Accused of Inaction, Trump Team Set to Appoint Sudan Advisor
Former U.S. diplomat Donald Booth expected to address the bloody impasse between military and protesters as U.N. officials warn of spiraling violence.
With Sudan teetering on the brink of widespread violence, the Trump administration is preparing to bring an ex-diplomat out of retirement to help craft U.S. policy for a country that is fast unraveling since its longtime ruler was ousted two months ago.
Donald Booth, a seasoned former ambassador with extensive experience in Africa, has rejoined the State Department, current and former officials said, to serve as special envoy on Sudan, working alongside U.S. President Donald Trump’s top diplomat on Africa, Tibor Nagy. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus confirmed his appointment in a press briefing on Wednesday.
The appointment comes as the Trump administration faces growing calls to step up its efforts to stabilize Sudan. Critics accuse Washington of being missing in action while powerful Persian Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have taken on a larger behind-the-scenes role in the East African country’s transitional government.
“Anybody who’s been paying attention to this country recognized this protest movement was fundamentally different,” said Cameron Hudson, a former State Department and CIA official who worked on Sudan. “We should’ve expected this, we should’ve anticipated this. The fact is we didn’t have a strategy in place, we didn’t have personnel in place … is really worrying.”
“There’s no leadership on this issue in State or the White House,” said one U.S. official involved in deliberations, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
United Nations officials and experts warn that the country could face mass atrocities without a strong U.S. voice and international support for a peaceful transition to civilian rule.
One senior U.N. official warned of “the risk of increased atrocities and the risk of a complete breakdown which could lead to civil war in the streets of Khartoum.” If the security situation in Sudan unravels, it could “become even more complicated” and has the potential to spiral into “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world,” said the official.
Following months of widespread protests, longtime Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir was ousted in a military coup in April. The Transitional Military Council that took over has refused to meet calls from protesters and members of the international community for a handover to civilian rule, sparking deadly crackdowns and growing rifts between different factions in the country’s powerful security forces—the Sudanese army and a paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces—that could destabilize the country further.
Critics of the Trump administration’s policy are distressed that the State Department post of special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan has sat empty since 2017, when Trump took office and Booth stepped down from the position. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a Democratic presidential contender and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter on June 7 to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging him to fill the position “as soon as possible.”
In his letter, obtained by Foreign Policy, Booker also pushed Pompeo to temporarily appoint a retired ambassador to lead the embassy in Khartoum “until the political crisis is resolved.” Steven Koutsis, a lower-level career diplomat, is currently the chargé d’affaires at the embassy.
“It is time for a fresh face at the United States embassy in Khartoum, and a retired ambassador could play a vital role,” Booker wrote.
Booth is a veteran diplomat who served as ambassador to Liberia, Zambia, and Ethiopia. He served as the special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan from 2013 to early 2017. He is expected to be a senior advisor to Nagy, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, according to four current and former officials. Nagy is traveling to Sudan during a longer tour of Africa from June 12 to 23, where he will meet with members of the Transitional Military Council and opposition.
Hudson, the former official, who is now a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, worries that new appointments aren’t enough to make up for an absence of U.S. strategy on Sudan. “We are essentially doing the same thing the Sudanese are doing, which is reacting very tactically to day-to-day events on the ground, and we’re not being guided by a strategy,” he said. “That makes it hard to expect a lot of success out of an envoy or senior advisor.”
The State Department declined to comment for this story but has repeatedly stressed the need for Sudan to transition to a democratic, civilian-led government and condemned violence against protestors.
Violence erupted on the streets of Khartoum last week when soldiers from the Rapid Support Forces—a group accused of brutal war crimes, including genocide in Darfur—attacked protesters conducting a peaceful sit-in in Khartoum to demand civilian rule in Sudan. At least 100 people died, but because of a near-countrywide internet blackout and attacks on hospitals, the true number of casualties is still unknown.
Sudan’s military has pledged to investigate the violence and said the sit-in site contained drugs and other illegal activities.
On the international stage, the African Union suspended Sudan as a member until the military hands over power to a civilian government. However, Russia and China have blocked efforts at the U.N. Security Council to reprimand the Sudanese government in the wake of the violence.
On Monday night, civilian groups involved in the protests signaled they would accept a proposal from Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to have a joint interim government between the civilian and military, with leadership rotating between the two, which might ease tensions but also secure the military’s control in any new permanent government.
Others fear the factions in the security forces will spark further violence. “So far there are no visible tensions between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the RSF,” the senior U.N. official said. “But the moment that [the armed forces] and RSF shoot at each other, they [could] go around and loot and shoot and kill anyone.”
Some activists in Khartoum believe the security forces are trying to bait protesters into starting more clashes. The Sudanese Professionals Association, a group helping organize the protests that began in December 2018, has been warning civilians not to pick up guns or weapons left in the streets. U.N. officials and activists tell Foreign Policy they fear it is a ruse by security forces to provoke protesters into taking the weapons, thus justifying further crackdowns.
A countrywide general strike announced by the Sudanese Professionals Association has brought Khartoum to a near-standstill. Most shops and businesses are closed due to the strike, and the usually congested roads have minimal traffic across the city. A key indicator of whether the general strike will be successful is whether it is carried out beyond Khartoum, but the near-total internet shutdown across the country has made communication and coordination difficult for the association and other opposition groups organizing the protests.
Two people in Sudan who had managed to access the internet during the previous outage told Foreign Policy their connections had also been cut, a sign the security forces are tightening the internet blackout.
The Rapid Support Forces, headed by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as “Hemeti,” and made up of soldiers primarily from Darfur and neighboring tribal regions, has effectively laid siege of Khartoum. At night, civilians create roadblocks made of burning tires, downed trees, and bricks to prevent the movement of security forces.
One source in eastern Sudan said the Rapid Support Forces was boosting its recruiting efforts in his hometown. There were also reports of tribal clashes in eastern Sudan, which experts fear could increase Sudan’s instability.
It’s a “very scary” situation, said Alex de Waal, a Sudan expert and the director of the World Peace Foundation.
Both experts and U.S. and U.N. officials are unsure how to pull Sudan back from the edge of collapse. At the center of those debates is how to deal with Hemeti, whom some experts compared to a warlord.
Hemeti, who has close ties to Saudi Arabia, is a member of the Transitional Military Council, the interim governmental body that says it is leading the country toward civilian rule but has yet to cede any power. The Rapid Support Forces appears to operate independently of the country’s professional military.
“I fear Hemeti has crossed the Rubicon. The kind of violence his forces are inflicting is unlike anything that has been experienced in Khartoum before,” said de Waal. “I can’t see an obvious formula for bringing him under control.”
Some believe that even if Hemeti is removed from the military junta leading Sudan, he will retain significant power. “His whole rank and file will not disappear even if he’s pushed out of the [Transitional Military Council],” said Susan Stigant, the head of the Africa program at the United States Institute of Peace. “It’s not clear people are thinking about that.”
Update, June 12, 2019: This article was updated after the State Department spokesperson formally announced Donald Booth as special envoy on Sudan.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer