Sudan’s prime minister comes to Washington

Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok comes to Washington in search of a roadmap for ending decades of sanctions on Sudan. Since former ruler Omar al-Bashir came to power in a 1989 Islamist coup, Sudan has been numbered among the pariah nations of Iran, North Korea, and Syria. And for good reason: During Bashir’s long rule, Sudan was a robust sponsor of international terrorism and a flagrant abuser of human rights.

This spring, a democratic youth uprising for “Freedom, Peace, and Justice” ousted Bashir and installed a Western-oriented, reform-minded government. After less than four months in office, Hamdok—a former United Nations economist turned prime minister—comes to Washington with a daunting wish list:

  • Removing Sudan from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism list;
  • Unwinding other congressional and executive branch sanctions related to the genocide in Darfur and human rights abuses in other parts of Sudan;
  • Creating a pathway for Sudan to pay back its financial arrears, restart the flow of international financial assistance, and put it on the road to debt relief.

None of these things can be accomplished quickly by either side. But Hamdok needs a clear understanding of what must be done and how long it might take to unwind the web of sanctions that girds the Sudanese economy.

Thus far, the prime minister has done a poor job of managing the outsized expectations of his people to be out from under Washington’s punitive regime. Many will surely be disappointed when and if he returns home without one of these large deliverables, but Hamdok need not leave Washington empty-handed. Returning with the Trump administration’s confidence and a clear understanding of what the Sudanese government needs to do to unwind the web of sanctions that is choking Sudan’s economy would be a big win.

Hamdok must convince Washington that the new civilian rulers are prioritizing US concerns—and that they are capable of keeping the old military authorities in line.

Hamdok’s political survival—and the fate of the nascent civilian government—is at stake, so Washington needs to stop being coy and lay out its demands. The Trump administration has so far not wanted to overpromise and underdeliver on these big asks—as it has been accused of doing in the past. After less than four months of civilian rule, Washington is right to want greater clarity on Sudan’s political future and to fear the possibility that the military will reassert its authority as soon as sanctions are lifted. But too much delay threatens to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Average Sudanese citizens need to see evidence that civilian government can deliver the economic and political stability they died for—or else the transition will certainly stall.

To break this stalemate, Hamdok must convince Washington that the new civilian rulers are prioritizing US concerns—and that they are capable of keeping the old military authorities in line, as well.

Here is a look at some of the big issues that need to be worked through.


Sudan is no longer a sponsor of international terrorism. According to the United States’ most recent Annual Terrorism Report, written while Bashir was still in office, “Notwithstanding its history, countering terrorism is today a national security priority for Sudan, and Sudan is a cooperative partner of the United States on counterterrorism, despite its continued presence on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List.”

Despite this basic fact, the United States still harbors legitimate concerns. First, since the fall of the previous regime, the National Intelligence Services of Sudan (NISS), the agency with primary responsibility for combatting terrorism domestically and cooperating with the United States, has gone through considerable tumult. Its former head is under US sanctions and the agency may have powerful Islamist forces left over from the former regime undermining reform efforts internally. It is not clear if the NISS is fully under civilian control.

Additionally, Sudan is still likely home to a number of known international terrorists and rebel groups from neighboring countries, most of whom use the large, ungoverned desert expanse from the Red Sea to Libya as an ample hiding ground. Intelligence cooperation will determine the degree to which Sudan’s security forces are aware of these activities, what they are doing to prevent and deter them, and whether there is Sudanese willingness to fully cooperate with US agencies to shut them down. If such activities are occurring, Hamdok needs to renounce them and ensure that his security forces are not playing a role. But it is in Washington’s interest to have a counterterror partner it can trust. While the prime minister has already taken important steps to root out malign pockets of influence and install new leadership, presumably more answerable to civilian authorities, he should use his trip to make technical support from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and Central Intelligence Agency for further reforming and reorganizing the NISS under civilian rule a priority ask.

Criminal gangs, arms smugglers, and human traffickers also reportedly take advantage of Sudan’s inability to adequately control its borders to transit the country and ply their trades relatively unchecked. Here too the prime minister should acknowledge these shortcomings and request the kind of technical assistance on behalf of the military that the United States now robustly provides all across the Sahel. Restarting military assistance and robust intelligence sharing will ultimately give US authorities a first-hand understanding of the military’s interest and intent in going along with civilian reforms, which is ultimately more credible than any promise Hamdok could make.

Lastly, when the United States under the Obama administration last looked at delisting Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, there were additional sticking points that have still only been partially resolved. First was the regime’s renunciation of support for Hamas and Hezbollah, the latter of which still maintained a political office in Khartoum. With the closing of that office and a change in the fundamental nature of Sudan’s Islamist regime, Khartoum should now be better positioned to satisfy this US concern.

More challenging to resolve are the outstanding US legal judgments against the Sudanese government for its support of the terrorist bombings of the USS Cole in 2000 and the US embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in 1998. Sudan has competent legal representation in the United States, but so too do the families of the victims who have continued to press the Trump administration to take a hard line on the enforcement of these judgments. While Khartoum does not have the cash on hand to make a final settlement today, Hamdok should be prepared to acknowledge this issue and work with the authorities and victim groups to seek an accommodation. One idea which has been circulated is to work with US authorities on a larger asset recovery effort for the billions of dollars of funds that were stolen by the previous regime, as a means of finding a new source of revenue to make good on these judgments. However, even if this is done, Hamdok needs to come to Washington prepared to be remorseful for the crimes and empathic to the victims of the previous regime. Though he may not like it, Hamdok has inherited all the debts, reputational, legal, and financial, of the previous regime, and he must demonstrate that he accepts them fully. If he does, Washington will be inclined to work with him closely.

Justice and Accountability

Sudan is still subject to multiple layers of overlapping sanctions owing to the campaign of atrocities carried out by the previous regime, aided by its Arab militia partners in Darfur and South Sudan. Many of the officers who had command authority for these crimes, including the former head of the notorious Janjaweed militia, now occupy prominent positions in Sudan’s Supreme Council and maintain military leadership under the transitional constitutional declaration that the United States and other international partners have backed. Holding these individuals to account is likely not possible today for risk of bringing down the fragile transitional government, but the threat of a possible future prosecution could help keep those commanders in line with the new civilian regime. At a minimum, the prime minister needs to quickly establish a promised domestic commission to investigate crimes by the military and would do well to invite in outside support, or even a parallel independent investigation, from the African Union.

Beyond that, Hamdok has a positive story to tell regarding his efforts to bring peace to a war-torn region. He recently toured some of Darfur’s vast internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, where more than one million Sudanese citizens still live—thanks in large part to the international assistance and UN peacekeepers that have been there for more than a decade. While there, he committed to developing a plan for the return of civilians to their former villages and agreed to an extension of the UN peacekeeping operation—a move formerly rejected by Bashir’s military—to ensure that the peaceful conditions for the IDPs’ eventual return are being met.

Moreover, on his first trip to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Hamdok signed a new agreement with the UN providing unfettered humanitarian access to all parts of the country for any and all international humanitarian assistance. This commitment was put to the test earlier this month when David Beasley, the head of the UN’s World Food Program, personally delivered the first international food assistance to the town of Kauda in the disputed state of South Kordofan.

Most importantly, Hamdok has made ending the conflict in Darfur and the Two Areas (South Kordofan and Blue Nile states), along with all of Sudan’s other internal disputes, a top priority. He has already dispatched multiple military and civilian leaders to Juba-sponsored peace talks and met in Paris himself with Darfur’s most intransigent rebel, Abdul Wahid al-Nour. While there has recently emerged some question as to who is truly in charge of the peace process—the military or the civilians—Hamdok would do well to ensure that he holds the pen on any final agreement, and that it is arrived at in partnership with the military.

The government’s overall commitment, backed by Hamdok’s personal diplomacy, suggests that an end to Sudan’s internal conflicts is possible and that he will do his best to make good on the protesters’ demands for peace. Again, where the United States can and should play a role is in lending the good offices of our special envoy and other senior officials to support the peace process and help guard against spoilers. The United States should also be prepared to certify the government’s actions and act quickly to finally remove all the conflict-related sanctions the agreed moment when peace is memorialized.

Beyond Hamdok’s own personal commitment to ending all of Sudan’s internal conflicts, he should also commit to a broader process of transitional justice. Fellow African states like South Africa, Rwanda, Liberia, and today Gambia have all developed their own models for confronting painful memories, seeking justice and accountability, and emerging with a new, stronger national identity.

The strength of the revolution came from Sudan’s many tribes, regions, ethnicities, and religions unifying in protest of their common struggle under the Bashir regime. There are no groups in the country who were wholly immune from Bashir’s abuses. A process that acknowledges that shared trauma, while painful, would help to reaffirm the sense of national unity that the country will need to go forward. Offices such as the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice specialize in helping to establish these sorts of processes and could be tapped to assist, and even fund, these efforts. Hamdok’s visit presents an opportunity to re-engage Washington in a process that seven US special envoys to Sudan have toiled over for nearly twenty years.

The International Criminal Court

Distinct but related to the issue of justice and accountability is the issue of what to do with former President Omar al-Bashir.

Making peace with Bashir’s many victims and delivering to them a measure of justice, an acknowledgement of their pain, and accountability for their losses is paramount. With Bashir in prison awaiting trial on corruption charges, the opportunity is ripe to make an example of him, signal a clear renunciation of the past, and bring about some measure of collective healing for the country. Bashir’s many victims in Darfur and Blue Nile/South Kordofan would be most pleased by his transfer to the Hague to stand trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Such a trial would meet one of these three regions’ principal demands—and the international prosecution of Bashir may ultimately be required in order for Hamdok to conclude any long-term internal peace agreement. Cooperation with the ICC might also serve as a useful warning shot to Sudan’s military and militia forces that, should they prove disruptive to the peace process, they too could be called upon to answer for the deadly orders they gave and carried out.

But cooperation with the ICC could also backfire dangerously. There is no one implicated more heavily in human rights abuses than Mohammed “Hemedti” Dagalo, the former Janjaweed leader who now sits on the Supreme Council and is widely regarded as Sudan’s unofficial vice president. Hemedti is likely to treat any cooperation with the ICC as a “red line” that cannot be crossed without triggering a significant showdown between the military forces he controls and the civilian government.

So far, the ICC has wisely not seen the fall of the regime as an opportunity to rush back into the country—but they are circling the situation. For now, Washington should also adopt a wait-and-see approach. But Hamdok should try to pin down what level and timing of accountability for Bashir Congress and the Trump administration would be willing to accept in exchange for continued progress in Sudan, in order to determine whether a credible plan for holding Bashir and those around him responsible for their crimes is a precondition for unwinding the many Darfur-related sanctions.

Religious Freedom

For the thirty years that Sudan was subject to Islamist authoritarian rule and sharia law, it was one of the least tolerant societies for religious minorities in the world. The civil war between Khartoum and the largely Christian southern portion of the country led to the killing of more than two million southerners and, ultimately, to South Sudan’s secession in 2011. Sustained, government-sponsored attacks on Muslim minorities in the country’s Darfur region since 2003, and isolated attacks against houses of worship and religious minorities more recently, have landed Sudan on the State Department’s Countries of Particular Concern list under the International Religious Freedom Act in every year since the Act’s reporting requirement went into effect in 1999. Sudan also remains a Tier 1 category of concern, the highest level, for the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). In its latest 2018 report, the USCIRF recommended that Sudanese officials and government agencies responsible for the targeting and persecution of religious minorities be subject to US visa bans and asset freezes.

Hamdok will do well to use his time in Washington to reset [the issue of religious freedom] and demonstrate that he is taking all necessary steps to reverse Sudan’s long negative history.

Given Sudan’s dismal track record in this area, and recognizing that religious freedom has emerged as a central foreign policy priority for the Trump administration, Hamdok will do well to use his time in Washington to reset this issue and demonstrate that he is taking all necessary steps to reverse Sudan’s long negative history. Fortunately for him, there is good news to report for the first time in a long time.

First, under the terms of the new constitution agreed to this past summer, Sudan is no longer defined as an Islamic republic subject to sharia law. This signals a major departure from the previous regime and is an encouraging sign of future liberalizations to come. Moreover, several Christian minorities have been placed for the first time in senior positions around the government. These include a seat on the country’s Supreme Council and posts in the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The reformed Bureau of Churches, which was formerly a hotbed for the regime’s most hardcore Islamists, is now headed by a Christian.

The person responsible for these changes, the Minister for Religious Affairs, Nasreddine Mufreh, meanwhile, will accompany Hamdok to Washington. A young human rights lawyer drawn from among the ranks of the protest movement this summer, he has in his short time in office invited Sudan’s once-important Jewish community to re-enter the country and has pledged to compensate those Christian churches that saw their properties seized or destroyed under the previous regime.

However, Washington, along with the powerful Christian and Jewish groups that have taken a deep and lasting interest in Sudan, will want to hear more than just pledges. Their concerns must be heard and taken seriously by the Hamdok government. Given their history of lobbying Congress, various state governments, and the public to enact the current onerous sanctions regime on the country, these pressure groups are unlikely to remain quiet as Hamdok works to have the repressive legacy of the former regime dismantled.

Publishing and enforcing zoning guidelines for establishing places of worship in the country, including new Christian churches, and removing the blasphemy and apostacy provisions from Sudan’s anachronistic criminal code would go a long way towards demonstrating that the civilian government has made a long-term commitment to the cause of religious freedom. Of symbolic, but no less important, value would be to invite leaders of these important communities to visit Sudan to see and hear for themselves the important changes being made.
Senator Sam Brownback, as ambassador for international religious freedom; commissioners from the US International Religious Freedom Commission; and Ahmad Shaheed, the UN rapporteur on freedom of religion, should all be extended invitations, as should religious figures like Franklin Graham, who for many years has been denied the ability to establish churches in the country.

These small gestures will have a powerful impact and will pay dividends when the day finally comes that Sudan is close to having its sanctions lifted. These faith communities could well provide the political impetus that the Trump administration will need in order to take that last, decisive step.

Security Sector Reform

The reform of Sudan’s bloated security sector probably looms largest in the minds of American officials right now. Even though the responsibility for carrying out reform resides with the minister of defense (who is himself appointed by the military and does not currently fall under civilian control), the issue of reforming Sudan’s security establishment touches on virtually every other US concern, from budgetary control to justice and accountability to human rights. Washington will want to hear from Hamdok about any plans that are emerging to begin tackling this enormous—and highly sensitive—task. Downsizing of the Sudanese Armed Forces, the integration of various armed groups into the military, and the fate of the Rapid Support Forces militia are just some of the huge structural questions which the government must begin to tackle if it hopes to minimize the outsized role of the military in Sudanese politics and establish lasting civilian rule.

US officials will undoubtedly be looking for indications that the military is a sincere and willing partner in the national democratic experiment. Unfortunately, nothing thus far suggests that the military is moving with any alacrity to make changes to its fundamental structure. Though there are positive initial reports of particularly hardline Islamists being sidelined from the senior ranks, Washington will expect more than the elimination of internal enemies to prove that the military is thinking about its own long-term transformation.

Hamdok should consider bringing with him to Washington a senior military official to whom Washington can speak directly and who can carry the administration’s expectations back to the military hierarchy. The civilian government can influence reform efforts but, according to the laws set out in the transitional constitution, cannot control them, and so the crucial task of communicating the administration’s priorities should not rest solely on the prime minister’s shoulders. To relay these tough messages, and for the United States to form its own judgment on the military’s willingness to reform, a dialogue in Washington and a more formal discussion between militaries should be established coming out of this trip.

Human Rights

Once again, Sudan’s track record on a broad category of human rights issues is dismal, and there are a host of restrictions and sanctions on the country that prove it. The army and security services are the principal violators of human rights, so progress in this area is inextricably linked to overall reform of the security sector. But there are concrete and specific steps that the government must come to Washington prepared to discuss and take action on. Once again, Hamdok is off to a good start and has good news stories to tell, from the record number of women included in his new cabinet (four) to the signing of international conventions long rejected by the previous regime.

During his trip to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Hamdok signed an agreement to open an Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Khartoum. This is a development that would have been unheard of under the previous regime. International human rights monitoring groups, such as Amnesty International, have reportedly also been given the green light to set up shop in the country. This, along with Hamdok’s signing of the Global Pledge on Media Freedom, promises to dramatically increase the public’s understanding of any progress or missteps in the human rights area. Importantly, it may also demonstrate that, indeed, sunlight is the best disinfectant and that neither the government nor the military are particularly concerned by what these new-found freedoms and investigations might turn up. But to prove this, he needs to move quickly to ensure that these offices get opened and their work happens unimpeded.

Beyond these initial steps, treaties like the Convention Against Torture and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women await Hamdok’s signature and would signal, again, that Sudan is breaking free from the most repressive habits of its past.
The military’s acquiescence to these commitments is meaningful and should not go unnoticed in Washington. But at the end of the day, the United States will want more than pledges and treaty signings. They will want to see an overall change in the nature and spirit of relations between the state and civilians and, most importantly, evidence of a military that respects these changes. This will take time to measure and time to prove—something that is in short supply, given Sudan’s desperate need to improve the bilateral relationship. But here too, making it known that US, international, and UN human rights bodies are welcome in Sudan and that earnest efforts are being made to reform the country’s track record will be welcome first steps in moving forward.

Budget and Financing

While the Sudanese delegation is interested in obtaining a clear road map from Washington on how US sanctions can be removed—as a means of reviving Sudan’s domestic economy—American officials are going to want to hear about the hard conversations Hamdok and his ministers are having in Khartoum with the security services and citizens to address the diversion and inefficient allocation of state resources. Alongside the US sanctions, the misuse of state resources has substantially contributed to the economy’s decline.

US officials are likely to ask why international creditors should be expected to rush into the country with new loan agreements and debt restructuring arrangements if the military intends to continue to manage off-book hundreds of profitable parastatal companies; avoid taxes; enjoy sweetheart concessions; and take up to twenty-four percent of the official state budget and as much as two-thirds of actual spending. The same question can be asked of the country’s continued spending on retail subsidies on everything from water to sugar to wheat to diesel fuel. The long-term distortion and misappropriation of the private economy by the state has not left a corner of the economy walled off from manipulation by either state or private forces. Before the United States entertains a serious conversation about new financing it will want to see proof that the government is doing all it can to reassert its control over the economy, even if that means disrupting powerful business and military interests.

Sudan’s civilian leaders have been slow to offer concrete details or timelines on how they intend to [reassert control over the economy].

Thus far, Sudan’s civilian leaders have been slow to offer concrete details or timelines on how they intend to do this. Some needed remedies, such as increasing tax collection and reducing subsidies, will require inflicting significant new pain on average Sudanese citizens who are already suffering under the weight of the country’s economic collapse. Aggressive efforts to tackle these issues in the short term will certainly test the prime minister’s popularity. Many around Hamdok argue that he should first build up some quick wins, build up greater political capital, and deploy some kind of social safety net before tackling these painful reforms. Washington, on the other hand, would likely prefer to hear how Hamdok and his team are using his already sky-high favorability to front-load these reforms while there is a still an appetite to make them and a honeymoon period with the public. This sequencing disconnect is likely to be an important sticking point in Hamdok’s conversations this week. He should come prepared to acknowledge Washington’s legitimate concerns and to show flexibility. That said, he should also look to pin US officials down on how they can back him up with additional political support as he makes the hard case for reform to his people.

Perhaps of even greater importance to Washington will be to hear Hamdok’s plans for how he intends to recapture the sizable portion of state funding ending up in the military’s coffers. Reallocation of that funding will be the truest test of Hamdok’s political mettle, and will be treated by Washington as the best yardstick for determining the degree to which the military has bought into Sudan’s democratic experiment. Again, unfortunately, sequencing is a problem. Hamdok’s popular support is likely insufficient to allow him to tackle the military head on. Until he racks up some substantial political wins—such as the removal of certain sanctions along with the State Sponsor of Terrorism designation—he may argue that he does not have the tools at his disposal to go after the military’s interests. But until he does, Washington will remain ill-disposed to act. Herein lies the rub.

But neither side should see this as an all-or-nothing situation. Much progress can be made incrementally, as long as there is a clear understanding of what benchmarks are being met and what the timeline for progress is. Two dates in particular should be regarded as action-forcing events. The first comes later this year when the Hamdok government releases its 2020 budget: What it says will be the first real signal of the government’s intention to live up to its commitment to reallocate military spending towards pressing social welfare issues. The budget should also shed light on how much new revenue Khartoum expects to take in from the taxes collected on the military-run parastatals and whether it expects any additional monies from privatizations or open-bid concessions, for example in Sudan’s sizable gold mining industry, which remain largely controlled by militia forces.

The second is the United States’ announced hosting of a Friends of Sudan meeting and donor pledging conference in April 2020 in Washington, which puts the pressure on the United States to act, or at least announce, a short and concrete timetable for the removal of the State Sponsor of Terrorism sanction. This designation more than any other effectively blocks any chance at private banking and finance, and severely limits what the international financial institutions can do. Donor conferences are meant to be transformational—signaling high-level donor commitment and paving the way for the private sector to follow suit. If the fundamental impediments to outside support and investment in Sudan’s economy remain untouched, there is little point to a US-hosted donor conference. This gives Washington an incentive to work with the Sudanese government to avoid the embarrassment of canceling or postponing the conference, and to extend the lifeline of private sector-led growth to Sudan’s economy.


For years, the parlor game in Khartoum has been to speculate on how long the Bashir regime would last. Thankfully, that question has finally been answered. Sadly, the same question is now being asked in some circles of the Hamdok government. With so many pressing needs to respond to, with such elevated public expectation that civilian rule will quickly erase thirty years of corruption and neglect, and with so many countervailing forces on the path to success, Hamdok seems confronted with an insurmountable task.

For these reasons, Hamdok’s trip to Washington comes not a moment too soon. In itself, the visit is terribly significant, as it is the first time since 1985 that a Sudanese leader will be welcomed in Washington at levels not seen in decades. But the relationship needs much more than symbolism. Hamdok must demonstrate the capacity and confidence to lead his country through the transitional period and he must make Washington a partner in helping him and the country succeed.

That means speaking candidly about his vision for the country, his accomplishments thus far, and the internal challenges he faces from the competing factions within the country: the military, the Forces for Freedom and Change coalition, the Islamists, and the Bashir-regime holdovers. Washington can assist in neutralizing negative forces and bolstering Hamdok’s agenda, but only if it is brought into his plans. Creating confidence in his leadership and a partnership in a shared agenda will unlock the barriers that stand in Hamdok’s way of a renewed relationship with Washington, and the country’s eventual economic recovery.

More than this, it will take patience and perseverance. Washington’s national security policymaking process has not been functioning as it should. Hamdok is going to have to fight to keep Sudan on the agenda—especially in an election year, when removing Sudan from the terrorism list might appear to run counter to the president’s own declared policy achievements of being tough on terror. The progress Hamdok is anxious for will require a steady stream of Sudanese officials to travel to Washington, each with their own progress to report, and each further establishing the government’s overall demonstration of progress on the changes Washington needs to see before it unwinds its sanctions.

Hamdok is clearly the man of the hour. His friendly manner, sterling credentials, and unsullied reputation have made him a breath of fresh air both in international circles and among his people, who have longed to live free. His challenges are many and his means of addressing them are limited. But at long last, Sudan has a fighting chance to move forward. His time in Washington this week will determine just how much US assistance he can expect in that exercise and when it might come.

Cameron Hudson is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. Previously he served as the chief of staff to the special envoy for Sudan and as director for African Affairs on the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter @_hudsonc.

Further reading

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Image: Sudan's new Prime Minister in the transitional government Abdalla Hamdok, addresses a news conference in Khartoum, Sudan August 21, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah