The Trump administration’s bullying transactional foreign policy and bullheaded focus on out-competing China is destructive for both America’s reputation in Africa and for Africa’s security and well-being. The “deal” reached to remove Sudan from the state-sponsors of terror list on the condition that Sudan recognizes Israel and pays $335 million to an escrow account, to compensate U.S. terror victims and families of the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya, is offensive and deplorable.
As Jacob Kurtzer and Nadia Schaaphok write in a CSIS commentary, following the non-violent April 2019 coup that deposed strongman Omar al-Bashir after popular protests demanded his departure, Sudan is at a critical crossroads. Despite the post-coup optimism generated, the country’s transition is very fragile, and the economic fallout from COVID-19 has refueled political infighting and threatens to undermine humanitarian gains.
But the Trump administration doesn’t really care. Instead of focusing on empowering civilian agencies by increasing funding for them and providing targeted technical support for the transitional government, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has carried out a maximum pressure campaign to force Sudan to cough up money for reparations and recognize Israel. The latter is part of Trump’s promise to deliver five or six more Arab or Muslim majority countries establishing ties with Jerusalem and so support the Peace to Prosperity Plan as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the agreements signed between Israel and UAE and Bahrain.
The “deal” is a disaster in the making.
FIRST, it’s extortion.
How can you pressure a country to cough up $335 million when, according to the CIA 2020 World Fact Book and other sources, it ranks 168 out of 189 countries and territories on the Human Development Index, has close to 50% of the population living at or below the poverty line and suffering malnutrition, relies on subsistence agriculture, lacks basic infrastructure in large areas of its territory, has experienced protracted social conflict, and has lost three quarters of its oil production? This amounts not only to extortion. It’s also high-handed highway robbery of a cash-strapped country and its 41.8 million citizens. Sudan has a $60bn in unpaid foreign debt, but according to Reuters.
Sudan has already transferred the money. Where did the money come from?
SECOND, the forced compensation stinks of discrimination.
The New York Times reported, in a July 2020 article (“Compensation for Embassy Bombing Victims could Imperil Thaw with Sudan”), that a U.S. citizen is eligible for at least $3,000 in compensation while a citizen of Kenya and U.S. embassy employee is eligible for $400,000. Why the difference? Is an African citizen’s pain and suffering worth less than that of an American citizen?!
THIRD, it’s a misuse of American power.
Recognition by another Arab country is certainly a prize for Trump’s apartheid-like Peace for Prosperity Plan as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in favor of Israel. But it’s a totally separate issue from lifting Sudan’s terror designation.
Ending Sudan’s pariah status may be a good thing in terms of opening the door to essential economic stabilization measures, paving the way for debt relief and allowing much needed investment in Khartoum’s fragile civilian-military government. And democracy is always worth saving and building.
But, as I wrote in a previous post, even though Sudan has removed terrorists from its soil, trying to persuade Sudan to recognize Israel by offering economic aid and removal from the U.S. State Sponsor of Terrorism list as a down payment is a clear disregard and contempt for moral, ideological and strategic constraints on the use and misuse of American power.
Sudan has a 30-year track record of actively promoting and supporting terrorist groups. It also has large swaths of ungoverned territory that generate all manner of security problems - including sanctuary for terrorists and arms and drug smuggling – and threaten regional peace. This puts greater demands on U.S. military resources in the area. So it defies logic for Trump and Pompeo to overlook this when there is so much concern and focus on the Sahel as today’s terrorist hotspot, even if in many respects the situation is more a self-fulfilled American prophecy for a boogey-men search.
If we are to take Gen. Stephen Townsend, the head of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), at his words’ face value, terrorist organizations are swarming across the Sahel and “on the march” from Mauritania and Senegal in the West to Sudan and Eritrea in the East. But taking Sudan off the terror list won’t magically make its guest terrorists disappear or start selling milk and cookies.
Making Sudan’s elimination from the terror list conditional to recognition of Israel is clearly a great deal for Sudan’s generals, who wield real power and command both troops and money. Although they agreed to share power with a civilian cabinet, the bottom line is that the military simply tolerates civilians because they need international respectability.
That doesn’t mean the corruption and violent misrule will also magically disappear. Nor does it signal sincere interest on the part of the Trump administration to turn things around. After all, while the world’s attention was captured by the 2019 popular protests that ultimately overthrew a dictator, the U.S. administration’s inaction evidenced disinterest in giving the new civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, the best chance to succeed.
Instead, as is usual with Trump, the U.S. is more interested in backing the generals who have been dealing with Israel, without informing Mr. Hamdok, and in bolstering a cabal of officer-businessmen that control vast shadowy empires built under Bashir. Let’s not be coy. We’re talking about oil and big infrastructure deals or, more precisely, the need for the U.S. to nix Sudan’s terror designation so it can have access to its oil, in the name of America’s national security, and to business deals for American corporations.
Boosting the military side of Sudan’s fragile government may play to Trump’s fawning admiration for generals. But it also contributes to supporting realignment of U.S. troops and U.S. state-backed private investment in the region toward focusing on future fights against China and Russia…even if it means more poverty and hunger for the average Sudanese. Trump and Pompeo don’t care. Heck, just go big, and you won’t be held accountable!
FOURTH, Sudan is strategic interest to the U.S.
Sudan occupies a geopolitical position in the wider African and Arab regions. It not only represents an important part of the conflict-prone Horn of Africa and the Sahel corridor of instability. It also lies on a vital trade route between Asia, Europe and Africa. This makes it a key part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
In fact, Sudan was China’s original foothold in Africa, and over the past 20 years the Chinese footprint has grown exponentially across the continent, in part thanks to U.S. neglect. Today China is one of Sudan’s largest trade partners, importing oil and exporting low-cost manufactured goods, and a close ally.
It’s clear Trump is bent on doing anything to offset Chinese presence and influence, even if it means forcing a bad deal. The thing is that the U.S. COVID-19 smear campaign against China as responsible for the pandemic and the parallel politicization of the global fight against the virus in an attempt to stigmatize China has neither achieved anything nor benefited anyone, least of all the U.S.
In the eyes of the Sudanese and people across the continent, China is lauded for having provided valuable expertise and information as well as concrete support and assistance to fight Covid-19. This leaves Trump on very shaky ground with a deal that prioritizes slander over solidarity and politics over humane disease management.
FIFTH, the Sudan “deal” indirectly includes the GERD
Sudan is one of the three players in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) crisis. For Ethiopia, the dam, which is near completion on its stretch of the Nile River, promises prosperity through power distribution and industrialization. For Egypt, the dam is seen as a menace to its water supply and regional power. For Sudan, who is caught between the competing interests of Ethiopia and Egypt, the dam could threaten the safety of the country’s own dams but also has the potential to improve prospects for domestic development. For Trump, the GERD is a chip in the Peace for Prosperity Plan and a target against China.
Trump fashioned himself as an impartial broker of an agreement between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. But when talks faltered, he unilaterally sided with Egypt and withheld $264 million in security and development assistance to Ethiopia (“Nile dam powers joy and dread”, The Washington Post, 10/18/2020).
Ethiopia is a long-time U.S. ally in the Horn of Africa and a key contributor to security, yet Trump unilaterally betrayed the country and attempted to bully its government into complying and submitting to Egypt’s demands. This is yet one more example of how Trump’s disregard for Africa can plunge an entire region into chaos, all in the name of “beating” China.
Although China is not directly funding the dam’s construction costs, which are estimated at $4.8bn, its interests are closely intertwined with the project’s successful and timely completion. Much of the construction work is being done by Chinese contractors, who have so far won contracts worth $52 million. China has also loaned $1.2bn to build power transmission lines linked to the dam.
This is color red for Trump’s bull. It’s more important for him to hurt China than to work with everyone, including China, to achieve a fair and balanced agreement going forward. Withholding aid already committed not only is an affront to Ethiopia. It also jeopardizes the African Union-sponsored talks between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan to resolve the dispute.
Instead of encouraging a bullheaded 2-to-1 confrontation through a self-interested external intervention that no one asked for, the U.S. should have, as John Mukum Mbaku, a resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes in his article “The controversy over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam”, built on the already existing regional Nile Basin Initiative’s 2010 Cooperative Framework Agreement to outline the principles, rights and obligations for cooperative management of Nile resources.
But pushing others to adhere to their obligations in accordance to international law to reach a fair and balanced solution is not part of the Trump administration’s DNA. After all, if meaningful resource-sharing agreements at home are rare, why should they be protected abroad? Plus, if it serves the administration’s interests elsewhere – in this case in the Middle East - to side with a strongman (Sisi in Egypt) while bullying a fledgling democracy (Sudan) to recognize Israel, why not? More power to Trump! The thing is that with an African friend like this, how can China not make inroads into the continent.
A rotten deal
There is no question that the U.S. must support Sudan’s path to lasting democracy and peace. But Trump’s cynical and misguided transactional approach totally ignores the specific and contextual policy drivers that must be implemented if America is to engage constructively with the country’s incipient democratic process. This not only harms the Sudanese people; it also hinders the advancement of the 2019 revolutionary process.
By extorting cash from a cash-strapped poor country and forcing it to recognize Israel in exchange for removal from the state-sponsored terror list, the Trump administration, with Mike Pompeo at the head of the State Department, has once again demonstrated how low it can degrade U.S. foreign policy by practicing the white art of demanding black submission and obedience in return for extorted payment and tied benefit. This appalling deal can understandably arouse the disillusionment of the Sudanese public that can lead to the very radicalization that the U.S. and its allies are fighting to prevent and eliminate.
All in all, the "Sudan deal" is one more example of how the Trump administration’s bullying transactional foreign policy and bullheaded focus on out-competing China is destructive for both America’s reputation and positioning in Africa and for Africa’s security and well-being. It’s simply one more self-serving and reckless effort on the part of the Trump administration in the service of its own domestic political ends. Trump's America First policy moniker betrays both the Sudanese and the American people. Unacceptable!