What a difference a year makes. Today marks the one-year anniversary of the first protests that would eventually topple the brutal dictatorship of Sudanese President Omar al Bashir. Marked by corruption and violence, Bashir ruled Sudan for 30 years after a 1989 military coup brought him to power. Following Bashir’s ouster in April, demonstrators faced down the military and security services before securing a power-sharing agreement that will allow a transitional government to rule the country until democratic elections in 2022.
Such an outcome seemed nearly unthinkable only a year ago. And while there are well-founded concerns that the military and security services may yet try to revert the country to authoritarian rule, there is also room for optimism as the transitional government continues to forge a path towards a democratic and inclusive Sudan.
Sudan’s Path towards Democracy
On Dec. 19, 2018, protests began in the city of Atbara, where the removal of a subsidy tripled the price of bread and sparked public outrage. The protests quickly spread throughout the country as demonstrators shifted their focus to removing Bashir and his deeply corrupt government from power. In the capital Khartoum, demonstrators organized massive marches and began a peaceful sit-in near the military headquarters. The regime fought back through harassment and violence. But the demonstrators would not be deterred and the military and security apparatus that Bashir relied on for years decided that he had become a liability and removed him from power on April 11.
However, Bashir’s removal alone did not satisfy the demonstrators, who remained in the streets and at the sit-in, refusing to disperse until the military relinquished power and agreed to civilian rule. This stalemate led to an increasingly tense standoff that culminated in a June 3 massacre, where military and security forces launched a concerted attack against peaceful protesters that killed more than 100 people and left many more injured. Even after this horrendous attack, which Human Rights Watch recently concluded amounted to war crimes, the demonstrators refused to cede power to these forces and again took to the streets in a huge protest on June 30.
Surprised by the resiliency of the demonstrators, and coupled with strong pressure from the United States, the United Kingdom, Norway, and other countries, as well as the United Nations and the African Union, the military leadership relented, and on July 4 agreed to a power-sharing arrangement that created a transitional government to lead the country until democratic elections in 39 months. On Aug. 17, the transitional government put forth sweeping reform plans through a political agreement and Constitutional Declaration, which will help guide the country’s move towards democracy.
As incredible as these events were and as heartening as this transition towards democratic rule has been, much work remains before this transformation is complete. In addition to concerns that the military may reverse course and attempt to reestablish an authoritarian state, the Sudanese economy remains in crisis after decades of misrule and corruption. Economic conditions are unlikely to improve considerably until the United States removes Sudan from its State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST) List. Inclusion on this list makes Sudan ineligible for debt relief from the World Bank and certain types of financing from the International Monetary Fund. It also stifles investment and economic development. Accordingly, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has made Sudan’s removal from the SST List his highest foreign policy objective and championed removal while visiting Washington earlier this month.
Welcome to Washington and about that List
Since Bashir’s ouster, the United States has taken significant steps to support the civilian leadership and improve bilateral relations with Sudan. Most notably, on Dec. 4, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States and Sudan plan to exchange ambassadors for the first time in 23 years. This announcement occurred during Prime Minister Hamdok’s visit to Washington in early December, where he met with David Hale, undersecretary for political affairs, and members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Hamdok also participated in an event at the Atlantic Council where he outlined his vision for Sudan’s transition to a democratic country. Hamdok’s visit was meaningful in and of itself, as it marked the first visit by a Sudanese head of state to Washington since 1985.
Sudan has been on the SST List since 1993 when the Clinton administration designated the country a state sponsor of terrorism. The transitional government has pressed for Sudan’s removal from the list, but the State Department has said only that it may remove Sudan and that the U.S.-Sudanese relationship is no longer an adversarial one. The Sudanese government clearly hoped for a more favorable outcome and a more definitive timeframe for its removal. On Nov. 15, U.S. Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Tibor Nagy removed any doubt that SST delisting or sanctions removal was imminent. Nagy stated the Trump administration is not committed to lifting sanctions, but only that it hopes to do so provided the transitional government meets the administration’s conditions. Nonetheless, Nagy noted the hardships that the sanctions are causing the Sudanese people. As things stand, there is no clear timeframe for this decision and Congress would need to approve the decision to remove Sudan. Sudan also faces U.S. sanctions from 1997 and 2007, although most of these were lifted in 2017 and 2018.
Given the previous regime and the ongoing transition, U.S. officials are right to be cautious before normalizing relations with Sudan. However, keeping Sudan on the SST List also carries risks and may undermine the country’s best chance at meaningful reform in decades. As the Atlantic Council’s Cameron Hudson notes, while U.S. officials are correct to fear that the military will reassert itself and that Sudan will again become an authoritarian state, delaying the lifting of the remaining economic sanctions also risks turning this possibility into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hudson has argued for removing the remaining sanctions previously, concluding that without a democracy dividend, the lingering elements of the former regime will maintain power.
The economic difficulties within Sudan are hard to overstate and the longer the country’s economic crisis continues, the more likely that the Sudanese people will lose patience with the transitional government and the greater the risk that the remnants of the Bashir regime will feel emboldened to act. Several states, including France, Egypt, and Qatar, as well as the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres have pushed the U.S. to remove Sudan from the SST list. The African Union also urged the international community to lift all remaining sanctions on Sudan. Likewise, a wide array of Sudanese civil society members, human rights activists, academics, and professionals have urged the U.S. to remove Sudan from the SST list, arguing that the continued designation undermines the current government while also punishing it for the crimes of the Bashir regime.
Still, removing Sudan from the SST List will not provide an immediate fix to the economy, just as lifting the U.S. sanctions in 2017 did not transform the Sudanese economy overnight. However, it will help the reformists by allowing the country to pursue debt relief and regional trade and investment opportunities. It will also help the government address corruption. One particularly good idea is to convene a pledging conference to mobilize donors and investors and focus recovery efforts. Finally, removing the SST designation now does not mean that the United States could not reverse course and reapply the designation should conditions change to warrant this action. Likewise, a conditional lifting of the SST designation in return for an action that demonstrates the government’s willingness to reform the military and security sector is also a possibility. In contrast, doing nothing and keeping these financial restrictions in place weakens the possibility of a democratic transition and strengthens the position of the military and security forces.
Bashir and the Armed Opposition
Another looming question is the fate of Bashir. After his ouster, Sudanese officials placed Bashir under house arrest before taking him to Kober prison, a maximum-security facility where he once sent his political opponents. On Dec. 14, Bashir received a two-year sentence for corruption stemming from the millions of dollars in various currencies found at his home during his arrest. Earlier last week, Bashir faced questioning for his role in the 1989 coup that brought him to power. He also faces charges for his role in the killing of demonstrators last May.
The much weightier issue is whether Bashir will stand trial for his role in the atrocities committed in Darfur. The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for Bashir for crimes against humanity in 2009 and genocide in 2010. During his rule, Bashir made a point of flouting the ICC, particularly by traveling to states that did not have a legal obligation to arrest him and sometimes to those that did. The Ministry of Justice has yet to decide whether to extradite Bashir to the ICC.
Public opinion remains somewhat mixed over whether the transitional government should extradite Bashir. The Forces for Freedom and Change Coalition that spearheaded the demonstrations leading to Bashir’s ouster support his extradition. Unsurprisingly, former members of Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) oppose it, while civil society tends to support extradition. Publicly, military officials have said that they oppose surrendering Bashir. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the Sovereign Council and the de facto leader of the military block of the transitional government opposes extradition and argues that a Sudanese court could try the ousted leader. However, many well-positioned military and security figures are implicated in some of the same crimes as Bashir, and may wish to see the autocrat removed from the country.
Such well-positioned figures include Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti, who is by far the most controversial figure on the 11-person Sovereign Council representing the transitional government. Hemeti is also perhaps the most powerful (and feared) person in Sudan. He leads the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and like Bashir is connected to numerous atrocities in Darfur. Many witnesses blame the June 3 massacre on the RSF and accuse the group of committing mass rapes during the attacks. The RSF is also involved in illegal gold mining and smuggling operations in Darfur, where Hemeti owns or controls several lucrative mines, and in selling weapons to armed groups in the Central African Republic, threatening a fragile peace process in that country. For civilian rule to take hold, Hamdok and the reformists must outmaneuver Hemeti by winning poplar support and stabilizing the economy.
A related question is what role the opposition groups that took up arms against the government will have in post-Bashir Sudan. The Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), an umbrella organization composed of three of the four significant armed groups in Darfur, as well as the largest armed group in South Kordofan and Blue Nile (the Two Areas), formed a unified delegation to meet with the transitional government this month. These discussions resumed last Friday and followed an initial meeting in October. The power-sharing agreement gives the transitional government until February to conclude a peace agreement with these groups.
While mostly in-step with the civilian leadership of the transitional government, one important difference is the priority given to securing a formal peace agreement to the conflicts in Darfur and the Two Areas and the creation of a transitional parliament. In a November meeting with U.S. Special Envoy Donald Booth, the SRF stated that a peace agreement should precede the formation of a transitional parliament, while the Forces for Freedom and Change announced that it will form a transitional parliament as soon as the Constitutional Declaration allows.
Bashir’s extradition is also a sticking point. These armed groups insist on surrendering Bashir to the ICC, as SRF Spokesperson Osama Said stated that the prompt surrender of Bashir to the ICC is a “red line” that is “not negotiable.”
Legal Reform and the Gray Zone
In late November, the transitional government enacted two key legal reforms, dissolving the NCP and repealing public order laws used to oppress women. To date, these acts are the most significant accomplishment of the transitional government and provide reason for optimism for the country’s move towards democratic rule.
The dissolution of Bashir’s party removed the entity that lent Bashir the support to loot the state over three decades of misrule. The law that disbanded the NCP allows the government to seize the party’s assets and is part of a broader push to dismantle the architecture of the former regime. The law also bars those holding leadership positions within the NCP from participating in political activities for the next 10 years.
The repeal of odious public order laws is equally important. Under Bashir’s rule, government officials employed public order laws to harass, intimidate, and oppress women. These sweeping laws allowed “morality police” to exercise control over nearly all aspects of women’s lives and to deny women their basic human rights. Officials targeted women for how they dressed, where they went, and what they said. Punishments were intended not just to harm, but also to humiliate. Here, the most notable example is public flogging. Though employed only sporadically, this punishment remained a possibility and acted as a severe chilling effect on women’s ability to enjoy fundamental freedoms. Providing a much-needed improvement to women’s rights, this legal reform meets a key demand of the demonstrators.
On a recent trip to Sudan, Rebecca Hamilton wrote, “One can dream of a Hollywood script: The people overthrow the dictator, every remnant of his regime disappears, and democracy takes hold overnight. But in the real world there is a prolonged period of navigating a gray zone.” Thus far, the transitional government has successfully negotiated the challenges of this gray zone. Its most impressive accomplishments are the legal and political reforms that move the country closer to the inclusive democratic state that the demonstrators insisted upon. However, the transitional government remains fragile and perhaps more than anything else, the economic situation must improve to sustain the move towards democracy. And although not a panacea, removing Sudan from the SST list will provide an important win for the transitional government, both reassuring the Sudanese people of its ability to deliver results and allowing critical economic reforms to begin.