Sudan Needs a Lifeline Now

Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.
20 November 2019

Now is not the time to wait and see. Sudan's new government needs the support of its international allies, particularly in Africa, immediately.

At the end of September, Sudan's transitional Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok made a desperate plea at the UN General Assembly. Barely a month after he was appointed, he spoke in front of representatives from across the world but with one audience in mind as he declared: "We call on the United States of America to remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and cease punishing the population for acts committed by the previous regime."

This request was echoed the same day by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who called on countries to support Sudan following its popular uprising, including by "removing immediately Sudan's designation as a terrorist-supporting state and lifting all economic sanctions".

Sudan has been on a US blacklist since 1993 for its alleged role in the terror attacks in Kenya and Tanzania. Additional sanctions were added following human rights violations in Darfur. In October 2017, the US lifted some 20-year-old trade sanctions but kept Sudan on its terrorism list. This ongoing designation has blocked its ability to access assistance from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or receive debt relief. These restrictions have also stymied international investment and, according to business people and diplomats, kept Sudan's economy in a chokehold, contributing to hyper-inflation and economic stagnation. Sudan's foreign minister Asmaa Abdalla has said that the lifting of sanctions in the country's top priority.

The reality is that Sudan's economic crisis is also a direct result of President Omar al-Bashir's rule, which allowed a narrow elite to enrich itself as the costs of living soared. Al-Bashir was toppled in April 2019 following a popular uprising, but senior figures in his regime - such as General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (aka Hemedti) - still hold influential positions under the current civilian-military power-sharing arrangement.

This is one of the reasons that the US and others have been reticent to answer Hamdok's plea for support. Some officials want to push Sudan to make reforms regarding the promotion of human rights, political and religious freedoms, and counter-terrorism before removing the designation.

This, however, is a risky strategy. By the time it is ready to re-engage with Sudan, it may be too late. The IMF predicts that the Sudanese economy will contract by 2.3% this year. Sudan's current external debt stands at about $60 billion, on which the debt payments are reportedly about $3 billion. Hamdok says the country urgently needs $8 billion to turn the economy around and an additional $2 billion to halt the falling Sudanese pound.

Moreover, many in Sudan are already agitated at the lack of change since the new government took office. Meanwhile, the administration is having to propose drastic but risky measures such as a reduction in defence spending - from the current levels of 80% of the state budget - to raise much-needed funds.

If Sudan's new government fails to deliver, raised expectations following the uprising could turn quickly to frustration. A continuing economic crisis will lead to growing disappointment and diminishing patience, while it could also embolden remnants of the old regime.

There is a fierce urgency therefore to help Sudan move away from this fragile situation. The risks of waiting are too great. As former US President Jimmy Carter said recently in calling on the US to remove the terror designation: "Without such a step, Prime Minister Hamdok's government will remain vulnerable. Peaceful demonstrations calling for democracy toppled former President Omar al-Bashir, but continuing economic deprivation may lead frustrations to boil over once again... [This]would also provide a ready reason for opponents of the transition to disrupt the country's encouraging steps toward peace and democracy."

Lifeline for Sudan

The US should remove the terrorism listing without pre-conditions. Until then, other foreign governments should continue to add pressure. The UN Secretary-General must continue his calls for a financial reprieve along with other vocal supporters such as Egypt's President Sisi, Qatar's Emir and French President Emmanuel Macron, who has said he will convene an international conference with private and public creditors once the US de-lists Sudan.

In the meantime, Sudan's allies can also take concrete measures. Its Arab supporters could raise funds to shore up the country's economy, while the African Union (AU) should continue to play a constructive role. In September, the AU urged the international community to lift all sanctions but it could go further in encouraging member-states and the likes of the African Development Bank to support Sudan's economic recovery. It should emphasise that money spent now will be much less costly that potential peacekeeping efforts in the future. The AU could also convene a pledging conference to mobilise seed money to support Sudan's economic recovery efforts in an expression of true pan-Africanism.

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