Walking and Chewing Gum in Sudan

by Jamila El-Gizuli

Ever since the Obama administration declared its policy in Sudan, the President has come under a barrage of attacks from all directions—activists, NGOs, analysts, newspaper columnists—for being too soft on the Sudanese regime, for turning his back on a crisis in the making, for having an “open hand” policy that is “incoherent, contradictory and failing.” Dissatisfaction rests not only upon the policy’s enhanced set of incentives, but also with the absence of a stricter set of disincentives— additional sanctions which these opponents are all too anxious to have the President impose. It is unclear though where the logic of such an argument lies. This is a parochial outlook by myopic observers who chose either to overlook or, perhaps, blindly follow the former American policy on the Sudan, while ignoring the potential humanitarian and strategic gains of the current one.

Ambassador Susan Rice and others who object to Obama's Sudan strategy must review its past record. In 1993, the State Department designated Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism for harboring international terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, who lived in the capital, Khartoum, since 1991. However, under regional and international pressure, including that of the United States, Sudan extradited Carlos the Jackal in 1994 and expelled bin Laden in 1996. For those actions, Sudan was not rewarded by the United States.

In fact, it was punished. In 1997, the US imposed crippling economic sanctions against Sudan which are still in effect today. Additionally, the Clinton administration bombed the capital in 1998, targeting a pharmaceutical factory that allegedly supplied Al-Qaeda operatives with chemicals used in attacks launched against American embassies in the horn of Africa. Following the strike, Sudan signed the International Convention for the Suppression of Financing of Terrorism and ratified the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombing in 1999 and 2000 respectively. Yet again, Sudan was not rewarded by the United States, although these counterterrorism steps were recognized by the UN Security Council, which lifted terrorism-related sanctions against Sudan in 2001. Paradoxically, the Bush administration dismissed such efforts and upheld the US sanctions. Not until 2004 did the State Department remove Sudan from the list of countries that did not fully cooperate with the U.S. antiterrorism efforts despite continuing counterterrorism efforts by Sudan with respect to neighboring African and Arabic countries.

Punitive measures are often justified—by pressuring the central government in Khartoum to settle its differences with the regions on its periphery, mass killings may stop. But there is an absence of carrots in the whole equation. Obama need not guarantee re-establishment of diplomatic relations, nor promise a whole new package of economic stimulation for the Sudan. Mere revision of previously enforced sanctions, or their complete removal, can be satisfactory for a country that has gone through two protracted civil wars and a major famine since its independence in 1956. The US has revised sanctions before, in 2006, when an exemption clause provided relief to marginalized regions within Sudan. Why not to give another pat on the back to a regime that has demonstrated resilience and withstood a multitude of blows to the head?

It is indisputable that Bashir’s regime will partially overcome the economic sanctions with its oil windfalls. But further attempts to strangle the regime with sanctions will only affect the poorest section of the society, and widen the ever-growing gap between the elites and the rest of the Sudanese.Reports on the sufferings in the west Darfur and south are multitude. Sudanese in the center and the north suffer similarly. Needless to say, poverty and underdevelopment are at the heart of Sudan's conflicts in the south and in Darfur. The Sudanese private sector—in agriculture, manufacturing and services—is already overwhelmed by its efforts to live with American-inspired sanctions. To impose additional ones is tantamount to passing a death sentence on this vehicle of economic advancement and, ultimately, survival of millions of Sudanese.

An improved policy may benefit American geo-political interests in the horn of Africa as well. The upcoming referendum in South Sudan could lead to the birth of a new African nation in a strategic location. It is unassailable that the United States and the government of South Sudan enjoy an amicable relationship, on military, economic and political platforms. So, a lot is at stake if the referendum is curtailed or rigged by Khartoum. The Sudanese regime can also prove intransigent in its peace talks with oppositions in Darfur and East Sudan if no carrots are in sight, let alone if more sticks are introduced. Looking outside the boundaries of Sudan, and recognizing the tension existing in the horn of Africa, the United States must not, and fortunately does not, underestimate the leverage Sudan has as the only other Muslim country in the Intergovernmental Authority on Development [IGAD]. Sudan, while boasting a stable relationship with the Somali government and the Islamic insurgency in Somalia, can play the role of mediator and conciliator. As a breeding ground for the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab militants, Somalia is a high priority on the agenda of the American-led war on terror. Sudan possesses a similar influence with the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, which frequently attacks South Sudanese territories and for which the Government of South Sudan allocates time and money training local militia for counter-attacks. To ignore Sudan’s role can be arrogantly imprudent.The CIA learned this, and has acted on it for the past two decades.

One may label this argument as naive. What guarantees are there that Bashir will appreciate such carrots, and keep his end of the bargain? Allow me to respond with a different, often ignored, question. Granted, Bashir is a cunning and manipulative president,and the real victims of the economic sanctions levied by the United States are the Sudanese people. Why is it more plausible to believe that additional sanctions will force the Sudanese President to succumb to such intensified pressure? What if that pressure ignites an explosive reaction against the very citizens they so urgently strive to protect? On another note, shouldn't Sudan, as a country whose counterterrorism cooperation saved American lives, be rewarded?

Jamila El-Gizuli, an American of a Russo-Sudanese origin, is a PhD student in comparative politics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her family lives in Sudan.

Picture via Flickr, by Ammar.

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