After months of wrangling within the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), the government declared its greatest ‘makeover’ since the split with Hassan al-Turabi in 1998/1999. Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, the long-serving First Vice President, in office since 1998 with an interlude as Vice President during the period of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), 2005 – 2011, was replaced by President Bashir’s confidante Bakri Hassan Salih, the only remaining member of the cohort of officers who led the 1989 coup in the circle of power. Hasabu Mohamed Abd al-Rahman, a native of South Darfur who served as commissioner of the Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC) during the height of the Darfur conflict and lately as Minister of Federal Rule, took over as Vice President from al-Haj Adam Yusif. Nafie Ali Nafie, the NCP strongman and assistant of President Bashir, lost his post to Ibrahim Ghandoor, and a majority of cabinet ministers including NCP stalwarts who had long recycled in the cabinet like Awad al-Jaz, Abd al-Haleem Ismail al-Mutaafi and Amin Hassan Omer were replaced by second-tier officials mostly promoted from administrative positions in the same ministries or called in from the states. Notably, the last remaining negotiators of the CPA and cooperation agreements with South Sudan, Idris Mohamed Abd al-Gadir and Mohamed Mukhtar Hussein, both state ministers, vacated their positions for new appointees. Likewise, the relatively younger al-Fatih Izz al-Din assumed the position of speaker of parliament instead of Ahmed Ibrahim al-Tahir who had held the post since 2001. Issa Bushra, the departing Minister of Science and Education was named as deputy speaker instead of Hajo Gasm al-Seed. Three prominent ministers though maintained their posts, Abd al-Raheem Mohamed Hussein in defense, Ali Karti in foreign affairs, and Mohamed Bushara Dousa in justice. Hussein has long been a target of severe criticism even within the NCP and in the officer corps of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) but continues to enjoy President Bashir’s confidence comparably only to the new First Vice President Bakri Hassan Salih. Hussein, like the President is indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes committed in Darfur.
The perception that the reshuffle marked the strengthening of the grip of the military over power at the expense of the civilian faction of the regime seems overrated since the two military figures in the inner circle of power, Bakri Hassan Salih and Abd al-Raheem Mohamed Hussein, never lacked influence over decision-making, and certainly always had the trust of the President. Rather, the reshuffle, particularly when considering appointments at the level of state ministers, is suggestive of a shift from the ‘old guard’ of the historic Islamic Movement to cadres groomed under the reign of the NCP, a demand that has been repeatedly voiced within the party. Nevertheless, the promotion of Bakri Hassan Salih to First Vice President, preceded by his recent appointment in the leadership council of the NCP and the higher leadership of the NCP-loyal Islamic Movement lends credence to the idea that he might be picked as President Bashir’s successor. Such a transfer of power, although only a speculation, would secure an exit for President Bashir without the risk of delivery to the ICC.
While the opposition including Ghazi al-Attabani’s new ‘Reform Now Movement’ dismissed the reshuffle as a cosmetic measure and reiterated the demand of a ‘transitional government’ and the resignation of President Bashir himself, the government overhaul is likely to be welcomed by the rank of file of the NCP, particularly that it stresses the possibility of upward mobility for home-grown loyal cadres who do not compare in prestige and standing with the ‘old guard’, distinguished by their foreign doctorates and international exposure. This regenerative ability, limited as it might be, challenges the opposition parties on a level that the parties would probably wish to ignore, namely the long reign of their own leaders. That said, the response of the mainstream opposition was generally one of bewilderment, much like the reaction to the coup in 1989 mythologised by Tayeb Salih’s question in an Op-Ed published in the Saudi magazine al-Majalla in the early nineties “Where did they come from?”
The opposition simply had no idea who these new ministers were. In the press, only al-Intibaha’s al-Sadiq al-Rizeigy offered biographical profiles of the new statesmen. Rizeigy hit a nail on the head with the remark that the calculus of rule in Sudan had changed from the domination of the urban ‘effendiya’ proper, the types picked by the late Nimeiry over the main evening news bulletin from the power-spoiled Khartoum University staff, to the ambitious elites of rural Sudan. In the style of the Justice and Equality Movement’s Black Book, Rizeigy noted the increased share of Darfur, Kordofan, eastern Sudan and Gezira in the central government at the expense of the ‘traditional’ excess allotted to the River Nile and the Northern region. Salah Wansi, Rizeigy explains, lived most of his life in Kadugli and other towns of Kordofan. Simeih, the Minister of Industry, hails from South Darfur. The new Minister of Interior, Abd al-Wahid Yusif, comes from tiny Ghibeish in West Kordofan, Yasir Yusif, the new State Minister of Media, is a Gedaref lad and Farah Mustafa, the new Minister of Federal Rule, calls the eastern Jebel Marra home. From Darfur also are the state ministers Fadul Abdalla Fadul and al-Sadiq Mohamed Ali, the first at the Presidency and the second at the Ministry of Labour. Mutaz Musa, the new Minister of Electricity and Water Resources who displaced Osama Abdalla, considered a favourite of President Bashir, and Ahmed Mohamed Sadiq al-Karuri who replaced Kamal Abd al-Latif as Minister of Mining, both served under Osama Abdalla in the Dams Implementation Unit.
The NCP, expectedly, celebrated the reshuffle as an unprecedented and bold undertaking with no comparison in the Middle East and Africa, undeterred by the obvious fact that the overhaul also demonstrated the centralisation of power in the hands of President Bashir and the military officers at his side with the exit of all potential competitors from the scene. It must be noted that Taha, Nafie, al-Jaz and other prominent NCP seniors continue to hold seats in parliament as well as positions in the leadership council of the NCP. The new deputy chairman of the NCP, Ibrahim Ghandoor, spoke optimistically of a new era of dialogue with the opposition, stressing the government’s readiness to resume negotiations with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement in North Sudan (SPLA/M-N), a new push for peace talks with the Darfur armed movements, and the NCP’s willingness to settle for a consensual elections law to govern the 2015 vote. Commentary in the Sudanese media focused on the ability of the new cabinet to tackle the country’s economic crisis as a condition for the success of the change agenda. In any case, the last time the government underwent such a makeover, following Turabi’s ouster, the CPA followed. It remains to be seen what concessions President Bashir and the officers at his side are ready to make this time to secure the reign of a regime that has arguably just undergone its third major mutation, the first being Turabi’s breakaway and the second the CPA and the secession of South Sudan. Nafie Ali Nafie expressed the ambitions at play in a speech to the NCP lawyers bloc bracing for elections of the bar association with Ibrahim Ghandoor, the man who just assumed his positions, at his side. Ingaz (the Salvation regime) has just reset its mileage to zero and started a new cycle, and will do so repeatedly till Azrael (the Archangel of Death) calls for the Apocalypse, he boasted. Nafie’s florid language could not dispel the ‘fatigue’ that has eclipsed over an Ingaz that has surrendered its ideological grit and organisational advantage, born of the experiences of the Islamist vanguard, to rely solely on the secular calculations of patronage and accommodation tied obviously to the promise of ‘developmental’ reward. Nafie’s script, it seems, was copied from the learning materials of the Communist Party of China, the NCP’s main interlocutor and model in party organisation. Unlike the Chinese rulers though, the NCP is yet to invent a retirement scheme for the Bringi (the number one), decorated with his ICC diploma. President Bashir who has effectively outmanoeuvred both Turabi and Taha, the sheikh and his captain, is the indispensable liability of the regime, Azrael indeed!