From pariah to partner

The U.S. and EU should attach to clear conditions a normalisation of relations with Sudan. This is the only way to usefully pursue their own interests – curbing migration and terrorism – in the long-term, says Annette Weber

By Annette Weber

After more than 20 years, the West has decided to upgrade Sudan from rogue state to partner. In September 2016, the tide turned for the government in Khartoum with the signing of a co-operation agreement between the U.S. intelligence agency the CIA and its Sudanese counterpart NISS.

Urgently needed points had already been scored with its participation in the Yemen war under the leadership of Saudi Arabia. When U.S. President Barack Obama, during his final days in office, also announced the lifting of 20-year sanctions within six months – with effect from 12 June 2017 – the government led by President Bashir breathed an audible sigh of relief.

The pledged lifting of sanctions and the potential normalisation of relations, which could spell the resumption of development work, investment and financial aid, are levers currently operated by the West.

Stability factor in a crisis-torn region

Sudan is presently viewed by the U.S. and Europe as a strategic partner in a conflict-torn region between Libya, the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa. For example, Sudanese spy agencies inform the U.S. on the activities of jihadist groups from Somalia to Nigeria.

For the Europeans, the country's strategic position as transit zone for refugees and migrants from the Horn of Africa is of key importance, in particular in view of the many Eritreans who reach Italy via what is known as the Central Mediterranean route.

Omar al-Bashir celebrating in Khartoum upon his return from the African Union (AU) summit in Johannesburg (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Political triumph for Sudan′s dictator: in 2015 Omar al-Bashir attended a summit of the African Union (AU) in Johannesburg. Ignoring a ruling by its own Supreme Court, the South African government allowed the dictator wanted for war crimes to flee the country. The International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the arrest of the Sudanese president in 2009, among other things for genocide

The common aim at border checks is to make it difficult for Darfur rebels who have been serving as mercenaries in Libya to retreat, to cut off possible jihadist routes between the Sahel and the Horn of Africa and finally, to control migration flows between the Horn of Africa and the Mediterranean. In return for its co-operation in these matters, Sudan expects financial support from the EU.

Paradoxically, despite its own internal battles, the nation is viewed as a stability factor in a region riddled with major crises, power struggles and conflicts. In this way, Sudan serves as a key buffer between enemy users of the waters of the Nile Egypt and Ethiopia and is the only potential regional mediator between arch enemies Eritrea and Ethiopia.

In particular, European nerves are being strained by the possibility of a military escalation of both conflicts, above all because further outbreaks of violence could trigger a rise in refugee numbers. And after all, the influence of Khartoum on the conflict in southern Sudan is also important to the West.

Anything but an ideal partner

The regional and international relevance of Sudan is undisputed. But opinions on whether – and where applicable – on which issues there can and should be co-operation with the government in Khartoum, remains a bone of contention among western partners and observers. After all, Sudan is anything but an ideal partner: the International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for the arrest of the Sudanese president on war crimes charges, the government continues to wage war in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains, while the country continues to languish in rankings on human rights and political freedoms.

Nevertheless, in recent years the government has clearly demonstrated its readiness to take small steps towards political openness and peace – above all since the announcement that sanctions will be lifted. For example, the president's 2014 call for national dialogue resulted in political and armed opposition forces organising themselves so that at least initial talks could be conducted with the government aimed at bringing the conflicts to an end.

Refugees from the Nuba Mountains in the province of South Kordofan on the border with South Sudan (photo: Getty Images)
Any but an ideal partner: "the International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for the arrest of the Sudanese president on war crimes charges, the government continues to wage war in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains, while the country continues to languish in rankings on human rights and political freedoms," criticises Annette Weber

Other progress can be attributed to the fact that the lifting of the sanctions is set to happen within a six-month deadline. For example access for humanitarian aid, which has thus far been difficult, has now been improved, bureaucratic hurdles and travel restrictions have been eased and military offensives largely halted. Nevertheless, none of this has yet resulted in any profound change.

The national dialogue, initially aimed at ushering in far-reaching political reforms, was nothing more than a governmental consultation with a small section of the political spectrum. Also, peace negotiations with rebels from contested regions in Darfur and on the border with southern Sudan have stalled. People are still detained in prison without charge or trial, media are subjected to censorship and any political gatherings broken up.

Dealings with authoritarian regimes compromise credibility

It is now crucial that visibility and quick wins do not become the leitmotif of western engagement with Sudan. At the moment, it would appear that the U.S. and EU are abandoning the standards of a value-oriented foreign policy and making do with small steps towards greater political openness, as long as there is evident short-term progress in reducing the flow of migrants to Europe and in the war on terror.

They convince themselves of the reliability of their opposite number in negotiations and hope that authoritarianism also means stability and that the gain justifies the political risk of co-operating with a repressive regime. This approach could have fatal consequences, as it does not address social malaise or more precisely the causes of the conflicts and therefore the causes of flight and radicalisation.

Meanwhile, a committed policy approach from the West that aims to realise its own interests in a comprehensive and sustainable fashion, could make Sudan's long-yearned-for normalisation of relations conditional upon concrete demands.

At the current time it is imperative that this approach pushes for serious and committed efforts to secure peace and that these are coupled with the organisation of a democratic transformation. And it must ensure that economic relief does not merely appease elite networks in the short-term, but has a stabilising effect on Sudanese society as a whole.

Annette Weber

© 2017

Annette Weber is a senior fellow with the Middle East and Africa Research Division of the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, SWP). Her expertise lies in regional and intrastate conflicts in the Horn of Africa, questions of political order, social change and statebuilding in fragile states.