The US needs to rethink its strategy with Sudan

After the secession of South Sudan the Sudanese ruling National Congress Party seeks to strengthen ties with the United States and the west. Any attempt to reform the NCP will fail for now so Washington has no choice but to re-engage with the regime in Khartoum
Elfadil Ibrahim
14 February 2012

The ruling National Congress Party (NCP) in Sudan has proved itself to be a shrewd and resiliant force throughout its two decade rule. Containment did little to hasten its demise or check its ability to thrive. Following US-led efforts to ostracise and isolate the rogue state, almost all of Sudan's neighbors were turned against it thanks to international pressure as well as Sudan's warm ties with numerous jihadists groups that made its neighbours nervous. The NCP survived however, thanks to hostility between Ethiopia and Eritrea, in addition to Egypt's change of heart towards the efficacy of this strategy. Then came the oil boom a few years later when Sudan would turn East and find willing partners eager to help with exploration and production. Following the secession of South Sudan that took with it over 70% of the oil wealth, Sudan is once again feeling the pressure. This time however, Sudan is much more eager to re-establish ties with the US and the west. This may be the only plausible scenario for the institution of reforms that have long been of concern to both Congress and successive administrations in Washington.

Within the party, yet another reform memorandum has been circulated underlining the need to adapt and adopt a more democratic stance in order to inject legitimacy into a party that is seeing growing discontent from the general public in the midst of ongoing economic crisis. Three options therefore are on the table for Sudan at the current juncture, change from within the party, change via pressure from political opposition, and change via a popular revolution. None of these offers a very convincing route.

Reform from within the party has been attempted several times, without success. Hassan Al-Turabi, the intellectual father of the movement found himself at loggerheads with the military wing of the party (then known as the National Islamic Front), when he proposed instituting largescale democratic reforms that included direct election of state governors, a reinstated role for a prime minister ruling with the confidence of parliament, and a president who could be voted out by parliament. None of these reforms bode well for Bashir, and Turabi was forced out of the party and isolated in a manner typical of any genuine dissent within the NCP. More recently, Lam Akol ( former foreign minister of of Sudan), Mekki Balayil, and Amin Banani proposed similar reforms but with more emphasis on federalism as all three individuals are from the peripheries. They too were forced to split as a result of 'irreconcilable differences', forming the Justice Party in 2002.

The biggest hurdle to reform from within is not only the lack of sincere commitment, but also the lack of viable institutions from which the party suffers. According to Wikileaks, Osama Daoud, one of Sudan's biggest businessmen told the then US Charge d'Affaires Alberto Fernandez that 'each of them feels he is the leader.' The rat race within the NCP, particularly amongst its higher ranking cadres, means that following up on such a memorandum is in no one's individual interest though many in the party may agree with its substance in principle.

Reform sparked by pressure from other internal political forces seems even less likely to bear fruit. This strategy was attempted time and time again, but Sudan's major opposition parties have been unable to maintain a consistent and united front. In the early days of the Bashir government, opposition parties united to form the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to challenge the Government's iron fisted approach. Both the Umma party and Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM) weakened it significantly by opting for seperate negotiations. Similarly in Eastern Sudan where members of the Beja ethnic group alongside Rashaida 'Free Lions' took up arms against the state for a greater share of wealth and power. The Government initiated separate discussions with the Rashaida, dealing a near fatal blow to the 'Eastern Front.' The NCP is a pro at divide and conquer tactics. In Darfur its involvement in the peace process has spelt the fragmentation of groups, most of whom differ on if and how to approach the government in making peace.

Positive pressure and involvement by the US could prove potentially decisive for genuine reform in Sudan. Bush's Special Envoy to Sudan, John Danforth, was after all instrumental in brokering peace between the NCP and SPLM. The party is practical, and to ensure that it lives to see another day, it has had to make some fairly serious concessions. Not only in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) with South Sudan, but also in Darfur, where both the Abuja and the more recent Doha agreements offer a referendum on Darfur's administrative status within Sudan, a provision many thought the government would never agree to.

Furthermore, Sudan has showed on many occasions that it was more than eager to improve its image. In the earlier days of NCP rule it did so by cooperating with the French interior ministry which led to the extradition of 'Carlos the Jackal.' Again in 1996 it heeded to demands to expel Osama Bin Laden. And in the aftermath of 9/11, the security and intelligence services cooperated for years with the US with regards to counter-terrorism. With regards to South Sudan it has diligently followed through on promises made by the Obama administration that it would lift sanctions if Sudan made good on promises to recognise the referendum results on Southern succession, and achieve a peace agreement for Darfur. Despite continued setbacks in its relations with the former, Sudan delivered on both, though the insurgencies and counter-insurgencies in the Blue Nile state and South Kordofan have overshadowed these achievements and the US Congress remains unconvinced that Sudan has changed for the better.

Giving Sudan the cold shoulder however will benefit no one. Sudan will continue to flirt with Jihadist groups and exhibit behaviour typical of a pariah state due to the lack of better alternatives. It will also continue to neglect the humanitarian crises it creates by crushing dissent and mismanaging the country: unless it is given incentives not to.The NCP is authoritarian, but it is also perhaps the biggest 'modern' political party Sudan has. Though dominated by the centre, its supporters have come from all backgrounds and even religions, an odd feat for a party that has fundamentalist tendencies. The biggest opposition parties are sectarian and based either upon historical alliances, such as the Umma party, and/or grounded in religious orders such as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). These traditional bases of power have eroded under the NCP's rule because its intensification of the centralisation  of power has meant that periphery groups such as the Beja or Rashaida in the East who traditionally supported the DUP, or Darfurians who formed a major constituency for the Umma party, have been forced to pursue an agenda that deals with issues of regional significance to the neglect of the national agenda.

The international community, and the US especially therefore cannot sit on the sidelines and wait indefinitley for the NCP to be ousted. If anything has become clear after decades of containment, it is that there probably will not be change in Sudan without the NCP. This party not only has a financial advantage, but has also cultivated a strong  base of support, taken control over the army, the economy and the security apparatus.

Continued sanctions are therefore useless because the state seems unlikely to face serious challenge anytime soon.The NCP certainly has little to offer in the way of good governance, but it is all Sudan has got for the time being. Now more than ever is the time to re-engage with Sudan which has repeatedly reaffirmed its commitment to re-establishing full diplomatic ties by announcing its intention explicitly through its foreign ministry and implicitly by contracting with lobbyists in Washington in recent months. Playing hard to get has done nothing to further Washington's concerns vis-à-vis Sudan. The ball however is in its court now that it finds itself dealing with a government that may be firmly entrenched, but also very desperate and willing to do whatever it takes to survive.

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