In his 30 year rule, Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir survived coup attempts, rebellions and war. Insiders say it was his failure to read the politics of the region, and maintain one key alliance, that led to his downfall.
Abandoned by the UAE, Sudan’s Bashir was destined to fall
KHARTOUM – On the night of April 10, Sudan’s feared spymaster, Salah Gosh, visited President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in his palace to reassure the leader that mass protests posed no threat to his rule.
For four months, thousands of Sudanese had been taking to the streets. They were demanding democracy and an end to economic hardship.
Gosh told his boss, one of the Arab world’s longest serving leaders, that a protest camp outside the Defence Ministry nearby would be contained or crushed, said four sources, one of whom was present at the meeting.
His mind at ease, Bashir went to bed. When he woke, four hours later, it was to the realization that Gosh had betrayed him. His palace guards were gone, replaced by regular soldiers. His 30-year rule was at an end.
A member of Bashir’s inner circle, one of a handful of people to speak with him in those final hours, said the president went to pray. “Army officers were waiting for him when he finished,” the insider told Reuters.
They informed Bashir that Sudan’s High Security Committee, made up of the defence minister and the heads of the army, intelligence and police, was removing him from power, having concluded he’d lost control of the country.
He was taken to Khartoum’s Kobar jail, where he’d imprisoned thousands of political opponents during his rule. There he remains. It was a remarkably smooth putsch against a man who had seen off rebellions and attempted coups, survived U.S. sanctions and evaded arrest by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide and war crimes in Darfur.
Reuters interviewed a dozen sources with direct knowledge of events leading up to the coup to piece together how Bashir finally lost his grip on power. These sources, including a former government minister, a member of Bashir’s inner circle and a coup plotter, portrayed a leader who was skilled at manipulating and controlling rival Islamist and military factions in Sudan, but increasingly isolated in a changing Middle East.
They described how Bashir mishandled one key relationship - with the United Arab Emirates. Oil-rich UAE had previously pumped billions of dollars into Sudan’s coffers. Bashir had served UAE interests in Yemen, where the Emirates and Saudi Arabia are waging a proxy war against Iran. But at the end of 2018, as Sudan’s economy imploded and protesters took to the streets, Bashir found himself without this powerful, and wealthy, friend.
The sources recounted how National Intelligence and Security Service head Gosh contacted political prisoners and Sudanese opposition groups to seek their support in the weeks before the generals moved against Bashir. And in the days before the coup, these sources said, Gosh made at least one phone call to intelligence officials in the UAE to give them advance warning of what was about to happen.
The UAE and Saudi governments didn’t respond to detailed questions from Reuters for this article. UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash wrote on Twitter in June, after Bashir’s removal, that the Emirates were in communication “with all Sudanese opposition elements and the Transitional Military Council” that has assumed power.
“There is no doubt it is a sensitive period after years of Bashir’s dictatorship and Muslim Brotherhood,” Gargash went on, referring to Bashir’s Islamist allies in Sudan.
Relations between Bashir and the UAE were still warm in February 2017, when Bashir visited Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi. Some 14,000 Sudanese troops were fighting in Yemen as part of a Saudi and UAE-led military coalition against Iranian-aligned rebels.
The prince, known among diplomats as MbZ, was now hoping for Bashir’s cooperation in another regard - cracking down on Islamists - said a senior official in the Sudanese government who was briefed on the meeting by Bashir.
The UAE was leading regional efforts to counter political Islam, which it and Saudi Arabia viewed as a direct threat to monarchic rule and the region. Those efforts gained new urgency from 2011, when the Arab Spring uprisings swept the Middle East. One Islamist group in particular was going from strength to strength: the Muslim Brotherhood. The UAE and Saudi Arabia consider the Brotherhood a terrorist organization. The Brotherhood says it is peaceful.
In 2012, Egyptians elected Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Mursi as their first Islamist president. He was ousted by the army a year later, to the satisfaction of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which together with Gulf ally Kuwait sent $23 billion in aid to Cairo over the next 18 months.
In Sudan, the influence of Islamists was more deeply entrenched than in Egypt, and stretched back decades. Bashir seized power in 1989 as the head of an Islamist junta. Now Islamists controlled the military, intelligence services and key ministries. According to the senior government official, Bashir and MbZ reached “an understanding” that Bashir would root out Islamists and, in return, the UAE would provide Sudan with financial support. Bashir didn’t indicate how he planned to do this.
In broadcast remarks during the meeting, MbZ thanked the Sudanese leader for sending his troops to support the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Yemen. “I want to say a word of truth about the president. When the going got tough and things got worse, Sudan supported the Arab alliance without asking for anything in return,” said MbZ, sitting alongside Bashir.
Watching officials cheered and clapped.
Billions of dollars from the UAE flowed to Sudan after the Abu Dhabi talks. The UAE state news agency reported that in the year to March 2018, the UAE channeled a total $7.6 billion in the form of support to Sudan’s central bank, in private investments and investments through the Abu Dhabi Fund For Development.
One of Bashir’s most trusted aides, the director of his office, Taha Osman al-Hussein, was charged with handling Sudan’s relations with the UAE and with Saudi Arabia. Hussein, a former intelligence officer, was described by colleagues as ambitious and skilled. But government ministers resented his influence, complaining they couldn’t get to Bashir without going through Hussein, and that Hussein effectively controlled foreign policy. In one instance, he made an important foreign policy announcement to Sudan’s state news agency and Saudi Arabia’s press agency, bypassing the Foreign Ministry.
“He was the man who had a magic hold on Bashir’s mind,” said Ghamar Habani, a senior official in Bashir’s National Congress Party.
Hussein’s enemies, including Sudan’s then spy chief and leading politicians, publicly accused him of spying for Saudi Arabia. Sudanese intelligence alleged Saudi Arabia and the UAE had deposited $109 million for Hussein in a bank account in Dubai. Hussein denied these allegations, which Sudanese media reported at the time, in meetings with Bashir, several sources told Reuters.
Bashir finally dismissed Hussein in June 2017 when it emerged he’d taken Saudi citizenship, said the former government official. Hussein moved to Riyadh and became an adviser to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, a position he still holds, shuttling between the two states.
Reuters couldn’t reach Hussein for comment. The UAE and Saudi governments didn’t respond to questions about the matter.
“The issue of Taha (Hussein) left a big scar on Bashir,” said Habani, the senior member of Bashir’s National Congress Party.
His sacking was also a blow to the UAE.
”We are Islamists”
In the summer of 2017, a diplomatic crisis exploded among Gulf Arab states. The UAE and Saudi Arabia severed relations with Qatar, angered by its continuing support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The rift put Bashir in a difficult position. Qatar, like the UAE, had provided billions of dollars of financial aid to Sudan’s impoverished economy.
Bashir’s Islamist allies in Sudan pressed him to maintain links with Qatar and not to take sides in the dispute. Their message was very clear, said the former government official, “we should keep relations with Qatar.”
In March 2018, Sudan and Qatar announced plans for a $4 billion agreement to jointly develop the Red Sea port of Suakin off Sudan’s coast.
Bashir had chosen not to throw his support behind the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the dispute.
He had also opted not to diminish the influence of Islamists in his government. The senior government official said Bashir was afraid to alienate powerful Islamist figures. Among these powerbrokers was Ali Osman Taha, a former first vice president, and his successor Bakri Hassan Saleh, who took part in the coup that brought Bashir to power. Reuters couldn’t reach Taha or Saleh for comment.
By October 2018, Sudan was sliding into an economic crisis, with bread, fuel and hard currency in short supply. At a meeting of Bashir’s National Congress Party, Habani, the party official, asked the president why the UAE and Saudi Arabia weren’t coming to Sudan’s aid.
“Our brothers want me to get rid of you Islamists,” she quoted him as replying.
In December 2018, the UAE halted fuel supplies to Sudan, three Sudanese officials said, unhappy that Bashir wasn’t meeting his end of the bargain to squeeze out Islamists. “The Emirates and Saudi decided not to support Bashir financially because he refused to get rid of the Islamists and would not give in to pressure to support Saudi Arabia and the Emirates against Qatar,” said Habani. “They would not accept that Sudan would not take sides.”
In February 2019, Bashir appeared to seal his fate at a meeting of Sudan’s Shura Council, composed of the country’s top leaders. By now protests at soaring bread prices were raging across the country. Bashir declared: “We are Islamists and proud to be Islamists.”
The senior government official said this was the point of no return. It was clear that Bashir wasn’t going to take on the Islamists.
Increasingly desperate for money, Bashir travelled to Qatar later the same month for talks with the emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. According to the member of Bashir’s inner circle, the emir had offered Bashir a billion dollar lifeline. But Bashir returned home empty handed, the source said, after the emir revealed he was under pressure from “certain parties” to change his mind. The emir didn’t specify who these parties were.
Contacted by Reuters, an official at Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Qatar’s support for Sudan “is aimed toward the prosperity and well being of its people and is not tied to a certain political party or regime.” Qatar wasn’t pressured by a third party to stop its aid for Sudan, and development projects in Sudan were ongoing, the official said.
Behind the scenes, the plot to remove Bashir was taking shape.
An opposition leader, who was among political prisoners in Khartoum’s Kobar prison, where Bashir is now being held, recounted how spymaster Gosh unexpectedly appeared at the jail in the early days of January 2019 and met with eight opposition figures.
Gosh told the prisoners he had come from Abu Dhabi, with a promise from the UAE of fuel and other economic aid. He wanted the prisoners to support an outline plan for a new political system in Sudan. A source close to Gosh confirmed the conversation.
Gosh returned to the prison 10 days later. This time he visited 26 cells holding political prisoners. “From then on conditions improved. We were given free cigarettes and a TV and chewing tobacco,” said the opposition leader, who is now at liberty along with all the others. “We found it very strange that the intelligence chief would visit opposition prisoners. But when the coup happened I understood why.”
According to a senior Western diplomat in Khartoum, the member of Bashir’s inner circle and the source close to Gosh, in mid-February the UAE and Gosh proposed a dignified exit for the president. Under the plan, Bashir would stay in power for a transitional period to be followed by elections.
Gosh declared in a press conference on Feb. 22 that Bashir was stepping down as leader of the National Congress Party and wouldn’t seek reelection in 2020. But in a televised address shortly afterwards, Bashir made no reference to quitting as party leader, and he told party members later the same day that Gosh had overstated the matter.
Moves against Bashir began to accelerate.
The UAE made contacts with Sudanese opposition parties and rebel groups who had waged war against Bashir to discuss “the political situation in Sudan post Bashir,” said a rebel leader and a person who acted as a liaison between the sides.
“The Emirates and Saudi decided not to support Bashir financially because he refused to get rid of Islamists.”
When protesters set up camp outside the Defence Ministry, not far from Bashir’s residence, on April 6, Gosh’s National Intelligence and Security Service did nothing to stop them. “That’s when we realized the army was taking over,” said Habani, the senior member of Bashir’s National Congress Party.
Gosh reached out to top officials including the defence minister, the army chief of staff and the police chief. They agreed it was time to end Bashir’s rule. A source close to Gosh said each of the men realized “Bashir was finished.” A spokesman for the Transitional Military Council that now rules Sudan confirmed that Gosh took a lead role.
Bashir’s long-time ally, militia leader General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, was the last to join the conspiracy. Dagalo is better known as Hemedti, a name given to him by his grandmother. He leads Sudan’s feared Rapid Support Forces, a heavily-armed paramilitary unit that numbers in the tens of thousands and controls Khartoum.
Bashir’s fate was settled and in the early hours of April 11 he was removed from power.
A few days later, Hussein, Bashir’s former pointman for relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, traveled back to Sudan as part of a Saudi and UAE delegation that met Sudan’s new military rulers.
On April 21, the UAE and Saudi Arabia announced they would deliver $3 billion worth of aid for Sudan. Hemedti subsequently said Sudanese troops would remain in Yemen.
Around the same time, opposition and rebel groups were meeting with UAE officials in Abu Dhabi. Ahmed Tugod, a senior official in Darfur’s rebel Justice and Equality Movement, was among those who attended the talks. He said UAE officials wanted to hear their views on reconciliation and stability. “We focused on the peace process and how to resolve the conflict in the war zones,” Tugod said.
Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family, oversaw contacts between the UAE and the rebel groups, said Tugod and the person who liaised. Reuters questions to Sheikh Mansour, sent via the UAE Foreign Ministry and Media Council, went unanswered.
An effort by Qatar to send its foreign minister for talks in Khartoum was rebuffed.
In the weeks after Bashir’s removal, his old ally Hemedti emerged as the most powerful figure in Sudan, as deputy head of the Transitional Military Council that now runs the country. The former livestock trader gained international notoriety as one of the most ruthless militia commanders in the Darfur war that began in 2003. His militias were accused by human rights groups of atrocities including burning villages and raping and killing civilians. Hemedti has denied the allegations, as did Bashir’s government.
Gosh resigned his position on the Transitional Military Council on April 13. The spymaster was reviled by the protesters, and came under huge pressure to step down. Gosh’s whereabouts are unknown but security forces are deployed around his house in Khartoum.
On June 3, Hemedti’s soldiers crushed the sit-in outside the Defence Ministry, opening fire on protesters. Opposition medics say over 100 people were killed. Sudanese authorities put the number at 62. Then the soldiers set about clearing away the placards and banners, emblazoned with the slogans, “We don’t want to be like Egypt” and “United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia stop interfering in Sudan.”
By Khalid Abdelaziz, Michael Georgy and Maha El Dahan
Photo editing: Simon Newman
Design: Pete Hausler
Edited by Janet McBride