Saturday, 24 November 2018

US-Sudanese relations: moths to the fire

The rapprochement between Sudan and the US progresses with the pace of an anxious flirtation. Less than two years since it began in 2015, that engagement reached its first milestone with the revocation in October 2017 of comprehensive US trade and financial sanctions imposed on Sudan for more than two decades. Less than two years later, the US State Department unveiled on 7 November 2018 the “Phase Two” framework of engagement for rescinding Sudan’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism (SST), a charge Sudan incurred since 1993, back when the then juvenile regime in Khartoum was aggressively engaging in Islamist rhetoric and embracing an open-door policy towards Islamists. 
The genesis of the diplomatic engagement between the US and Sudan can be traced back to the armed conflict that erupted in South Sudan in 2013. It was at that point that Sudan finally, and for the first time, gained some measure of leverage on the US, which provided years of bipartisan support to usher South Sudan into gaining independence from Sudan in 2011. The US realised then that Khartoum could make the situation in South Sudan much worse than it already was if it desired to do so. Stabilising South Sudan without Khartoum’s cooperation was rightly judged impossible. Indeed the role Sudan played in sealing the last deal between South Sudan’s belligerent parties proves this premise. 
“Nakedly exposed is he who seeks US cover”, Sudan’s proverbial naked king President Bashir told the recently concluded conference of the government-aligned Islamic Movement in Khartoum. Interestingly, as President Bashir chides the US to an ‘Islamist’ audience, his military and intelligence captains are welcome guests in Washington to smooth out relations with the US security establishment. Kamal Abd al-Marouf, the chief of staff of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), headed a Sudanese military delegation to Washington in October at the invitation of the US military and held talks with senior military personnel on the sidelines of a US-organised counter-terrorism conference. Rumour has it in Khartoum that Salah Gosh, Sudan’s spy chief, is expected sometime soon in Washington for talks with US military and security officials. The leak of the upcoming meeting to the press cost some very brave journalists several hours of harassing interrogation at the headquarters of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS). 
Credit for the recent acceleration in diplomatic relations between Khartoum and Washington goes from the Sudanese side to Ibrahim Ghandour, Sudan’s foreign affairs minister from June 2015 to April 2018. Ghandour was a victim of his own success. He became a brandname associated in Sudan with the US decision to ease sanction against Sudan. He got as far as claiming a tob under his name, ‘Ghandour’s tears’ the fancy attire was called, not because of his achievements in diplomacy however but because of tears he shed in front of the cameras when President Bashir scuttled back from South Africa after a South African court issued an interim order to prevent him from leaving the country in June 2015 in compliance with the International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrants against him. A civilian with no constituency to claim as his own apart from his Islamic Movement credentials and rotation in higher office in the ruling party, Ghandour’s short-lived popularity was reason to get rid of him at the nearest reshuffle in Bashir’s rulebook. 
Observed from the halls of power in Khartoum, or to be more precise from the new Chinese-built presidential palace on the Nile, the terrain of Sudan-US relations is treacherous. Ties to the US are wished for and sought after with considerable zeal but flirtatious proximity and suspicions of outright intimacy excite the ghosts of conspiracy and coup plots. The crux of the matter being that President Bashir as a fugitive of the ICC can only fantasise about such encounters. To grab a moment in the limelight he has to fly to Moscow for a session of prostration and faux anti-US bashing in front of President Putin, what he did in November 2017 on his first visit to Moscow asking the Russian head of state for “protection from the aggressive acts of the United States”. On the US file, President Bashir is forced to rely on second-hand accounts and security briefings, a significant handicap on the most important foreign affairs issue facing the country for a man whose power is critically personal, a grant from Allah above to paraphrase his own words to senior SAF officers this year. 
Nonetheless, the diplomatic engagement kept moving despite the setbacks caused by Bashir’s erratic behaviour and Ghandour’s dismissal from office. The “Phase 2” framework for removing the SST designation has basically recycled three of the “Five Tracks” of the previous engagement framework, where US assessment of progress made by Sudan in those areas was deemed sufficient to ease sanctions, and retained a supplemental track on adherence to the resolutions of the UN Security Council regarding North Korea. It also introduced two new tracks pertaining to human rights issues and commitment by Sudan to address “certain outstanding terrorism-related claims”, mainly arising from litigation in US courts against Sudan for alleged involvement in an attack on a US destroyer in 2000. Destroying a destroyer in this context of course is a terrorism crime but making one is not. 
The three tracks retained under the new framework are (1) counterterrorism cooperation, (2) improving humanitarian access and (3) ceasing internal hostilities with rebels in order to create a more conducive environment in negotiations to end the conflicts in Darfur and the Two Areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. The two tracks that have been discarded in the new framework are commitments by Sudan to end negative interference in South Sudan, and to address the almost defunct threat of Uganda’s Lord Resistance Army. 
Abandoning these two tracks makes sense. There is no evidence that Sudan maintains relations with the Ugandan rebels. That track was a gift to Khartoum. And now Sudan and Uganda are the two regional brokers who shepherded South Sudan’s government and opposition into signing a revitalised version of the internationally-backed, ill-fated agreement that collapsed in July 2016 with the eruption of clashes in Juba. As to the tracks concerning expansion of counterterrorism cooperation, North Korea, US litigation and improving humanitarian access, these are areas where the government has already been cooperating on, and will probably be happy to continue to do so. 
However, the trouble with the new framework stems from two tracks. The first is "enhancing human rights protections” with emphasis placed on “freedoms of religion and press”, and the second is “the cessation of hostilities with rebels”. 
The “human rights” track, albeit emphasising protection of religious and press freedom, lacks clear details and benchmarks. Press freedom is indeed an issue. The government regularly stifles press freedom, confiscates print-runs of certain newspapers, and exerts financial pressure on the few newspapers that don’t toe the government line by depriving them of state advertisements. Salah Gosh recently remarked with amusement asking what would the NISS do if it did not harass the press? It’s part of its job description. 
The focus on “religious freedoms” in Sudan in the abstract terms framed by US diplomats betrays a lack of nuanced understanding of what drives this phenomenon, and how it is directly linked to the armed conflict in Sudan’s peripheries. Whereas the state in Sudan espouses and imposes a unilateral cultural and ethnic identity on the whole country despite its diverse ethnic and cultural identities, not all Christian groups in Sudan complain of, or are subjected to, religious discrimination. The reality is that there is one specific group that is politically targeted on a religious pretext. It’s no coincidence that most of the people who were arrested over the years since South Sudan’s secession in 2011 on accusations of “proselytisation” and “Christianisation” were ethnic Nuba, the main inhabitants of areas controlled by the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement North (SPLM-N) that is fighting the government in South Kordofan. It’s also no coincidence that most of the Church buildings that were demolished were in areas predominantly populated by Nuba. Nuba activists who were arrested by the NISS on charges of engaging in “Christianisation” activities were interrogated less about their Church-related activities and more about their alleged affiliation with the SPLM-N and what they or their families knew about the situation “back home”, in SPLM-N controlled areas. In fact, past incidences of mass arrests of Nuba activists in Khartoum on accusations of “Christianisation” coincided with escalation of military confrontations between the government and the SPLM-N in South Kordofan. 
There is a straight and quite obvious line connecting the war in South Kordofan to the issue of "religious freedoms” in Sudan. In this context, the US-Sudan new engagement framework is self-defeating, because it does not contain any demand that Khartoum reaches final and political settlements to the armed conflict in South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur. All it asks of Khartoum is “ceasing internal hostilities and creating a more conducive environment for progress in Sudan’s peace process”. 
Internal hostilities are already on hold since the government and the rebels, except the Darfur rebel Sudan Liberation Movement faction of Abdel Wahid Mohammed Nur (SLM-N), declared a ceasefire in June 2016. Since that time there has been a significant reduction in fighting in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, mostly low-key clashes between rival SPLM-N factions in Blue Nile and bouts of skirmishes between the government and SLM-Nur around Jabal Marra in Darfur. 
The fact that the new framework does not call for a political settlement with the rebels is the latest manifestation of the shift in US policy away from the fractious Sudanese opposition, armed and unarmed, and towards a regime it sees no current alternative to. At its core, this new framework is a US license for the government to crush the armed rebellions if it could once the SST designation is removed and no political agreement is reached. With peace talks floundering, and the main and only potent rebel group, SPLM-N, resisting pressure from its allies in South Sudan to sign a peace deal with Khartoum, and jostling for radical solutions such as the right for self-determination, it is hard to imagine a peace agreement on the horizon. 
In the event that there is no political agreement to end the conflict, and the SST designation is removed, Khartoum could be tempted to attempt its hand at a final military solution with the rebels. That scenario is likely to be detrimental to the stated objectives of the new framework. For the better informed, it is hard to see how religious freedoms can be ensured without a durable political settlement to the conflict in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. 
The seduction of US power is too great for Sudan’s ruling class to resist, and indeed it often has a disorienting and confusing effect on their political behaviour. Consider for instance former vice-president Ali Osman Mohamed Taha’s almost complete capitulation to the demands of US power in negotiations to seal the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the parent Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M), or the former ruling party strongman Nafie Ali Nafie’s surrender to the requests of the then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton in the initial 2011 talks with the SPLM-N. Ironically it is President Bashir who, by virtue of his ICC badge, is the only one who is shielded from the lure of Washington. This is one reason why this flirtation can never be truly consummated. 

Muhammad Osman @Meltilib & Magdi el Gizouli
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This work by Magdi El Gizouli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.