The news that President Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan plans to seek a third term in the forthcoming 2020 election may be music to the ears of his supporters but the move may prove a decisive turning point and could be met with fierce domestic and international opposition just days before the US is expected to lift economic sanctions on the African nation.
Central to the issue of lifting the 20-year economic sanctions has been the condemnation of Sudan’s human rights record, its treatment of religious minorities, its alleged state-sponsoring of terror and the indictment for war crimes of President Al-Bashir and other government officials by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
All those issues have been proverbial “sticks” to beat the Sudan government with and to justify an unwillingness to lift sanctions. Onlookers expect the President to step down in 2020 but as reported by MEMO, the President’s ruling party the National Congress (NCP) appear to be ready to bring forward the constitutional debate and insert a clause to that will permit Omar Al-Bashir to increase his 31-year-old hold on power in 2020 for at least another five-year term.
Next week’s deadline, like the one three months earlier, has been accompanied by mixed signals from Washington. On 24 September, Sudan was lifted from the list of countries banned from travelling to the United States. The move, although unexplained, seemed to indicate that a positive result on sanctions could be expected.
One prominent diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told MEMO that the odds had swung decidedly in Sudan’s direction following the lifting of Sudan’s name from the list of countries banned from traveling to the United States. “Before the lifting of the travel ban, I would have said we had a 45 per cent chance of having economic sanctions lifted, but now I would say it’s closer to 85-90 per cent.”
But a letter by President Donald Trump written to congressmen Jim McGovern in part designed to suggest that Washington was not going “soft” on Sudan and in part to show that it would not ignore outstanding issues Trump pledged to push Sudan to improve, “its record on human rights and religious freedoms and [push] to bring the perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur to the International Criminal Court [ICC].”
Those were not statements that Sudan was keen to hear but ironically MEMO’s diplomatic source said the indictment of the ICC had brought some positives to Sudan and the region. “The arrest warrant against the President is perhaps the only issue that all countries in the Arab League and the African Union unanimously agree upon and have gone out of their way to support Sudan.”
In addition, the inclusion on Sudan a few days ago on a list of countries not doing enough to prevent human trafficking also came as a blow to Khartoum’s effort to normalise its relationship with the United States and the rest of the world.
However, news that the ruling National Congress Party might seek to change the constitution and allow the President to stand for third term might, even at this late stage, ignite domestic opposition and antagonise US Congressmen, 150 of whom signed a letter last time round, to Trump objecting to the proposal to lift sanctions in July.
Editor of Sudan’s weekly business economic paper Elaff, Dr. Khalid Tigani, speaking to MEMO, suggests the views held by some Congressman means the complete lifting of sanctions next week is by no means certain. “I think that Trump might again strike a compromise to deliver part of what Sudan wants while imposing additional conditions that would satisfy anti-Sudan lobbyists and sceptical congressmen,” he said
One of the key questions in the minds of some senators is why should normal relations be resumed with an African president accused of war crimes and of sponsoring state terror.
“For many on Capitol Hill rewarding Sudan by lifting sanctions runs contrary to the stance taken against Al-Bashir when Sudan’s head of state was invited to attend the Saudi-American submit,” Tigani explained.
Then, the State Department declared Al-Bashir “persona non-grata” and forced the Sudanese leader to cancel plans, at the last minute, to attend the summit with other Arab leaders where he was expected to meet and greet the US President Donald Trump.
Yesterday, unconfirmed media reports surfaced suggesting that the complete lifting of sanctions would be announced ahead of the 12 October deadline. Apart from the five-track plan agreed with the Obama administration, Sudan’s Foreign Minister, Professor Ibrahim Ghandour, told the Financial Times of London that his country had also committed itself to additional agreements concerning North Korea. “There were concerns over the North Koreans but now the administration is quite convinced that we don’t have any relations with Pyongyang whatsoever.”
However, Tigani told MEMO that in his view, whatever the decision, the US administration is likely to continue to marginalise Sudan’s head of state. “We know that all the US intelligence and branches of the US administration including its diplomatic corps have signed off this issue and are recommending the removal of sanctions, all the negotiations have been done with appropriate government officials other than the President. It remains to be seen whether news of his attempt to run a third term would further entrench the opposition groups in Congress and the various lobbies that continue to oppose Sudan.”
What is clear is that Thursday’s deadline will be eagerly awaited not only by the Sudanese but by the various commercial interests in the Gulf and in Europe that are keen to capitalise on Sudan’s untapped mineral wealth.
They will also be keen to see signs that political and economic stability can be achieved. But with speculation that the President might stand again, there is a fear that the domestic political scene might be thrown into turmoil and, worst still, international pressure in the form of new sanctions might resume to ensure that Al-Bashir does actually step down at the 2020 elections.