Bashir appears in court as Sudan strives to move past his legacy

Toppled president represents the many ills that need to be addressed in a three-year political transition

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Four months after his removal from power by his generals, Sudan’s authoritarian ruler of 29 years Omar Al Bashir appeared in court on Monday, the first day of his trial on charges of illegally possessing foreign currency and accepting gifts.

Monday’s hearing, held amid tight security at a Khartoum suburb, took on added symbolic significance as it came two days after Sudan celebrated the signing of a power-sharing agreement between the military and an opposition alliance behind four months of deadly street protests against Mr Al Bahsir’s rule.

The 75-year-old former president appeared in court dressed in a traditional white robe and head covering. He arrived at the courthouse in a large military convoy that brought him from Kobar prison, the jail where he detained opponents throughout his rule and his place of residence since April.

During the hearing, Mr Al Bashir listened silently to evidence from investigators on how he came to have the millions of euros and dollars in cash that security forces said they recovered from his residence. The money was found shortly after he was ousted and led to his transfer from house arrest to Kobar.

The former leader separately faces charges of inciting the killing of protesters. He is also wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and genocide during the war against rebels in the western Darfur region in the 2000s. The military has said it would not hand him over for trial in The Hague.

Monday’s hearing served as a reminder of the corruption that defined Mr Al Bashir’s rule and contributed to the vast country often resembling a failed state. It was also in sharp contrast to the jubilation and revelry in Khartoum that followed Saturday’s high-profile ceremony for the signing of the power-sharing agreement.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets on Saturday night to celebrate, staying out until the small hours of Sunday, dancing, singing, waving the Sudanese flag and blowing horns in rare scenes of unbridled joy by a people more accustomed to the grief and heartache brought by war, famine, political upheavals and economic meltdowns.

That they had good reason to celebrate is beyond question, but the jubilation may, in many ways, belied the magnitude and intractability of the problems that need to be tackled and resolved in this Afro-Arab nation during a transitional period that will run until free elections are held in late 2022.

Sudan’s military removed Mr Al Bashir just two months short of what would have been the 30th anniversary of the military coup he led against an elected but dysfunctional government. It was the third and longest spell of military rule Sudan has endured since independence in 1956, with the other two accounting for a total of 22 years. Mr Al Bashir’s was by far the worst of the three.

"There isn't a crime that the regime did not commit," Nagi Al Asaam, a leader of the opposition movement behind the uprising against Mr Al Bashir, told the ceremony marking the signing of the power-sharing agreement.

It did not take long after that ceremony for some of the problems facing Sudan to rear their heads again.

Showcasing the fragility of the country’s ageing infrastructure and weakness of emergency services, torrential rains and subsequent floods across much of Sudan – something that occurs annually – claimed nearly 50 lives in the last few days, according to health ministry figures published in the media on Monday.

On Sunday, the day after the ceremony, long bread lines could be seen outside bakeries in Khartoum and motorists had to wait for up to an hour to fill up at petrol stations.

Politically, Monday's swearing-in of an 11-member council that will operate as a collective head of state during the transitional period was delayed for 48 hours because of differences within the main opposition alliance over its nominees.

It would have been the first in a series of steps to create the institutions that will govern Sudan for the next 39 months. The other two are a cabinet of technocrats and a 300-seat legislature.

Artists, meanwhile, are enraged by the whitewashing of graffiti in the area surrounding the headquarters of the armed forces, the site of a weeks-long sit-in encampment that was violently broken up by security forces on June 3. Some of the graffiti there included perceived insults against the military but the artists say they are determined to restore them to keep alive memories of the uprising, something that could ignite friction, and perhaps violence, between them and security forces.

The protest movement is also sticking to demands that are likely to cause friction with the military and possibly deepen the country’s divisions.

It is insisting, for example, that a thorough, transparent and comprehensive investigation is launched to determine those behind the violence on June 3. It is also demanding that a proposed process of national reconciliation includes bringing to justice anyone found guilty of crimes against the people.

But the litmus test of Sudan’s transitional period may lie in how the youth-dominated protest movement and the military will accommodate each other between now and 2022 and whether the generals are genuinely willing to step down then.

To many Sudanese, for example, the military and associated paramilitary forces are responsible for widespread abuses against civilians in regions where rebels took up arms against the government – in Darfur and Nuba Mountains in the west as well as Blue Nile south of Khartoum. Rebel leaders from those areas have rejected the agreement signed on Saturday, arguing that they were not part of the negotiations that led to it. Still, the document says the first six months of the transitional period would be devoted to ending those conflicts.

It is not an impossible target, but it is a difficult one to achieve given that the longtime demands of the rebels – self-rule, a fair share of national resources and an end to what they see as political monopoly by Arabised Muslims from the north – would fundamentally alter the country’s power structure.

Moreover, rebel leaders might have difficulty trusting the generals they blame for the death of hundreds of thousands of civilians in their regions and the displacement of many more, and would eventually demand self-determination. Already the mainly animist and Christian south of Sudan seceded in 2011 after decades of ruinous wars with the north, taking with it most of the country’s oil wealth.

The rebels are also demanding that Mr Al Bashir is handed over to the International Criminal Court to face trial for his alleged crimes in Darfur.

“The difficulty of the peace issue is that meeting the demands of those marginalised requires a complete overhaul of the entire political system,” said Hany Raslan, an expert on Sudan from Egypt’s Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “They are not just about demands, participation or positive discrimination.”

The economy is another major challenge facing Sudan as it enters the transitional period. Predictably, it is an area where the Sudanese who sacrificed so much during the uprising – hundreds were killed and thousands injured by security forces – could lose faith in their leaders if progress is not shown in the next few months. The list of what needs to be done is long and daunting, from unemployment, inflation, lack of productivity and foreign investment to dismantling entrenched corruption.

"The transitional period will not be easy. The legacy is heavy and Sudan needs something akin to reconstruction. The dream of a civilian state is not easy either in this part of the world," Ghassan Charbel, editor of the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat, wrote on Monday. "The balance of power dictates the success of this necessary tango dance between civilians and the military … In tango, you must understand your partner, appreciate his concerns and synchronise your steps with his."