Op-ed: Sudan is remaking its relationship with the rest of the world

From meeting with Netanyahu to working with the ICC, the new government is reversing the foreign policy of the Bashir era.

From meeting with Netanyahu to working with the ICC, the new government is reversing the foreign policy of the Bashir era.

By Cameron Hudson

Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council made a landmark announcement this week*. It plans to cooperate with the International Criminal Court (ICC) in prosecuting former President Omar al-Bashir and four of his henchmen, who were indicted for atrocities and genocide in Darfur, as part of an eventual peace deal with the country’s armed movements. This is a watershed moment in Sudan’s rapidly evolving political environment.

But it is only the latest in a dizzying series of major policy reversals in recent weeks that have the potential to fundamentally remake the country’s relationship with the rest of the world. In this case, the government’s offer could transform Sudan from the court’s leading international opponent to an ally by delivering its biggest and most important case in its brief history.

It was only a week ago that heads were already spinning in Sudan when details emerged of a secret meeting between the leader of Sudan’s transitional Sovereign Council, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The potential for normalizing relations between the two enemies—and undoing a history of combative relations that saw Sudan targeted with Israeli airstrikes as recently as a decade ago for its role in funneling weapons into the West Bank and Gaza—makes good on Sudan’s new leaders’ promise to pursue a balanced foreign policy and play a positive role in the region and beyond.

This comes on the heels of a leaked letter from Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres last month proposing a sweeping new U.N. political mission in Sudan that would transform that fundamental relationship from one of conflict to abiding cooperation in helping to “consolidate gains in peacebuilding … and provide technical support on judicial and security sector reform.”

It’s a far cry from when the U.N. was labeled a colonizing and invading force by Bashir and its peacekeepers were forced to virtually fight their way into the country in an only modestly successful attempt to protect Darfuri civilians against government bombs and the janjaweed, the notorious Arab militia responsible for some of the Bashir regime’s worst abuses. That conflict ultimately displaced more than 2 million people, killed at least another 300,000 more, and cast a shadow over the country that the new government is only now trying to erase.

The 2008 indictment that the ICC aims to prosecute does not name Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemeti, the head of the former janjaweed militia who in his political second act now serves as the second-in-command on the Sovereign Council. Another senior janjaweed commander, Ali Kushayb, is named in the ICC indictment, suggesting that any cooperation with the court could surface new evidence to indict Hemeti.

This astonishing array of policy reversals is all the more impressive given the divided nature of government in the country.

This astonishing array of policy reversals is all the more impressive given the divided nature of government in the country.

 As part of a hastily agreed deal last summer, which walked the country back from the brink of severe violence, a civilian cabinet was brought in to share governing responsibility with a Sovereign Council that the military would, at least initially, control.

Since assuming power only six months ago, many skeptics viewed this “uniquely Sudanese model of transition,” as the prime minister refers to it, as merely an effort by the military to put a civilian face on its effort to attract outside investment and remove remaining international sanctions.

Many observers still believe that civilians will be unable to alter the fundamental power dynamics of a state where military interests and assets are protected and prioritized over all else.

Under this assumption, many governments, including the Trump administration in the United States, have taken a wait-and-see approach to the governing dynamics in the country—praising civilian rule but remaining circumspect in their approach to the big policy incentives such as sanctions removal and debt relief for fear that the military will reassert total control once all of Sudan’s penalties are erased.

* This article, reposted here by permission of the author, was originally published by Foreign Policy on February 12, 2020.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the contributing author or media and do not necessarily reflect the position of Radio Dabanga.

Cameron Hudson is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. Previously, he served as the chief of staff to the U.S. special envoy to Sudan and as director of African affairs at the National Security Council.


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