KHARTOUM, Sudan — In Sudan, hopes for genuine political change have gone sour. During the early hours of June 3, the Sudanese military-backed Rapid Support Forces (RSF) fired into Sudanese protestors occupying the streets of capital city Khartoum. They then proceeded to directly attack the citizens, using batons. The opposition reported 118 deaths, and an associated group of doctors found 40 bodies in the Nile in the days following the violence.
The U.S. government had been absent from negotiations between the Transitional Military Council (TMC) and the opposition, the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA). But, shortly after the massacre, the U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus announced the appointment of Donald Booth as a special envoy to Sudan, stating the U.S.A.’s interest in seeing violence cease and talks continue. Now, the question becomes whether the U.S.A.’s approach to Sudan should include further measures.
A History of Conflict
A number of disparate groups call Sudan home; as a result, complex conflicts abound. For example, a civil war raged from about 1985 to 2005 centered around tensions between the Islamic north and non-Muslim south. The oil-rich region of Darfur has come to play a central part in these conflicts. Years of war-waging led to underdevelopment in the region. This has allowed local rebel groups to rise up and gain traction.
Back in 2003, these rebel groups forged an attack on a Sudanese airport, and the government responded with disproportionate brutality. It provided resources to militias that were responsible for killing more than 400,000 people. The U.N. and other bodies condemned the genocide and the U.S.A.’s approach to Sudan became more hostile. The Bush administration intensified already-existing sanctions in response to the news.
U.S. Sanctions Shaped Today’s Sudan
Sanctions were largely counterproductive, however. Though they were removed in October of 2017, their impact continues to be felt. Nesrine Malik of Foreign Policy writes that by weakening the economy, sanctions actually empowered the government because well-connected, corrupt officials were able to work with foreign businesses and consolidate power relative to the general public. Moreover, because the sanctions prohibited Sudanese banks from using the U.S. dollar, the Sudanese pound devalued.
When sanctions were finally lifted and Sudan reintegrated into the global financial market, inflation ran rampant, causing prices to rise as much as 60 percent. The civilian protests emerged within this economic context. After the government was forced to cut subsidies to basic commodities, citizens took to the streets to express their discontent. Soon, this expression morphed into a demand for Omar al-Bashir to step down after holding the office of President for 30 years. Thus, in April, the military staged a coup against the president and created the TMC for the purposes of creating a new government.
However, the military coup did not represent a major change for the Sudanese since those leading the TMC are longtime government power brokers who are responsible for the deadly operations of groups like the RSF in Darfur. So, the SPA continued with its demonstrations, leading to the TMC’s violent response on June 3. That bloody massacre has provoked a reconsideration of the U.S.A.’s approach to Sudan.
The U.S.A.’s Responsibility
The Trump administration has taken a hands-off approach to the East African country. For one, the State Department’s special envoy position had been empty since the beginning of the administration. The recent move to fill that position indicates that the White House may be rethinking its previous position. Debates remain, however, over how the U.S. should engage with Sudan’s oppressive military.
Some may bristle at the prospect of any U.S. interference, citing the Sudanese’ right to determine what’s best for their country. Others would pushback and contend that the opportunity to avoid involvement has come and gone. They would argue that this right to self-determination is not equally distributed, partially because of the consolidation of power caused by the U.S.A.’s approach to Sudan over the past couple of decades. Further, they would say, there is evidence that government hostility still reigns in Darfur. So, if the U.S. truly wants to put an end to the tragic genocide, it should see to it that Sudan transitions to a governmental structure with stronger checks on trigger-hungry officials.
Actor George Clooney falls into this latter camp. In a recent op-ed with John Prendergast, he urges Congress to use the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act to sanction specific individuals involved in the attacks of June 3 and/or the Darfur violence, such as TMC vice-chair and RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. This, the authors argue, would incentivize Sudan’s more corrupt to heed the calls of the Sudanese citizens.
In the coming months, lawmakers will likely weigh their options and listen to constituents’ thoughts with regard to the U.S.A.’s approach to Sudan. It is crucial, then, that concerned individuals contact their representatives and senators to urge them to take the steps that they believe will best serve the Sudanese people. If the pressure stays on, civilians in Sudan may finally see the power shift for which they have valiantly fought.
– James Delegal