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It is in America’s interest that Sudan’s transition succeeds

AP Photo/Marwan Ali, File
FILE – Sudanese demonstrators attend a rally to demand the return to civilian rule a year after a military coup, in Khartoum, Sudan, Nov. 17, 2022. Sudan’s ruling generals and the main pro-democracy group signed a framework deal until elections on Monday, Dec. 5, 2022, but key dissenters have stayed out of the agreement. The deal pledges to establish a new, civilian-led transitional government to guide the country to elections and offers a path forward in the wake of Sudan’s stalled transition to democracy following the October 2021 coup.

Last week was the 25th anniversary of one those milestones in American diplomatic history that pass unremarked in their own time only to reverberate for years into the future. On Nov. 30, 1997, career Foreign Service Officer Timothy M. Carney ended his assignment as United States Ambassador to Sudan. Little did anyone expect that it would be almost a quarter of a century until, when current Ambassador John T. Godfrey presented his credentials on Sept. 1, 2022, another Senate-confirmed envoy would be dispatched to what was then the largest country on the African continent (following the independence of South Sudan in 2011, Sudan is nowadays the third-largest African country after Algeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

A lot happened over the course of the intervening quarter-century. President Bill Clinton sent cruise missiles into the Sudanese capital in 1998, destroying a pharmaceutical factory suspected at the time of manufacturing a nerve agent and even of possibly being in cahoots with Osama bin Laden. Following Sept. 11, President George Bush stepped up counterterrorism cooperation with Sudanese intelligence as well as diplomatic engagement to end the north-south civil war in the country, paving the way for the eventual peaceful secession of South Sudan. At the same time, Khartoum’s handling of the new conflict that broke out in its western Darfur region led to additional sanctions and Bush’s signing of legislation allowing state and local governments to cut ties with companies doing business with Sudan.

President Barack Obama presided over the independence of South Sudan and its quick slide into its own civil war, but also continued a process of increased rapprochement with Sudan. Just days before he left office, Obama suspended many of the sanctions that had been imposed on Sudan by successive American presidents. In one of the most notable instances of foreign policy continuity between the Obama administration and that of President Donald Trump, the latter first extended the Obama suspension of sanctions, and then, in October 2017, lifted the two-decade-old trade embargo and other economic sanctions altogether, opening the way for U.S. individuals and corporation to do business with their Sudanese counterparts, in most cases for the first time in a generation.

Things began changing rapidly after the end of the U.S. sanctions and the reopening of the Sudanese economy. Protests beginning in late 2018 led the military to depose longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir, who had himself seized power in a 1989 coup. Following a lengthy standoff, punctured by several violent episodes, a transitional government composed of both military and civilian representatives was appointed in August 2019 and was supposed to run the country for 39 months, preparing a new constitution and organizing elections. By late 2021, however, the arrangement, which had been struggling for some time, collapsed and military officials took full control, initially detaining some of their civilian colleagues, including Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.

However, thanks in no small part to the persistent diplomatic efforts of the so-called “Quad” for Sudan — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, and the United Kingdom — as well as the United Nations, leaders representing the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), a broad coalition of pro-democracy activists, civilian political parties of various stripes, and a few rebel groups that had all united against Bashir, agreed on Monday to a new deal with the generals to end the country’s political deadlock by limiting the military’s outsized role in politics and the economy and putting in place a two-year transitional government led by a civilian prime minister.

The transitional authority will be mandated to draft a new constitution, opening the way to the country’s first free elections in decades. It will also be responsible for engaging the wider public on issues like transitional justice, reform of military and security services, and the implementation of the 2020 peace agreement in Darfur.

Achieving this ambitious agenda will require heroic levels of forbearance and commitment of all Sudanese. But, in addition, as the just-signed pact underscored, active U.S. engagement will also be needed.

The last quarter-century has shown what can happen when the United States walks away — as well as what is possible when America leverages her not-inconsiderable influence (the U.S. government is the largest international donor of humanitarian assistance to Sudan and has been for many years). 

When the military seized power last year, Washington condemned the action and immediately froze some $700 million in non-humanitarian aid and withdrew its support for the $50 billion debt relief that Khartoum was seeking from international creditors. The ensuing vacuum provided an opportunity for the Kremlin-linked network known as the Wagner Group to move in, acquiring gold mining concessions in Sudan, Africa’s third largest producer, while meddling in internal conflicts.

The Quad recognized the urgency of the situation when its statement in response to new agreement between the Sudanese military and the FFC declared: “We are working with partners to coordinate significant economic support to a civilian-led transitional government to help address the challenges facing the people of Sudan.”

A more stable and democratic Sudan would send ripples across the Horn of Africa and impact conflicts as far as Libya and Yemen. Thus, it is in America’s interest that Sudan’s transition succeeds — and for that to happen, we have to be engaged now more than ever.

Ambassador (ret.) J. Peter Pham is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council; he served as U.S. Special Envoy for the Sahel and Great Lakes Regions of Africa.

Tags Africa Barack Obama Biden foreign affairs Biden foreign policy Donald Trump George Bush Horn of Africa Omar al-Bashir South Sudan Sudan Sudan coup Sudanese coup Sudanese Revolution Sudan–United States relations
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