent it from becoming a crisis that would force the regime to make serious concessions to the opposition.
4. Bashir cannot escape a comprehensive political settlement with the civil opposition and armed movements, paving the way to a transitional government, providing him with necessary ICC guarantees.
Noteworthy here is the proposal made by former US envoy to Sudan, Preston Lehman, who suggested the election be postponed for two years. In the meanwhile, Sudanese parties would enter dialogue and start a genuine reform process with the help of the international community that leads to the establishment of a broad democratic government. The probability of this scenario is low because it assumes Bashir’s military allies will accept the loss of their positions and criminal prosecution while Bashir remains immune from ICC prosecution. Furthermore, military command is currently single-handedly setting the Sudanese regime’s balance of power.


Bashir’s recent reshuffling of the government which resulted in the exit of seven major regime officials is the work of a president relying on military officials in the government to help him avoid ICC prosecution in the future as well as a mechanism to strengthen the military’s grip on politics on in Sudan. Several scenarios could unfold in light of this recent move by Bashir, but in all likelihood the status quo will be preserved.