This interview was conducted Dec. 18 by Washington Post Africa bureau chief Kevin Sieff. It took place in Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s office in the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers in Khartoum. It lasted 45 minutes. Bashir spoke in Arabic. The translation was provided by Bashir’s personal translator, and the transcript was made by Sieff.
Washington Post: First, I was hoping you could tell me, as you see it, the impact of U.S. sanctions on the Sudanese people and the Sudanese economy. And what you would be willing to do to end those sanctions — if you see any compromise possible.
Omar al-Bashir: First of all, I very warmly welcome you. I welcome your paper. This is the opportunity we’ve been looking for in order to explain, answer and expose the realities . . .
First of all, I want to state this very clearly — that U.S. sanctions against Sudan are unreasonable, unjustified and unjust. And I will give you some instances of this.
If one of the reasons they put forward for sanctions against Sudan was war in South Sudan, this war is a legacy of the colonial period. Because Sudan was under colonization until 1955, when the war started, and Sudan got its independence in 1956. So war actually started when the British governor general was here in Sudan.
In this context of war in South Sudan, there was a hard-core commitment by the United States that if this war in South Sudan has ended, they will lift sanctions, they will relieve the debts of the government, and they will normalize relations. This was given in a bill — in a very strong promise — from Sen. [John] Danforth.
After we signed the comprehensive peace agreement with South Sudan, they shifted the agenda. They said, “No, no, we have another problem in Darfur. And we cannot do anything until the problem in Darfur is solved.”
Likewise we gave a compromise — and we signed a Darfur peace agreement in Abuja — witnessed and signed by so many, including [Robert B.] Zoellick, who was then the state minister of foreign affairs.
And again Zoellick agreed that if the Abuja agreement was signed, the same action will be taken to lift and normalize and all the rest. And it was a promise from Zoellick himself.
And after signing, President [George W.] Bush personally called me on the phone and reiterated the American policy that now we have fulfilled our part of the agreement and the United States is very ready to fulfill its promises. Personally he talked to me on the phone.
During the signing of the agreement, some of the rebel groups in Darfur refused to sign it. And they said — the international community, the E.U. and all who signed the agreement — said that whoever of the rebels refused to sign will be subjected to penalties.
Those rebel groups didn’t sign, and the sanctions and penalties went onto Sudan, while the rebel groups were never subject to any punishment.
We finished with Darfur, we finished with South Sudan, and then they shifted the agenda again. And they said — well, now, if Sudan will implement and fully execute the comprehensive peace agreement . . . then they will consider lifting sanctions and normalizing relations.
And as you know, we did. We accepted the result of the referendum. We were the first to recognize the newborn state of South Sudan. But still, sanctions are there.
Despite the fact that Sudan is so much impacted by the sanctions economically and politically. But we believe the United States is also hurt by sanctions imposed on Sudan.
We got back in retrospect — that all the concessions of the oil in Sudan were given to American companies. But when the sanctions came . . . we had to reorient [the oil] to companies other than the American companies.
And this is very important. The Chinese came, and we accepted them. Once these Chinese came in Sudan. You can see them up [garbled audio].
The Chinese came, they took the concessions. They achieved success in Sudan. This opened all the doors for the Chinese throughout Africa. They managed to go through Sudan and kind of spread.
And, of course, we need to see very clearly the loss incurred on the United States by the economic influence of china. It is a loss. That’s why we say the sanctions hurt us. But they also hurt the United States.
WP: Speaking about Darfur, I know you’ve asked for UNAMID’s departure. And I wonder if you think security in Darfur is good enough to allow for UNAMID [the United Nations–African Union Mission in Darfur] to leave. There’s been a surge in violence just this year, and hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced in Darfur.
OB: First of all, we need to emphasize this: The peaceful area in Darfur has expanded widely in the region.
With regard to the IDPs, which is a concern of the general [Bashir], there are hundreds of thousands of IDPs [internally displaced persons] left in the camps, and they went to their villages and they went back and it was safe and they farmed their lands.
And the fact that there are some left, it is a very general aspect in Sudan. There is a continuous flow from rural areas into towns, and this is everywhere in Sudan, and there are many reasons for this, and war isn’t necessarily one of them.
And, of course, those in these IDP camps . . . they are provided with food and medical services and everything. To them, it is an easy life. They would rather stay in these camps than go back and work.
And then you can see that there in these areas all over Sudan. Even in Khartoum you can see them because they are provided services in these IDP camps.
With regard to UNAMID, UNAMID has failed to protect even itself, let alone the civilians in Darfur. Just about a week ago, they had a patrol and they had all the arms, including armored vehicles. And they were met by a very small group of rebels and they gave in and fled. And the armored vehicles and the arms were taken away from them.
Sometimes even a pedestrian with a knife can take their weapons away.
WP: So you think Darfur would be a safer place if UNAMID wasn’t there?
OB: Let me reiterate this. The peaceful area in Darfur has considerably widened to the extent that there is no more need for forces to be in these areas. Part of this whole thing — there is an agreement with UNAMID that there should be an exit strategy for them. And they know that peace in Darfur is getting wider and wider and deeper and deeper.
And, of course, one of the indications that they are convinced that peace in Darfur is much much better — they transferred some forces to the Central African Republic and to South Sudan. They opted to do this themselves. It is a very strong indication that UNAMID is convinced that the area of peace has expanded in Sudan to the extent that there is no need for these forces to stay.
WP: I want to ask you about the accusations of the way you’ve dealt with the political opposition here. There are some people who have raised concerns about the protest in September 2013 in which 200 people were killed. Recently there was a member of the opposition who was detained. There were some more civil society activists who were detained. Some people point to these examples as evidence that you’re not willing to tolerate a political opposition.
OB: With regard to the September events, first of all the number of people who died is not correct. There were about 80. A single soul is very important to us. But the fact is that it is 80. Still we say the loss of one soul is very harmful to us.
These 80 people were killed through their direct attack on the police stations and the courts. And all police stations across Khartoum were attacked, and they have occupied some of them. And all the courts in Khartoum were attacked. Some of them were burned. Of course, this begs the question that if these events happened in the United States, would the government allow people to go and allow even a single police keeping security in the streets?
Of course we have examples in the United States. Even someone in his car who is asked to raise his hands and refuses, he will be shot. We’ve seen it. Especially if he’s black.
These protesters burned 42 petrol stations. All of the office of electricity distribution were burned and attacked, and they stole the money. Of course with this view I’ve just explained, you can’t say these were peaceful demonstrations. They were not. And during the first day of demonstrations, the police never intervened. But the whole thing executed the next day. And, of course, it is the job of the security forces to protect the people and the lives of the people. We considered them as hostile. They are aggressive, they are hostile, they kill people they destroy property. They are terrorists. They are designated as terrorists. Would the United States allow someone who goes and makes an agreement with al-Qaeda to come back and stay safely in the United States? And the courts were under the criminal law . . . it’s not under any other. They were charged under the criminal law. They are not political detainees.
Those who were arrested now were not arrested because they were politicians but because they violated the criminal law of Sudan.
WP: Do you think you’re going to be president for the rest of your life? At one point you said you would not run again, and it appears that you’ve changed your mind and you’ve said you will run again.
OB: Of course, when you look at the problems and the challenges in Sudan and I don’t think anybody would wish to be the president under such conditions.
Of course this is not the first time that I [silence] my wish to stay away. I started since 1996. From that time, whenever there is an opportunity, I would tell the people it is time for me to go and live as peaceful as possible a life as a normal citizen of the country.
And I’m looking forward to the time they describe me as the former president. And, of course, there are pressures from my own party and other Sudanese parties also, and I succumb to those pressures, but I hope as soon as possible I can find an exit out of this.
WP: You’ve been president for several decades, and I wonder looking back on recent decades — what’s your biggest regret?
OB: One of the things that has an impact on these two decades and more is what happened after we signed the comprehensive peace agreement. We signed this agreement. We genuinely implemented it, and we gave our brothers in South Sudan more than is entitled to them according to the peace agreement. I fought for years in South Sudan for the unity of Sudan. I was a commander in the fields, fighting for the unity of Sudan. As a politician, I worked very, very hard in order to maintain the unity of our country. That was my aim. Of course, the result came negative to what I was looking forward to happen after all these efforts, after all these years of hard work and labor. It’s one of the things that I forget because Sudan was divided in two.
WP: Do you regret signing the document?
OB: No. In the introductory paragraph of agreement, it is stated that two parties — that is, the SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army] and the government of Sudan — should work together to make unity attractive to people of South Sudan. We did our work genuinely, but unfortunately our brothers in South Sudan did not.
WP: Can you talk a bit about the Rapid Support Forces. There have been accusations that these forces . . . are Arab militias reconstituted and are now committing more crimes, especially in places like Darfur.
OB: I challenge . . . a challenge I put to everyone, everywhere . . . that they should provide one single event that these RSF committed in Darfur. If found, we are ready for an investigation anywhere. These forces dealt a severe blow to the rebel groups in Darfur. Of course, the nature of these rebel groups is that they are mobile and use four-wheel-drive vehicles. They are mobile throughout Darfur. And it was very hard for the regular army to chase them. That’s why you need a force to deal with them according to same nature — quick, mobile and using the same vehicles. That’s why the RSF were founded. They were very successful. They dealt a very severe blow to the rebels in Darfur. Because the nature of engagement is the same . . . they were successful and able to route out the rebels by almost 90 percent.
Of course, one of the missions of these groups is to face the rebel groups. But, at the same time, they are helping give assistance to the people. And if we track the route of these forces, wherever they go, they are welcomed by the people. They are commended by the people because they deliver services to the people. They give them food. They give them medicine. They repair the pumps.
I ask for an independent, impartial committee to come over and track the route of the movement of these forces. And if this stands to be untrue, we will bear the responsibility.
WP: The ICC [International Criminal Court] still has an arrest warrant for you, and I want to know after all these years what you think that this warrant still exists, and how it has affected your ability to govern?
OB: First of all this decision of the ICC is political.
Whoever now visits Darfur, and I think you might be able to go there, they found that all these accusations of ethnic cleansing, the killing of the people and mass rape, these are all false accusations. They can detect it themselves if they go into Darfur.
Secretary of State [Colin] Powell visited Darfur, and he came and he talked to me and he said very clearly that he was sure there was no genocide, there was no ethnic cleansing, these were all false accusations.
WP: But even our current president, Barack Obama, has called what happened in Darfur a genocide.
OB: Unfortunately, the Darfur problem has become an internal United States issue to serve political ends. During elections, it is an internal U.S. issue. Politicians use this to promote their agenda during elections.
Of course, Powell — when he went there, he found that governors and people in assembly. . . were from three tribes.
Later on, even [Secretary of State John] Kerry and [Vice President] Biden told some of our people that they have nothing to say about Sudan. But there are the lobbies in the U.S. — and Congress — that pressured the administration not to come forward. . . .
WP: What kinds of lobbies?
OB: All of them. Save Darfur and the rest of them. They collect so much money, but no money has ever been spent in Darfur. Otherwise it would be a paradise.
[He wants to add something]
OB: I initiated a national dialogue . . . [to bring together] all the political parties and social figures. And there was an acceptance. And we started working. During the last meeting, there were 93 political parties attending. Parallel to this, we had social and communal dialogue that includes all civil society, workers, all segments of society. We even invited rebel groups. The aim of this is to bring together the people of Sudan, to work together, unite, reach a consensus on a vision. How to bring peace and development.
WP: It must have been painful when the political opposition and rebel groups signed the Sudan Call rather than join the national dialogue.
OB: These groups signed a road map with [South Africa’s Thabo] Mbeki for national dialogue . . . but instead of coming forward . . . they joined this Sudan Call.
WP: Makes a national dialogue difficult?
OB: We will maintain the process, and I tell you we have the majority. And I’m sure through time when the process goes forward, many of them will come and join the process.