|Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir has declared a unilateral ceasefire in conflict zones, but Khartoum has yet to sign a peace deal with rebels.|
President Donald Trump has extended the deadline on whether to lift US sanctions against Sudan, amid divisions in his administration and a lack of key personnel to assess the decision.
Facing off strong opposition to take immediate action, Trump said more time was needed to review the easing of trade sanctions in January by Barack Obama, who put Khartoum on a six-month review period.
The indecision points in part to an absence of pivotal Africa appointments in US government departments, including the national security council. Trump is yet to assign a special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan.
The temporary relief of sanctions was to become permanent on Wednesday unless the administration acted to stop it. An executive order issued last night extended the deadline by three months.
The Obama administration justified lifting the sanctions by citing, among other things, improved counter-terrorism efforts. But it made their permanent removal dependent on Khartoum’s progress in five key areas of concern, which included cooperation on counter-terrorism, ending support to South Sudanese armed opposition actors, and providing humanitarian access to populations in need.
The order from Trump read: “I have decided more time is needed for this review to establish that the government of Sudan has demonstrated sufficient positive action across all of those areas.”
However, in a signal to reassure the country that the US was still looking to mend relations, the order acknowledged that the government had made “some progress”.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert credited Sudan with improving humanitarian access, cooperating with the US on counter-terrorism and preserving a ceasefire in conflict areas. She said the US remained “deeply committed” to engaging with the Sudanese government and “working towards further progress”.
Rights advocates, including a policy group affiliated with actor George Clooney, have warned that lifting sanctions would strengthen the resolve of the president, Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the international criminal court for genocide charges linked to the Darfur conflict.
Gillian Lusk, associate editor at Africa Confidential, said: “Human rights and peace NGOs, along with the Sudanese opposition – political parties but also the advocacy community – will welcome the extension of today’s deadline, although a longer delay would have been preferable.
“Politically, it is a major blow for a regime which is under growing pressure domestically from both an angry public and an economy which has virtually collapsed, not because of the sanctions, but because of government mismanagement and corruption.”
Lusk added: “The country’s money has gone to a ruling Islamist party, into private pockets and into the military-security nexus which keeps a hated regime in power.”
The US has worked to isolate Sudan since the military coup that brought Bashir to power in 1989. Even if Trump lets the sanctions expire in October, other sanctions targeting the president and some of his inner circle will remain in place.
Sudan was first branded a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993 – a label it still shares with Iran and Syria. At the time, it hosted al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Khartoum. In 1997, a complex set of sanctions was imposed on the country for its alleged backing of Islamist militants.
But those critical of lifting sanctions say the US should be looking at pursuing a new track of engagement, which is currently absent – one that focuses on advancing peace and human rights in Sudan.
The Enough Project, whose investigative arm The Sentry is co-founded by Clooney, welcomed the delay on a decision but urged the Trump administration to update the engagement plan put to Khartoum to address the core issues that keep the country in “perpetual crisis”.
John Prendergast, the group’s founding director, said: “This new track should be tied to a set of smart, modernised sanctions that spare the Sudanese public and target those who are most responsible for grand corruption and atrocities including air strikes on villages, attacks on churches, obstruction of humanitarian aid, the torture of opposition figures … and undermining peace efforts.”
Omer Ismail, the project’s senior adviser, added that the US needs to weigh the costs of making deals and giving up critical leverage with dictators such as Bashir. He said: “Washington and Europe have powerful leverage they can wield to change the calculations of Sudan’s corrupt and brutal rulers, by implementing a modernised programme of network sanctions and financial pressures.”
In a controversial move, the UN said this week that it backed an end to the sanctions and hoped the US would make a “positive decision” allowing for more humanitarian aid access across war zones.
Former conditions laid out by the Obama administration included improved access for aid groups, but activists and health workers on the ground in some of Sudan’s most fragile regions say conditions are worse than ever.
At least 300,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million displaced since fighting erupted in the western region in 2003, according to the UN. The conflict broke out when ethnic African rebels took up arms against Khartoum’s Arab-dominated government, accusing it of marginalising Darfur.
Thousands have been killed in similar conflicts in the southern states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan since 2011. Although Bashir has declared a unilateral ceasefire in conflict zones, Khartoum and rebel groups have yet to sign a peace deal.
This month, a bipartisan letter from 53 members of Congress urged Trump to reimpose sanctions, saying the administration was unable to assess whether conditions had been met because key officials responsible for African policy are not yet in place.
This week, Sudan’s foreign minister, Ibrahim Ghandour, said any decision other than the permanent lifting of sanctions would be “illogical and unacceptable”, insisting that Sudan has met all commitments of the five-track engagement plan.
Yasir Arman, secretary general of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, led by Malik Agar, welcomed the extension, declaring it a “victory for justice and the innocent people of Sudan”.