By Magdi El Gizouli
Febraury 14, 2018
In a flattering piece from 1973 the New York Times picked up one of Jafaar Nimayri’s nicknames. Sudan’s president from 1969 to 1985 was known as “Sartana”, the hero of a series of Italian-made Westerns, dismissively known as spaghetti Westerns, once popular in Sudan’s cinemas. A Sudanese quoted in the Times piece said Italians, unlike the Americans, make no moral distinctions between good guys and bad guys in their Westerns: They like their heroes tough and mean. Sartana always comes back, bouncing alive from every encounter. “If You Meet Sartana Pray for Your Death” and “Sartana Does Not Forgive”.were memorable titles. When President Bashir issued a decision on 11 February bringing back Salah Abdalla Gosh, the dishonoured former spy chief, to his position as director of Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), the gist of the matter was immediately captured by Sudanese satire in a “Sartana” title “Light the Fuse…Sartana is coming”!
Cynicism in this situation is arguably a better frame of reference than grim political analysis. For certain individuals in Sudan’s political scene, the situation is not at all funny. The editor of a prominent Sudanese daily immediately went to work when he heard the news I suppose and wrote a 600 hundred words or so piece for the next morning to clear his tainted slate. In keeping with the tunes of power, the editor had hurled insults at Salah Gosh at the moment of his demise, when the former NISS director was accused of involvement in a coup plot back in November 2012 and thrown for eight months into a prison outside Omdurman that he had ordered built himself as spy chief and aptly named al-Huda (arab. guidance) Prison. This time around, the obviously overwhelmed editor claimed that he had been advocating for the return of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) old guard to power all along.
He specifically named three individuals: Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, the longtime vice president replaced by Bakri Hassan Salih in December 2013, Salah Abdalla Gosh, the security strongman, and Awad Ahmed al-Jaz, the veteran oil minister who vacated his post together with Taha and others in December 2013 but was kept in the proximity of the president as assistant and official for the China and Russia dossiers. The editor intentionally avoided one name, Nafie Ali Nafie, the former senior presidential assistant and deputy chairman of the NCP, and for good reason.
Salah Gosh had been party to a power struggle between Ali Osman Mohamed Taha and Nafie Ali Nafie on the side of the former that unfolded in full following the independence of South Sudan in 2011. Nafie calculated at the time that the opportunity was his to grab given the public perception that Ali Osman Mohamed Taha was primarily to blame for the outcome of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2005) that the vice president had negotiated eventually singlehandedly with the late Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) chief, John Garang. In an attempt to outbid Nafie, Taha announced a second Sudanese republic promising a new era of national reconciliation crowned by rapprochement with the US. Salah Gosh, the spy chief, played a pivotal role in this effort as the frontman in talks and active cooperation with the US security establishment. The security boss assumed a political profile of his own. His demotion from spy chief to presidential advisor for security affairs and eventually his public humiliation as coup plot suspect and inmate was in part the product of plotting by Nafie and co-conspirators. The matter was settled temporarily by the departure of both Taha and Nafie from the immediate orbit of power in December 2013. Taha went home and started a food bank and Nafie carried on a minor role as secretary general of his self-made Council of African Political Parties with headquarters in Khartoum. Out of prison, Gosh became a businessman with an itinerary that featured foremost Dubai. The three men, Nafie, Taha and Gosh, retained their seats in parliament and the first two remained engaged in the NCP kitchen. Significantly, Nafie continued to entertain a coterie of supporters with a literally ‘open door’ policy. His residence became a second Manshiyya as it were. The reference is to Manshiyya, the Khartoum neighbourhood where the late Hassan al-Turabi used to live. A continuous stream of followers, admirers and visitors were a constant presence in the sheikh’s residence as they are today in Nafie’s.
In any case, Nafie cultivated loyal followers in the NCP, loyal enough as to pursue the idea of naming the former security chief, presidential assistant and deputy NCP chairman for the leadership of the party and it follows as its presidential candidate in the 2020 elections. In 2015, Nafie’s ambitions were cut short by Ali Osman Mohamed Taha’s dramatic intervention in a decisive meeting of the ruling party Shura Council. Taha delivered a passionate plea in favour of President Bashir arguing that the president was the only credible guarantor of the alliance between the army officers and Islamist civilians that constitutes the backbone of the regime. President Bashir carried the day with a slim margin of six votes ahead of Nafie Ali Nafie. Today, the NCP seems to be bracing for a replay of the same dynamic in the run up to the 2020 elections. NCP veterans of stature are publicly advocating for a Bashir exit. Even the notoriously complacent speaker of parliament, Ibrahim Ahmed Omer, is tired of Omer but who isn’t? To counteract the unreliable Shura Council, Ali Osman Mohamed Taha and others launched in December 2017 an NCP-extraneous bid to nominate President Bashir in 2020 for another 5 years in office. Taha is apparently the not so discreet hand behind the ‘Initiative for Youth around the President’, a Sisi-style platform to promote the top man.
Arguably, a critical mass of army officers perceives President Bashir as the custodian of their interests. It is to these men that he reached out on Friday 2 February as a wave of protests against sharp increases in living costs on the background of a free fall of the value of the Sudanese pound, seemed to upset the status quo. President Bashir briefed army officers on the situation in the country and reportedly complained bitterly of his civilian allies blaming them for the current state of affairs. Creative reports claimed the president shed tears as he recalled fallen ‘brothers’, his former deputy al-Zubeir Mohamed Salih and trusted captain Ibrahim Shams Eldin (so trusted that Bashir picked his widow Widad as second wife igniting a salvo of second marriages in the men’s club of the ruling establishment). It is not entirely clear how the officers received Bashir’s emotional appeal. Nobody was allowed to speak. They listened and cheered, it was reported.
With the economy in disarray and the Sudanese pounds an almost worthless figment of financial imagination, President Bashir was obliged to screen his base of support for warning signs. He attended on 4 February a function of the Popular Defense Forces (PDF) in Khartoum. The mujahideen of old, long eclipsed in force and influence by the faith-deficient but militarily more effective Rapid Support Forces (RSF), were apparently enthused to see their commander in chief. The President asked them to prepare for the longer struggle, economic jihad to increase production and electronic jihad to counter the dominant public opinion against the government online. The President told the mujahideen that he fully trusted his ‘brothers’ in the Islamic Movement and the NCP and that he is not at all concerned with the 2020 elections. Trust aside, the president made it clear how he understands power. Rule is a divine call, he paraphrased the Quran, in his address to the PDF. The precise Quranic verse translates as: “O Allah, Owner of the Kingdom. You give the kingdom to whom You will, and take it away from whom You will, You exalt whom You will and abase whom You will”. The obvious message to Sudanese ears is: I am not going anywhere, inshallah!
With almost 30 years in his record and counting, Omer al-Bashir is Sudan’s longest serving sovereign since the age of Sennar, a longevity sustained by an ability to delicately calibrate repression, concession and cooptation. As the alliances that have sustained him so long seem to be suffering the strain of impending bankruptcy, Khartoum’s political class is loudly whispering ‘boo..boo…coup’, the favoured technology for the transfer of power for an opportunistic elite. Bashir understands well the industry of coups and hopes to guard himself against innovation. His manoeuvring space is however embarrassingly restricted. Short of trusted partners and money, the President is obliged to reinvent the wheel of his alliances. Ali Osman Mohamed Taha appealed to the bloated presidential ego by championing the cause of Bashir’s reelection in 2020. The gesture did not go unnoticed. On 7 February President Bashir inaugurated a factory for iodised salt in Port Sudan. Ali Osman Taha is the chairman of the board of directors of the mother company that runs the factory, an extension of his Food Bank enterprise. Taha for the first time since his exit from office in 2013 was on camera jovially gesticulating alongside President Bashir. Immediately, Khartoum’s rumour machine sounded the claim that Taha might soon assume the role of prime minister replacing Bakri Hassan Salih who would nevertheless maintain his position as First Vice President.
What has materialised though is the return of Salah Gosh to office, possibly on direct advice from Taha. The spy chief is arguably expected to accomplish missions worthy of “Sartana”: discipline the currency traders of Khartoum, curb the increasing public appetite for protests, bolster the ruling alliance with new partners, find a settlement with the insurgents of South Kordofan and the Blue Nile, manage the RSF and their commander Himeidti more effectively in order to address the army’s concerns in this regard, secure NCP support for Bashir’s 2020 candidacy, address the dispute with Cairo in order to suppress alleged Egyptian machinations towards a Sisi-style change of guard in Khartoum, handle Saudi and Emirati concerns about Khartoum’s trustworthiness, find a formula for accelerating the pace of the Sudanese-US rapprochement currently on ice, or simply put save the day. On his first morning back to work, Salah Gosh joined a committee chaired by President Bashir tasked with implementing measures to control the exchange rate. Whether Gosh can achieve all these tasks and in whose interest is obviously a ‘divine call’ to paraphrase Bashir the fagih but so is the throne!
The author is a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute. He publishes regular opinion articles and analyses at his blog Still Sudan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org