Global Policy Forum

Making Sense of Darfur



By Ahmed Badawi

August 13 2009

The US government and the American people sincerely want to do the right thing by Sudan. Help turn it into a democratic, stable, equitable, prosperous and, preferably, united country. However, US Congressional hearings about Sudan usually follow the same, stale format: a raft of, frankly woefully under-informed, testimonies focused solely on condemning loudly the behaviour of the Sudanese government in the latest conflict of the hour in Africa's largest country, and calling for harder 'sticks' (i.e. ratcheting up US sanctions) to be used to effect the 'right' response by Khartoum.

Certainly, a lot of the actions of the Sudanese government during much of the early phase of the Darfur conflict (and in the earlier and much longer north-south civil war) were reprehensible - as Sudan's own official investigation into the conflict, published in 2005, readily acknowledged. Even so, US Presidential Envoy to Sudan, General J. Scott Gration, never a man to kow-tow to public opinion, has just embarked on what his predecessors knew was the correct course, but were too scared to travel on: swallow hard (very hard), face down the fierce headwinds in US government and civil society, and make an impassioned plea for Congress to remove US economic sanctions from Sudan.

General Gration must have had his full metal jacket on - and reinforced - for the testimony. He also broke the mould by calling for Sudan's removal from the US State Department's State Sponsor of Terrorism list, which comes with a thicket of US economic sanctions below the iceberg.

The general noted that there was "no evidence" for Sudan's inclusion on the list, which he referred to as a "political" (rather than a national security-related) decision; the CIA - hardly an institution prone to overstatement, Senator Russ Feingold - has referred to Sudan's strong record on counterterrorism cooperation as having "saved American lives".

Popular in the US he certainly ain't, but stark raving mad or naive he is definitely not: General Gration simply realises that truth is an offence, not a sin; US sanctions make steering Sudan on to the right track tougher, not easier, and have actually damaged US interests by inflicting harm on, not help to, the very Sudanese people the US seeks to support.

Put simply, US sanctions perpetuate economic under-development and poverty - the universally acknowledged crux of Sudan's history of internal conflicts. It's high time the American public realises likewise, and supports repealing the thicket of sanctions quickly.

Sanctions have a direct proportional relationship with the bottom of the pyramid: they hurt the poor hardest. Sudan has been no exception. Take a couple examples of the debilitating - and Medusa-like - micro impact of US sanctions, which go unmentioned in the US media focus on Sudan.

Millions of ordinary Sudanese families and individuals from the north, south, east and west cannot receive directly the lifeline (in most cases, literally) of foreign exchange remittance inflows from family members working abroad in the United States, wreaking havoc on the planning and budgets of millions of Sudanese households for basics like schooling fees and medical bills.

Presently, remittances sent from the United States can only get to ordinary Sudanese families or individuals in two expensive - and delay-ridden - ways: 1) remittances are routed to the recipient via regional money exchange bureaux; and 2) remittances are paid directly to the recipient by a local middleman, once the sender deposits the sum in the US bank account of the middleman.

Both options incur costly 'processing fees' and amount to an extra income tax imposed by sanctions on US remittances destined to ordinary Sudanese individuals and families, which over time can equal the cost of sending another child to school.

US sanctions also cause inordinately long delays (often as long as twenty working days) on private remittances sent from the UK and other Western countries to ordinary Sudanese, owing to the dominant role of the US in the global payment and clearance settlement system.

Small and medium size businesses in Sudan - the bedrock of the economy and incubator of job and wealth creation - also find themselves essentially locked out from accessing short-term international trade finance due to US sanctions. The global reputational impact of the sanctions means that even most non-US banks are also unwilling to extend short-term trade credits to all but a handful of Sudanese companies.

Moreover, even local firms that can access trade finance incur a 'sanctions premium' on loans which, in turn, feeds through to ordinary Sudanese consumers in the form of higher costs for goods and services; in other words a regressive income tax.

In the key agriculture sector, meanwhile, Sudanese subsistence farmers remain blocked from accessing the lucrative US export market and American technologies and best environmental management practices to boost crop yields; US sanctions therefore narrow the escape from poverty for nearly half of Sudan's working population.

Health and other humanitarian items imported from the United States are currently exempted from sanctions. But even here, the lengthy, morale-sapping bureaucratic process in getting approval to import spare parts for hospital machinery, issued by the Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, has resulted in numerous instances of needless deaths of ordinary Sudanese men, women, and infants - as every medic in the country can testify.

The macro impact of US economic sanctions on national public finances has also hit the so-called periphery of Sudan - and especially the south - particularly hard. Sure, Khartoum now has access to some soft loans from China and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and, since 2003, sizeable oil revenue. But the reputational impact of US sanctions means that Sudanese public and private entities still generally have little access to long-term project finance lines from either non-US commercial banks or multilateral financial institutions.

Coupled with US sanctions on the financial and port systems, neither the Sudanese nor the US government are therefore currently able to lay-down quickly fresh 'big ticket' national infrastructural investment projects like railways, paved rural feeder roads, and river transportation, all of which would boost national statehood at this critical juncture in Sudan's history; help ordinary Sudanese get their goods to market; and enhance labour mobility and national social cohesion. Indeed, many areas in Sudan currently function as de facto land-locked states, with all the associated challenges it entails for jump-starting economic and social development projects.

US sanctions are not just limiting the chances for economic advancement for millions of Sudanese: they jeopardize the wealth of future generations of Sudanese (and the lodestar of finance for south Sudan should it opt to secede in 2011).

Sudan's oil sector remains denied access to the optimal enhanced oil recovery and associated water management technologies afforded by the longer experience and unrivalled R&D budgets of US oil companies, meaning that lots of Sudanese oil may be unrecoverable not so long away from now if American oil titans like Exxon don't step in soon.

Ordinary Sudanese have also suffered severe material deprivation from the lack of equitable treatment from the IMF - a direct corollary of the US sanctions regime. Sudan's last dime from the Fund came way back in 1985 (subsidised loans from its sister-institution, the World Bank, dried up in 1993), and the Sudanese government has paid back nearly US$1 billion to the Fund in late interest fines (not principal) over the past fifteen years; and that's just for IMF debts incurred in the 1970s and early 1980s under the former government of the late President Nimeiri.

These repayments amount to a hefty anti-development tax on all Sudanese and, even with the effects of the ongoing global financial crisis, Sudan is still set to pay back a further US$10 million to the IMF in 2009, which could finance, for example, the building and staffing of fifteen maternity clinics in Darfur or pay school and university fees for one hundred and fifty thousand children in south Sudan; Liberia, in contrast, had paid back zilch when the Fund freed it from its debt arrears in early 2008.

Suffice to add that Sudanese will not see a whiff of the US$17 billion increase in lending to crisis-affected poor countries announced by the Fund at end-July; a double ignominy for ordinary Sudanese who have already effectively subsidised IMF crisis-related loans to their much richer counterparts in Hungary, Latvia, Ukraine, Czech Republic, and Iceland to name a few.

So, what's in it for the President Obama administration to lift sanctions from Sudan? Big dividends.

It would give President Al-Bashir wiggle room to hasten changing Sudan to an equitable, democratic country, as specified by the landmark 2005 north-south Sudan peace agreement - the policy anchor of US government. No government can ever be expected to feel comfortable about embarking full speed towards whole scale political transformation when its back is against the wall - especially one with justifiable paranoia like Khartoum.

A conducive and fully supportive international diplomatic environment is key to allow Sudan's political actors to both calmly search for an, as yet, elusive comprehensive peace settlement to Darfur and reach a number of critical milestones for the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which are bunched and around the corner; demarcating the border between north and south Sudan, voter registration and thereafter general elections in April 2010, and the 2011 referendum for unity or independence for south Sudan and its accompanying modalities.

Removing the sanctions would help Sudan's political institutions mature, too. The deafening criticism of Khartoum by Washington attached to US sanctions often crowds out civil society and government discourse on other important, but 'normal', policy issues. Agriculture reforms, for example. US private investment into south Sudan, thus far stifled by reputation risk concerns, would also surely grow strongly following the abolition of sanctions.

Predictably, General Gration's brave call to lift US sanctions from Sudan has been met by weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth by John Prendergast and John Norris of Enough!, Eric Reeves, Roger Winter and other leading lights in the US activist movement. They have quickly resorted to their default position: Khartoum only knows and responds to the diplomacy of the 'stick'; and the more frequent the beatings and bigger the stick, the better, too.

The achievement of desired US policy outcomes in Sudan by using sanctions to pressure Khartoum into change is an urban myth, grounded in the legend of being the mine that bore gold: the CPA. In fact, the 1997 "Khartoum Declaration of Principles" first enshrined the concept of self determination for south Sudan by referenda. And it was negotiated and signed when Sudan was in a period of - not so - splendid isolation and malign neglect from the US and the mainstream international community.

Rather, Sudanese oil production, not US sanctions-induced pressure, was the prompter for the end of the north-south war and emergence of the CPA. Once oil production reached a critical mass in 2001, the ruling National Congress party quickly realized it could use oil revenue to build and cement patronage in the north, and the then rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) knew likewise for its position in the south. It's no coincidence that the most contentious sticking points of the CPA still revolve around oil even today.

The central role that the US government took in the Naivasha peace process that culminated in the CPA was, instead, an unexpected boon of the post-9/11 'with or against us' world tour by the administration of President George W Bush; not only did the US find that President Al-Bashir's government was with them in the so-called war on terror, but that they were long desperate to normalize relations with the United States, and end the war and make a permanent and just peace with the SPLM.

It is, moreover, difficult to see why John Prendergast, Jerry Fowler (chief executive of the Save Darfur Coalition) and others in the US activist movement believe the ability of US government to influence the policy calculus of Khartoum would be fatally comprised without brandishing the threat of additional sanctions or other instruments of pressure on Khartoum.

Nobody, least of all General Gration, is asking to reinvent the wheel.

Washington manages to engage and influence other countries constructively that have civil conflicts that are either longer or far worse (Uganda, Colombia, Pakistan (Kashmir), DRC, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia (Ogaden) Russia (Chechnya) without being armed to the teeth with the taser of sanctions; so why not the Sudanese government? America can walk and chew gum at the same time with Sudan. And now is that time with Sudan navigating unchartered waters.

Abolishing US sanctions would not mean the US government becoming mute suddenly on Darfur, CPA implementation, human rights or other matters of concern but, instead, just airing those concerns privately to Khartoum and, concurrently, Washington altering back to its standard, more appropriate diplomatic communications modus operandi: dialogue to resolve various snafus and reach key benchmarks set by Washington, rather than just tub-thumping with one eye on making tomorrow's American news headlines.

Siren voices of activists warning that Khartoum will not keep its side of the bargain if the US government relaxes sanctions are pure mischief making. Not all, or even most, of the delays in implementing recent Sudanese peace deals in the south, east and west can be laid at the door of Khartoum - a bird can't fly with one wing - and re-configuring a nation-state is never swift or bump-free.

US activists are also being economical with l'actualite by pointing to the reneging on peace agreements with south Sudan by predecessors of the current Sudanese government as 'evidence' that Khartoum has a long history of breaking its promises. Would it be correct not to trust the genuine commitment of the present US administration to observing the Kyoto Protocol simply because President George W Bush refused to do so? No.

Indeed, there appears to be the distinct whiff of Orientalism in the US activists' jaundiced view of President Al-Bashir's government record in keeping promises, depicting Khartoum as a bunch of untrustworthy, thieving and conniving Arabs. Overall, moreover, the general stance of those in the United States who support keeping (or even tightening) US economic sanctions has been hewn from a stale caricature that exists in US policy, think-tanks, academician, activist and media circles.

This caricature has stereotyped and cookie-cut the resolution of the Darfur conflict, roll out of the CPA and other topical 'Sudan challenges' - to the point of absurdity - as a simple struggle either between "Arabs" and " Black Africans"; the "Centre" and the "Periphery"; Moslems verses Christians; ancient verses modern; rich and the poor; nomads verses farmers; and fundamentalists against reformists.

Sudanese are all and none of the above. That is the true essence of Sudan.

Political space would open up quickly in the US if there was comprehensive peace for Darfur - so allowing the 2.5 million displaced Darfuris to return home if they choose. But that peace will remain elusive for as long as Darfur's fractious rebel movement (numbering 21 at the last count) fail to agree on a common agenda for peace talks with Khartoum.

Equally important, Chadian President Idris Deby must step up outreach to politically accommodate (rather than trying to military annihilate) major rebel groups in Chad and make his rule less Zaghwacentric, creating a conducive environment to end the proxy Chad-Sudan war that holds the key for the complete pacification of Darfur.

Fortunately, nonetheless, the situation in Darfur on the ground and a major snag in the implementation of the CPA have ameliorated distinctly over the last few months, giving General Gration headroom to make the call to lift US sanctions the centrepiece of his Congressional testimony. Internally displaced Darfuris are returning home in ever greater numbers. The humanitarian situation in Darfur also remains stable, with Acting USAID head, Eric Gast, noting in his testimony that the "gaps have been addressed" following Khartoum's expulsion of 13 international aid organisations in March 2009, and adding that "new projects are already underway" in Darfur by the super-sized four replacement international aid bodies admitted by Khartoum.

In short, nobody is dying of starvation in Darfur's tragic and undignified shelters for the displaced.

Similarly, Hartford, Connecticut, had a higher monthly violent death toll in June than conflict-related killings in Darfur (just three in that month according to data from the international peacekeeping force), while internationally-supported peace talks between the Sudanese government and the militarily strongest part of Darfur's fractious rebel movement are due to resume later this month in Qatar with a view to reaching a cessation of hostilities and inking a framework peace agreement. The ruling of international arbitrators in late July over the oil-reach town of Abyei, claimed both by the north and south, has also passed off peacefully (so far).

Six years of relentless, high-decibel opprobrium from the US at Khartoum over the Darfur conflict is more than enough, now that the humanitarian and security environments there are relatively secure. I don't envy his task, but General Gration is right to try to get Congress, American activist and advocacy groups to face up to these facts on the ground in Darfur and shift Washington's focus on "recovery" which, in turn, means lifting sanctions.

Sure, Khartoum can - and must - still do more to give General Gration the maximum political space he needs in Washington to push through with advocating the lifting/relaxation of US economic sanctions. For starters, it can speed up the return of USAID-funded assets to the organisation that were confiscated from its expelled partner NGOs and generally get out of the way of the international humanitarian effort in Darfur. Khartoum must also hasten the stack of outstanding visa approvals for staff of the United Nations-African Union Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID).

Yet, in any case, lifting or relaxing the sanctions should not be about punishing or rewarding the government of President Al-Bashir. Rather, as General Gration noted astutely in his testimony, it is about recognizing the severe price ordinary Sudanese and the challenge of building a modern democratic, peaceful and prosperous nation-state both keep paying for the maintenance of the sanctions.

Playing catch-up in the global race for economic development and growth to lift millions out of acute poverty, and in turn lessen the potential for future conflict in Sudan, is hard enough: more so when isolated by sanctions from a quarter of the world economy and its powerhouse of innovation, technical transfers, corporate governance and general know-how (i.e. the United States).

There is also a glaring and inherent contradiction of maintaining US sanctions on federal Sudanese authorities now that the CPA is up and running; the peace agreement calls for a much larger, if more institutionalised, Sudanese state, which is clearly incompatible with sanctions that are targeted at flattening federal finances and continue to severely impede its role as the prime lead-agency for development and welfare.

Providing huge dollops of humanitarian aid as an interim panacea for this conundrum (aid money "yes", development funds, "no"), as the previous administration of President George W Bush did, is ultimately not in the interest of ordinary Sudanese either (nor the American tax payer). Such financial inflows into Sudan have proved easily fungible, have encouraged rentierism in housing and other non-tradable sectors (housing rents in Nyala, capital of South Darfur, currently rival those of Manhattan - as they also do in Juba, the main town in southern Sudan), and have distorted local product and labour markets for the worse.

Thank heaven for General Gration - and his supportive boss, President Obama. It had already been way past time for the US government to acknowledge the elephant in the room vis-à-vis its policy approach to Sudan over the last twenty years: ordinary Sudanese don't crave protection from the caricature of a predatory hooligan state - most of them never come into contact with it in any shape or form - but need protection instead from crushing poverty.

Crucially, the general realises that getting long-term security and stability in Sudan requires Washington to emphasise strengthening economic (rather than political) human rights, enshrined in the UN charter, for the Sudanese population, like the right of opportunities for economic advancement, adequate provision of vital public services and the right to a dignified economic life. In other words, rights which are all incompatible with the maintenance of US sanctions.

Ordinary Sudanese are not 'tribalists' 24 hours a day, and need to put food on the table, send their kids to school healthy and clean, and seek better paying jobs; put simply, they have the same life aspirations of you and me. Economic growth is the most effective anti-poverty reduction and conflict-elixir weapon known to humankind - as the examples of China and India have shown. The electrifying growth of the Sudanese economy over the last five years (much clipped this year on account of relatively weak oil prices) has indeed helped hundreds of thousands of Sudanese escape from poverty; street-side tissue box sellers in El Fasher, North Darfur, make the equivalent of US$12 per day - more than most low-ranking civil servants in much of Africa.

But hundreds of thousands of Sudanese still remain trapped in extreme poverty with little immediate hope of change for the better. Exiting from their economic predicament would be speeded massively if US sanctions were rolled back - starting even with just removing some implicit sanctions by Washington both taking Sudan off the terrorism list and supporting Sudan accessing IMF/World Bank financing.

Sanctions '101', US Congress: collective economic punishment is never a smart way to win the hearts and minds of people. Sudan is not apartheid South Africa; sanctions have no support amongst ordinary Sudanese - they just feel their impact. So, help change Sudan into the country its citizens want it to become, and Americans wish it could be.

Don't shoot the messenger or his message. It might be difficult to stomach or contemplate, but General Gration is certainly brave and right: lift US sanctions from Sudan, Congress, because the innocent of Darfur, south Sudan, and indeed all ordinary Sudanese, are victims of them, too.


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