Western nations interference in Sudan’s domestic policies has rooted in Khartoum’s dependence on Washington over the past decades. This process was non-linear. Partnership phases were often followed by acute confrontations. However, the overall evolution of relations between the two countries proceeded in line with the gradual strengthening of Sudan’s dependence on its “overseas partner”.
For a long time, the Sudanese authorities took a firm stand against the United States. In 1967, Khartoum broke off diplomatic relations with Washington because of another Arab-Israeli war. However, the Sudanese authorities began to conduct tough anti-communist and anti-Soviet policies further on, which helped bring the countries closer. The murder of the American ambassador in Sudan by Palestinian terrorists in 1973, followed by the extradition of those responsible to the Egyptian authorities, led to a cooling off between Khartoum and Washington. However, in 1976, the Sudanese acted as mediators to rescue the Americans captured by Eritrean rebels. After that, the United States resumed economic assistance to Sudan. In 1985-1986 tensions were rising again over Sudan’s support for Libya. The latter, however, did not prevent Sudan from remaining the largest beneficiary of US assistance in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the 1990s, after Omar al-Bashir came to power, Khartoum took a rather aggressive stance against his former ally. Sudan supported Iraq during the Persian Gulf War. Osama bin Laden and Carlos Jackal were staying in the republic. In 1993, Washington officially recognized Sudan as the “terrorism sponsor”. In 1996, the US Embassy activities were suspended in the republic, and the severe sanctions were imposed in 1997. In 1998, bombing strikes were launched against Khartoum. (The attack target was a pharmaceutical factory, allegedly associated with Al Qaeda). In 1999, the United States recognized Sudan as a “country of particular concern” for violating religious freedom. It only resulted in the new sanctions.
However, with the presidency of George W. Bush, the situation began to change radically. Sudan began to actively assist the United States in the fight against al-Qaeda in exchange for economic assistance. Khartoum also had to pay for the financial and material support by losing part of its sovereignty. The Americans actively mediated to resolve conflicts within the Sudan. In 2005, they secured a peace agreement between the Khartoum government and the rebels from the South. As a result, the United States, Britain and Norway (the so-called Troika) became the main guarantor countries of the implementation of the agreements reached. The latter opened up wide opportunities for Washington to interfere in the republic’s internal affairs. The US influence increased even more after the 2010 referendum, following South Sudan’ independence in 2010. Three quarters of Sudan’s oil production capacity was located in the Christian South. As a result, the welfare of the northern territories began to decline rapidly. It is the very reason that made Khartoum’s dependence on US financial assistance critical.
Over time, Khartoum has made more and more concessions to American partners. However, the latter continued to maintain sanctions. Sudan continued to be recognized as the sponsor state of terrorism. In order to improve its relations with Washington, the republic’s authorities even hired the lobbying firm Squire Patton Boggs in 2017.
Visible relief in terms of sanctions only happened in October 2017. However, they were not completely lifted. Sudan was addressed a state sponsor of terrorism, despite the officially declared merits recognition in the fight against radical Islamists.
The essence of Washington’s approach to building relations with Khartoum was perfectly expressed in his speech by US Under Secretary of State John Sullivan. During a visit to Sudan on November 17, 2017, he said: “In short, the closer our countries are, the higher our expectations for Sudan will be.”
Tangible relief in terms of sanctions was made only in October 2017. However, they were not completely lifted. Sudan was still assigned the status of a state sponsor of terrorism, despite the officially declared recognition of merits in the fight against radical Islamists.
The essence of the approach of Washington to building relations with Khartoum was perfectly expressed in the speech by United States Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan. During a visit to Sudan on November 17, 2017, he said: “In short, the closer our countries become, the higher our expectations for Sudan will become”.
Government and Non-Governmental Organizations as US Agents
Growing US influence in Sudan led US government and non-governmental organisations to play a special role in the life of the republic. In 2017, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) allocated grants and loans to Sudan totalling more than $ 150 million. The total amount of financial injections from the US government amounted to $ 269 million. More than $ 890 thousand were directed by the US State Department to the needs of the National Endowment for Democracy.
In 2018, NED officially spent more than $ 796, 000 on various projects of “democratising” the country. For example, the implementation of the Democratic Ideas and Values project in all 18 provinces of Sudan aimed at changing the political perception of youth and increasing their political participation cost the organisation $ 98, 000. A series of trainings was held, “success clubs” were created and the radio station began to work. Almost $ 35 thousand was allocated for the project “Building Youth Participation in the Political Process”. Within its framework, seminars were organised for young political leaders, monthly forums on topical political issues were held, and the activities of network organisations were monitored at the national level. The Tomorrow’s Leaders of Sudan project cost the fund $ 61, 000. The representatives of “politically and socially active youth” selected by the organisers participated in it. Their preparation was focused on participating in the current political processes and national elections in 2020. The Sudan Transparency Initiative, with a budget of almost $ 51,000, included the creation of a national network of anti-corruption associations played a large role in discrediting the current regime. $ 57, 000 was allocated to create an online political newspaper in the framework of the Supporting Freedom of the Press project.
Other American structures, traditionally acting as agents of US influence abroad, are also widely represented in Sudan. Thus, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) began working in Sudan in 2002. By 2010, its presence in internal political affairs allowed the NDI to launch full-fledged monitoring of national elections and radio programme “Let’s talk” and conduct a series of large-scale case studies. The NDI played a large role in the development of the women’s rights movement, whose representatives subsequently actively participated in the protests of 2018-2019. In 2012, the institute was forced to close its office in Khartoum (as officially announced, due to lack of funds). However, this did not prevent the organisation from continuing its intervention in the internal affairs of Sudan, including through the support of opposition structures.
The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) is also active in Sudan. The Republic is among the 10 countries in Africa and Asia that are covered by the Generation Change Fellows programme. It includes the provision of scholarships for promising activists aged 18-35 years, providing them with access to training and mentoring programs. Among other things, fellows are taught to manage conflicts and to build leadership skills.
Sudanese opposition is working closely with American non-profit organisations involved in the development of non-violent political struggle strategies that form the basis of the technology of “colour revolutions”. So, on May 22, 2019, the International Centre on Nonviolent Conflict held a webinar on the experience of Sudanese protests in 2018-2019. The speaker was Mohamed “Quscondy” Abdulshafi. Abdulshafi has worked in opposition NGOs such as the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS, headquartered in New York) and Sudan Democracy First Group for many years. He is one of the founders of the Darfur student movement and winner of the Open Society Foundations (OSF) Prize for Leadership in Civil Society. Although Boston has become the home of Abdulshafi, he continues to play a significant role in the political processes inside Sudan.
The position of the Western powers regarding mass protests and the regime in power in Sudan
A mere description of the work of the US government and closely related non-profit organizations gives a clear idea of how significant they played in preparing for the fall of the Omar al-Bashir regime in April 2019, and therefore the position of the American authorities regarding the mass protests of 2018-2019 years and subsequent events are not surprising.
During the protests spread to all country since December 2018, representatives of the so-called Troika and Canada regularly accused the Sudanese authorities of violating citizens’ rights to protest peacefully and committing mass crimes against protesters. At the same time, it was emphasized that the prospects for Sudan’s economic and political cooperation with Western countries entirely depended on the behaviour of the authorities in relation to the demonstrators. In response to this, representatives of the Republic’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs drew attention to the biased assessments given by the situation by Western diplomats. Thus, in a statement by the Sudanese Foreign Ministry on January 9, 2019, it was noted that the Troika ignored the facts of mass attacks on state representatives and members of the ruling party. According to official figures, at that time, protesters attacked 14 police stations, 118 government and party facilities, and burned 194 vehicles, including 102 police cars.
On April 11, Sudanese military, worried by ongoing protests, removed the unpopular president Omar al-Bashir. The authorities in the country took control of the Transitional Military Council formed by the army leadership. As originally stated, it should exercise leadership for 2 years. After that, power should be transferred into the hands of civilians.
In response, protesters leading to the overthrow of al-Bashir formed an umbrella organisation called the “Forces of the Declaration for Freedom and Change.” Its main goal was to ensure prompt transfer from the hands of the military to civilians, that is, in fact to the leaders of the protesters.
On April 18, 2019, the State Department announced its intention to support the formation of a transitional government in Sudan and the transfer of power to civilians. During a visit to Sudan on April 24, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Makila James said that Washington plans to continue working with the Sudan Transitional Military Council. At the same time, it was emphasized that the process of forming a civil government should be accelerated. However, it did not indicate a specific timeline for its completion, which indirectly indicates the lack of a clear position on the issue of the Trump administration.
At the same time, the White House maintained the status of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism, using this as a leverage on Sudan.
At the same time, a part of the American establishment formulated a package of extremely tough proposals for resolving the Sudanese crisis. On May 16, a group of 92 members of Congress (both Democrats and Republicans) sent a letter to the US Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury, in which he sharply criticized Middle Eastern states trying to influence the development of the situation in Sudan. At the same time, the authors of the letter called on the leadership of the United States not to recognize the legitimacy of the Transitional Military Council, to deny its representatives American visas and seek punishment for representatives of the army leadership suspected of involvement in the genocide in Darfur. The authors of the letter suggest refusing to issue a visa to all Sudanese officials until a civil transitional government is formed. In relation to local officials, it is proposed to use the provisions of the Magnitsky Global Act. The latter suggests the possibility of “freezing” their banking assets and a ban on entry into the United States. States that have expressed support for the Transitional Military Council should demonstrate that the issue of delaying the transit of power to the civilian government is not subject to discussion. It was also proposed to coordinate the efforts of the US Department of the Treasury and international banks in order to find funds belonging to Omar al-Bashir and representatives of his immediate circle. Congressmen made a proposal to block the sale of Sudanese gold in world markets, primarily in Dubai, and to ensure the return of already sold precious metal from state reserves to the civil transitional government. According to congressmen, the latter will need to provide technical and humanitarian assistance. U.S. leadership urged to foster dialogue between Sudan and international financial organisations.
This program was never accepted by the American leadership, but the general position of the US authorities was transformed towards tightening. So, on May 21, 2019, the United States, together with other Troika states, announced that the lack of transfer of power to civilians would make it difficult to support economic development in Khartoum. The latter can be considered as a form of soft economic blackmail. The United States and its partners had made consonant statements before. But they contained promises to provide economic assistance if the conditions of Western states were met. They did not contain indirect threats of a reduction in financial injections in case of non-compliance with requirements.
The position of the US and the EU regarding the events in Sudan is the same. Back in April, the High Representative of the European Union (EU) for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini expressed the official position of Brussel on the situation in the Republic. According to her statement, the military who came to power should transfer control over political processes to civilians as soon as possible. This should be preceded by certain steps on the part of the army leadership: the release of political prisoners, the prosecution of those responsible for the death of protesters, etc. At the same time, Mogherini emphasized that the EU does not recognize the legitimacy of the military council in power.
Interference by Western Diplomats
Contrary to international law, representatives of the embassies of the western powers and their allies regularly intervene in Sudan’s internal political life. As an illustrative example, in this case we can refer to the fact that diplomats systematically supported the participants in the “sit-ins” in April – May 2019. At different times, the ambassadors of the USA, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Italy and France visited the strikers. The ambassador of Italy spoke in particularly striking form. On May 5, he, together with the demonstrators, shouted the slogan “I am Sudanese.” On May 10, a delegation of the European Union, led by EU Ambassador Jean-Michel Dumond, organized a joint breakfast with the participants in the strike in the area occupied by protesters in front of the General Staff. On May 15, US spokesman Stephen Kutsis visited a hospital where protesters were injured in clashes with authorities. The actions of foreign diplomats are unambiguously assessed by the public as a sign of support for protesters from the Western powers.
British Ambassador to Sudan Irfan Siddiq met with leaders of the Association of Sudanese Professionals (ASPA). The latter is a key structure within the framework of the so-called Forces of the Declaration on Freedom and Change (SDSP) – an alliance of opposition structures opposing the military in power.
It is also widely practiced to provide protesters with material assistance, primarily food. In particular, on May 4, 2019, the Italian embassy provided the organisers of a sit-in with 1.5 tons of flour. On May 10, a large shipment of food was delivered by protesters from Kuwait. Officially stated, it was collected and sent by Sudanese people living in Kuwait. However, media are discussing versions of the possible involvement of the authorities of Kuwait.
Rallies in support of protesters were organised in the United States, Britain, France, Canada, Australia, Norway, Ireland and India.
It is important to note that at present there is a split between representatives of the West and part of the opposition. According to the Foreign Policy publication, some opponents of the current government are unhappy with both the inconsistency in the actions of the United States (due to disagreements between the Trump administration and the American elites) and the scale of support provided. The latter pushes part of the opposition towards an alliance with other “sponsors” – the oil monarchies of the Persian Gulf and other leading states of the Middle East.
Intervention by African and Asian States
Sudan is traditionally sphere of influence not only of Western states themselves, but also of their regional partners. First, we are talking about Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt. Their competitors in the struggle for influence in the region, Qatar and Turkey, also seek to control the situation in the Republic.
Saudi Arabia was one of the first states to recognize the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir. At the same time, Riyadh recognized the legitimacy of the Transitional Military Council. UAE took a similar position. Both Middle Eastern monarchies promised to allocate $ 3 billion, which is 11 times higher than the volume of US injections in 2017.
The generosity of the Middle Eastern monarchs in this case can be explained by three factors. First, they feared that in the event of a fall of military regime, Sudan would be in the zone of influence of Qatar and Turkey. Doha, at least, took an active part in supporting the protests through a resource such as Al Jazeera. It was no accident that their Khartoum office was closed on May 31, 2019. Secondly, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi need military support from the Sudan as part of the fight against the Houthi movement in Yemen. Thirdly, at the moment, during the period of sharp confrontation with Iran, Salafi monarchies are concerned that Sudan should be in disarray. The military can temporarily stabilise the situation in the Republic. The democratization of the political life, on the contrary, is fraught with high risks. The current crisis cannot be explained only by the costs of the authoritarian rule of al-Bashir or the high role of Islamists in the state. In 2011, as a result of the separation of South Sudan, Khartoum lost 75% of its oil production capacity. As a result, the export earnings of the republic sharply decreased. The government has been trying for a long time to avoid devaluation of the national currency. However, in 2018 it depreciated in a short time by 40% (by the end of the year, the indicator increased to 80%). In accordance with the IMF recommendations, the authorities refused to provide subsidies for wheat, electricity and fuel. Bread prices increased by 70%. A shortage of basic goods began to be felt, which in many respects provoked the current protests. Currently, the economy has a shortage of foreign currency.
To put an end to the massive withdrawal of dollars and euros from the accounts, the Central Bank restricted the transfer of currency to private banks. It resulted in lines for ATMs and in rumours that bank stocks had been plundered by corrupt officials.
The youth unemployment rate reaches 27%. Under these conditions, the transfer of power in the Sudan to the hands of “democratically inclined” civilians does not guarantee an improvement in the situation. On the contrary, it is fraught with new risks. Further destabilization of the political situation in Sudan threatens to undermine the stability of the entire region by increasing the number of refugees, increasing religious and ethnic extremism, disrupting the supply of petroleum products from South Sudan, which is detrimental to the interests of the Middle Eastern monarchies.
Contacts between the UAE and representatives of the Transitional Military Council were established during a visit to the Sudan by a delegation of diplomats from Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, led by Taha Osman al-Hussein. The latter is currently an adviser on African affairs to the Saudi monarch, and in the past led the administration of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashar.
At the same time, the representatives of Middle Eastern monarchies began to establish contacts with representatives of the opposition. According to the New York Times, representatives from at least 5 opposition groups visited the UAE. The leaders of the Gulf monarchies in this case act as intermediaries between the Transitional Military Council and the opposition. They are trying to draw protesting leaders dissatisfied with the US into an agreement to create a coalition government with the military.
The latter provoked resistance both from the USA and the EU, as well as from opposition groups most loyal to the West. In practice, this manifested itself through a series of mass protests against the interference of the Middle Eastern monarchies in the affairs of Sudan. It is interesting to note that the protesters spoke out, including against the republic receiving $ 3 billion from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
The reaction of the “democratic” wing of the opposition to the attempts of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to achieve at least temporary legitimization of the Transitional Military Council within the framework of the African Union (AC) was also quite aggressive. As early as April 15, this organisation took an extremely tough stance against the Sudanese military. According to its decision, Sudan’s membership in the organisation should have been suspended if the army leadership refused to transfer power to civilians within 15 days. This was largely avoided thanks to the efforts of El-Sisi. After the summits in Egypt and Tunisia, the term for the transfer of power to the civilian government was extended to 60 days. It is important to note that the decision of the Egyptian president to hold a consultative summit in Cairo provoked a sharp reaction among the protesters in Khartoum.
It is also important to emphasize that opposition oriented to the West cannot be unequivocally considered as supporters of democratic values, and their colleagues who have established contacts with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi cannot be considered as reactionary Islamists. U.S. and European-related protesters often learn of the disastrous collaboration with the UAE from the speeches of religious leaders after Friday prayers.
Thus, at present, the internal political life of Sudan has become a field for interference by a whole conglomerate of states pursuing their own interests and little interested in democracy. They solve their own geopolitical tasks, stabilizing Sudanese statehood or, conversely, undermining its foundations. The current protest movements can only be called conditionally democratic. A significant role in their creation was played by foreign states, and primarily by the USA. The root cause of what is happening is largely domestic and foreign policy imposed on Khartoum by Washington and, ultimately, undermined the foundations of the national economy. The arrival of a “democratically inclined” opposition group cannot lead to a tangible improvement in the situation. Much more likely in this case is the development of events according to the “Libyan scenario.”
Lead analyst of the National Values Protection Fund Nikolay Ponomarev