Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir should hang in the halls of infamy somewhere between Hitler and Pol Pot. But few Americans recognize that he and his National Islamic Front regime are directly responsible for the death of a staggering 2.4 million of his countrymen, the displacement of seven million more, as well as the enslavement and misery of hundreds of thousands of others, including tribal people in northern Uganda. Representing the interests of only a handful of small northern tribes, Bashir’s regime has devoted itself to marginalizing and making war on Darfur and most of the rest of Sudan’s citizens since seizing power 18 years ago.
If further Sudanese deaths are to be prevented, there must be clarity about what this tyrant and his regime have wrought.
As president of the nation’s National Islamic Front (NIF) government and a general, Bashir is the person most responsible for the Darfur genocide, which so far has taken an estimated 400,000 lives and displaced two million western tribal people. He presides over an air force that carries out aerial bombardment and strafing of Darfur’s reed tukul villages, and a military that arms and protects the groups that torment the region by land, the Janjaweed tribal militias. His forces have attacked relief centers, refugee camps, and rebels gathered for peace talks. His senior officials have opposed the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers, and, as President Bush stated this week: “President Bashir’s actions over the past few weeks follow a long pattern of promising cooperation while finding new methods of obstruction.”
Darfur’s is not the only blood on Bashir’s hands. During the 1990s and early in this decade, he and the NIF regime also presided over what he has called a “jihad” against the Christians and African traditional believers and “apostate” Muslims in south and central Sudan; this earlier onslaught should also be considered genocide: It left two million people dead and five million displaced. It was triggered when the non-Muslim south rebelled against Khartoum’s imposition on them of Islamic law. It ended in 2005 with a peace agreement achieved in large measure through President Bush’s leadership and his administration’s diplomacy. Millions of southerners even now remain stranded in relief camps, unable to return to a devastated land that will be struggling to recover for years to come. Untold others from Bahr al Ghazal and the Nuba Mountains who disappeared during the conflict are thought to be still enslaved. The peace agreement itself is at risk because of what the south sees as the National Islamic Front’s war agenda.
For the last decade, Bashir has also been providing arms and sanctuary to an abomination called the “Lord’s Resistance Army” (LRA), which, in a psychopathic effort to seize power in Uganda using abducted children soldiers, has killed 200,000 people of the Acholi tribe and driven some 1.5 million of them into refugee camps. UNICEF reports that over 25,000 children have been kidnapped in LRA attacks on homes and schools, including, once, the student body of a convent girls’ middle school, and then used as fighters, porters, and sex slaves. Bashir’s support has fueled LRA depredations for over a decade.
In congressional testimony last January, Bush’s former U.S. Special Representative on Sudan Roger Winter identified a “fundamental flaw” in U.S. and international policy on Sudan — “the erroneous assumption that Sudan’s NIF-controlled government, led by President Omar Bashir, actually wants to be a good government and can be successfully appealed to ‘do the right thing’ on behalf of Sudan’s marginalized peoples.” In view of the record, this fiction must be abandoned.
Winter testified that “NIF has been at war with the majority of the people of Sudan every single day since it came to power by coup on June 30, 1989. It will not change now when all their acts of death and destruction have cost them nothing.”
The Bush administration has finally acted to impose financial sanctions against certain foreign companies involved in Khartoum’s oil sector (American trade sanctions that prevent such investment by American companies have been in effect since the 1990s). To be effective, it will need to broaden them and be joined by Europe, and by China, and Malaysia, two governments deeply invested in the regime’s oil industry.
And the Save Darfur Coalition must shift its tactics to help make this happen. Until now, its saturation “name and shame” campaign in the print media, on television, and through bumper stickers and posters has been nearly exclusively directed at President Bush, with the implication that he lacks compassion for the victims in Darfur — so much so that the campaign has been forced to put up a web posting denying it is engaged in “Bush-bashing.”
Of the dozens of press releases the Coalition has issued since the beginning of the year, merely one mentions Bashir by name, and only to say that he “paints a false picture.” Not exactly the stuff to shock a conscience. While one other recent release strongly “condemns” bombings by Sudan’s government (without mentioning either Bashir or his regime by name), the thrust of the publicity campaign downplays the specific government actor in Darfur’s violence. Overall, the Save Darfur Coalition’s press listings give the impression that genocide just happened.
A crisis of the magnitude and duration of Sudan’s urgently requires a new human-rights approach. Since the days when Eleanor Roosevelt worked to first establish an international human-rights movement, naming names of tyrants has been essential to its successes. For reasons of policy and morality, it’s time to lay the blame for the ongoing Darfur genocide, as well as the past atrocities in central, southern and eastern Sudan, squarely where it belongs — on Omar al-Bashir and his National Islamic Front regime. And U.S. policy needs to be clearly and consistently premised on this unvarnished truth.
– Nina Shea is director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute.