U.S. Inaction Is Handicapping Sudan’s Revolution

August 5, 2020

In late June, tens of thousands of Sudanese protestors took to the streets, looking to “correct the path” of a revolution gone off course. Last year, their sustained campaign of protest against corruption and violent misrule captured the world’s attention and unseated the regime of strongman Omar al-Bashir. Great optimism accompanied those heady days, but transitional reforms have since been slow to take hold and elements of the old guard wait in the shadows, looking for an opportunity to reassert themselves. Meanwhile, the economic crisis that sparked the people’s revolution continues to bite, now exacerbated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last September, after months of jockeying between Sudan’s protestors, civil society groups, political parties, and the country’s bloated security apparatus, a transitional government was established. Led by a civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, and overseen by a “Sovereign Council” comprised of both civilians and powerful military figures, these uneasy bedfellows were tasked with enacting sweeping reforms and steering the country toward democratic elections in 2022. Hamdok made some important early steps, from disbanding a rogue security service to opening space for civil society and independent journalism. But the revolution has since stalled, and today an all-too-familiar narrative prevails: The cameras have moved on, but the difficult work of consolidating constitutional rule remains.



The Sudanese citizens who poured back onto the streets last month know that they are the engines of change, but that their goals can’t be achieved — and that political spoilers, corrupt interests, and foreign meddlers can’t be contained — without external support. The same is true for Hamdok: Turning things around will require that he assert greater control over the transition and the state, and he needs all the help he can get. The United States and other partners can help tip the balance in his favor — and away from the security establishment — but so far they’ve failed to give him the best chance to succeed.

For nearly three decades, Republicans and Democrats expressed a special and bipartisan interest in Sudan, championing a beleaguered citizenry’s hopes for a more democratic future. With that prospect now within reach, the United States should be leading efforts to revive the economy, buttress the democratic transition, and end the country’s international isolation. But not only is Washington doing too little to help Sudan’s new leaders seize the moment, its inaction is threatening to undermine their once-in-a-generation opportunity.

The Stakes

The United States has interests in Sudan that go beyond humanitarianism, and while the country is far from a geostrategic priority, neither should the ramifications of a failed transition there be understated. Free and open societies around the world are being targeted by China and Russia, American competitors that may welcome the emergence of a like-minded authoritarian at the nexus of Africa and the Arab world. Worse yet, collapse could yield Libya-like chaos in Sudan while negatively influencing events in Libya, Egypt, and Ethiopia — an already fragile neighborhood home to almost a quarter of a billion people.

For more than two decades, the United States waged a campaign of pressure and isolation against Bashir’s repressive government. It designated Sudan a state sponsor of terror (1993), delivered a double dose of trade and economic sanctions (1997 and 2006), and downgraded diplomatic relations. American officials refused to meet with Bashir for more than a decade, and led a sustained chorus of condemnation in international fora — effectively isolating Khartoum from the Western world. But while the actions of Bashir’s regime certainly warranted a forceful response, the American campaign against him failed to produce the desired outcomes: It neither meaningfully changed his government’s behavior nor forced a change of government.

It was Sudanese citizens who finally sent Bashir packing last year, yielding an opportunity three decades in the making. Now is the time for Washington to fully commit to the forces behind their revolution. With the window to act closing, the Trump administration and Congress should move swiftly to underwrite the new government’s political legitimacy and back the reforms that will provide a foundation for lasting change.

Removing the Scarlet Letter

First, and most consequentially, the United States should remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. No issue has become more polarizing, and more unhelpfully inflated, than the terrorism designation, which triggers restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance, exports, and transactions, and, most damaging in Sudan’s case, an effective block on desperately needed debt relief and development finance. Furthermore, the designation acts as a kind of scarlet letter, deterring most foreign banks and investors from going anywhere near the Sudanese market — even when and where the law allows it. While rescinding the terrorism designation alone will do little to restore the economy, it is an obstacle that should be removed — and fast. For many in Sudan, rescission has also become the barometer for measuring Washington’s commitment to the transition.

Hamdok appealed to Washington last September to stop “punishing the people of Sudan” for acts of the “vicious regime” under which they had long suffered. Under U.S. law, Sudan’s likeliest path to rescission requires a clean bill of health: A designated government must offer no support for acts of terrorism for six months and written assurances that it will refrain from nefarious activity going forward. Yet more than a year since Bashir’s exit, and with these statutory requirements realized, the scarlet letter remains.

Why? Successive U.S. administrations made a critical mistake by confusing the path to rescission. Seeking to extract political reforms, both Democratic and Republican administrations have made additional asks of Sudan’s government in exchange for its removal from the list, a tactic which failed to achieve the desired ends, confused Sudanese officials, and hurt American credibility. Today, there are some policymakers who, citing Myanmar as a cautionary tale, want to retain the perceived leverage that comes with the designation — a means of keeping the security establishment in check throughout the 39-month transition to civilian rule. Wary of the democratic regression that unfolded in Myanmar following the ascension of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2013, when the United States lifted comprehensive sanctions only to see the country slip backward under the sway of a still-powerful junta, they are afraid of making a similar mistake. But handicapping Hamdok’s fledgling government makes that undesirable outcome ever more likely.

The push for rescission has also been complicated by a series of U.S. court judgements against Sudan, which involve more than $10 billion in restitution for terrorist attacks committed two decades ago by al-Qaeda. The claims were brought by victims of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen — acts perpetrated by al-Qaeda but for which Bashir’s government was later found complicit on account of its provision of sanctuary and material support. In the fall of 2019, the Trump administration decided that Sudan’s removal from the terrorism sponsors’ list would be contingent upon settling these claims — a decision which cinched a Gordian knot even tighter.

The State Department, on behalf of the plaintiffs, and Hamdok’s government reached a preliminary settlement in March that reduced the sum owed by Khartoum. But in concluding that agreement, Sudan hopes to be free of any additional or future claims brought in U.S. courts. Indeed, it makes little sense to continue holding Hamdok and his cash-strapped government accountable for the sins of a bygone regime. Rescinding the designation would restore some legal protections, but immunity would require Congress to enact a guarantee of “legal peace,” as it did for Libya in 2008, in conjunction with similar claims. A handful of powerful senators are blocking such a path, however, over concerns voiced by plaintiffs who are either unsatisfied with the settlement or who want to bring additional claims. While every victim’s family deserves justice, further delaying Sudan’s removal from the terrorism sponsors’ list imperils millions more by jeopardizing Sudan’s fragile political transition.

Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo belatedly told Congress that rescinding the designation would be a “good thing for American foreign policy,” saying Sudan’s transition represents “an opportunity that doesn’t come along often.” Indeed, the Trump administration should de-link the issues and act now: Rescind Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, finalize the settlement with plaintiffs who are ready to be compensated, and bless a continuing legal process for those who want it.

Resuscitating the Economy

Washington should also help to resuscitate Sudan’s ailing economy, upon which the fate of the transition most depends. When Bashir and his cronies were finally unseated, they left behind an economy hollowed out by corruption and rendered radioactive to foreign investment. A quick scan of the vitals — 114 percent inflation, 40 percent youth unemployment, negative GDP growth, and an eye-popping $60 billion in unpaid debt — reveals a dire prognosis.

An overvalued currency and limited foreign reserves have exacerbated food, electricity, and fuel shortages. Hamdok needs to deliver an economic dividend if he is to satisfy the street, rally disparate political blocs, and hold off the vultures waiting for him to fail. To turn a corner, he and his government face a familiar dilemma: They should make decisions unpopular in the near term — such as lifting longstanding fuel subsidies — in order to achieve greater stability in the long run.

Hamdok’s reform package, in addition to cleaning up the banking sector, creating jobs, and providing offsets for those hurt by coming reforms, includes liquidating or re-asserting control over hundreds of state-owned enterprises, many of which are owned by corrupt security-sector elites. Turning off this spigot to these power brokers will prove one of the transition’s most difficult and potentially destabilizing maneuvers.

An international donor conference convened in June fell short of the kind of rescue package Sudan requires. While participants signaled political support for the prime minister and his agenda, the IMF managing director made clear that without greater donor assistance, “these reforms cannot have legs.” Not only was the United States not a principal sponsor of the conference as it should have been, but its contributions paled in comparison to Washington’s generation-long role in crippling the nation’s economy. In addition to upping its pledges, promoting private investment, and helping to recoup billions of dollars in funds stolen by former regime officials, the Trump administration should nominate an ambassador to Sudan and send Pompeo on an official visit to Khartoum. Doing so would help legitimize the transitional government and signal that the country is open for business.

Making Peace at Home

Sudan’s transitional charter calls for peace negotiations between the government and armed opposition groups that have long been active in the country’s western and southern regions. Since those groups were largely bystanders to the revolution and the establishment of new governance arrangements, the goal of peace talks is to achieve a more comprehensive national settlement that addresses the grievances of Sudanese citizens long marginalized by governments in Khartoum.

Some of the parties now at that peace table carry the hopes of long-suffering populations. Others, whose stature is derived more from a legacy of past influence than from popular support, are holding the process hostage. As deadlines for a deal slip by — the parties have extended talks roughly a half-dozen times since the original December deadline — the negotiations seem incapable of escaping a cynical logic, whereby talks are more about dividing up the spoils in a future government than about building strong institutions or providing for the common welfare.

Such posturing — this time over cabinet ministries, governorships, and seats on the Sovereign and Legislative Councils — is far removed from the spirit of the revolution and citizen action that propelled it. Together with African and European allies, the United States should signal its impatience with plodding negotiations, its expectation that the parties will soon conclude a deal, and its willingness to put resources behind implementation. These international partners should also make clear their readiness to sanction or otherwise isolate those spoilers who fail to understand how Sudan has changed.

Reckoning with the Past

Accountability for a generation of suffering is an almost universal demand among Sudanese of widely different backgrounds. The transitional government’s hint that it may cooperate with the International Criminal Court raised hopes that Bashir — one of four indictees from the old regime — would finally see his day in court. But military figures inside the government may look to block that outcome. (Bashir was convicted on corruption charges and is currently on trial in Sudan for his role in the 1989 coup d’état that brought him to power, but these only scratch the surface of citizens’ demands.) Meanwhile, the move to establish a commission to investigate crimes committed on June 3, 2019 — the day security forces violently cleared protestors from central Khartoum, killing more than 100 — was initially cheered. But that optimism has given way to frustration over the pace of the inquiry and investigators’ limited engagement with victims and their families.

A stable, democratic Sudan will arise only if the Sudanese people reckon with their past through a transitional justice process of their own design. They will need external support, however, because domestic courts are not yet strong enough to oversee complex mass-atrocity proceedings and because some of the individuals most responsible for crimes remain in positions of power — especially within the security services — and so are difficult to reach.

As in other transitional societies, the temptation is to focus on the here and now while pledging to delve into the past when there is political space to do so. But that space doesn’t appear on its own: It is created by determined leadership, and many Sudanese will not believe a new day has arrived until a modicum of justice is realized. U.S. diplomacy should consistently reinforce this demand, and Washington should make a significant financial commitment to supporting the courts, ministries, and civil society organizations positioned to advance transitional justice.

American foreign policy failures generate no shortage of critical attention, and rightly so. But opportunities for success sometimes generate less debate, as their implications for U.S. interests can be less immediately apparent. Helping Sudan consolidate its democratic transition is one such opportunity — one that requires comparatively modest inputs and will pay dividends for the United States and for those on the streets of Sudan.



Zach Vertin is a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. Jon Temin is the director of the Africa Program at Freedom House. Both previously served at the State Department during the second Obama administration.

Image: Osama Elfaki

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