In an unexpected move at the end of last year, Sudan’s President Omar Bashir traveled to Russia and appealed to President Vladimir Putin for protection from the United States. Strangely, this occurred only a month after the United States prematurely moved towards normalizing relations with the very abnormal government of Sudan by removing comprehensive sanctions on the country. Bashir purchased fighter jets from Russia and discussed with Putin the creation of a Russian military base on the Red Sea.
Is this the opening salvo in dragging Africa into a new Cold War, in which tinpot dictators play Russia and the United States off against each other on the African side of the strategic Red Sea corridor? Bashir’s regime has a three-decade history of brutal oppression of ethnic and religious minorities, including forced displacement, endless and forgotten wars, mass killings, the demolition of churches, and extreme religious intolerance. Internationally, it has supported terrorist and extremist groups, destabilized its neighbors, and is designated by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism.Sudan is one of the most corrupt and economically mismanaged countries in Africa, so new investment resulting from sanctions relief, including by a U.S. corporate trade mission to Sudan in early December, will not benefit Sudan’s people, but rather a small group of regime leaders who control economic activity. Further, terrorist networks, traffickers, and other transnational criminal operations will also see opportunities to exploit the loose edges of expanding illicit financial activity.
Given that new black markets may accelerate with Sudan’s burgeoning global business, the U.S. and broader international community should be on high alert for any indications of a surge of criminal trade in or out of Sudan, and to ensure that early warning systems, anti-money laundering measures, and due diligence protocols are fully activated within relevant law enforcement bodies, regulatory agencies, customs offices, and banks. This is particularly the case now with the deepening ties between Bashir and Putin.
Lessons from other countries provide a formula for rebuilding leverage over Sudan: network sanctions, anti-money laundering measures, engagement with banks, and efforts to track mass corruption and illicit financial flows, including by The Sentry, our investigative initiative. This approach would narrowly target the conduct of those most responsible for prolonging violence, repressing religious freedoms, looting Sudan’s wealth, and pursuing military deals with governments hostile to U.S. interests.
The most important point of leverage is whether or not to maintain Sudan on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, in a November trip to Khartoum, opened the door to the possibility of Sudan’s removal from the list. This designation prevents debt relief and negatively impacts foreign investment. The Sudanese regime’s gross mismanagement of the economy over the past 28 years has made it the second-most heavily indebted country in Africa, with an economy-dragging debt burden of $50 billion.
Removal of the state sponsor of terrorism designation should only be associated with evidence of major Sudanese reforms, such as holding credible elections, concluding and implementing peace deals with relevant armed opposition groups, and respecting the fundamental rights of the Sudanese people enshrined in the current constitution. Sudan must also prove it has stopped supporting terrorist actors and empowering groups within Sudan that propagate violent extremist ideologies, something that it continues to do.
The Trump administration should utilize targeted sanctions and anti-money laundering measures to create consequences for violations of fundamental human rights, causes it has proved willing to advocate for in other parts of the world, most recently in Myanmar. Congress should ensure that the administration uses its authorities enacted through the Global Magnitsky Act to sanction those engaging in mass corruption and attacks on human rights defenders. Where the administration fails to act, Congress should provide names of potential targets, as called for in the law.
With its long record of illicit finance and gross human rights abuses, the Sudan government is now overtly seeking stronger ties with Russia’s military, further destabilizing regional relations by courting a Russian military base on the Red Sea. In response, the United States — working with the European Union, which has its own national security interests in containing refugee flows — should use targeted and modernized financial pressures to build the leverage necessary to reform Sudan’s kleptocratic state. Until now, Bashir’s diseased governing system has only produced war, religious persecution, mass migration to Europe, major illicit financial flows, support for terrorism and extremism, and deeply problematic alliances that harm U.S. national security.
By prematurely removing its comprehensive sanctions in October, the United States gave away an important point of leverage at a crucial time, not foreseeing Bashir’s move towards Russia. Using new tools of financial pressure that are much more targeted along with strict conditions for removal from the terrorism list could enhance U.S. leverage and counter more effectively the negative outcomes the regime in Khartoum continues to produce.
John Prendergast is founding director of the Enough Project.
Omer Ismail is a senior advisor at the Enough Project.