Sudan: From Sledgehammer to Scalpel - How Foreign Powers Can Support Sudan

Sudanese pro-democracy supporters celebrate a the signing of a final power-sharing pact with the ruling military council on August 17, 2019, in Khartoum.
24 September 2019

The remarkable recent events in Sudan culminating in the formation of a civilian government earlier this month provides real hope for the country's future. But there are also significant precedents warning against premature celebration. The Arab Spring also toppled long-ruling dictators, but soon gave way to counter-revolution and the re-establishment of the previous violent kleptocratic networks.

Sudan now faces similar challenges. Mass protests forced the removal of Omar al-Bashir after 30 years of rule this April, which was followed by months of negotiations between military leaders and the popular movement. A power-sharing deal was finally struck in August followed by the swearing in of a new government the following month.

However, still lurking in the shadows is the military-commercial complex that singlehandedly ruined the country over the last three decades through mass corruption, endless wars, and devastating financial mismanagement. The generals who controlled and enriched themselves from this looting machine successfully captured state institutions, monopolised commercial entities in entire sectors of the economy, and prosecuted shockingly violent wars throughout the country. The death toll directly or indirectly from the regime's war against its own people is in the millions.

Sitting near the top of this violent network is General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. Known popularly as "Hemedti", he controls the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and is now a member of Sudan's Sovereignty Council, the joint civilian-military ruling body that will oversee the transition. The RSF's rather vapid name hides its previous incarnation as the Janjaweed militias in Darfur, which led waves of scorched-earth attacks involving village burnings, mass rapes, and ethnic cleansing. More recently, the RSF and other forces killed and raped peaceful protesters by the hundreds.

General Hemedti uses the RSF as a tool of terror to protect the status quo and his dominant, and lucrative, position in it. His al-Junaid network of companies is a flourishing commercial empire fuelled by the violent takeover of the gold mining and smuggling operations in Darfur. In recent years, gold has replaced oil as the country's most lucrative export, strengthening his hand. Hemedti also benefits financially from the deployment of RSF troops to fight in Yemen and Libya, paid for directly by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

One of the many lessons from the Arab Spring is that regime change or reform doesn't equal system change. The fall of tyrants is not the same as the fall of tyrannies. And if the underlying systems - marked by states completely captured by military and allied commercial forces for the singular purpose of self-enrichment - are not confronted, then real change is not possible.

An internal movement supported from the outside

The Sudanese people know these challenges well. Activists are pushing for structural reform and for true system change. But their efforts will have the best chance of success if supported externally too. If the international community once again limits itself to verbal encouragement, vaguely targeted foreign assistance, and technical help, they should expect the same results seen in Egypt and elsewhere.

The last time the world paid serious policy attention to Sudan was around the time Osama bin Laden set up shop in Khartoum in the early 1990s, incubating his al-Qaeda infrastructure and funding it through a series of commercial partnerships with the same network still controlling Sudan today. In response, the United States led an international strategy of isolation, imposing comprehensive sanctions and placing Sudan on the list of state sponsors of terror.

These blunt policy tools have been kept in place since, but never modernised, even as global sanctions policy evolved in the aftermath of 9/11. With Sudan's current window of opportunity for transformation not open for long now, however, a thoroughly modernised policy from the US and others is needed in order to support the reformers and create serious consequences for spoilers.

In the coming months and years, reformers - led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and supported by the protest movements - will be attempting to open up the system to allow for fair competition, ensure financial transparency and reduce military and security spending. Hemedti and others who benefit from the current system will resist these changes.

In this battle over good governance that will likely define Sudan's future, the US and others should impose financial pressures on those who undermine the path to democracy and peace. Instead of sanctioning one official at a time, which has very little impact, sanctions should be placed on spoiler networks, which can include companies and commercial facilitators both inside and outside Sudan. Money laundering and illicit financial flows out of Sudan could also be targeted by issuing an advisory to banks around the world that would trigger heightened due diligence by regulators to halt attempts to squirrel away looted assets.

As a powerful incentive, the US and others should also make it clear to the new government in Khartoum that when there is preliminary evidence that real reforms are underway, especially in fiscal transparency and the resolution of multiple conflicts, Sudan will be removed from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List. Lifting this designation would increase Sudan's potential for serious debt relief, something the government craves.

For the first time in three decades, Sudan has an opening for peace and democracy. To achieve the hopes of the millions who rose up peacefully to call for change, the underlying corruption-fuelled system that incentivises violence and repression must be confronted head-on. This is exactly what the new civilian government and mass protest movement want, but the US and others must also support these efforts and help dismantle a looting machine whose legacy of death and economic corrosion has few global parallels.

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