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Sudan can’t change its economic conditions overnight

June 25, 2020 at 1:09 pm

Protesters demonstrate against the US sanctions on Sudan on 19 September 2017 [#jomo~I.M.J/Twitter]

Observers of the situation in Sudan have long doubted that the United States will ever take it off Washington’s list of “countries sponsoring terrorism”. The recent report from Anadolu Agency citing an unnamed source that the US will not remove Sudan’s name until elections are held sent shockwaves across Khartoum, not least with Transitional President Abdul Fattah Al-Burhan, who justified the establishment of ties with Israel by assurances that the Zionist state would persuade Washington to normalise relations with Sudan.

However, the announcement came just hours before today’s Berlin Conference where donors are expected to put together a $500 million rescue package for Sudan. It seems, therefore, that the Republicans in the US government are warning Europe that Washington can derail any prospects for economic recovery in the African state. Since coming to power in August 2019, the Sudanese government has displayed Marxist, socialist leanings, much to the disdain of the Trump White House. The withdrawal of Sudanese troops from Yemen angered Washington and its allies in Saudi Arabia, while the ideological support that Sudan gives to the US Democratic Party is also a cause of concern.

If the “terrorist list” threat is carried out, and in the event of a second term for President Donald Trump after the November election, it will be a bitter blow to Khartoum’s bold attempts to comply with US demands. On Tuesday, Sudan’s Foreign Minister Asma Abdullah told the media that the government is close to an agreement over the American citizens who were killed in the bombings of the US Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. She expressed optimism about the deal: “We expect the US administration to complete the legislative measures and complete the removal of Sudan from the list… as soon as possible.”

READ: Sudan is lining up as another member of the Arab axis of normalisation with Israel

When it comes to making the right noises, Sudan has responded to every demand, including offering long-overdue civil freedoms to Christians, scrapping draconian laws that once discriminated against women and setting up committees to join UN treaties like the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). While giving assurances of normalisation appear to be the means by which America is cajoling Sudan into responding positively to its demands, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday praised the country’s contribution to counterterrorism but added yet another barrier to the lifting of sanctions: “Despite the absence of high-profile terrorist attacks, [Daesh] facilitation networks appear to be active within Sudan.”

It is clear to all in Khartoum that Sudan is negotiating from a position of weakness and has no winning card to wield when engaging on the international stage. Its foreign relations policy can best be described as simply “being nice”. This is epitomised by its neutral, non-pressure stance in the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam crisis and its continued cooperation with its neighbours in Egypt and South Sudan, despite both countries continuing to occupy disputed Sudanese territory.

On Sunday, Sudan’s armed forces repelled an Ethiopian attack on its eastern border. The response from Khartoum was to confirm that the army had repelled a second attack following an earlier strike which killed three Sudanese soldiers in May. There was no firm diplomatic rejection or condemnation of the violence; it was but a simple confirmation that, on this occasion, no one had been injured.

READ: Sudan national on trial at ICC rejects charges

Driving Sudan’s conciliatory diplomacy is the economic performance of the Transitional Government that has been mediocre, at best. Sudan is battling Covid-19, and has reported 8,796 cases and 541 deaths at the time of writing. It is also fighting the 114 per cent inflation rate which has taken its toll on every facet of traditional Sudanese society. Foreign debt is close to $60 billion and there are widespread shortages of essential goods, including fuel, bread and medicine. With debt at over 190 per cent of its GDP in 2019, the nation’s currency continues to depreciate, being valued on the black market at almost three times its official rate of 55 pounds to the dollar. Overall, the Sudanese economy contracted by 2.5 per cent in 2019 and is projected to shrink by 8 per cent in 2020 as the pandemic weighs heavily on financial affairs.

A Sudanese man sprays disinfectant as a preventive measure amid fears of the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in Khartoum, Sudan, on 21 April 2020 [Faiz Abu bakr/ApaImages]

A Sudanese man sprays disinfectant as a preventive measure amid fears of the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in Khartoum, Sudan, on 21 April 2020 [Faiz Abu bakr/ApaImages]

Today’s donor conference in Berlin thus takes place in a climate of desperation. The country’s only hope of being able to survive without a complete economic collapse rests on the outcome of this online meeting. Ahead of the discussion, the Head of the EU’s Crisis Department arrived in Khartoum and vowed to help Sudan. “The EU is committed to supporting the Transitional Government’s efforts for an inclusive peace in the country,” explained Janez Lenarcic.

That peace remains elusive, after talks between the three major armed groups and the government broke down and were postponed indefinitely. This comes days before over a million people are expected to take to the streets in protest on 30 June and push for a change of government and improved economic conditions.

The domestic pressure is building, but change is not going to happen overnight; it can’t. Despite everything, there is some agreement, even among its critics, that the government has been sincere, honest, truthful and free of corruption since taking over last August. Nevertheless, its lack of negotiation leverage means that it has no independent ability to effect any real change to the economic fortunes of Sudan any time soon.

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