The Reckoning: Sudan 12 July 2017
Tomorrow, July 12, 2017, is the date set in Washington for a decision regarding the lifting of sanctions on the Republic of Sudan.
In Khartoum, hopes are running high. But the Sudanese are an ancient, hopeful people and they have endured twenty five years of United States-sponsored infamy with only hope to sustain them. Before that, more than a hundred years of subjugation as a province of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan that ended in a (locally) famous uprising by a messiah (Mahdi) whose tomb in Omdurman is a fading reminder of British colonial hegemony in the area.
In the recent period, the United States has almost singlehandedly wrecked the economy of the country in the name of democratic values that ordinary Sudanese can do nothing to secure for themselves. The Sudanese are not natural allies of non-western governments, though they are courted heavily and persistently by the Chinese.
But after your friend’s advances are rejected by indifference or rudeness, who can blame the partner for looking for succour elsewhere?
Sudan is a friendly country that has done literally nothing to deserve the fate imposed on it by the United States. That fate includes shortages of food, medicine (especially prescription drugs), energy, basic necessities, as well as educational stagnation, and social unrest.
Opinion is unanimous within Government: “The time is right for permanently lifting the sanctions on Sudan …We are counting on President Trump to take this courageous decision that will make not just the people of Sudan, but all of Africa, happy. ” Thus Abdelghani Elnaim, of the group promoting the Obama five-step plan.
The sanctions extend back to 1997 when the Clinton administration accused the government of Omar al- Bashir of backing Islamist militant groups. (Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was killed in a US commando raid in Pakistan in 2011, was based in Khartoum from 1992 to 1996.)
In fact however, it was Sudan alone that detected and expelled bin Laden in 1996 and had nothing to do with the more ambitious Saudi-financed plans that led finally to the attacks on New York in 2001.
The United States has never said thank you or well done for turning him out or publicly blamed Pakistan for taking him in. Instead, indifference and more recently malign neglect and incompetence has reigned.
The continuation of sanctions after the Clinton era were justified as reprisal for “scorched-earth tactics” by Khartoum against ethnic minority rebels in Darfur. In recent years, however, the fog of war has cleared and sober analysis of the conflict in the Darfur and (now) South Sudan has shown that while Bashir’s tactics were indeed heavy handed, the rebels in both areas of the country were not as docile as some human rights organizations had painted them.
The ongoing struggle in South Sudan, now a fully-fledged war in its own right, continues unabated but punctuated by Sudan’s willingness to provide refugee and humanitarian relief to those displaced from their homes.
As to terrorism, Sudan has never served as a launching pad for terrorist activity and has a long history of discouraging pro-Islamist groups. As an Islamic Republic, it has a typical suspicion of Christian groups proselytizing the local and complex Muslim sectarian population, but this position is typical of Muslim-majority countries in general. It is not unique to Sudan, and does not justify Sudan being labeled a state sponsor of terrorism.
Sudanese officials have regularly highlighted how Khartoum has supported US intelligence agencies in fighting extremism in the region, and also how it is aiding hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese refugees who have arrived fleeing a brutal civil war in their new country.
These facts were plain to President Obama when he recommended in January 2017 a measured and accountable process for lifting trade and currency restrictions on the Republic over a six month review period. It is that period that’s set to expire on Wednesday, 12 July, 2017.
The compliance programme – known as “five tracks” – include improved access for aid groups in conflict areas, an end to support for rebels in neighbouring South Sudan, an end to hostilities in the conflict zones of Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan, and counter-terrorism cooperation with US intelligence agencies.
By all accounts, Sudan has done its assignment brilliantly and in the best of times, the country could look forward to passing the six month review with flying colors.
“It will open new opportunities for us that never existed for 20 years, like accessing easy loans or technical expertise,” Finance Minister Mohamed Al-Rikabi said in an interview to a local newspaper.
But these are not normal times. The country Sudan looks to for relief is in the throes of a Constitutional crisis and unable to see beyond its borders to its international challenges and responsibilities.
Trump can lift the sanctions permanently, extend the review period or fully re-impose the embargo.
Unfortunately, the man in charge of the process is not a predictable player. He doesn’t know the game, the rules, or the field. Hence he cannot be trusted to do the right thing, let alone a courageous thing.
There are five reasons to be unhopeful.
1. The President has no context to work from: he does not know why the sanctions were imposed much less is he in a position to question the justice of the actions or make a decision regarding their status.
2. Mr Trump is not aware of the physical or cultural location of Sudan. It is entirely possible he could not locate it on a map. To him, it is a “problem” country that must first be treated as a problem, not in terms of its own vision for the future.
3. Even though president Obama sought and received Mr Trump’s agreement to lift sanctions on Sudan subject to the five-track plan, it is not clear that Mr trump was aware of the magnitude or details of that agreement. He has shown in ghis short time in office that he is willing to abrogate treaties and agreements on a whim, without much concern for the consequences of his decisions on allies and partners. Sudan is not a country he would be afraid to alienate. In addition, the very fact the plan was initiated by Obama might be seen as an appealing reason to cancel it.
4. Just as Mr Trump lacks historical context for why the sanctions were imposed in 1997, he lacks any information as to why they should now be lifted. There are Christian missionary and rights groups—perhaps the loudest—who see sanctions as a way of bringing the government of Bashir to heel, even though the embargo has not worked and the degree of human misery has increased in every decade. Mr Trump is unlikely to succumb to a humanitarian argument for the repeal of sanctions.
5. And fifth, Mr Trump followed the inept lead of his novice adviser Stephen Miller in January in including Sudan in his Travel Ban directed against six (at first, seven) Muslim majority countries, none of them significantly implicated in terrorist activity against the United States. The list itself is an embarrassing piece of pre-2001 memorabilia based on the movements of terrorist groups twenty years ago and never updated. Having censured Sudan, however, Trump may be unwilling to remove a country from the proscribed list thereby calling his own (or his advisers’) judgement into question.
All in all, the chances for relief from sanctions, so courageously begun in January 2017, are remote. The best that can be hoped for is that Trump will impose a longer waiting period. The worst, that he will terminate the process altogether as a slap in the face to his predecessor and a face-saving maneuver to shore up his militant posture towards the Islamic world. We hope for the Unexpected, and expect the Irrational.