On the first day of former Sudan President al-Bashir’s trial in Khartoum, Yasser Basheer, formerly one of the president’s office managers and a witness for the defense, told the court that the president had a room in the palace, stocked with millions of Euros in cash. Basheer claimed that only the president had the key to this room, and the money in it was used to make payments to senior generals and other government officials; including the deputy leader of the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.

A second defense witness, Abdelmoneim Mohamed, an accountant with a private university told the court that al-Bashir had personally given 4 million euros to the director and deputy director of the university. 

Both witnesses seemed to confirm rather than refute the corruption allegations swirling around the ex-president.

Both witnesses seemed to confirm rather than refute the corruption allegations swirling around the ex-president.

Al-Bashir himself was silent in the courtroom, but in recent days seems to have hindered his own defense just as much as his chosen witnesses: In his first public remarks since being ousted by the military al-Bashir claimed that he received $25 million from Muhammad bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabiasent in cash, by private jet.

As a defense strategy against corruption charges, it certainly seems self-defeating to declare that you were the recipient, and distributor, of huge cash transfers from foreign leaders. It raises the question, what exactly is al-Bashir thinking?

Two theories seem plausible: First, it is possible that al-Bashir seeks not to deny that he was running an immense network of state patronage, but to portray it as a positive, almost fatherly way of governing. When he admitted to receiving the money from Muhammad bin Salman, the ex-president was careful to state that he had kept none of it for himself, but that he had donated it to good causes. Yasser Basheer, in his “room full of cash” testimony claimed that much of the money disbursed by al-Bashir was used to pay for citizens’ medical treatment. Similarly, Abdelmoneim Mohamed may have sought to present the 4-million-euro payment not as a bribe but a donation for worthy educators.

Second, it may be that al-Bashir is simply trying to implicate as many people as possible in his own corruption, in order to make clear that a genuine exercise in justice would be just as dangerous for his accusers as for himself. In naming characters as diverse as the deputy head of the RSF, the directors of a major educational institution and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, al-Bashir is signalling that he is a man who holds many secrets, and therefore considerable ability to embarrass the military wing of Sudan’s new transitional government and its international supporters.

It may indeed be a mix of both strategies.

Personal gifts to al-Bashir were part of how Saudi Arabia has been able to use Sudanese troops to support its war in Yemen.

In the meantime, al-Bashir’s unexpected strategy (if it is a strategy) is disclosing fascinating details about the workings of the authoritarian regime. The most eye-catching detail is the gift from Muhammad bin Salman, a detail which, if true, lays bare the extent to which the Saudi leadership, and bin Salman in particular, supported the dictatorship in Sudan. Particularly damaging is the implication that personal gifts to al-Bashir were part of how Saudi Arabia has been able to use Sudanese troops to support its war in Yemen. A war in which 10-14 thousand Sudanese are fighting and in which hundreds have died.

Also intriguing is the sheer simplicity of the patronage system: little more than cash, literally locked in a room. Bashir’s patronage network seems to have relied less on the state-apparatus than analysts had assumed, and instead consisted of little more than cash handouts, directed by the president himself.

What is certain is that this trial promises to be a lot more revealing than observers in Sudan and abroad had expected. If al-Bashir continues with this line of defense, and if the prosecution dares to be equally revealing, then we may see much of the workings of the old regime laid bare to the public eye. 

The potential consequences for Sudan are hard to gauge. Such an exercise in transitional justice holds out the hope of genuine progress against corruption, but also raises the risk of embarrassing the military generals in government to the point that they feel their power is threatened, and that they must take further violent action against their civilian counterparts in order to secure their power against possible judicial or political threats.

On trial, and standing in a steel cage, Al-Bashir may appear cornered, but he is a very adaptable man, and a supreme political operator. It is likely that whatever he is doing, he is doing it with focus and intent.