Bashir and the Americans: sanctions and regime survival in Sudan

With sanctions, as in politics, it is only a slight exaggeration to say, paraphrasing Gladstone, that timing is everything. Altering U.S. policy on Sudan now, and not six months or a year or five ago, is more about Obama’s impending departure from office than due to any dramatic difference or reform in the Sudanese regime. The regime continues to prioritize the security state over effective governance and service delivery, attack legitimate political opposition and expression, systematically and indiscriminately use the tools of repression, and more (see, for example: Continuing judicial harassment of 5 defenders from TRACKs and the Director of ZORD; Silencing Women Rights Defenders)

None of these are new patterns, nor has Khartoum been discreet enough to avoid further incidents in recent weeks. Mudawi Ibrahim, one of Sudan’s best known human rights activists, was detained in Khartoum on December 7. Human rights lawyer Tasneem Ahmed Taha was detained in El Fasher on December 26. Access to Jebel Marra and many parts of the Nuba Mountains remains extremely limited.

But it does not follow that comprehensive U.S. sanctions are a solution to these or Sudan’s many other problems, or that progress on all of these fronts should have been a precondition to the initial easing of sanctions. The blunt force of the policy of the last twenty years has clearly harmed ordinary civilians, including civilian opponents of the regime. The easing of personal communications equipment sanctions by the U.S. government in February 2015 was recognition, in part, that Sudanese civil society, and ordinary civilians, suffered much more than any Sudanese government elite in being prevented from using modern technology.

There is not much to suggest that U.S. sanctions have compelled those ruling Sudan to consistently moderate their behaviour over the last twenty odd years. The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control noted in a 2009 report: ‘assigning causality between the threat or imposition of economic sanctions and regime-level behavioral changes is fraught with peril,’ while going on to argue, through a few rather unconvincing examples, ‘that U.S. sanctions against Sudan have applied constructive pressure that has affected key Sudanese officials’ decision-making calculi.’ Affected, perhaps, but to what extent? Even Treasury’s own statement announcing the easing of sanctions this month seemed to unwittingly accept this ineffectiveness: ‘our sanctions were intended to pressure the Government of Sudan to change the way it treats its people.’ Intent does not equate to results.

Herein lies the problem with both critics and proponents of this policy shift: sanctions – their imposition and their removal – are not a strategy; they are merely tools, in service of a strategy. And the alternative strategy remains sorely lacking.

The policy and strategy of the United States in Sudan has struggled to be effective ever since the logic provided by the CPA was removed and South Sudan’s independence assured. Neither the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD) nor the Eastern Sudan Peace Agreement (ESPA) were comparatively transformational; neither agreement any longer provides a viable path for resolving the conflicts and grievances for which they were intended, but officially, there are no alternatives. Elsewhere, the grinding war in the Nuba Mountains has no end in sight; Abyei is destined to be an indefinitely frozen conflict; the national dialogue process was mostly a sham, another false dawn for more inclusive and peaceful politics beyond Khartoum and Omdurman.

To return to timing: Omar al-Bashir is about to see off his fourth American president.

Bashir came to power six months after George H. W. Bush took office in 1989. Khartoum’s decision to back Saddam Hussein against Kuwait in the 1990-91 Gulf War ensured relations with the United States would remain frosty for years, particularly compared to those Jaafar Nimeiri enjoyed with Carter and Reagan. (While in office, Nimeiri made six visits to the U.S.)

In constructing Sudan’s golden age of terrorism, Bashir and Hassan al-Turabi themselves determined Washington’s interest in Khartoum: to constrain the ambitions of a hostile, pariah state. From terrorism to the years of civil war, first in the South, the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, and later in Darfur and Eastern Sudan, there was little prospect of a broad rehabilitation of relations during either the Clinton or George W. Bush administrations.

The Obama administration began during the second half of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA)’s implementation. From 2010, for the first time in years, there was a meaningful possibility of normalization of relations with Sudan, should Khartoum not impede the process of self-determination of Southern Sudanese. Khartoum did not sabotage the referendum, recognized the result and South Sudan’s consequent independence. But the hoped-for normalization did not occur. Speaking in November 2011, Sudanese government spokesman Rabie Abdel Atti told the New York Times: ‘they [the U.S.] promised us a lot of things; nothing actually implemented. It’s unfair.’

As Khartoum sees it, the Obama administration’s January 13 order beginning to set aside the long-imposed sanctions regime is, in part, making good on the overdue promise of 2011, notwithstanding the five different benchmarks the State Department now cites. This is a broader, more historical grievance for Khartoum, a touchstone in its attempts to find new respectability both regionally and internationally.

Moves to change policy in the twilight days of any American administration are likely to be seen with suspicion by those about to assume power. The overture to Sudan may well be destined to be short lived, and seen with the same derision Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans have expressed towards other final gambits (allowing the UN Security Council to pass a resolution condemning Israel; ending the ‘wet-foot, dry-foot’ policy for Cuban migrants; creating new national monuments placing millions of acres of land off limits to development; permanently banning new off-shore drilling in large areas of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans) of the outgoing White House.

In any event, American companies are hardly likely to rush to invest in Sudan. It is not a big market, the cost of doing business is high, the impediments to market entry many, repatriating profits difficult, and Sudan’s continuing designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, though there is little evidence of such international adventurism today, will hardly be an attraction to corporations wary of running afoul of Treasury department regulations.

Examination of the claim that ‘sustained progress’ has been made towards the new, but far from comprehensive U.S. benchmarks is tenuous at best. None of the benchmarks concern the much needed root and branch reform of the state, and while U.S. sanctions policy may have not been fit for purpose, the benchmarks should have been chosen more judiciously with respect to domestic reform – only two of the five benchmarks, on humanitarian access and military operations, concern Sudan’s internal situation.

Requiring progress on every file is too much to ask, but requiring progress on more domestic fronts would have been prudent. Mere hope that Khartoum is on the path of real reform is not enough. Thinking that six months is a period sufficient to judge that there has been ‘sustained progress’ in a regime that has endured, survived and prospered for so many years, through multiple American administrations, is naïve; a further six months is time insufficient to determine that the regime has changed for good.

An idea of what conditions more sufficient and transformative might resemble can be found in the parallels proponents of the Obama administration’s decision on Sudan cite: Iran, Cuba and Myanmar, all places it was argued that policies no longer fit for purpose should be abandoned.

First, it is hard, if not impossible, to conceive that rapprochement with Cuba would have happened if Fidel Castro was still in power, nor in Iran if hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was still president.

In Cuba, Raúl Castro, has pursued an extensive reform agenda, what academics Carmelo Mesa-Lago and Jorge Pérez-López described as ‘the most comprehensive ever undertaken,’ including significant steps to liberalize the economy and allow greater economic opportunity for ordinary Cubans, allowing citizens to leave the country without exit visas, and publicly renouncing past policies as mistakes.

In Iran, the conditions to enter the process of normalization were much more specific, directly and independently quantifiable, backed by a broad consensus of world powers, and aimed to support a genuine domestic reformer, Hassan Rouhani, only in office since 2013.

In Myanmar, the military junta took unprecedented steps to open political space, allowing free elections and the National League for Democracy to take a leading role in governing the country, under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi.  U.S. sanctions were only fully lifted after free elections and Suu Kyi’s assumption of office, after Myanmar had demonstrated years of sustained commitment to political reform.

All three countries remain flawed and deeply problematic (see the moral failure of Myanmar’s leadership to prevent the persecution of the Rohingya tarnishing whatever achievements have been made), but all three countries provide some evidence that genuine reform and change will be more than fleeting.

Now consider Sudan: no leadership transition in Sudan is imminent. Power remains held within a very small circle; the NCP is structurally unchanged, and the military and security services still call the shots. Elections in 2015 were not credible. And so any restructuring of U.S. policy needs to be sufficiently cautious of such realities.

Critically, and unlike in Iran, Cuba and Myanmar, the Obama administration has not left itself enough time to either articulate nor implement a full political strategy that leads to a complete overhaul of the bilateral relationship and a reformed Sudan, in which the easing of sanctions is but one component. The merits of the approaches to Tehran, Havana and Yangon can be vociferously debated, but broader strategies exist. By contrast, Sudan’s future remains terribly bleak for many of its people, and these moves from Washington do not change that reality.

In some ways, the hard realism of Syria provides a better parallel with Sudan’s current context. Hafez al-Assad built a regime that endures. His son and successor as president, Bashar al-Assad, although inept, has seen off a multi-faceted and sustained armed opposition, even if he presided over the destruction of much of the country. Today, his authority is consolidated. The continuation of his regime provides the most immediate constraint on the expansion of the Islamic State. There will be no imminent vacancy for the position of Syria’s dictator. In Syria, the position of the United States has evolved from formally calling for regime change to acceptance that al-Assad is not going anywhere.

Bashir and the NCP have not been felled by the rebels of Darfur and Kordofan and Blue Nile, nor by the civilian political opposition, nor by a mass movement of disgruntled citizens, nor by the International Criminal Court. He has survived every challenge. It is most likely that he will remain in power, until he decides to leave, is incapacitated due to illness, or dies. The regime he built will, like that of the Assads, outlast him, even if the edifice of state constructed bears little resemblance to the plans of architects of 1989. Compared to almost every year since then, as judged from Berlin, Brussels, London or Washington, Khartoum now enjoys a good score card for international relations. Europe has outsourced its immorality in addressing the inconvenience of migration from eastern Africa. Sudan is toeing the regional line in the South Sudan conflict. It has not repeated its mistake of crossing the Gulf countries, this time in Yemen, and has been largely constructive in the case of Libya.

Life if you are a Sudanese citizen who does not identify with the NCP is mostly measured by domestic progress, not by Sudan’s regional or international relations or cooperation on migration or counter-terrorism. The discontent many ordinary Sudanese feel at the inadequacies of their government will continue.  The journey to lasting peace in Sudan, and genuine political reform, remains aspirational; it will not be made on Obama’s watch.

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