Why you should care
Because U.S. policy should help, not hurt, the little guy.
Cameron Evers is a political-risk consultant covering sub-Saharan Africa and India.
Sudan is internationally isolated, and for the last 20 years its government has been at odds with most of the world for grievances ranging from harboring Osama Bin Laden to genocide in Darfur. But all of this may soon change.
On January 13, 2017, then–U.S. President Barack Obama — days away from Donald Trump’s inauguration — gave Sudan a chance at redemption. The 44th American president made a surprising pledge to end longstanding economic sanctions, thereby breaking with a decades-long tradition of punitive policy. The executive order is contingent upon a six-month review period during which Sudan’s government must prove that it’s committed to America’s humanitarian and security objectives for the region.
Obama’s executive order was unexpected and criticized by human-rights activists who say seeking cooperation to fight terrorists is no reason to excuse Sudan’s ongoing internal oppression. A rekindled debate has highlighted the seemingly paradoxical use of sanctions in Sudan for humanitarian purposes: Decades of economic sanctions have not succeeded in stopping Sudan from harming and arresting its own citizens, but they have caused considerable economic hardships.
We, the youth of the resistance parties and movements, are starting a new challenge of taking up the process of change in Sudan as our responsibility.
U.S. sanctions have been hurting Sudan since the 1990s, says Mohammad Ameen, spokesperson for the Sudan Change Now opposition group in Khartoum. Not allowing the country to engage with one of the world’s most powerful economies has taken its toll on “our educational systems, our health and treatment systems,” he says, noting how it worsened after the separation from South Sudan, when Sudan lost its main source for hard currency.
Muzna Isam al-Deen, a 27-year-old architect and human-rights activist in Khartoum, agrees. Sudan is “on the brink of economic collapse,” she warns, pointing to the fact that a whopping 40 percent of Sudanese live below the poverty line. “Things are getting worse every single day.”
Not only have U.S. sanctions failed to alter Sudan’s government policies, but they have disproportionately hurt the poor. Elites do just fine, al-Deen says. But “the innocent, vulnerable members of society are the ones paying the price.” Economic desperation has even begun sparking uprisings in the 5.2-million-strong capital.
Adding to the financial hardships and unrest, Ameen says U.S. sanctions have been used as a propaganda tool by the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) to cover up their mismanagement and abuse of state finances, especially amid wars in the provinces. “The sanctions … gave the NCP justification for unfair economic measures,” he says.
Would the Sudanese be better off without sanctions? Yes, says Ameen, acknowledging that the whole country would benefit, including the government. Easing sanctions to help all Sudanese people and parties — labeled as a “deal with the devil” by some — would allow for economic progress despite the regime’s lack of democratic concessions. While movement in both areas is sought by all Sudanese opposition groups, a prioritization of democracy first appears out of reach as long as the NCP remains in control.
“Sudan’s problem is bigger than sanctions,” Ameen says, and he believes that youth-driven political movements are key to transforming his homeland. “We, the youth of the resistance parties and movements, are starting a new challenge of taking up the process of change in Sudan as our responsibility, and … there is a huge momentum.”
Sadly, these reformist aspirations and mobilizations have not been aligned with U.S. regional objectives, which focus on counterterrorism. So the impetus for lifting sanctions is at odds with those American leaders who oppose the regime. Also, there’s the NCP’s leadership to contend with: At what price are they willing to do business with the West? Great change will likely continue to depend on how the NCP decides to interact with the outside world.
Nonetheless, al-Deen is optimistic about her country’s future. She notes that Sudan has already had its own versions of the 2011 Arab Spring through previous revolutions in 1964 and 1985; people power is a real threat and may be growing. “[Youths] are seeking better lives, and they want to rebuild this country. The recent ‘Sudan Civil Disobedience’ as an act of peaceful resistance is a great example of the community’s solidarity.”
In short, Sudan is at a crossroads. If U.S. sanctions are lifted later this year, the question will quickly turn to whether the opposition and pro-democracy activists can capitalize on the changes typically brought about by a sudden cash infusion into a previously closed society. It’s high time we let them try. Shifting demographics are transforming Sudan into a country of young people, which may give greater opportunity for Sudanese citizens like Ameen and al-Deen to realize their dream of living in a democracy that respects human rights.