Sudan, the Obama Administration, and the costs of rapprochement


Sudan holds elections in mid-April, including a vote for the next President. It is a foregone conclusion that the victor will be the same man who has ruled Sudan with an iron fist for more than twenty-five years. Since taking power by means of a military coup, Omar al-Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and massive crimes against humanity in Darfur, has used his powerful military and security cabal to ensure that there can be no serious opposition; indeed, some of the electoral machinations have been revealed in detail in leaked minutes of two secret meetings that were held in Khartoum on July 1, 2014 August 31, 2014. The authenticity of the minutes has been established beyond reasonable doubt, and we learn a great deal from them.

What is most notable in the broader context of Sudanese political life is the repeated emphasis on a so-called “National Dialogue,” nominally meant to demonstrate that political life is opening up in Sudan, but repeatedly referred to behind closed doors as a mere ploy. In the words of Defense Minister Abdel Rahim Mohamed Hussein—also indicted by the ICC for crimes against humanity in Darfur: “Our National Dialogue initiative is just a maneuver to provide us with political cover for a continuation of the war….” President al-Bashir himself weighs in with the claim that, “The National Dialogue] is also intended to provide political cover for the present Constitution and the Decisive Summer Campaign [against rebel groups in Sudan].” Other comments, including by senior regime political official Ibrahim Ghandour, echo these.

What is notable about Ghandour is that he was recently invited to Washington by the Obama administration as part of growing rapprochement with Khartoum. The quid pro quo is obvious: Khartoum wants international rehabilitation and a lifting of U.S. sanctions; the U.S. intelligence community lusts for whatever counter-terrorism intelligence the regime can provide. The U.S. also wants to make full use of the massive new embassy in Khartoum, meant to serve as a listening post for northern Africa but currently largely unused and not equipped as it will need to be (the entire project will cost hundreds of millions of dollars).

How far is the U.S. willing to go in pushing forward with this rapprochement? Shortly after Ghandour’s visit to Washington, as well as partial lifting of economic sanctions against Khartoum (chiefly permitting U.S. export to Sudan of computers and “smart phones”), Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Steven Feldstein traveled to Khartoum for talks. What is most notable about the State Department press release as Feldstein completed his mission was the incoherence of his comments about the “National Dialogue,” which was long ago seen for the charade it is by the major political and rebel coalitions in Sudan:

[Feldstein] also reiterated U.S. support for an inclusive and comprehensive National Dialogue to resolve Sudan’s conflicts. Deputy Assistant Secretary Feldstein said the United States will continue to emphasize key democracy and human rights priorities in Sudan.

But the Obama administration knows full well that the regime’s “National Dialogue” is utterly factitious, that there is nothing “inclusive” or “comprehensive” about it; the administration would know as much even if it weren’t for the blunt revelations of the leaked minutes. But by using the regime’s phrase, Feldstein is suggesting that the Obama administration is willing to credit the regime with good faith efforts to open up political space in Sudan. That this is profoundly untrue forces the question of motive, and here it’s not difficult to see that the administration is looking for ways to accept al-Bashir’s “re-election,” thus conferring on the current regime five more years of the “legitimacy” that Khartoum’s political, military, and security officials have repeatedly said is the primary goal of the elections. At the same time, as the leaked August 31 minutes make clear, Khartoum has a tremendous amount of intelligence on Islamists, jihadists, and terrorist groups throughout the region; the U.S. wants it.

But there are large costs: a senior State Department official—representing “democracy, human rights, and labor” and “reiterating U.S. support for an inclusive and comprehensive National Dialogue”—gives the regime precisely what it wants and makes it virtually impossible for the Obama administration to characterize the elections for the massive, well-funded, and highly organized fraud that they will be. This is all the “legitimacy” that Khartoum requires, especially since the EU, the UN, and the AU seem to be following the U.S. lead in seeking rapprochement, despite the fact the regime is guilty of serial genocides in Sudan—in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan State (for most of the 1990s), Darfur (ongoing since 2003), and currently again in the Nuba Mountains as well as Blue Nile State.

Feldstein’s language about “democracy” seems ludicrous in such a context. So, too, do his comments about “human rights”: in Sudan human rights are grossly abused every day, and with total impunity for the regime’s military and militia forces. Whether we consider the indiscriminate aerial attacks on civilians targets, the deliberate bombing of hospitals, the imposing of aid embargoes on highly distressed populations, the sanctioned use of rape as a weapon of war, or attempts to destroy the livelihoods of the non-Arab/African tribal groups in Darfur, the Nuba, and Blue Nile, we are obliged to acknowledge that these are not simply human rights abuses but war crimes and crimes against humanity. Feldstein’s declaration that the U.S. is “emphasizing” human rights in Sudan is mere posturing when such crimes continue with impunity and without diminishment.

Is this the price for counter-terrorism intelligence the Obama administration is willing to pay? The evidence of the past weeks, and indeed the past six years, is that the answer is yes.


Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College, has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for the past fifteen years. He is author of Compromising with Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 – 2012 (September 2012)


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