by Yigal Chazan
The U.S. is facing a difficult dilemma as it considers when to lift severely restrictive sanctions against Sudan—sanctions that, left in place for much longer, could hamper if not derail a transition to democracy.
A new transitional government, recently constituted following the troubles that engulfed Khartoum after the April 11 ousting of dictator Omar al-Bashir, is aiming to resolve decades of internal conflict and rescue a sinking economy. Key to the latter, says Khartoum, is Sudan’s removal from the U.S.’ state sponsor of terrorism list, on which it was placed almost three decades ago.
The U.S. has been greatly encouraged by the emergence of a military-civilian, power-sharing administration that will pave the way for elections in just over three years. However, it wants to see evidence of progress on several fronts, including peace efforts, freedom of speech, and humanitarian issues, before it delists Sudan.
While it might be right to be cautious about the transition process, the terror designation prevents the new administration accessing international funds from the likes of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and stymies efforts to negotiate debt relief and attract Western investors. Sudanese authorities argue that delisting is necessary to enable them to address urgently deep economic problems—resulting from international isolation and mismanagement—that late last year sparked the mass protests which led to the eventual ousting of Bashir.
The issue of when to lift sanctions against a former international pariah that has evinced positive political change or compromise can be fraught with risk, as the U.S. discovered in the case of Myanmar. The Obama administration in 2012 began to ease measures as a democratic transition took shape albeit with the generals retaining substantial powers. Their subsequent persecution of the Rohingya prompted the U.S. to withdraw military assistance and impose sanctions on the army’s top brass.
The parallels with Sudan are clear and may feed into U.S. reticence over delisting. This month U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy said the country’s removal “is a process, not an event”. Other reports have suggested that it could take up to a year for Sudan’s designation to be removed. That, arguably, may be enough time to determine whether the country’s current trajectory can be sustained. But denying it access to finance and investment could inadvertently work against the outcome the U.S. seeks.
It is a tricky dilemma, not least because Washington was subject to a wave of criticism two years ago when it lifted most of its trade and economic sanctions against Sudan. That followed improved bilateral cooperation, particularly over counterterrorism in the region and access to areas of the country requiring humanitarian assistance. Rights organisations railed against the move because it came despite continued persecution of minority groups in the Darfur region of the country.
Some in Washington might have argued at the time that rewarding Sudan for its strategic assistance trumped lingering concerns over its human rights record. Whether similar compromises are worth making at this juncture is debatable, but the arguments for delisting seem more compelling as a democratic transition appears distinctly possible.
Under the agreement negotiated between the Transitional Military Council, which took over Sudan after Bashir was overthrown, and the pro-democracy movement, a sovereign council—comprising 6 civilian and 5 military members—will oversee a majority civilian government. The Council will be led by Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burham, who headed the TMC, for the first 21 months of the transition period and by a civilian for the remainder.
The deal followed several months of turmoil. The TMC and the opposition repeatedly failed to agree on the composition of an interim authority. Backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the TMC leaders wanted to control the Sovereign Council, which did not bode well for hoped-for democratic change.
Some senior members of the military leadership and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) want to protect their substantial economic interests in the country and are also probably fearful of facing trial for alleged financial crimes and human rights abuses over the course of the Bashir regime. Bashir himself has already been charged with corruption and was long ago indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
The new government, led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, an economist, has hit the ground running, forging ahead with the kinds of initiatives that will please the U.S. He has already made overtures to rebel groups from Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan. Indeed, on a visit to Juba in South Sudan, his first foreign trip, he met some of their representatives. Hamdok has also set out an economic rescue plan—aimed at curbing inflation and improving the supply of basic goods—and has sought Gulf investment. At the same time, his oil minister, Adel Ali Ibrahim, has urged energy companies to step up exploration efforts—Sudan lost about 75 per cent of its oil production in 2011 when South Sudan seceded.
But the government’s ability to deliver on these goals and more could be undermined by supporters of the former Islamist regime, particularly those among the military members of the new authorities and other powerful armed entities with vested economic interests. Points of tension between the latter and their civilian counterparts could arise over opening the economy up to foreign investors; oversight of the country’s gold trade and currency reserves; as well as control of foreign policy with neighbouring and Arab countries and peace negotiations with the rebels.
Yet unless the government can tap Western funds, it faces a much more immediate risk. Ordinary Sudanese are demanding economic relief and could come out onto the street if it is not forthcoming, as they did in the first throes of the revolution that toppled Bashir. The public are behind the country’s power-sharing agreement but, as much as they would like it to succeed, they will want to see tangible dividends sooner rather than later.
Delisting would no doubt help the government’s cause. Though funds may not immediately flow as Sudan would probably need to clear significant arrears with international financial institutions, investors will likely feel more confident about engaging. While the U.S. is right to be concerned about removing this critical sanction prematurely, it will understand that the new authorities must attend to the basic needs of the population in order to build their legitimacy.
In 2017 most sanctions were suspended for a nine-month period, then permanently lifted after it was felt that sufficient progress had been made on key demands. Washington might this time consider waiving temporarily the terrorism listing, or some comparable measure, to allow Khartoum to get its financial house in order. That may not be ideal, but it would be hard to argue against a short-term reprieve, especially if it helps to consolidate the power-sharing administration and gives further impetus to reforms.
Yigal Chazan is the head of content at Alaco, a London-based business intelligence consultancy.