The Sudan Imperative

by R.  Joseph Hoffmann



In 1993, the United States designated Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism – a distinction currently shared by just six other countries, including Iran and Syria.

With Sudan still in his sights, President Clinton on 20 August 1998, ordered a Cruise missile attack on the al-Shifa Pharmaceutical Plant in Khartoum.  The pretext for the strikes launched by the United States military was retaliation for the truck bomb attacks on its embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya on 7 August, 1998.  Specifically, the Clinton administration alleged that the al-Shifa plant was involved with processing the deadly nerve agent VX and had ties with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network–believed to be behind the embassy bombings and a larger terrorist plot labeled “Bojinka.”

Also on 20 August, missiles hit al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, where bin Laden and his closest advisors had migrated. By the time Clinton ordered the attack, bin Laden had been expelled from Sudan by President Omar al-Bashir’s order: Sudan, which had previously and unsuccessfully sued for normal relations with the United States, became the only Middle Eastern country to deport him. When eventually he was discovered and killed, he had been given refuge in Pakistan for a period of at least eight years, without serious consequence to US-Pakistani relations.


Why was the United States Administration fixated on the al-Shifa Pharmaceutical plant while the CIA was focused on possible links between Iraq and al-Qaeda, links that proved illusory and did not involve the production of deadly chemical weapons?  Timothy Noah writing in Slate   said, “The best guess … is set forth in an October 1998 piece by the murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Pearl suggested that a man named Mubarak Fadl Al Mahdi put the word out that Al-Shifa was mixed up with chemical weapons in order to hurt the plant’s owner, Salah Idris, who was a political enemy of Mahdi’s. Mahdi admitted to Pearl that he’d made it his business to collect information about the plant after Idris bought it. Pearl further reported that after the bombing, Mahdi issued a communiqué that said Al-Shifa had harbored ‘Iraqi scientists and technicians’ and that most pharmaceutical plants in Sudan weren’t ‘manned by foreign experts.’ (Mahdi denied having said anything about this before the bombing, and U.S. intelligence officials denied that they’d relied on anyone with a motive to hurt Idris.)”

In the fraught anti-terrorist environment of the period between August 1998 and 11 September 2001, Iraq and al- Qaeda were often linked in the intelligence imagination of the United States.  This remained true even after the attacks of 9-11, when the dubious but repeated assertion of Iraq’s involvement in making “weapons of mass destruction,” including VX and other nerve agents, served as a pretext for the invasion of that country and the overthrow of its military leader Saddam Hussein.  After 9/11, Noam Chomsky equated  the Al-Shifa bombing with the toppling of the World Trade Center towers, an act of wanton, premeditated violence against a soft target costing hundreds of lives. The comparison was lost in the emotionally volatile period after the destruction of the World Trade centre, but the irony of the events was not missed in parts of the Middle East.

Yet the failure of investigators to discover any evidence of CW production during any of the period of US involvement in Iraq through 2011 did not cause the United States government under presidents Bush or Obama to revisit the stated reason for the destruction of the al-Shifa medical facility or rethink alleged, and by all accounts strained, connections between the government of Iraq under Saddam Hussein and that of  Sudan under Omar al-Bashir, both of whom opposed (and had reason to fear) the Islamic extremism represented by Osama bin Laden’s cartels.    While there is every reason to suppose bin Laden was behind the attacks on the African embassies, it is equally clear that Sudan had no role to play and remained docile in its relations to other African nations and also in relation to “rogue” countries like Libya, a traditional ally and benefactor of Sudan.  As late as November of 2001, four years after the al Shifa attack,  John Bolton, then U.S. Undersecretary of State, announced at the BTWC in Geneva that the United States was ”concerned about Sudan’s growing interest” in biological weapons, and suggested Sudan was among five nations believed to be pursuing  germ warfare.


In 1997, former US President Bill Clinton had issued an executive order that imposed a comprehensive trade embargo on Sudan and froze its assets in the US. In 2006, Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, issued another executive order targeting those involved in the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region. The sanctions have continued unabated and were renewed for a further year in November 2015 under the Obama administration.

There is little likelihood that they will be lifted in the lifespan of a Donald Trump presidency, given his inattentiveness, his lack of perspective on the region, and his malice for Muslims in general. Trump’s tendency so far has been to personalize Islamic violence:  He has, variously, suggested imposing a ban on Muslims travelling to America, advocated ethnic and religious profiling, and registration of Muslims living in the United States. Mr. Trump calls this “hyper-vetting” but by any other name it creates a religious test for lawful immigration and a blockade against legal residency and citizenship that it clearly a violation of the United Sates Constitution.  Given Trump’s almost complete ignorance of Islam as a religion, his dismal sense of geography, history, politics, and culture, and his overreliance on military advisors, it is too much to expect that he would listen to a case for lifting sanctions when it has not been high on the agenda of any president since Clinton imposed them in 1997


Was There Ever a Case for Sanctions

According to an article in Huffington Post by Esther Sprague of a pro-sanction religious organization called “Sudan Unlimited,”entitled Understanding Sudan and US sanctions, the penalties were created to bring Sudan president Omar al Bashir’s regime to heel for its oppressive policies towards his citizens and his use of the militias to quell disturbances and maintain order:  “Bashir’s objectives are three-fold,” she writes, “to maintain control of Sudan at all costs; to steal the resources of the country for his benefit and for the benefit of his narrow base of supporters and allies; and to change the multicultural identity of Sudan into a single Arab Islamic identity. Bashir has partially accomplished his objectives since seizing power in 1989 by instituting a policy of divide and rule among Sudan’s diverse population that has allowed him to use the people of Sudan to kill and displace each other, freeing up resources for exploitation and land for occupation by Arab allies; by marginalizing and disempowering indigenous populations; and through massive corruption that has destroyed the state while enriching the foreign bank accounts of a select few.”  According to Sprague, even though she styles sanctions an “imperfect weapon,”  “financial and economic pressure are the only language Bashir is likely to understand.”  Curiously, she thinks the majority of Sudanese recognize this and despite economic grievances (felt in all quarters—from banking to corner markets and medical supplies)—she feels continued pressure is the best and only way: “In order for Bashir to maintain a grip on the country, he must keep his supporters happy or at least well compensated, which is proving harder to do as Sudan’s economy continues to constrict as a result of the implementation of sanctions, largely led by the United States. This continued pressure is welcome news for the majority of Sudanese people, who have asked for these economic measures to be taken in order to help create change that ultimately may provide more of an opportunity for the Sudanese people and future generations to enjoy justice, peace and prosperity.”  Sprague’s risible suggestion–that the cure for hardship  is a longer period of hardship–is belied by the fact, verified in a series of United Nations reports and anecdotal observations from visitors to Sudan,  that the longer the sanctions last the more tenacious the suffering faced by ordinary Sudanese becomes.

A more measured approach is taken by Ahmed Saeed in Al Jazeera. Sayeed properly notes that the sanctions were originally imposed to stop Sudan sponsoring terrorism. He cites the visit of the United Nations Rapporteur Idriss Jazairy who concluded that the measures are failing to accomplish their objectives: “The reality on the ground has proved that these measures do not have a negative impact on officials or on any elite group,” Jazairy wrote after his visit, following US extension of sanctions on 3rd November 2015.”Their full impact is on innocent citizens and on a deepening of the gap in income distribution within the Sudanese society and between provinces.”  Rabie Abd Alaatie, a member of the NCP’s leadership office, said the sanctions have also affected Sudan’s imports. “The foreign currency reserve is very scarce due to the sanctions. This affects the importation of goods, sometimes vital commodities such as wheat…The comprehensive trade embargo is the set of measures which are affecting the lives of the Sudanese citizens. They have so far not been able to serve the purpose of modifying the policies of the government of Sudan, but have for sure affected many regular people’s ability to conduct business, transfer money, and go about regular everyday life activities.”

The Evidence is Against Sanctions

It is simple logic and history, where sanctions are concerned, that misery trickles downward to ordinary people while wealth stays at the top. Leadership groups and elites, and the clients who protect them, weather the storm of economic hardship better than ordinary citizens.  Unlike warfare, where civilian populations are targets of last resort, sanctions are aimed at governments in order to cause as little collateral damage as possible.  But the idea that sanctions work, given a long enough time to bite, is folly—whether we look at the case of Cuba, North Korea, Syria, or Iran.  Governments control economies, distribute both goods and services, and control banks and trade.  The use of the phrase “well-targeted sanctions” does little to change the fact that sanctions will end up hurting economic “civilians” while financial elites and leaders will find ways (and can find ways) to avoid the most difficult aspects of embargoes and currency restrictions.

This being so, there is both a pragmatic and a humanitarian argument for ending the embargo of Sudanese goods and the currency and trade restrictions now in place against the Republic of Sudan. As Doug Bandow has written in his Forbes magazine article on the subject, the sanctions, like the dog in the Conan Doyle story, doesn’t bark.  The pragmatic reason is ineffectiveness.  The humanist reason consists in consequences to the people of the Sudan, where in some areas the poverty rate runs to 50 percent.

Moreover, if counter-terrorism is measured in statistics, then Washington can claim the sanctions have done their job and lift them: Since 9/11 the administration’s latest terrorism reports have consistently stated: “During the past year, the government of Sudan continued to support counterterrorism operations to counter threats to U.S. interests and personnel in Sudan.”  And Sudan has been moving closer to America’s alliance partners in the Middle East—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf States. In Libya, Khartoum has shifted its support from Islamist to Western-backed forces. Sudan has historically been friendly to the United States, while the United States has adopted a much more proprietary stance towards Sudan since the accession of Omar al-Bashir in 1989.

The rationale for sanctions as a penalty for the government’s ethnic wars has also largely disappeared: If Darfur to the west is still occasionally restive, a peace agreement with southern Sudanese ultimately was reached, leading to the formation of the Republic of South Sudan, which has recently been in the news for its own civil war.  The trouble in South Sudan casts a backward light on Sudan’s attempts to quell disturbances prior to the partitioning of the country. Yet South Sudan enjoyed the immediate favour of the United States while Sudan itself was given no credit in the process and left out in the economic cold.


The separate insurgency in Sudan’s west, around Darfur, starting in 2003 led to the indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court. But the Darfur conflict is slowly subsiding. Moreover, as Colum Lynch has written in Foreign Policy, the sanctions proved totally worthless, and some would say counterproductive, as a mechanism to discipline the government during the worst days of the crisis in 2011.  The charges of corruption, and the indictment of Bashir by the ICC,  are very weak grounds for the continuation of sanctions, especially as the court’s decision is opposed by the African Union, League of Arab States, Non-Aligned Movement, and the governments of Russia and China.  Moreover, Bashir’s popularity in the country actually swelled following the ICC judgement,  in a classic Us versus Them scenario– the result of the isolation and self-protective reflexivity that sanctions have aroused in the population.

Hurting Minorities as Well as the Majority

Sudan has been labeled a “Country of Particular Concern” by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, yet religious discrimination and repression is far more pronounced in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, both of which the United States counts as allies. American Christians are among the loudest advocates of a continued sanctions regime in Sudan whilst Sudanese Christians are almost unanimous in their dislike of them:  Says Rev. Filotheos Farag of Khartoum’s El Shahidein Coptic Church, “we want to cancel all the sanctions.” Uninformed about the comparatively small Coptic, orthodox, protestant,  Roman Catholic-Christian presences in the country (about 3,000,000, now mainly in South Sudan) the Christians on the other side of the world are largely of an evangelical-missionary type and unaware of the complexity of the religious dynamics in the country. While all non-elite Sudanese are disadvantaged by the embargo, the small Christian community is affected disproportionately and Sudanese Christians complain that they are among those most hurt by sanctions. This is because many churches depend on donations which cannot be transferred easily in hard currency: supplies are hard to buy, replacement costs, furnishing and basic necessities for churches are difficult to locate and to purchase.

A consistent message from Christian  clerics like Hafiz Fassha, an Evangelical Presbyterian pastor at the Evangelical Church of Khartoum North, is that the pain is felt among “marginal populations, especially in medical services and education.”  He prays for the lifting of controls, which “are like putting oil on a fire.”  Isaiah Kanani of the Presbyterian Nile Theological College reported that “sanctions are affecting everyone in the community in every corner of the country.” Unfortunately, “the grassroots feel it very harshly.” He points to lost jobs and people relocating for work. Moreover, while people believe the government is not responsible for these problems, their “eyes fix on the government to find a solution.”  And to the north in Port Sudan, Father Antonio Manganhe Meej observed that “Poor people feel it more…While the U.S. might believe it is punishing the government…it is only punishing the people.”  Meej concluded glumly that when parents aren’t able to pay their school fees “it is becoming impossible to run our schools.”

Lifting Sanctions is a Moral Imperative for the United States Government

U.S. sanctions have lost any purpose they once may have had. And it is not clear that the sequence of events leading to Sudan’s being classified with Iran, Syria and North Korea as a “state sponsor of terrorism” was justified when the tag was first applied in 1993.

Three times in the past two decades Sudan has appeased the United States and gotten nothing in return but a prolongation of economic hardship.

When the CIA demanded the expulsion of Osama bin Laden after the embassy bombings in East Africa,   Sudan complied.  The United States countered that what it had really wanted was his extradition.  When the United States demanded stricter anti-terrorist measures within the borders of Sudan, Sudan increased surveillance and counter-terrorism operations to become, virtually,  the only terror-free zone in the immediate region—which includes Somalia,  Eritrea, Kenya, and Djibouti.  When the United States complained about excessively harsh and in some cases lethal measures against ethnic minorities in Darfur and minority religious and ethnic groups in the South, Sudan negotiated to partition the south and accept its existence as a separate state, South Sudan. Since these measures were taken, Darfur has become less restive and South Sudan has emerged as Africa’s newest country, though one beset by the same turbulence that characterized it before the partitioning.  The government in Khartoum, as most observers now recognize   is hardly responsible for the tribalist, ethnic and religious fractures in that society.

The United States since the Indian Wars has developed an ugly reputation for breaking treaties and backtracking on contacts and promises. But Sudan is a particularly ugly case of American deal-breaking. Ugly because it is difficult to know what now the country must do in order to appease Washington and restore economic ties.  A million voices are saying that the world has changed since sanctions were first imposed. Washington’s policy toward Sudan should change as well. As  Doug Bandow has argued in a variety of op-ed and analytical essays, “Politics today in Sudan is authoritarian, but that has never bothered Washington”—in Egypt, in Pakistan, and perhaps above all in Saudi Arabia—ironically a nation that has never been indicted as a state sponsor of terrorism. Meanwhile, it has gone to war in chaotic countries like Afghanistan and (now, due to its interventions) Iraq and Syria without being able to impose or solicit the kind of cohesion and relative tranquility that Sudan currently enjoys–without its assistance.

There will be a further consequence to United States’ indifference and callousness in Sudan:  Among the more perverse effects of sanctions has been to encourage Khartoum to look for friends elsewhere. State Minister Yahia Hussein Babiker has said that we are “starting to get most of our heavy equipment through China.” Chinese guests, businessmen, dealers, and workers are a common sight in Khartoum and hotel restaurants offering Chinese dishes (like the “Panda Restaurant” ) are expanding in all parts of the capital.  China is in Africa to stay—just as, sitting in my University study in Hangzhou, Africa, in the form of exchange students and guests, is in China.

The United States should not expect Sudan to hold its breath as the sanctions-regime unravels pointlessly and as Sudan becomes yet another in China’s long and growing list of bilateral trading partners and new best friends.  An enlightened Washington would have seen it coming.  But the real-world Washington is a very poor beacon of commonsense and a poor guardian of its own economic self-interest.