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How the US can pull Sudan back from the brink

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Secretary of State Pompeo’s recent trip to Sudan came as the country enters a make-or-break period. The civilian administration of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, a former United Nations economist, is tussling for control with Sudan’s powerful military and security services, boding ill for a scheduled 2022 transition to full civilian rule. Without robust support from the international community — and especially the United States — Sudan risks a backslide into kleptocracy and dictatorship, with dire international security implications. 

Despite the change in government, U.S.-Sudan policy is still defined by Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year dictatorship. To prevent a catastrophe, Washington must formulate a new policy, transitioning to carrot from stick with both deliberate speed and due caution. It should focus on three key elements.

Sudan’s economic recovery should be the top priority. While the U.S. has dithered on ending sanctions, suffering has deepened. COVID-19 has hammered Sudan’s economy — which was already in tatters before the pandemic hit — and further delayed the transition to civilian rule. The country is experiencing widespread unemployment and the worst famine in recent history while foreign debts and inflation have stymied attempts to jump-start investment. Most of Sudan’s oil resources were located in the South, and when South Sudan split away in 2011, the revenue went with it. Desperate protesters, who have returned to the streets of Khartoum in droves, could easily turn on Hamdok’s administration and provide an opening for the military to seize full control. 

The State Department should immediately ask Congress to remove Sudan from the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism blacklist, which blocks virtually all aid from the World Bank and IMF. Secretary Pompeo has proposed waiting until Sudan’s cash-strapped government pays $335 million to families of the 1998 embassy bombings, which Omar al-Bashir abetted by harboring terrorists. But further delay is tantamount to punishing Sudan’s people for the crimes of the dictator they overthrew — a criticism often leveled against the sanctions themselves. Nor should the State Department wait for a hypothetical detente between Sudan and Israel, which would require a stronger civilian government.

What happens after will be at least as important. 

A recent International Crisis Group report lays out the risks. The transitional government is attempting to wind down Bashir-era fuel subsidies, which are bankrupting the country while driving inflation and corruption. But it does not have the resources to help Sudan’s poor afford the concomitant rise in prices for basic goods.

Foreign help is the only realistic solution. The United States must be a core aid partner to the country, while vigorously encouraging our allies to pitch in. USAID pledged $356.2 million at a June conference. This should be considered a “good start.” International Crisis Group’s suggestion for a cash transfer program to offset rising prices for basic commodities is a sound proposal. The U.S. should also engage Sudan in a free trade agreement offering duty-free access to our markets, with facilities for American businesses to conduct direct trade with their Sudanese counterparts. 

Second, the U.S. should assist in developing agreements to unify the military and establish a lasting peace with the country’s rebel movements. The Aug. 31 peace accords will go a long way toward unifying Sudan and buttressing the civilian government, but it is a fragile beginning. Two key rebel groups boycotted the talks. Hundreds have been killed in Darfur in recent weeks, and there is much more work ahead to stabilize the region and stop the violence. 

A $750 million development fund is a critical aspect of the agreement. The U.S. should guarantee this aid. An end to the conflict in Darfur, which has left 300,000 dead and 2.5 million displaced, is well worth the funding.

The peace deal will integrate the rebel groups’ fighters into the national army, a key step towards normalizing the military. But it does not reform the security services, or the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a notorious state paramilitary group which committed countless atrocities in Darfur and is now interfering in the country’s transition to democracy. To carve out healthier civil-military relations, U.S. diplomats should work to ensure that the RSF is also absorbed into the regular Sudanese military. Unifying Sudan’s armed forces will bolster the country’s counterterrorism cooperation as the U.S. works with our allies to stop the spread of violent extremism throughout the Sahel region.

Lastly, the U.S. should create new methods for sharing medical and technological expertise with Sudan. In the short term, this will help to fight the coronavirus. In the long term, it will help to close Sudan’s food gap and rebuild its economy. Sudan has enormous potential for agriculture and solar power, but like everything else, it was squandered during the Bashir years. Food, employment, security and widespread electrification are all prerequisites for an economic system capable of supporting Sudan’s people. All will require international assistance.

Someday, Sudan may help to feed us. McKinsey has estimated that Africa has nearly 60 percent of the world’s arable land. As climate change begins to challenge global food resources, the continent may come to serve as a bread basket, to great mutual benefit. Sudan can play a key role in this future.

Will Sudan achieve a new future as a modern democratic state, or will it return to the horrors of the Bashir years? The answer may hinge on America’s action or inaction. The U.S. must not be a bystander in this period for Sudan’s history. A wait-and-see policy is not enough. Washington can start taking steps today to help Sudan rebuild from the ashes of dictatorship.

Herman J. Cohen was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (1989-1993), U.S. ambassador to Senegal and The Gambia (1977-1980), a National Security Council member (1987-1989) and a 38-year veteran of the Foreign Service. He is the author of ”US Policy Toward Africa: Eight Decades of Realpolitik.” The views expressed here are his alone.

Tags Abdalla Hamdok Africa Kleptocracy Omar al-Bashir State Sponsors of Terrorism Sudan

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