“Children and lunatics cut the Gordian Knot which the poet spends his life patiently trying to untie— Jean Cocteau
“Sudan is not Arab enough for Arabs and not African enough for Africans.” – Leila Aboulela
“If you can walk, you can dance; If you can talk, you can sing.” – Sudanese Proverb
This week I want to take us on a journey back to Africa. Last year we looked at the unfolding events that led to the revolution in Sudan. The down-fall of Omar Bashir brought with it a huge development in the country, however, as a nation, Sudan is having to rebuild itself under the weight of decades of mismanagement, cronyism, corruption, and international marginalization. There is a possibility that Sudan will be removed from the ominous, State Sponsor of Terrorism (SST) List, which has been generated by the United States. We will evaluate what that means for Sudan as well as its neighbors. We will also discuss the implications for Sudan’s future, as it takes one step closer to the international normalization of its foreign relations.
A host of variables are at play surrounding the possible lifting of Sudan’s SST label. There are a number of myths that are considered reality, as well as a host of confusing assertions that simply lack merit. We will see that there is more than meets the eye in the unfolding of this significant strategic decision by Washington.
In August 1993, the U.S. State Department labeled Sudan a “state sponsor of terrorism,” alleging it harbored local and international terrorists, including Osama bin Laden. Countries determined by the Secretary of State to have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism are designated pursuant to three laws: section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act, section 40 of the Arms Export Control Act, and section 620A of the Foreign Assistance Act. Taken together, the four main categories of sanctions resulting from designation under these authorities include restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance; a ban on defense exports and sales; certain controls over exports of dual-use items; and miscellaneous financial and other restrictions.
Designation under the above-referenced authorities also implicates other sanctions laws that penalize persons and countries engaging in certain trade with state sponsors. Currently, there are four countries designated under these authorities: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), Iran, Sudan, and Syria. The terrorism designation was first placed on Sudan by the Clinton administration in 1993.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, The United States has accused Sudan of harboring members of al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Abu Nidal Organization, Jamaat al-Islamiyya, and Egyptian Islamic Jihad, each classified as a terrorist organization. In 1996, the UN Security Council placed sanctions (PDF) on Sudan for harboring suspects wanted for the attempted assassination of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
The same year, U.S. investigators linked two Sudanese diplomats to a terrorist cell planning to bomb the UN building in New York. In 1998, al-Qaeda operatives based in Sudan were allegedly involved in the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Throughout the 1990s, Sudan was also accused of supporting local insurgencies in Uganda, Tunisia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. Sudan has also been officially connected to the 9/11 bombings of the Trade Towers in New York City.
Former Sudan president, Omar al-Bashir was toppled in a military coup in April 2019 after 26 years of repressive rule. September 2019, after months of navigating between Sudan’s protestors, political parties, civil society groups, and the country’s bloated security apparatus, a transitional government was established. Led by a civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, and overseen by a “Sovereign Council” comprised of both civilians and powerful military figures, these uneasy bedfellows were tasked with enacting sweeping reforms and steering the country toward democratic elections in 2022. Hamdok made some important early steps, from disbanding a rogue security service to opening space for civil society and independent journalism. But the revolution has since stalled, and today an all-too-familiar narrative prevails: The cameras have moved on, but the difficult work of consolidating revolutionary zeal into governance by rule of law remains.
The first myth is that the U.S. terrorist list designation prohibits or even criminalizes foreign investment. This is widely believed in Sudan and the idea has been perpetuated in recent articles, by international news outlets. There is a common misconception that sanctions imposed by the United States are inhibiting economic growth in Sudan. In fact, almost all of the sanctions imposed on Sudan were removed in 2017.
The second myth is that the terrorism listing is the only barrier to debt relief in Sudan. The listing does prevent the U.S. from voting in favor of International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank debt relief packages and other multilateral loans and financing, but it does not prohibit any other country or group of countries from providing debt relief or aid to Sudan.
A third myth is surrounding the potential/probable impact of delisting. Comprehensive U.S. sanctions on Sudan were lifted in 2017. When that happened many Sudanese held false hope of immediate economic improvement. That recovery hasn’t happened for a number of reasons, primarily among them is the kleptocratic government that Bashir had created and the failure of the Sudanese government and banks, to address corruption and money laundering. The terrorism delisting almost certainly will not result in immediate economic improvement.
There are also multiple myths and deep confusion surrounding the process required for removing Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. The primary immediate obstacle to removal is the need for a negotiated settlement with the families of victims of terrorist attacks conducted with alleged material support from the former Sudanese government. Other factors for this delisting hinge on improvements in Sudan’s human rights record as well as its indiscriminate repression of religious freedoms.
U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada al-Nashif says the Sudanese government already has taken bold steps to enhance the protection and promotion of human rights in the country. She notes it has repealed the Public Order Law, which had been used by the former regime to target women and restrict individual freedoms. “Similarly, the Joint Council endorsed a bill that reviews the crime of apostasy and the age of criminal responsibility for children. It criminalizes female genital mutilation and eliminates some of the discriminatory measures against women,” she said. “We also commend the establishment of the Legal Reform Commission to review national laws in accordance with human rights obligations.”
The Gordian Knot
Much suspicion remains between the West and Sudan. Even though Prime Minister Hamdok’s pleas have been consistent, he is having a difficult time selling the sincerity and importance of Sudan’s economic and political recovery to the rest of the world. An overvalued currency and limited foreign reserves have exacerbated food, electricity, and fuel shortages. Hamdok knows he needs to deliver an economic dividend if he is to satisfy the street, rally disparate political blocs, and hold off the vultures waiting for him to fail. To turn a corner, he and his government face a familiar dilemma: They should make unpopular decisions in the near term, such as lifting longstanding fuel subsidies, in order to achieve greater stability in the long run.
Standing on the sidelines are the major economic powers, watching and waiting for the right time to enter into the fray. Frankly, though, all the mechanisms are in place for any country to dive in. All appear to be waiting for the metaphoric removal of, what can only be described as an international “Scarlett letter,” the designation by the United States as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.
As stated above, currently the SST does not legally hinder any nation from doing business with Sudan, or even of hindering international mechanisms such as the World Bank, from providing debt relief. The stigma attached to such a designation, however, is a powerful stain that is seemingly almost impossible to wash away without that delisting. As published in the War on the Rocks Journal, “The push for rescission has also been complicated by a series of U.S. court judgments against Sudan, which involve more than $10 billion in restitution for terrorist attacks committed two decades ago by al-Qaeda. The claims were brought by victims of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen — acts perpetrated by al-Qaeda, but for which Bashir’s government was later found complicit on account of its provision of sanctuary and material support. In the fall of 2019, the Trump administration decided that Sudan’s removal from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List would be contingent upon settling these claims, a decision which cinched a Gordian knot even tighter.
Currently, there are several powerful lobbies and US Senators who believe that delisting Sudan from the SST would be an injustice to the memory of the lives lost in 9/11 and previous embassy attacks carried out by al Qaeda who was living under the governmental protection of al Bashir at the time.
There are US citizens and non-US citizen employees who still live under the grief and loss of loved ones and colleagues who died from attacks which were abetted by al Qaeda and the Bashir government. Sudanese citizens who deposed the government of al Bashir are living under the stigma of a government that suppressed them for decades, and they believe that they are still being punished because of their previous government, whom they hated.
Everybody believes that the delisting of Sudan from the SST is a good thing. Parties on both sides are now discussing, sometimes vigorously, as to what conditions need to be met first before that delisting happens. It will be interesting to see where the United States and Sudan land so that a re-normalization of relations might exist.
Sudan sits at the nexus of over a quarter of a billion people. It has suffered over 30 years at the hands of a wicked dictator. Sudan, even today suffers from the corruption and violence of the Bashir government. It appears that state players such as Russia and China, as well as non-state players such as ISIS and al Qaeda, are lining up to take advantage of the chaos and economic impoverishment of Sudan today. Chinese oil companies have pledged to invest in the gas, minerals, and oil pipelines from South Sudan to Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast. Clearly, China is poising itself as a significant and permanent global player in the horn of Africa region. Experts have pointed out that the volume of Chinese investments in Sudan is estimated at $10 billion across various sectors, including agriculture, oil, and minerals.
There is a window of opportunity for the United States to turn the horn of Africa, as well as many other parts of sub-Saharan Africa into global community participants. In a recent report by Vladimir Putin, he asserted,” Our investors are interested in increasing their presence, they are ready to share the experience and technological developments,” Putin said, adding that Russian investors invest sizable means, including in the gold-mining sector of Sudan.
Sudan represents rare opportunities in the 21st century. There are opportunities to make new investments, build new bridges, form new communities, and create new alliances. Sudan represents fertile ground to make a profound difference in a region that sits at the center, close to half a billion people.
The delisting of Sudan from the State Sponsor of Terrorism List is more than likely going to happen. Sudan has been a closed-door for many years. Normalization of relationships, not only locally, but globally will open opportunities for immense exchange of trade, prosperity, and peace.
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