Khartoum, Sudan – Only hours before a South African court publicly called for his arrest, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir was flying home.
Bashir’s return to Sudan, in open defiance of the warrant for his arrest, made global headlines. Around the world, Twitter and news sites churned with debate over the latest diplomatic tussle in the International Criminal Court’s grab for Bashir.
Yet back home in Sudan, life went on as usual.
“I don’t know what all the fuss is about,” said Zahra Ali, a tea lady and mother who moved to Khartoum from Darfur in order to escape the violence there. “It’s a court, people go and then it’s decided whether they’re to be set free or not.”
On Monday, when Sudanese citizens gathered to greet Bashir at the Khartoum airport, Ali watched the arrival on her television set, feeling ambivalent.
In her eyes, the drama on the international stage was irrelevant compared to the small, pressing concerns of everyday life in Sudan, where 46.5 percent of the population lives in poverty.
“Flour, onions, tomatoes, sugar, and everything else – prices are going up constantly,” she said. ‘”What are we to do?”
When the political situation in South Africa was unravelling, many back home were watching with dismay as the black market exchange rate for the Sudanese pound spiked to 9.5 per US dollar. These fluctuations in the pound’s value will significantly strain those with stagnant or nonexistent salaries.
“Prices go up and salaries do not,” said Tarig al-Sir, who works for a private firm. For Sir, paying attention to politics is impossible in the face of more pressing financial difficulties.
“Daily life has its dues. It’s more than a struggle,” he said, adding that he had not even been aware of the president’s trip to South Africa until a friend sent him a copy of the court order on Whatsapp.
“Political support is one thing, but I have so much on my mind to even care what happens in politics,” he said.
Others in the country, however, reacted to the news of the president’s return with more enthusiasm.
When Bashir arrived at the airport in Khartoum on Monday, hundreds gathered to welcome him back in an outpouring of support. Bashir, who has served as president since 1993, rode in the back of an open car while a crowd cheered from the sidelines.
According to Omer Abd al-Aziz, a law professor at the University of Bahri in Khartoum, demonstrations of support may have been buoyed by a perceived political agenda in the ICC’s workings.
“From a legal standpoint, the court is selective and the whole world knows this,” Aziz said. “The events in Iraq and Palestine and other parts of the world are left unattended by the ICC, while this one is at the receiving end of the bulk of the ICC’s attention.
“This episode had more to do with the inner political workings in South Africa than it did with the issue of Bashir and the ICC,” he added.
The ICC’s charges, which Sudan’s foreign minister denounced as “lame and meaningless”, include genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Bashir’s time in power has been marked by war and a brutal conflict with South Sudan, which declared itself independent in 2011. Though the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Bashir in 2009, the president went on to win two consecutive elections, flouting an international travel ban in order to make diplomatic trips and later attend the African Union summit in South Africa.
Sabir Mohammed, a rickshaw driver based in Khartoum, saw no issue with this.
“I don’t care about the summit,” he said. “Summits are held all the time, but Bashir is our president and he is the one to represent us and we won’t turn him over.”
A strong supporter of Bashir, whom he called the “Lion of Africa”, Sabir was jubilant over the president’s return.
“They couldn’t get him. And they won’t,” Sabir said. “The ICC has tried for years but the president knows how to handle them.”
Yet Sabir’s admiration for Bashir is complicated by his own frustrations with the economic pitfalls of the country. Despite holding a university degree in urban development, Sabir has been unable to find a steady job, even after going door-to-door with applications.
“The government is not doing enough to help us,” he said. “But that does not mean I wish the president gets arrested.”
Citizens like Sabir are still grappling with the economic shockwaves of South Sudan’s secession, which cost Sudan the loss of oil revenue that made up for 95 percent of the country’s exports. In addition to inflation, the World Bank notes corruption as a main factor constraining business development and employment.
Sabir expressed a desire to see the exit of all government officials who “do nothing but slack and only work to benefit themselves”.
“They spend millions on elections and not on creating job opportunities,” he added. “The president must change them.”