The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Five crises Sudan’s president survived before the mass protests that led to his downfall

Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir takes part in a ceremony in his honor in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, on his return from Ethiopa on July 30, 2016. (Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images)

It was always going to take a lot for Omar Hassan al-Bashir to fall.

For 30 years, the Sudanese president ruled with an iron fist, first overthrowing an elected government in a 1989 military coup and then cementing his grip on power. Remarkably, he held on for years even as he faced international condemnation, a warrant for his arrest on genocide charges, war, uprisings and sanctions. Another leader, facing just one of these enormous challenges, might have been unseated much sooner.

But it was a buildup of grievances that led to Bashir’s downfall this week. On Thursday, after months of mass protests that started over bread prices but were fueled by decades of frustrations, the Sudanese military took over national broadcasts and said it would replace the president. The announcement came after protesters held a days-long sit-in in front of the presidential palace.

Sudan’s military overthrows president following months of popular protests

Awad Ibn Auf, Sudan’s defense minister and vice president, said that the military would take over for a two-year transition period and that the constitution would be suspended. He also announced a state of emergency.

On state television April 11, Sudanese Defense Minister Awad Ibn Auf said President Omar al-Bashir was under arrest and announced a state of emergency. (Video: Reuters)

That frustrated protesters, who had hoped for a civilian government to quickly replace Bashir. In a statement, the Sudanese Professionals Association, which helped organize the protests that ousted him, called the military takeover “a coup to reproduce the faces and institutions that our great people revolted against.”

Below are just a few of the many storms Bashir weathered in the past three decades.

War in Darfur and ICC warrant

In 2003, rebels in the western Sudanese region of Darfur rose up against Bashir’s government, claiming Khartoum was mistreating them because they were not Arab. In an attempt to quell the uprising, the government backed militias known as the Janjaweed, which proceeded to attack civilians and block international aid. Bashir’s government has denied backing the Janjaweed. More than 350,000 people are believed to have died in the conflict, and millions of Darfuris have been displaced.

The crimes that occurred in Darfur were horrific. The United Nations documented mass killings, widespread rape and attacks on civilian water supplies. In 2004, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the conflict in Darfur amounted to genocide and said “the government of Sudan and the Janjaweed bear responsibility.”

In 2009, the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Bashir on charges that he committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. The next year, the court added the charge of genocide.

But Bashir managed to escape arrest. His alleged culpability in the crimes committed in Darfur earned him the nickname “Butcher of Darfur."

And human rights groups say the Sudanese government has continued to commit human rights abuses, not just in Darfur, but in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states as well.

Secession of South Sudan

In January 2011, southern Sudan voters chose overwhelmingly to secede from Sudan. They established their new country, South Sudan, six months later.

Independence came after decades of conflict between Sudan’s north and south. But Sudan relied heavily on oil reserves located in the south and has struggled economically since South Sudan broke away.

Strangely enough, Bashir has since become a mediator in peace talks between South Sudan’s leaders, President Salva Kiir and former vice president Riek Machar. A rivalry between the two men exploded into ethnic conflict in December 2013, and the violence has continued despite a number of peace deals. Millions of displaced South Sudanese have fled their homes, some of them going to Sudan, and last year, a State Department-funded study suggested that more than 380,000 people there may have died.

July 2014 marked the third anniversary of South Sudan's independence, but the country remained preoccupied with war. (Video: Reuters)

Declaration of Sudan as state sponsor of terrorism, and sanctions

Bashir was notorious in the international community long before he was wanted on charges of genocide for the conflict in Darfur. In 1993, the United States declared Sudan a state sponsor of terrorism, claiming its government harbored terrorists. (The former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden lived there in the 1990s but was expelled in 1996).

In 1997, then-President Bill Clinton imposed a trade embargo on Sudan over its “continued support for international terrorism, ongoing efforts to destabilize neighboring governments, and the prevalence of human rights violations, including slavery and the denial of religious freedom.” Washington later expanded its sanctions in response to violence in Darfur.

The United States ended the economic embargo on Sudan in 2017, saying the country had taken considerable steps toward addressing concerns over terrorism and human rights abuses. But even after the lifting of the embargo, Sudan’s economic woes persisted.

USS Cole bombing controversy

In October 2000, a small boat pulled up alongside the USS Cole, a U.S. Navy destroyer that was refueling in the Yemeni port of Aden. It exploded, and the blast killed 17 sailors and wounded dozens of others.

Ten years later, some of the victims and their families sued Sudan’s government, demanding hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

They claimed Sudan had enabled the attack by providing support to bin Laden — allegations Sudan has denied. The victims initially won the judgment, but the lawsuit was addressed to the Embassy of Sudan, not the government in Khartoum, and last month, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 8 to 1 in favor of Sudan, ruling that a lawsuit against a foreign government needs to be filed at the foreign minister’s office, not the embassy.

“The rule of law demands adherence to strict requirements even when the equities of a particular case may seem to point in the opposite direction,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the majority.

Deadly protests in September 2013

In September 2013, protests swept across Sudan as civilians filled the streets after economic austerity measures dramatically increased gasoline prices, prompting fears that the costs of other basic goods would also soar.

The government responded with force, at times using live ammunition.

Human Rights Watch said as many as 170 people were killed. The government disputed that figure. Political prisoners who were detained at the time told the watchdog group they were “beaten, verbally abused, deprived of sleep, and held for long periods in solitary confinement.”

At that time, some anticipated that the protest movement could grow large enough to pressure Bashir to step down. But the movement was quelled.