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An evaluation of the critical transition to democracy in Sudan

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A case for balanced US policy in Africa

An evaluation of the critical transition to democracy in Sudan

By Mekki Elmograbi

In an apparent sign of thaw in relations between the United States and Sudan, Washington elevated its diplomatic representation in Khartoum from charge d’affaires to a full ambassador when John Godfrey was appointed the first ambassador to Sudan since 1996. The change in relations happened during the Trump administration and experts in diplomatic circles predict additional rapprochement under the Biden-Harris administration.

It is perhaps in this regard that the support of United States, European Union, and other friends of Sudan towards Burhan-Hamdok political agreement on 21st November 2021 that maintained the military-civilian partnership could be situated.

The general expectation is the Biden administration will outperform the Trump administration’s achievements in supporting democracy and economic reform in Africa. A successful election in Sudan in 2023 should be the major milestone that should define Biden’s presidential term just like his predecessor helped the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to overcome the biggest obstacle in the way of democratic transformation. The US intervention was practical, pragmatic, and more useful than other western positions.

Félix Tshisekedi was sworn in as the 5th President of the DRC in January 2019, making it the first peaceful transition of power in the country since its independence from Belgium in 1960. With US help, former president Joseph Kabila became the first president in DRC history to cede power peacefully through an electoral process.

At first, the US intervention in the DRC was controversial and some of the specialists on African issues criticized it but soon after, most of them started to change their position. Subsequently, President Tshisekedi became the AU chair in 2021 and appeared strongly in Africa as an essential power player who can intervene in complicated disputes such as the Eastern Nile basin and the GERD between Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt.

On the issue of trade and economic reform, the Trump administration launched in January 2019 the “Prosper Africa Initiative” (PAI), the Biden administration announced in July 2021 that the initiative would be renewed and strengthened to increase US-Africa trade.

PAI is a big step because it leverages the services and resources of 17 US agencies — almost the whole US government — to substantially increase two-way trade between the US and Africa. “For the first time, Prosper Africa brings together the full range of US government resources to connect the US and African companies with new buyers, suppliers, and investment opportunities.” PAI website said. The focus of US lawmakers should be on supporting Africa and African people towards democracy, human rights, problem-solving and economic reforms in the continent. A balanced US policy to Africa is essential for stability, and more specifically the unstable parts of the horn of Africa.

US Envoy Jeffrey Feltman intalks with military and civilian leaders in Sudan

Backing Sudan’s transition to a sustainable civilian rule could be a real test to US support for democracy, elections, and economic reforms in Africa. The Biden administration now could support Sudan in organizing the national general elections as scheduled in 2023. Other friends also are invited to support Sudan. Still, the USA is in an advanced position because of its experience of presidential, direct, and security diplomacy with Sudan and South Sudan. The peace talks, the mediators, and the regional organizations were in the region of the horn of Africa and the US efforts were continuous.

Not far from Sudan’s transition challenges is the deadliest conflict in Ethiopia. The Biden administration’s foreign policy started from day one with the issue of the Eastern Nile Basin dispute, the GERD. Still, the administration should choose between the language of “sanctions and threats” and “solutions and incentives”.

Sudan and other neighbors of Ethiopia could help better in the efforts of mediation. If the Ethiopian conflict turns into a civil war, Sudan will pay the highest economic and humanitarian cost in the region. The daily influx of refugees from Ethiopia to Sudan is already big and it will reach huge levels if the problem if not solved. Democratic Sudan could be the strongest ally to the USA to help the reconciliation in Ethiopia, East African countries, and the Sahel and Savannah region from Conakry to Mogadishu.

In all cases, a balanced US policy on Africa is very important for any intervention or mediation. The Sahel region in Africa was hit by the strongest wave of military coups and political instability. Here comes the need for Sudan’s model of transition and military-civilian partnership to be a good example for African countries.

It is true that most of the political elite in Sudan is determined to change strategy even as a considerable number of Sudanese politicians are skeptical about the tangible benefits of US-Sudan new engagement.

For example, the advocacy and human rights groups in Washington DC are pressurizing the US Congress to move toward using sanctions against Sudan again while some experts question if this was a good time to send such a message to Africa? The USA cannot burn the candle at both ends; it should choose between sanctioning Sudanese leaders or working with them for democratic transformation and transitional justice.

The Rapid Support Forces (RSF) is needed to an American balanced policy toward Sudan and the entire continent. In fact, RSF should be put at the core of the US policy towards Sudan. One of the biggest problems of sub-Saharan Africa is tribalism and ethnic division. Changing tribal militias in Africa into regular — or at least semi-regular — forces that are accountable for their deeds, and then helping them create their internal codes of discipline could be a good start for a practical and final solution. The regular forces can send their elements to courts, and this is the real test for the solution.

For all these factors, Africa needs the Sudanese model of democratic transformation, military-civilian transitional partnership, peaceful and gradual process of military integration, transitional justice, and community reconciliations. This model cannot be achieved unless all hands are on deck. Sudan’s transitional period could be a template but pushing the US Congress to start with threats and sanctions is not a good recipe.

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