Elephants in the Room
The United States Should Lift Sanctions on Sudan
It’s finally time to breathe new life into the country’s moribund economy.
“Bomb the runways,” a young activist from the Save Darfur Coalition, an advocacy group, urged me in the fall of 2005, when I was serving on the staff of President George W. Bush’s National Security Council. The government of Sudan’s genocidal campaign against minority tribes in the country’s far-western periphery was reaching its apex.
But the runways that Sudan’s Air Force was using to bomb civilians across the Darfur region at the time were also being used by the United Nations to deliver lifesaving food and humanitarian supplies to those same communities. U.S. airstrikes would have further jeopardized the fates of nearly 2 million displaced Darfuris—and the United States would have been held responsible.
Activists wanted to bomb them anyway. So extreme was their urge to intervene that they were prepared to sacrifice the lives of those they purported to be trying to save to inflict a fraction of the same pain on the regime of Sudan’s then-leader, Omar al-Bashir.
Eventually, calls to bomb the country gave way to a new imperative: calls for sanctions.
When activists lobbied against Sudan’s unwillingness to enforce tough U.S. legislation to prevent the use of child soldiers? Sanctions. When the anti-slavery campaigners emerged to protest the continuation of the practice among some of Sudan’s Arab tribes? Sanctions. When women’s rights groups rang to protest the beating by police of a brave Sudanese woman who had the temerity to wear pants? Sanctions. And when the Obama administration in 2016 tried to forge a new relationship with the country based on cooperative partnerships on counterterrorism, activists recoiled at the prospect of lifting the designation. They lobbied to keep the sanctions.
For decades, the United States has seen Sudan as a poster child for the odious international actor—a common enemy Democrats and Republicans could agree to punish and isolate, for good reason. The millions of innocent civilians killed under the brutal Islamist regime of Bashir should not be forgotten. The willful disregard for basic human rights, sheltering of Osama bin Laden prior to the 9/11 attacks, flouting of the international community’s calls for justice and accountability, and years of alliances with terrorist states from Iran to North Korea have all earned the country well-deserved opprobrium.
But as a new generation of Sudanese comes into its own, it is time for a change.
Sixty percent of Sudan’s 42 million people are under the age of 24. They have no memory of inhabiting a Sudan that wasn’t a pariah state. It’s this group that for the past 10 months has led a revolution in the country—taking to the streets to demand democracy, human rights, jobs, and a chance for Sudan to come in from the cold. Their courage in staring down the military and its bullets—when it appeared the generals would forgo civilian governance and attempt to rule by military fiat—ushered in an end to the regime and hopefully the worst of its abuses.
In order to meet this historic moment of opportunity, the United States must learn to see beyond the past. To this end, newly appointed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, an economist and technocrat, said in his first interview in office in August, “We want to tell the world we are moving away from sanctions, issues of punishment and all that, to a Sudan that is coming back to the fold of normal nations.”
Admittedly, it’s still early for the new order. A cabinet just formed this month—made up of a diverse group of officials including Asma Abdalla, Sudan’s first female foreign minister. The country’s sovereign council, which overseas government decision-making, now includes Raja Nicola Issa Abdul-Masseh, a Coptic Christian. Most of this new crop of leaders were up-and-comers in the 1980s, purged from government jobs in the early days of Bashir’s Islamist revolt, riding out his dictatorship in exile abroad. What they lack in domestic political constituencies, they make up for with the kind of policy expertise that the country sorely needs.
But elements in the military still stand in the way of reform—those who benefited most under Bashir’s rule—and appear poised to resist the new government’s efforts to reduce the military’s size, bring transparency to its budget, and seek accountability for past abuses. Already, they are not acting like a group prepared to become subservient to civilian leaders. Since Hamdok was sworn in, the armed forces have declared a state of emergency in the country’s Red Sea state and summarily replaced the state’s governor with an army general, in violation of the country’s 1-month-old constitutional charter. This week, they fired on unarmed demonstrators in Darfur protesting a bread shortage.
So, while it’s premature to declare victory in Sudan for the forces of democracy, the risks that lie ahead will only continue to mount if activists and governments alike don’t embrace the opportunity to empower the rise of a new generation of moderate voices.
That means that for those who care about religious freedom, slavery, human rights, and women’s empowerment, now is the time to call for the removal of sanctions. For those states and communities who led the effort to divest their pension funds of Sudanese-linked equities, now is the time to reengage and breathe new life into the moribund economy. For the United States and other international partners, now is the time to remove the existing sanctions on Sudan (most of which are personally linked to the Bashir regime), work with the country’s new leadership to help build and reform its crumbling institutions, reestablish development assistance, create a pathway for retiring the country’s crushing external debt, and finally acknowledge that Sudan is no longer a state sponsor of terrorism.
It won’t be quick, and it won’t be cheap. But in the absence of a democracy dividend now, Sudan’s revanchist elements will gain and keep power, delaying freedom, peace, and justice for another generation.