Over the course of his three decades in power, Omar al-Bashir outsmarted and outfought his enemies at every turn. Through a combination of extreme violence and skillful politicking, he saw off threats from within his own ruling party, from rebel groups in almost every corner of the country, from rivals in the region, from the superpowers who wanted him gone and from the International Criminal Court, which wanted to arrest and prosecute him for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
Ultimately, however, there was one enemy that Bashir could not defy: his own people. En masse, Sudanese citizens rose up against the dictator who has delivered little but repression, corruption and mismanagement, producing an indictment so overwhelming that even Bashir’s security forces could not ignore their pleas for change. He will not be missed.
For most outsiders tuning in to Sudanese politics for the first time this week, it may feel as if Bashir’s ouster happened quickly. At the beginning of the week, he was in power; by the end of it, he was gone. But this ignores the sheer scale and depth of the protests, which began four months ago and never lessened in intensity. It also ignores the fact that opponents of Bashir have been quietly, carefully and bravely organising themselves for almost as long as Bashir has been in power. The revolution was 30 years in the making.
Bashir is not the only dictator to be toppled this month. Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika was forced out last week, also following months of mass demonstrations. There is a lesson here for other would-be presidents for life: it may take time, but in the end, the people always get their way.
There are still many African leaders who need to learn that lesson: Cameroon’s Paul Biya, in office for 43 years; Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang, 39 years; the Republic of Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguessou, 35 years; Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, 33 years; Chad’s Idriss Déby, 28 years; Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki, 25 years; Djibouti’s Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, 19 years; Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, 18 years; Togo’s Faure Gnassingbé and Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza, both 13 years.
But in the experience of recently toppled dictators lies a warning for the protesters too, who will be deliriously celebrating this weekend on the streets of Khartoum, Port Sudan and Omdurman. Those celebrations have been well earned, but they may also be premature.
Egypt learned this lesson the hard way, when the joy of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation was replaced a few years later by the despair of yet another military coup, and a new hardline president who makes Mubarak look soft. So too did Zimbabwe, which said goodbye to Robert Mugabe only to give power to his top lieutenant, Emmerson Mnangagwa, paving the way for a total economic collapse and a purge of civil society.
This is a very real fear in Sudan, where the generals and ministers and spy chiefs that kept the dictator in power for so long are all now manoeuvring for position, aiming for a transitional arrangement that will get the people off the streets with the minimum possible disruption to their own influence.
Bashir may be gone, but the revolution has only just begun.