Over the past year, the Sudanese people have staged a near miraculous revolution, overthrowing the 30-year dictatorship of President Omar al-Bashir.
Following mediation led by the African Union and Ethiopia, a transitional government consisting of civilians and military generals is headed by Abdalla Hamdok, a veteran economist untainted by the decades of corruption and misrule. It is the best compromise: the army, and especially the paramilitary Rapid Support Force, are simply too powerful to be removed from politics in one fell swoop.
At the UN general assembly in September, and last week in Washington DC, Hamdok made a series of good-faith policy pledges to return Sudan to the club of respectable nations.
Hamdok is charged with the gargantuan task of steering Sudan out of crisis and into a period of economic stability and growth. But what brought the first demonstrators on to the streets a year ago was rampant inflation and the collapse of the wage-earning economy: ordinary people simply couldn’t afford to buy bread or fuel. That hasn’t changed. The economy remains on the slide towards hyperinflation and the people towards possible famine.
Wealthy Gulf states – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – bailed out Sudan with $3.5bn (£2.65bn) worth of cash and commodities earlier this year. That was never enough, given the magnitude of the crisis, and it is running out.
What Sudan needs is for its debt to be rescheduled and sanctions against it lifted. That will require action by the US to remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism (SST). Among other restrictions, inclusion on the list prohibits economic assistance, including loans from the World Bank and other international financial institutions.
International sanctions on Sudan began shortly after the last democratic revolution in 1985, when the International Monetary Fund suspended the country for non-payment of arrears on its debts. Intended to compel fiscal responsibility, that economic shackle condemned the democratic government to failure. So began a catalogue of foreign sanctions, mostly a story of mishap and failure.
In 1993, the US designated Sudan as an SST. Four years later, it imposed comprehensive economic, trade, and financial sanctions. In 2007, in response to the Darfur atrocities, Washington imposed further measures including individually targeted asset freezes. The measures hurt the regime, but also the people.
The economic and trade sanctions were eased in 2017-18, in a rare example of policy continuity between the Obama and Trump administrations. But the biggest measure remains in place: the SST listing. That basically prohibits anyone from doing business with Sudan without a special licence from the US Treasury; the alternative is prosecution.
And while legitimate business stays shackled, illicit business continues to thrive. Sudanese people call it the “deep state” – at best crony capitalists profiteering from oil and gold sales, and from the security agencies’ lockdown of the financial and telecom sectors, and at worst mafia cartels. Along with their soldiers on the streets, this financial muscle is the power base of the generals.
The military oligarchs’ power will start eroding when exposed to the fair winds of free competition – when sanctions are lifted.
The state department candidly admits that all its main objectives have been met: Sudan isn’t a state sponsor of terror and, indeed, has been cooperating with the US for years; it let South Sudan secede peacefully, and has been assisting in trying to resolve its neighbour’s civil war; and it is committed to democratic reform, and peace with the remaining provincial rebels in Darfur and Southern Kordofan.
But the US has not yet properly recognised the once-in-a-generation achievement of the Sudanese people. Last week, Washington made the symbolic gesture of sending an ambassador to Khartoum and followed up with promises of incremental progress towards normalising relations. But removing the SST listing has been made dependent on Hamdok enacting a series of reforms, which is like sending a boxer into the ring with one hand tied behind his back, telling him: “If you can knock out the other guy, then we will untie your hand.”
If Sudan’s economy slides into complete meltdown and the civilian administration fails, the rug pulled from under Hamdok’s feet will have “Made in the US” written all over it.
If the US administration – and Congress, which must approve the lifting of sanctions – wants to be on the right side of history in Sudan, it must respond expeditiously to the Sudanese people’s plea.
• El-Ghassim Wane is a former African Union and UN official with responsibilities for peace and security. Abdul Mohammed is chief of staff of the African Union high-level implementation panel for Sudan and South Sudan, speaking in a personal capacity; Alex de Waal is executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University
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