Sudan: American Ambassador Coming to Town

Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok speaks at the Atlantic Council on December 5, 2019.
8 December 2019

For quite a long time US policy towards Sudan has been influenced to a large extent by lobby groups like the Black Caucus, the Evangelicals, various human rights NGOs and the professionals like career diplomats were more or less left in the cold.

This approach led to the domination of activists' mentality at the expense of professional one. One good example to mention was the decision to move the embassy from Khartoum to Nairobi on the grounds of security concerns, but in effect was a way to punish the Ingaz regime.

Career diplomats led by one of their seniors then the veteran ambassador Thomas Pickering argued against the decision and wanted to send the embassy back on grounds that it is better to be on site to monitor the situation closely, maintain and develop contacts with the government and opposition figures, but they were over-ruled by Susan Rice, who throughout the various positions she held during the Clinton and Obama administrations kept a close watch and interest on Sudan and became the final resort. Eventually she managed to overall Pickering's recommendation on the grounds that sending an ambassador back to Khartoum will be seen as a reward for the Ingaz regime.

Though the embassy became operational back again in Khartoum later but at a charge d'affairs level, but elevating it to an ambassadorial status became conditional of achieving some degree of improvement in bilateral relations between the two countries.

Interesting enough more than two years ago the think tank the Atlantic Council issued a report titled Sudan: A Strategy for Re-Engagement. The report took 18 months to write by five diplomats who worked in Sudan or have been following it closely over the years.

One of the recommendations of that report was to appoint an ambassador confirmed by the congress to signal Washington's new look at Sudan from the prism of its strategic and geopolitical position and not only in relation to South Sudan, which has been dominant factor for years. More important the report wanted the US to engage more with some 22 million young Sudanese, who were left to other influences at the time US was absent. It is those youth who carried out the popular uprising that toppled the Ingaz regime in the end.

During the visit of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to Washington last week, Cameron Hudson, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council wrote a long blog detailing the American concerns that ought to be addressed to make Sudan eligible for delisting from the terrorist list. Clearly that is a long shot and nothing should be expected soon.

However, appointing an ambassador is a positive movement since elevating the post sends a right signal. However, though the ambassador's job is to protect and further his country's interests, but it is hoped that he reflects honestly on what is going on inside Sudan. More important is for him to reflect on what has been detailed in the Atlantic Council report, which emphases the need to look for areas of mutual interest to strengthen them away from activism.

However, there are two issues that the new ambassador needs to look at seriously. First will Washington stay aloof waiting for Khartoum to meet its concerns in a satisfactory way only, or it will engage positively with the transitional government and help it strengthen its arms in tackling the insurmountable problems facing it? It was ironic that Washington was able to come up with the famous five tracks that led to easing some sanctions and was prepared late last year to get into a roadmap to delist Sudan, while it failed to do something similar with a civilian-led government that it sees as partner, as it claims.

The other issue is the youth, who almost single handedly have forced the traditional parties to join them in a concerted effort to topple the Ingaz regime. These are the youth numbering in millions who were absent from American radar and were subject to various sorts of influences, least of them is the American. And those are the future of the country and who don't understand the rationale or the slow pace taken to delist Sudan from the terrorist list. Within this gray climate it is easy to say that it is Sudan, not the Ingaz regime that is being targeted by the US penalties.

The issue before the new US ambassador coming to town is whether to win the future or stick to the bureaucratic procedures.

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