By Steven Fake and Kevin Funk - March 16, 2009
Along a dusty side street in downtown Khartoum, amid shadows of the imposing U.S. embassy and the clamor of the building boom that is remaking the Sudanese capital, sits one of the city’s many unpretentious eateries. This particular shop features a banner with a smiling picture of President Barack Obama on the corner of the sign out front. In thick black letters, it reads “Opama.”
The restaurant owner laments over the misspelling with a chuckle. The company he hired to make the banner made a mistake, he says, refusing to accept payment for two bottles of soda as a gesture of Sudanese hospitality toward foreigners.
He expressed hope that Obama would make substantive changes in U.S. foreign policy, and toward Sudan more specifically.
This sentiment of hope is common among the Sudanese people, whose country has seen more than six years of violent conflict in the western region of Darfur. What began as a rebellion against marginalization of the underdeveloped periphery quickly transformed into a lethal conflict as the government responded by bombing villages and unleashing militias that raped and killed indiscriminately, forcing millions of people to flee their homeland.
Some Sudanese even celebrate Obama as one of their own, affirming that his father’s Kenyan tribe has its origins in Sudan.
But the policy positions staked out by key figures in the Obama administration have largely escaped careful scrutiny. As then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Vice President Joseph Biden made a call to “use American force now” in Sudan. And Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, has advocated for support for a “humanitarian intervention” in the country. But little has been said about what an Obama administration plans to do in the days ahead.
In 1997, the Clinton administration implemented sanctions against Sudan, accusing the country of sponsoring terrorism. As a result, no trade exists between the two countries, nor are U.S. companies permitted to invest in Sudan—including in its booming oil industry.
While the Sudanese government’s reprehensible arming of militias to carry out mass killings in Darfur has led to broad support for these sanctions among U.S. progressives, the measure is having harmful effects on the people, according to many Sudanese.
Mohamed Elgadi, 56, a Sudanese activist now living in the United States, is critical of Khartoum, but he says the sanctions are working “against the oppressed not the oppressors.” A member of the Western Massachusetts Darfur Coalition, Elgadi says he recalls the impact the U.S. sanctions had against Iraq, weakening opposition to the regime while “Saddam and his gang continued to enjoy the same luxurious life,” he says.
To more accurately target the government, Elgadi proposes scrapping Darfur Plan B, which the Bush administration implemented in May 2007 to deny an additional 31 Khartoum-affiliated companies access to the U.S. financial system and freeze the assets of three individuals implicated in the conflict. But this approach did not focus on such key officials and U.S. allies like Sudanese intelligence head Salah Gosh.
Instead, Elgadi suggests the U.S. government “freeze the economic assets of all the regime’s leaders and their families, including those of both Islamist parties…[and] ban travel visas to the regime’s leaders.”
This plan could allay the concerns of those who support sanctions as a means of registering their disgust with Khartoum. In a Cairo café, we spoke with Fareed (not his real name), 30, a former aid worker from South Darfur who currently lives in Egypt. He says the sanctions should continue and asserts that the majority of Darfuris support the measure so long as people are unable to return to their homes or have access to adequate education and healthcare.
If the United States ended sanctions, Fareed says, “The government of Sudan [would] think that they are strong and…won the battle” against Washington.
A plan such as the one Elgadi proposes could not only be more effective in changing Khartoum’s policies, but could also enjoy strong backing from many Sudanese, including many Darfuris.
The China-Sudan alliance
With development projects springing up in the capital, many Sudanese sound baffled when asked about sanctions. The economic boom has mainly been a result of the strong partnership between Sudan and China, an alliance that has undermined whatever effectiveness the U.S. sanctions might have had on Khartoum.
Though Beijing mostly keeps a low profile in Sudan, the China National Petroleum Corporation’s headquarters is in downtown Khartoum, along a privileged stretch of the Blue Nile and a short distance away from government buildings. A few blocks down the street sits the Chinese-built Friendship Hall, an expansive convention center.
While many Western commentators are critical of the China-Sudan alliance, those on the ground—even those critical of the Sudanese government—express a wider range of viewpoints.
One such critic, a retired Sudanese ambassador and opponent of the governing Omar Hassan al-Bashir regime, begrudgingly accepts China’s role in Sudan, saying the “relationship remains a cornerstone for Sudan’s survival, economically and diplomatically, under the current circumstances.”
However, the Sudanese left is not convinced of the benefits of Khartoum’s close relationship with Beijing.
“China is seen as the new colonizer in Sudan and the whole [of] Africa,” says Elgadi. “I see them as no different from [the] Reagan administration when it sided with the former [Sudanese] dictator [Jaafar] Nimeiri.”
Nimeiri was responsible for provoking the renewal of the civil war with the south that claimed as many as 2 million lives from 1983 to 2005. During this conflict, he armed militias to attack tribes identified with the southern rebels, resulting in atrocities and a counterinsurgency that now repeat themselves in Darfur. Back then, U.S. aid poured into Sudan, leading one Sudanese official to speak of an “air bridge” of weaponry from Washington to Khartoum, used to violently suppress the rebellion.
Elgadi says China has been backing President Bashir’s regime since 1989. Most notably, China has a flourishing arms trade with Sudan, and currently buys an estimated 60 percent of Khartoum’s substantial oil exports.
“It did not protest any of the massacres committed by the regime in the south or the Nuba Mountains,” says Elgadi, referring to the region in central Sudan where the government waged a genocidal campaign against its people in 1992. “Not to mention Darfur. The worst thing [is that] most of the oil revenue went back to [China through] weapons deals,” he says.
Although China has extended diplomatic cover to Khartoum, it has not been able to protect the Bashir government from the International Criminal Court (ICC). On March 4, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in directing the government counterinsurgency campaign that lead to the atrocities in Darfur. It marks the first time the ICC has brought criminal charges against a sitting head of state.
The impact of the indictment—as well as the many come-and-gone deadlines for issuing it—has left Khartoum in a tense, expectant atmosphere for months. Some, like the retired ambassador, warn the arrest could provoke violence.
“It could jeopardize the [2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed between the north and south] and the prospects for peace in Darfur,” he says. By contrast, many Darfuris say they plan to celebrate such an event, not surprising given Khartoum’s brutality against the people of this region.
Speaking before the indictment was handed down, Mohamed Ali Saeed, 70, a journalist formerly with Agence France-Presse, predicted that Khartoum “will certainly witness huge demonstrations” if the arrest warrant is issued, but says he doubts that the government “would dare confront and antagonize the entire international community” by expelling peacekeepers, as it has hinted it would do. Khartoum did, however, expel 10 humanitarian organizations on the day of the ICC ruling.
Saeed notes that “for survival of the regime, some people speculate that senior Islamists—possibly including Vice President Ali Osman Taha, within the ruling NCP [National Congress Party]—might somehow get rid of Bashir.”
Moneim Howeris, 52, a Sudanese consultant and activist living in Scotland, says that after the initial furor passes, “everything [will] calm down, leaving the regime exposed to mounting pressures from the West to give real concessions in return [for] freezing the arrest warrant.”
Some, such as Elgadi, say that in such a case, Bashir will be either choose to go into exile, or will be overthrown in a military coup. “He’s finished,” Elgadi declares.
Life after Bashir
The use of an ICC arrest warrant to pressure Khartoum is complicated by the fact that outside of Darfur, Sudanese opposition movements are weak. As a result, the outcome of the national elections slated for later this year is far from obvious, despite the ruling party’s unpopularity.
“The main rival parties—like the Umma and the Democratic Union—have split into several factions and it is unlikely that they would pose a formidable challenge to the Islamist NCP,” says Saeed. “The leftist parties, including the Communists…have been totally inactive during the last two decades. The Communist Party was able to hold its general conference only last month,” its first since 1967.
This stands in contrast to Sudan’s proud history of strong labor and leftist movements, particularly in their heyday four decades ago. In fact, Sudan was once home to one of the strongest communist parties in the world before Nimeiri’s 1971 campaign of repression.
The prospects for peace in Darfur are “gloomy,” according to Saeed. “The difficulty of reaching an end to the conflict is made harder by the multiplicity of the rebel groups,” he says, “which have turned down attempts [at unification] by regional leaders.”
In fact, there are now an estimated 30 rebel groups in Darfur. But forging unified positions among them has made the possibility for a peace agreement in Darfur more difficult. Elgadi calls for trying the criminal perpetrators of Darfur and for compensating the victims.
“Justice is a very important element of ending the conflict,” Fareed says, “because the [victims] want to see the criminals in jail.”
A role for Western activists
The retired ambassador says activists across the world must push their governments to lobby for “all movements in Darfur [to] participate in the peace talks,” using as a model the generally successful 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between north and south Sudan.
That agreement was concluded after neighboring countries and key foreign powers—notably the United States—made a push for peace and facilitated negotiations. The resulting accord granted the south a percentage of the oil revenues and scheduled a referendum on autonomy for 2011. The CPA “would have not been achieved without such concerted Western pressure on both sides,” says the ambassador.
The West ought to be “joining hands with Sudanese civic societies inside the country who are working under difficult conditions,” says Howeris, the Scotland-based consultant. He suggests taking their lead—particularly the lead of Sudanese leftist and opposition movements—instead of imposing so-called solutions from outside.
As Elgadi says: “How on earth do you take a position on a country without consulting with comrades in that country?”