Sudanese protesters wave their national flag
Sudanese protesters wave their national flag (File image) Image Credit: AFP

Sudan’s government calls itself transitional, but what it is attempting is transformational. In the latest raft of reforms announced earlier this month, it abolished a law against apostasy, ended punishment by flogging, criminalised female genital mutilation, dropped rules requiring women to get a permit from a male family member to travel with their children “- and loosened prohibitions on the sale of alcohol.

Last week, the government also began the final phase of peace talks with rebels that could see the latter join the administration.

Still a month short of its first anniversary, the government — headed by a council of civilian and military representatives, and led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, a former United Nations economist — seems determined to dismantle, without delay, the legacy of Omar al-Bashir.

American companies ranging from Visa Inc and Oracle to Yum! Brands (which owns Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut) have announced partnerships in Sudan. International donors last month pledged $2 billion in aid

- Bobby Ghosh

Sudanese activists and international rights groups are cheering it on.

It is also being encouraged by the Trump administration, which has upgraded diplomatic ties. After a gap of more than two decades, Washington now has a Sudanese ambassador. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said the US will appoint an ambassador to Khartoum.

More on Sudan

Sudan needs aid and investment

But the US continues to hold out on the gesture that would mean the most to the transitional government: removing Sudan from the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism. The designation, which it shares with Iran, North Korea and Syria, restricts the country’s access to aid, investment and remittances.

As I wrote last year, shortly after Hamdok’s appointment, Sudan doesn’t belong on that list. Indeed, many in the national security establishment in Washington argue that it should have been dropped years ago.

Even Bashir had long been cooperating with American counterterrorism efforts. The Trump administration acknowledged this in 2017, when it removed most US sanctions on Sudan.

And yet, the US remains reluctant to take the final step, even though the transitional government has repeatedly demonstrated its eagerness to curry Washington’s favour. Pompeo’s explanation, that “we always measure twice and cut once before we remove someone from a list like that,” is vague at best.

There are other voices in Washington counselling caution. Keeping Sudan on the list, they say, gives the US leverage over the military. Better to save delisting as the final reward, for an elected government after the three-year transition has been completed.

Risk of recidivism

The risk of recidivism exists, of course. In March, Hamdok escaped an assassination attempt.

Although the government has been able to imprison Bashir and some of his closest lieutenants, other dangerous figures in fatigues still wield considerable power in Khartoum.

But to imagine that keeping Sudan on the terrorism-sponsors list will ward off counter-revolutionary forces is to greatly exaggerate American leverage “- and to underestimate the protest movement that brought down Bashir.

The protesters maintain a sharp-eyed vigilance on the military, and despite the pandemic, have kept up pressure on the government to stay the course on reforms.

Certainly, they could use international help to keep the government honest. To prevent backsliding in Khartoum, the US has plenty of carrots and sticks it can use.

Smoothing the way for investment and aid, for instance, would allow Hamdok to rebuild Sudan’s economy, which was decrepit even before the pandemic. Some investors, having taken their own measure of Africa’s third-largest country, are not waiting on a formal delisting.

American companies ranging from Visa Inc and Oracle to Yum! Brands (which owns Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut) have announced partnerships in Sudan. International donors last month pledged $2 billion in aid.

Many more would undoubtedly be emboldened to follow if the terrorism-sponsorship designation were removed. And success on the economic front would do much to legitimise civilian rule.

Moreover, the threat of sanctions should suffice as a disincentive. After all, for those who need reminding, being taken off the list of terrorism sponsors is not a permanent condition: North Korea was delisted in 2008, and subsequently relisted by the Trump administration.

Bobby Ghosh is a political columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East.