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Trump's refusal to remove Sudan from terror list may force interim government to make tough decisions

November 3, 2019 at 3:30 pm

A group of people stage a demonstration call for the disbanding of Sudan’s former ruling National Congress Party (NCP), which was headed by ousted President Omar al-Bashir, on 21 October, 2019 in Khartoum, Sudan [Mahmoud Hajaj/Anadolu Agency]

The decision by United States’ President Donald Trump to continue sanctions against Sudan is the clearest indication yet of the unwillingness to acknowledge or accept the progress made by Sudan’s December revolution and its new interim government.  Following last week’s visit by a delegation led by Sudanese Finance Minister, Ibrahim ElBadawi, in a press conference at Khartoum Airport on his return, he gave an upbeat assessment of the prospects of getting the Sudanese economy back on track. He said, “the ball is firmly in our court to do what is necessary to transform the economy.”

His comments came at the end of meetings with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). He suggested Sudan would escape paying its debts in exchange for an agreed structural economic readjustment plan that could include non-financial support. Elbadawi said, “friends of Sudan” would pay for the 2020 budget along with the funding of twenty or so major development projects. However, he was scant on details.

Sudan continues to endure a severe economic crisis despite overthrow of former President Omar Al Bashir and the interim government’s announcement of a 200-day economic package of emergency measures. The policy has succeeded in stabilising bread supplies, but the cost of other stable foods has risen to astronomical levels.

On the streets of Khartoum, a kilo of onions is as expensive as a kilo of chicken. A kilo of red meat is equivalent to a week’s salary of the average Sudanese civil servant. Sudan’s attempt to kickstart the economy heavily depends on investment to the value of around U$10 billion to escape the present difficulties, but its name on the terror list makes debt relief on its US$60 billion balance of payments deficit impossible.

Despite intense diplomatic effort and growing optimism, including interventions from neighbouring states like Egypt and former US President, Jimmy Carter calling for Sudan’s name to be removed from the terror list. Trump’s note to the US Congress dated 31st October is quite clearly a major setback. He wrote, “Despite recent positive developments, the crisis constituted by the actions and policies of the Government of Sudan that led to the declaration of a national emergency … (in five executive orders), has not been resolved.” Trump went on to say, “the actions and polices continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”

His words were greeted with despair and incredulity in some quarters and follows last month’s impassioned plea made at the United Nations General Assembly in New York by Sudan’s new Prime Minister, Abdullah Hamdok, who stated, “Let me say in the clearest terms, Sudan could never be supporters of terrorism (applause). That situation was caused by the previous government who oppressed our people until they were removed. We ask the United States to remove Sudan from the list of sponsoring terrorism immediately”

Read: Al-Bashir to be handed over to ICC as part of new Sudanese talks

Speculation on the exact reasons for Washington’s reluctance to remove Sudan from the list rests on the perceived desire for the Trump administration to include Sudan in its “America First” policy.  Washington is unwilling to lift sanctions that would effectively open the way to investment opportunities, political influence and economic advantages to be exploited by America’s competitors like China and Russia to the exclusion of Washington. Therefore, Trump’s regime wants proof that the new democratic government will be sympathetic to American interests including support for allies like Israel. Unconfirmed reports suggest that the US is interested in getting oil concessions and other investment opportunities as well as a more favourable Sudanese attitude to US foreign policy.

US diplomats are reported to have been concerned about the recent head of states meeting held by African nations in Sochi at the invitation of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Plans to build a nuclear energy plan and to take Russian military assistance places Sudan on the wrong side of the sanctions fence. The military members of Sudan’s ruling sovereign council have reaffirmed commitment to accepting assistance from Moscow and concluding outstanding agreements including military and infrastructural investment agreed with the previous government.

On the face of it, Washington and its European allies hope to use leverage to back Sudan into a corner and pressure Khartoum into signing as many international agreements and conventions as possible to bring Sudan in line with the international community. At the top of the list is agreement on the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) that was rejected by the previous government on the ground that the convention runs contrary to Islamic values. The decision not to ratify the agreement has hitherto prevented Sudan from joining groups like the World Trade Organisation (WTO).  Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok is to pay another visit to Washington in the forthcoming weeks and is expected to show willingness to ratify international agreements on human rights and press freedoms.

There may, however, be one major sticking point. As the trial of the former president Omar Al-Bashir for corruption and money laundering drags on, the demand for his transfer to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes could well become a condition for debt relief and Sudan’s removal from the list of state sponsoring terrorism.

Such a demand would create a major conflict within the ranks of Sudan’s ruling sovereign council whose military members have vowed never to hand Al Bashir over.   Ultimately, the decision could divide the new interim government and force it to choose between safeguarding former authoritarian president from prosecution or safeguarding the economic future prosperity of the Sudanese people.

Whatever the outcome, it is clear that Trump’s refusal to remove Sudan’s name for the state sponsor list could exacerbate the continuing economic situation that may lead, according to former US President Jimmy Carter, “frustrations in the country to boil over once again.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.