Will lifting of Sudan sanctions destabilize the region?

On Friday 13th President Obama announced that after 180 days the U.S. would be lifting a 20 year-old embargo on Sudan provided Khartoum continues the “positive steps” it has already taken. However, the sanctions against individual Sudanese government officials were lifted immediately.

These “positives steps” are Sudan’s cooperation in fighting ISIS, not launching any offensives in Darfur since December, eased obstruction to humanitarian aid, and not shipping arms to South Sudan in six months.

Reports from Sudan tell a different story. Commander Abdelaziz Adam al Hilu, one of the leaders of Sudanese opposition, says that ISIS has setup shop in Khartoum. While Gen. Abakar Mahamat Abdallah, another opposition leader, reports that jihadists like Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram are trying to set up a network in Africa. Such claims are consistent with Khartoum’s historical behavior.

As for Sudan stopping its operations in Darfur, Gen. Abdallah also reported that the Sudanese army killed 11 people and wounded further 60 in Nertiti, Central Darfur on New Year’s Day. While on January 5th Sudanese forces killed 7 people in Geneina. So contrary to the Administration’s claims Sudan has not stopped its offensive in Darfur.

Despite what seems to be a pro-Khartoum lobby in Washington, Sudan has not made any tangible steps to improve its human rights record. Khartoum is still holding two Sudanese pastors and a Czech journalist in jail on espionage charges. In the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan and the Blue Nile region the Sudanese army still maintains humanitarian embargos preventing any food aid to get in. These embargos have lasted for over five years and continue to cause widespread hunger and deprivation in the regions. The only humanitarian improvement was Sudan allowing aid agencies into Golo town to help refuges. However, President Al-Bashir still denies aid agencies access to countless other refugee camps in Darfur.

As for not sending any arms to South Sudan, lifting the sanctions in about 6 months could change that. Now that U.S. unfroze the assets of Sudanese government officials this could open up new sources of cash for members of the Al-Bashir government to fund their genocidal campaigns in South Sudan and Darfur. Senior Administration Officials have said that these asset freezes will still apply to Sudanese officials who were involved in the Darfur genocide. However, with Sudan’s government being one of the most corrupt in the world, it is possible that government officials not on the Darfur list could use their newly unfrozen bank accounts to funnel more money to the militias of South Sudan’s former Vice-President Riek Machar or the Islamic “Peace Forces” in Darfur.

Also, if the sanctions are lifted then Sudan will be able to resume agricultural and transportation trade with the U.S. This means that Khartoum will finally be able to sell its agricultural products and buy important farming equipment, like tractors, to help improve its ailing economy. There is no guarantee that food aid will reach those in the Nuba Mountains being starved to death from air raids over farmland and blockades of aid from the South.

The infusion of new cash and capital would help prop-up President Omar Al-Bashir’s failing regime. After South Sudan’s independence the country lost two thirds of its oil revenue. With its oil revenue stagnant Sudan is forced to rely on its agricultural sector, which makes up 80% of the economy. This makes the economy vulnerable to droughts especially in a desert country like Sudan. So despite the country’s annual GPD growth rate of 3.4% one bad drought could plunge Sudan into a deep crisis.

The Sudanese opposition could have used the country’s economic vulnerability to challenge Al-Bashir’s hold on power. The agricultural and transportation sanctions would have continued to weaken Sudan’s economy. A weak economy could have cost Al-Bashir support and strengthened the opposition.

With the sanctions lifted, Omar Al-Bashir could use the cash from the sale of crops to fill the country’s coffers and buy new farm equipment to make the agricultural sector more productive. This will only strengthen Sudan’s economy and in turn Al-Bashir’s hold on power.

So lifting the Sudanese embargo threatens to strengthen Al-Bashir and to further destabilize the region.