(Reuters) - Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir likes to wave a stick when he speaks in public, and he does not speak softly.
Whether rallying his armed forces against internal rebels and the army of newly-independent South Sudan, or defying a war crimes arrest warrant from The Hague, the leader of mostly Muslim Sudan projects a career soldier’s voice of command.
Sending his military this month to recapture a disputed border oil region seized by South Sudan, the former paratroop commander unleashed a barrage of belligerent rhetoric against the ex-rebels who now rule his independent southern neighbour.
Calling South Sudan’s ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) “insects” - a play in words on their Arabic name - Bashir vowed to “liberate” the southern state that became the world’s newest independent nation in July last year. Its secession meant Sudan is no longer Africa’s largest country.
The South’s government would only learn from “disciplining with a stick”, Bashir shouted, flailing the air with his own trademark stick for emphasis. He warned that any who raised their hand in an attack against Sudan, would have it “cut off”.
South Sudan said on Friday it would withdraw its troops from the contested Heglig oil region, raising hopes the neighbours had pulled back from the brink of all-out war.
Three days later, Sudanese war planes bombed a market in the capital of South Sudan’s oil-producing Unity State. The South’s army called it a declaration of war and Bashir, who denied the raid, ruled out a return to negotiations.
In power since 1989 and one of the African continent’s longest-serving rulers, Bashir has deployed a combination of steely determination and wily pragmatism to face off a series of domestic and external challenges to his rule and person.
After Sudanese troops and militia fought a bloody campaign against a rebellion in the strife-torn western Darfur region, Bashir in 2009 became the world’s first sitting head of state to be indicted for crimes against humanity and war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
Publicly reviled as a war criminal by campaigning Hollywood stars like Angelina Jolie and George Clooney, Bashir steadfastly rejects the charge that he is responsible for atrocities allegedly committed against local tribes by the Sudanese army and allied Janjaweed militia, the feared “devils on horseback”.
He told U.S. interviewers in 2009 he viewed the ICC as “a political court and not a court of justice”.
Bashir called it a “tool to terrorise countries that the West thinks are disobedient” in the interview with TIME magazine and “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” on PBS.
His comment on Darfur, where Washington says “genocide” was committed, killing thousands and forcing some 2 million from their homes, was: “In any war, mistakes happen on the ground”.
Those who know Bashir say he reacts with rage when he feels slighted, as apparently occurred when South Sudanese troops seized the Heglig oilfield earlier this month.
“I know the personality of al-Bashir ... When he feels treated badly or mistreated, he gets really very angry,” said Eltayeb Mustafa, who is a relative and strong supporter of Bashir and whose Just Peace Forum party publishes Sudan’s most widely read newspaper Al Intibaha.
ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has said Bashir’s destiny is “to face justice”. But although Sudan’s president has sometimes changed his travel plans to avoid the threat of arrest on the court’s warrant, he has still found governments in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere willing to host him.
And to judge by the thousands of Sudanese who filled Khartoum’s streets on Friday to celebrate the recovery of Heglig, Bashir still commands popular support with his bombastic, stick-waving rhetoric, his impromptu dances and his regular use of colloquial Arabic.
Decisively re-elected in 2010, Bashir has shifted in his years in power from initially overseeing Sudan’s transformation into a radical Islamic pariah state that provided a refuge for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, to later improving ties with the international fold through a 2005 peace deal that ended more than two decades of north-south civil war.
Born the son of a small farmer in the Nile Valley north of Khartoum, he graduated from Sudan’s military academy in 1966. He was an obscure army brigadier when he came to power in a bloodless coup in 1989 in an alliance with Islamists, deposing the country’s last elected civilian government.
Relations with the United States hit a nadir in 1998, when Washington bombed a pharmaceuticals plant near Khartoum it said made ingredients for chemical weapons. Sudan denied this but has long been a target of U.S. economic sanctions and remains on Washington’s official list of state sponsors of terrorism.
After the 9/11 attacks on the United States, when then U.S. president George W. Bush warned nations they were either for or against Washington, Sudan stepped up its security cooperation, sharing information about its former guest bin Laden.
Over the years the Bashir government’s Islamist agenda has taken a back seat to a growing interest in ties with the outside world. This is especially true of Sudan’s oil industry where his government forged ties with Chinese, Malaysian and Indian oil firms in place of major western oil firms.
Oil - specifically who owns it - is at the centre of Sudan’s tense relation with its newly-independent southern neighbour.
By breaking away as an independent state, South Sudan inherited about three quarters of Sudan’s oil output, obtaining about 350,000 barrels per day (bpd) compared to Sudan’s roughly 115,000 bpd. The disputed Heglig field is key to Sudan’s remaining production.
Facing rivals within his own ruling National Congress Party, Bashir’s government has been struggling to cope after the South’s secession, with rising inflation, foreign currency shortages and an external debt reaching almost $40 billion.
Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s mantra was “speak softly and carry a big stick”. But when things look bad at home, a bit of victorious war rhetoric is always helpful to boost popularity.
Additional reporting by Alexander Dziadosz; writing by Pascal Fletcher; editing by Philippa Fletcher