Sudan faces an inflection point — and needs US leadership

Sudan faces an inflection point — and needs US leadership
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When a military junta backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates deposed Sudanese president Omar al Bashir in April, the United States was seemingly on the sidelines. In contrast to the preceding 20 years, during which the United States played an instrumental role in mediating an end to Sudan’s civil war — the then-longest running war in Africa that culminated in South Sudan’s independence — and arresting the genocide in Darfur, the near total irrelevance of U.S. action amidst the most historic changes in Sudan in three decades represented a stark departure from the past.

As negotiations between the protest movement that led the opposition to Bashir’s regime and the junta that overthrew him grind on, the missing ingredient to generating a resolution that both advances the aspirations of the Sudanese people and promotes long-term regional stability remains a clear, public articulation by the United States of the specific parameters of a transition that would merit U.S. support. At present, there is little cause for optimism that the arrangements being negotiated will, in fact, empower civilian decision-makers, as required by the African Union, and therefore result in a transitional government that pursues a meaningful reform agenda.

A tendency to accept superficial, power-sharing deals in the face of seemingly intractable African conflicts has, for example, led the United States to support two untenable peace agreements for South Sudan that were characterized at the time as the best deals available but nonetheless failed to prevent upwards of 400,000 people from dying in the conflict that broke out in that country in late 2013.

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The United States should not make the same mistake in Sudan, where the stakes are even higher. With a population twice that of Syria’s situated at the strategic crossroads of the Middle East, North Africa, East Africa and the Sahel, Sudan’s collapse into war as a result of a failed transition would be the largest state failure in modern history. Egypt, Sudan’s neighbor to the north (population of 100 million), and Ethiopia, Sudan’s neighbor to the southeast (population of 110 million) would be caught in the blast radius. Weapons, refugees and extremism would be projected in all directions.

To avoid this catastrophe, the United States should pursue two inter-linked courses of action to shape the geopolitical environment in favor of a durable political settlement, rather than a hollow accommodation with a disparate, fractious and ultimately unsustainable alliance of warlords and military officers.

First, it must avoid the temptation to legitimize the junta or individuals within it who aspire to replace Bashir and instead use its leverage to mitigate the asymmetry of power between the junta and the civilian reformers. Second, it must build an international consensus around a transparent, publicly articulated economic bailout package for Sudan conditioned on pursuit of a credible reform agenda.

While the junta and the security services aligned with figures from Bashir’s regime cannot be wished away, there is a difference between recognizing that reality and capitulating to it. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, aka Hemetti, has emerged as the strongest member of the junta with the greatest control of Sudan’s meager resources, including the gold trade, smuggling revenues and infusions of financial support from supporters in the Gulf. Even if these revenues were applied toward the welfare of the Sudanese people, they would not be sufficient to address the magnitude of Sudan’s economic crisis. 

The notion that Hemetti — or any other security figure — could underpin stability or state cohesion in Sudan is a red herring. Instead of working to accommodate these actors, the United States and its European partners must demonstrate that the junta leaders face a binary choice: cede decision-making authority to civilians or face international opprobrium. The United States would need to provide assurances that rank-and-file military and security actors would not be wantonly purged so as not to further fracture the country.

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Only a civilian-led transition can pursue the structural reforms necessary to confront the economic crisis. The current understanding that the junta would only hand over to civilians after 21 months fails this test. Instead, the United States should set specific criteria for the character and core agenda for a civilian-led administration that would merit international financial support, including the uncoupling of the economic sector from the security apparatus, security sector reforms to establish civilian oversight, the expansion of civic freedoms and the protection of minorities, an independent judicial authority, and a credible mechanism for enforcing the transitional arrangements.

An economic package should not be funded solely, or even predominantly, by the United States and European allies but in coordination with the Gulf states as well as institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, where the U.S. has a decisive voice. In this scenario, Congress could be assured of the merits of removing Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, an essential step to unlocking U.S. support for Sudan in the International Financial Institutions.

The criteria for economic aid should be public so that all Sudanese can see what the international community is offering in exchange for real reform. If the junta then obstructs the establishment of a civilian transition with the decision-making authority necessary to pursue these reforms, the responsibility for the ongoing economic crisis will fall squarely on their shoulders.

The historic transition unfolding in Sudan will set the course for a region (whose population is projected to grow by 40 percent in the next 15 years) for the next several decades. The women and men on the vanguard of this transition — who represent constituencies that span socioeconomic, generational and ethnic divides — are demanding accountable government and economic opportunity, both of which run contrary to the ethos of the junta. United States leadership is needed to steer the outcome to one that will be stabilizing for the region and that will advance U.S. interests at the intersection of the Middle East and Africa.

Kate Almquist Knopf is director of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies and former mission director of USAID in Sudan. Payton Knopf is an adviser to the Africa Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace and a former diplomat serving in Khartoum. The views expressed here are their own and do not reflect the positions of the institutions or the U.S. government.