Excerpts: Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
SAM DEALEY, Time correspondent: On the issue of Darfur, in testimony last week before the Senate, the United States special envoy Scott Gration said he no longer believed that genocide is taking place in Darfur. Do you feel vindicated?
OMAR AL-BASHIR, Sudan’s president: First, we appreciate General Gration’s courage. We know that these facts are rejected by influential centers of power. We stress the fact that the situation in Darfur proves that there is no genocide or ethnic cleansing. The evidence is that displaced citizens from areas where there was fighting, and it is natural that in any area where there is military combat, civilians will emigrate, these citizens emigrated to government controlled areas under the Sudanese Army, the police and local authorities. The movement of citizens toward government-controlled areas seeking security is evidence that the government could not be responsible of such acts [genocide, ethnic cleansing].
SAM DEALEY: What aspect of responsibility do you take, then, for Darfur? As we said, there have obviously been some issues as with any more, but were mistakes made?
OMAR AL-BASHIR: Any government in the world, when facing an armed rebellion, has a constitutional, legal and moral obligation to resist these militants. This happens everywhere. You will find in all the world’s countries that militants that take up arms against a government are classified as “terrorists.” Even those who resist occupation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine are classified today as “terrorists.” Except in Sudan, when some take up arms, the government is [considered] guilty! This is a clear targeting of the government.
As a government, it is our responsibility to maintain security for all citizens in Darfur. A rebellion happened there, from a small group, and any attempt to picture the militants as representatives of the people of Darfur is a big mistake. This is a minority of outlaws that initiated military operations against the government. The government did its best [in the beginning] to accommodate the situation peacefully, and did not react until the rebels rejected all attempts to reach a peaceful solution.
When the rebels attacked El Fashir, the capital and largest city in Darfur, attacked the airport, destroyed a number of airplanes and even occupied parts of the city, the government then had to fulfill its responsibility.
SAM DEALEY: So there are no actions specifically though which you feel in retrospect were mistakes, or….
OMAR AL-BASHIR: In any war, mistakes happen on the ground; this is not the policy of the government. We are a government that functions according to laws. The security apparatus functions according to laws and whoever intentionally transgresses [the laws] is held accountable to law. We are the only country, in the Third World at least, that removed immunity from members of the armed forces, police and security and took them to trial. They were tried and some members of these forces were even executed, because they transgressed. Human mistakes happen .We’ve seen greater mistakes committed than what has happened in Darfur by ten times in Afghanistan and Iraq, but we hold accountable and put to trial persons [who break the law], as a responsible government.
SAM DEALEY: “Do you still maintain that only ten thousand have died in Darfur?”
OMAR AL-BASHIR: This is what we believe the number to be according to all the events that have taken place in Darfur. There is fighting between the armed forces and the rebels, so there are [a number of deaths] among the rebels and members of the armed forces. There are also tribal conflicts, which are not connected to any ethnic group [in particular]; it is not, as portrayed, an “ethnic war.”
Most of the intra-tribal fighting in fact is between tribes of Arab origins over resources, because years of drought that hit the area, made the scarcity of resources one reason for conflict, between nomads and peasants, between nomads themselves because gazing lands have become limited, because of the decline in rainfall. Conflict, therefore, between youth that heard their livestock is likely. We maintain that there is a problem in Darfur, and its main reason is environmental before anything else.
SAM DEALEY: How do you perceive the ICC's arrest warrant. Is it a nuisance or something more serious?
OMAR AL-BASHIR: We are not concerned with the ICC except for one issue; the methods that the Court followed had a dangerous impact in signaling a message to the armed rebel groups that they should not reach peace with this government because its president is wanted by international justice, which will definitely lead to the government's fall, and therefore, there is no need to talk to the government which is perceived to have the international community against it. This is the most dangerous thing with this Court. The ICC is a political court and not a court of justice.
SAM DEALEY: So you believe the ICC is an illegitimate organization?
OMAR AL-BASHIR: We think that the ICC is a tool to terrorize countries that the West thinks are disobedient. The African position today, by consensus, is not to cooperate with this court, and it has reached a conviction that this Court is directed against the countries of the Third World and a tool of neo-colonialism.
SAM DEALEY: One of the things Mr. Ocampo alleges in his application for indictment is that there is a clear command-and-control structure within the Sudanese government. That you are not only president, but you are Field Marshal of the Armed Forces, and therefore you are directly responsible for every action down to the lowest enlisted man. At the same time, there are ceasefires that are signed, and while the rebels have certainly violated their share, so has the Sudanese government. And to what degree do you control the apparatus of the government?
OMAR AL-BASHIR: As I mentioned, there are laws that govern the armed forces. Yes I am the commander-in-chief to these forces, but there is a joint-chiefs- of-staff, there are joint-chiefs for the army, the air-force, like the organization of any armed forces. The army conducts military operations with the support of the air-force. There are joint-operations-staff, units and leaders that manage operations on the ground, in addition to field-commanders.
For example, the US air-force in Afghanistan mistakenly bombed a wedding and killed 147 civilians. But you cannot say that the US president should be tried for this because he is the commander-in-chief of US forces, not even the [American] head of chiefs-of-staffs would be put to trial. But if it was proven that the field-commander that ordered this operation made this decision without confirming whether this was a gathering of civilians or combatants, then he is the one to be held responsible, and laws are clear on this. I mentioned that the law holds accountable those who transgress the law, and we've held trials.
SAM DEALEY: How many cases have been prosecuted?
OMAR AL-BASHIR: I do not recall [exactly], but I do recall that we removed immunity from a member of the [National] Security; he was put to trial in link to some events, and was found guilty and executed. There are a number of other examples that I do not recall at the moment, because they are trials carried out on the ground.
SAM DEALEY: One of the effects of course of the ICC, of the arrest warrants, is that you'll be unable to travel to - say - the United Nations. How effectively can you represent the country if you'll be unable to...?
OMAR AL-BASHIR: Up to now, I have not felt [any] restrictions of movement. I am not a minister of foreign affairs where I am supposed to travel frequently to other countries, conferences and meetings. A president has his deputies, assistants, and his specialized ministers, so it's not necessary for a president to travel to every country. But I have traveled all necessary travels.
SAM DEALEY: What is your governing style? Is your governing to be very hands on and to micromanage, or are you one who likes to delegate more often. What is your actual governing style?
OMAR AL-BASHIR: We implemented the federal system in Sudan. And if you look at the constitution, you can see the degree of powers that were delegated to the states....You will find that most of the powers that existed in the federal government were transferred to the states....... It is not possible for a president in a country like Sudan, the size of Sudan, with the immense problems of Sudan, to administer and manage everything.
SAM DEALEY: So you don't control all the power, and you don't exercise all the power?
It's very diffuse throughout the government?
OMAR AL-BASHIR: Yes, its spread out and everyone hold's their responsibility. There are regulatory agencies and in each state there are parliaments. Governors are responsible to their parliaments and to the president for their performance. I don't follow the details; no one can follow the details in a country like Sudan.
SAM DEALEY: The items currently on the table with relation to the United States is moving Sudan from the United States terror list, its list of nations that sponsor terrorism; restoring diplomatic relations; and perhaps the end of sanctions. What are the responsibilities of Sudan to achieve these?
OMAR AL-BASHIR: We are convinced that all the accusations made against Sudan are baseless. American intelligence agencies, whether the CIA or FBI, confirm that Sudan does not host or support terrorism. After the events of September 11, many predicted that Sudan would be one of the U.S.'s targets. But the U.S. did not target Sudan because its own agencies confirmed that Sudan does not host or support terrorism... .
U.S. special envoys that came to us, and I recall Danforth and Zoellick. Danforth came and had an appreciated role in helping reach a peace agreement in southern Sudan. He tied the removal of Sudan [from the list of terrorism sponsoring nations] and the removal of sanctions and the blockade against Sudan, and normalizing relations [with the U.S.] to the signing of the peace agreement. He did not mention terrorism or any other activities of Sudan that were needed to remove the sanctions. He said the only thing needed was to sign a peace agreement with the SPLA.
But unfortunately, after we signed, there was no response ... e think there are pressure groups in the United States that are stronger than the government's obligations. After we signed the peace agreement in Abuja, I received a telephone call from President Bush personally, and he spoke with great admiration and appreciation to what had been achieved in Abuja, and that the United Sates was now ready to interact with all openness with Sudan. But of course, he couldn't continue along this line.
SAM DEALEY: You feel that the responsibility then, that the failure to follow through on those promises was entirely due to the weakness of the United States government? Were there any actions by the Sudanese government that contributed to that as well?
OMAR AL-BASHIR: Until now, no specific action has been required of us in order to have these punishments removed. We were asked to sign a peace agreement to have the punishments removed, we signed, and they have not been removed. We signed a peace agreement in Abuja, and they have not been removed.
We think that the most recent special envoy's efforts, General Gration, and the new direction the American administration is taking to change the policies of the previous administration, and not to fall in its same mistakes. We have great hope that these efforts, and with the complete cooperation between us and the American special envoy, we will normalize relations with the U.S.
SAM DEALEY: If the South does vote to secede, what will the North's reaction be?
OMAR AL-BASHIR: Giving the citizens of south Sudan the right to self determination is something that all political forces agree on, be it the government or the opposition. Because the war lasted for long periods, the first war was for seventeen years and the second time was for twenty years, we were convinced that unity cannot be imposed by force.
The continuation of war is a continuation of distrust and hatred because war is all injustices. In this situation we decided to give the South the right of self-determination and gave ourselves a period of six years with the goal of building trust between Southern citizens and Northern citizens and to cultivate a culture of peace, because most of the youth in the South today were born and raised during the war.
Our goal is to achieve development in the South that would convince Southern citizens to vote for peace. We think that six years as a transitional period is a short time to rebuild an area the size of Southern Sudan, it is not an easy task.
SAM DEALEY: Part of the agreement that ended that civil war was that there will be wealth sharing. And so far some $7 billion dollars has been transferred to the South. What do they have to show for it? Where has that money gone?
OMAR AL-BASHIR: One of the trust-building elements is commitment to the peace agreement, and second, giving our brothers in South Sudan the opportunity to rule their country, because one of their complaints was that there was an attempt to impose custody or hegemony from the North.
Therefore, the agreement stated that the government of South Sudan should receive a share of oil revenue, and at their request, they would establish their own review agencies in South Sudan, and they don't want to be subjected to the review agencies of the federal government, therefore, the government of South Sudan should be asked about these funds. There is a parliament in South Sudan, and I addressed the parliament there, and I asked them, as a legislative and controlling body, to hold the Government of South Sudan accountable and inquire about these funds.
SAM DEALEY: Will southern Sudan be a failed state from day one? Do they actually have the capacity or the institutions to run a country?
OMAR AL-BASHIR: Because we know that our brothers don't have the experience of governance, and to govern a place like South Sudan that is ravaged, lacking basic infrastructure and services for citizens, and as we mentioned, the youth grew up during the war and carry weapons, and an unemployed youth caring a weapon might use it to meet his needs.
There is no experience of governance ... We asked them to benefit from the government's experience to establish institutions of governance and to put laws and regulations and to make use of Southerners who were in the civil service, because you cannot govern a state without a civil service. So our brothers, because of the distrust that was created during the war, refused this offer ... We are still in contact with them to help them administer a large country like South Sudan, which is not an easy task.
SAM DEALEY: After 20 years in power and with presidential elections coming up next year, did you ever consider not standing for the presidency again?
OMAR AL-BASHIR: The choice is that of the Sudanese people. That is a democratic choice, and we are absolutely committed to having elections next year... We are ready to accept any result, and call on anyone who wishes to observe these elections to come to Sudan and we will make it possible for them to move or be at any place they wish, and to get any information they want because these elections we insist, God willing, will be free and fair, and we will have a large number of witnesses to it ... we believe we will win these elections, but we will not decide winning the elections, but we think we will win it, and we think, that the others [political parties], are aware of our popularity and wide popular base.
SAM DEALEY: When will it be enough? When do you think your task will be done, and what is that task, what legacy have you not created yet?
OMAR AL-BASHIR: A person's aspirations to see the betterment of their country has no ceiling. We thought that after signing the peace agreement and achieving peace in south Sudan, that this was an achievement one could end their political life with.
But the agreement itself made it necessary to have the president, and the chair of the SPLA, as president of the Government of South Sudan, to continue [in their positions] to supervise the implementation of the agreement.....
Political work in Sudan, as I see it, is not a comfortable task. It is tiring, exhausting, and with great responsibilities. I used to tell some presidents who's periods had ended that the best thing is to be a "former president;" someone who is respected, appreciated, and without any responsibilities.