The US government and the American people sincerely want to do the right thing by Sudan. Help turn it into a democratic, stable, equitable, prosperous and, preferably, united country. Trouble is they don’t seem to know how. At least that’s what it looks like judging by America’s neurosis with placing new, and keeping old, economic sanctions on Sudan, ultimately to make Sudanese President Bashir speed up the change.
US sanctions make steering Sudan on to the right track tougher, not easier. President Bush has belatedly realized it; too late for a U-turn, though, as his time in office is virtually up. So, it’s now up to presidential nominees Barack Obama and John McCain to realise US sanctions have actually damaged US interests by inflicting harm on, not help to, Sudan. And high time the American public does likewise, and supports lifting the sanctions quickly.
Take Darfur. The US government and public bought quickly into rebel claims of deliberate, long-standing economic neglect by President Bashir as moral justification for war. But it wasn’t the unwillingness, rather the inability of the Khartoum authorities till a few years ago to stump up money to develop Darfur, or anywhere else in the country, owing largely to tight US sanctions.
Successive American governments since President Reagan have steadily cut off all financial aid to Khartoum, and have toughened bilateral trade and investment sanctions to hobble public finances further, especially since 1997. The US government has also persuaded Western allies to follow its lead on cutting financial help and the World Bank, too. It stopped loans to President Bashir’s government 15 years ago; Sudan’s last dime from the IMF came back in 1985.
US-led isolation meant the Sudanese government got, for example, just $56 million in foreign budgetary support during 1994-1998 according to IMF data. At roughly forty cents per person per year, that’s hardly enough for the government to build some roads and a couple of schools in Darfur, never mind cater for all Sudan.
US economic sanctions have also hiked the cost of living for ordinary Sudanese – their main gripe with government. They de facto forced the authorities to pursue an economic rescue (read liberalization) programme, but without the standard donor-funded social safety net. Worse still, President Bush and his predecessor, Bill Clinton, have both pushed the IMF to chase payment of Sudan’s $1.7 billion odious debt, incurred by President Nimeiri during 1969-85.
Khartoum has paid an average $52 million back to the IMF every year since 1994, mainly late interest fines. That’s a very harsh anti-development tax on all Sudanese, especially without even the guarantee of fresh loans from the Fund in the future.
Don’t be fooled by today’s oil-induced boom. US economic isolation of Sudan worked a treat for nearly 20 years: petrol shortages so severe that even the capital lacked proper bus transport, and basic items like sugar and bread rationed.
Protracted, severe constraints on public finances in one of the world’s largest (10th), but poorest countries (141 out of 176 in the 2006 UN Human Development Index) could only ever lead to one outcome. Crystallizing or, in the case of Darfur, reviving older badges of identification (kinship, religious, locality and ethnic ties), due to the collapse of public investment and welfare spending over most of the last two decades.
Eroded nation-state loyalties usually tend towards war against the state or other groups, both evident in Darfur, to grab a larger share of public funds and other valued resources (e.g. land, water, and livestock). In other words, the impact of US sanctions on livelihoods battered the social fabric of Sudan – Darfur included. And not malign neglect by an Arab supremacist, psychopathic state caricature beloved of Congress, Hollywood activists, think tanks, and the media in the US.
‘Excess’ deaths from US sanctions – those who may have lived if sanctions had not crippled clinics and other vital public services – probably runs into the hundreds of thousands. That’s a tragedy of the first order, especially as Sudanese (who, presumably, supporters of the sanctions claim to act in their name?) never demanded economic isolation from the US in the first place, unlike the African National Congress and other anti-apartheid grassroots movements in South Africa. Take note: no Darfur rebel group called for sanctions either, making their tightening by President Bush and US activist-led Sudan disinvestment campaigns since the conflict started look at best misguided or, at worst, self-indulgent to the majority of Sudanese.
So, what’s in it for either John McCain or Barack Obama to lift the sanctions from Sudan? Big dividends. It would give President Bashir political space to hasten changing Sudan to an equitable, democratic country, as specified by the landmark 2005 north-south Sudan peace agreement – the policy anchor of US government.
Removing sanctions would help Sudan’s political institutions mature, too. The deafening criticism of Khartoum by Washington accompanying US sanctions often crowds out civil society and government discourse on other important, but ‘normal’, policy issues. Agriculture reforms, for example. US private investment into southern Sudan, thus far stifled by reputation risk fears, would also surely grow strongly following the abolition of the sanctions.
Sure, Khartoum now has access to money from China and, since 2003, sizeable oil revenue, with public spending on the poor doubled twice in real terms since 2005. Even so, it’s not enough to quench the urgent backlog of basic development needs throughout Sudan like railways, rural feeder roads, and maternity clinics; projects that help strengthen nationhood.
Yes, Sudanese need to take responsibility for their own predicament. They, after all, are the ones killing each other. But playing catch-up in the global race for economic development to lift millions out of acute poverty – the underlying driver of Sudan’s history of internal conflicts – is hard enough: more so when isolated from a quarter of the world economy. No need for either presidential nominee to wait until the AU-UN peacekeeping force deploys fully in Darfur before lifting the US sanctions; that will take at least another year – if it happens at all. The future President Obama or President McCain must both put the removal of US sanctions from Sudan at the very top of the US foreign policy in-box tray. It’s not about punishing or rewarding the government of President Bashir, but about recognizing the severe price ordinary Sudanese and the challenge of building a modern nation-state both keep paying for US and de facto EU sanctions.
Sanctions ‘101’, US presidential hopefuls: collective economic punishment is never a smart way to win the hearts and minds of people. Sudanese deserve the right to turn the page about the north-south civil war and other conflicts and move on – as most have done – with the hugely challenging task of reconfiguring the Sudanese state as per the CPA. So, help change Sudan into the country its citizens want it to become, and Americans wish it could be. Lift US sanctions from Sudan, future Mister President, because the victims of Darfur – like all Sudanese – are victims of them too.
The author is an independent economic and political consultant from and based in El Fasher, Darfur.