By Kola King
The trial of former President of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir for overthrowing a democratic government in 1989 promises to be a test case for the rule of law, justice and the Constitution. If convicted, the former Sudanese strongman could face the death penalty or a life jail. Legal fireworks will determine whether soldiers who seize power by force of arms can be punished for overthrowing democratic governments and whether such cases are statutes barred. The trial of Omar al-Bashir is expected to throw up a lot of issues at the heart of the rule of law, democracy, and justice.
Although the issue at stake borders on the rule of law, still nothing can detract from the fact that Omar al-Bashir was both Sudan’s de facto and de jure leader for thirty years during which many treaties, agreements and protocols were signed under his watch. In this circumstance, would everything that was done during that era be considered null and void since by Sudan’s law it is a crime to seize power by force of arms? Of course, once he seized power, General al-Bashir repealed those laws. Still, these are germane issues that will be trashed out by both the defence lawyers and the prosecution during the trial. At issue are power, authority and legitimacy of the Omar al-Bashir government, which should enrich the corpus of knowledge on jurisprudence and law.
Al-Bashir faces charges of undermining the constitution, violating the Armed Forces Act, and fomenting a coup in 1989 against the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi. The trial has been adjourned until August 11. Other defendants in the trial are ten military personnel and six civilians, including former vice presidents, Ali Osman, and Bakri Hassan Saleh, as well as former ministers and governors. They are accused of having plotted the June 30, 1989, coup during which the army arrested Sudan’s political leaders, suspended Parliament and other state organs. Also, the coup plotters closed the airport and announced the putsch on the radio.
Moaz Hadra, one of the lawyers who is the arrowhead of efforts to bring al-Bashir and his cohorts to justice, had declared that they are charged under crimes including chapter 96 of the 1983 Penal Code, which had been abolished by al-Bashir, and which carries the death penalty for attempting to destroy the constitutional order. The lawyer told AFP news agency that “this is the first time someone who launches a coup will be brought to justice “in Sudan, which has seen three coups d’état since its independence from Britain in 1956.”
According to him, “This trial will be a warning to anyone who tries to destroy the constitutional system,” “This will safeguard Sudanese democracy. In this way, we hope to bring an end to the era of putsches in Sudan.”
However, one of the defence lawyers, Hashem al-Ghali, charged that Bashir and the others would face “a political trial” being held “in a hostile environment on the part of the judicial system against defendants.” He argued that the regime change of Mahdi’s government took place so long ago, claiming that the case is beyond the statute of limitations and should therefore no longer be dealt with by a court.
Whichever way things go, the trial of Omar al-Bashir will serve to put coup plotters on notice that their crimes against democracy will catch up with them sooner than later. This will further signal the supremacy of the constitution over the rule of dictators. Regrettably, military incursion in politics has done more harm than good, even though some had come at the onset with messianic zeal only to derail along the line. Notwithstanding, justice must not only be served but must be seen to have been served Omar al-Bashir and his accomplices.
At the moment, former President Omar el Bashir is serving a two-year jail term on multiple corruption charges. National protests had started in December 2018 after the government announced that the prices of fuel and bread will rise, which elicited calls for him to step down. He declared a state of emergency in February 2019. Yet after months of unrest, the military intervened and finally moved against him on 11 April 2019.
Omar al-Bashir ruled Sudan with an iron fist for thirty years before his ouster. When he seized power, Sudan was in the midst of a 21-year civil war between the north and the south. Before this, he was a commander in the army responsible for leading operations in the south against the late rebel leader John Garang. He later signed a peace deal with Garang’s People’s Liberation Movement. Thereafter, a referendum on secession was agreed as part of the peace deal. A referendum was held in January 2011 during which about 99 percent of South Sudanese voted in favour of separation. South Sudan became an independent state six months later.
During al-Bashir’s reign, Sudan was embroiled in a conflict in the western region of Darfur, where he is accused of organizing war crimes and crimes against humanity. Though he denies accusations that he backed the Arab Janjaweed militias accused of war crimes against the region’s Black communities. Because of this, the International Criminal Court (ICC) had issued a warrant of arrest for President Bashir for allegedly committing war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed by pro-government forces in Darfur.
The ‘60s were remarkable for Africa in the sense that most of the countries had gained independence from their colonial masters, breaking free from the chain of colonialism. But shortly after independence, military jackboots stepped into the political arena toppling democratically elected governments across the continent. Coup making had become fashionable at that period, so soldiers had turned it to a game of musical chairs as there were several back-to-back coups. While some were successful others were not.
Most of the military coups were bloody and resulted in the loss of lives. Coup plotters were focused on gaining control over the levers of power after which the constitution was suspended. They ruled by decrees. The military adventurers were quick to blame politicians for bad governance and corruption, and once the performance of democratic governments begins to falter, the coup plotters seized upon it to overthrow democratic governments. On the whole, Africa has experienced over ninety military coups.
Indeed the first military coup witnessed the toppling of Egyptian monarchy in1952 led by Colonel Abdul Gamel Nasser and the Free Officers movement. Thereafter the coups took on a domino effect from Togo, Sudan, Congo, Ghana, the Benin Republic, and Nigeria. Several other coups followed in quick succession. Like Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra-Leone, Burkina Faso, and Liberia also experienced several military coups.
Most of the military coups took place between 1966 and 1979. Recent military coups in Africa include coups in Mauritania, Madagascar, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Central Africa Republic and Togo. Now coups are no longer fashionable as democracy has taken firm roots in the continent. The era of coup plotters is over. Al-Bashir’s trial will set the tone for the rest of Africa. Now Omar al-Bashir faces the burden of a coup plotter.
*Kola King is a Nigerian journalist and novelist, and currently the Managing Editor of Nigeria Now, a news magazine based in Abuja, Nigeria.