Sudan: How much leverage does the US have to reverse the coup?

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Wednesday, 27 October 2021 11:22

Sudanese military stand guard as military-aligned demonstrators gathered in numbers, chant "Down with the government of hunger" in front of the Presidential palace in Khartoum, Sudan, October 16, 2021. REUTERS/El Tayeb Siddig

The US is weighing a host of options to get Sudan’s democratic transition back on track following Monday’s takeover by the military.

After suspending $700m in economic assistance on Monday 25 October, the White House announced on  Tuesday that it was coordinating with regional allies to deliver a unified message to General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. Further repercussions include possible targeted sanctions against coup leaders and the suspension of billions of dollars in debt relief to the cash-strapped nation.

Calling the situation “utterly unacceptable,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Tuesday that the US was considering the “full range of economic tools” at its disposal to “push the entire Sudanese political process back in a positive direction.”

“We’ve been in close contact with regional leaders, including in the Gulf, to make sure that we’re closely coordinating and sending a clear message to the military in Sudan that they should, first and foremost, cease any violence against innocent civilians, that they should release those who have been detained and they should get back on a democratic path,” Sullivan said. “We will continue to do that. We will stay closely coordinated and aligned with all of the stakeholders who we believe have influence in Khartoum.”

Congress has responded in similar fashion. Top Democrats and Republicans on the House and Senate foreign affairs committees issued a joint statement on Monday warning of “dire consequences” if the junta doesn’t reverse course.

“We will remain engaged with the administration to assess the implications for our relationship with Sudan,” they said in a statement, “including the immediate suspension of further international financial assistance and other appropriate measures.”

Limited options

Despite the tough talk, America’s options are relatively limited.

Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council who previously served as chief of staff to the special envoy for Sudan, says about $400m of the suspended aid was meant for Sudan’s family support plan of $5 monthly stipends, as a “democracy dividend” to showcase the benefits of civilian rule. Another $100m or so is for wheat subsidies, and around $30m is for democracy programmes.

“There’s a dilemma that we face here because US assistance to Sudan was always targeting the poorest of the poorest,” Hudson says. “It was never going to prop up the government.”

The Biden administration also hasn’t ruled out slapping new sanctions on Sudan, which would mark a reversal of its policy to lift sanctions following Sudan’s democratic progress and its normalisation of ties with Israel.

“We are willing to resort to any and all appropriate measures to hold accountable those who may be attempting to derail the will, the aspirations of the Sudanese people, and those who may be responsible for violence,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday.

Also in play: This summer’s approval by the IMF of $50bn in debt relief and $2.4bn in funding. In March, the US Treasury Department provided Sudan with a $1.15bn bridge loan to help it pay off its debt to the World Bank, enabling the country to be eligible for the IMF’s Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) program.

“The debt relief is not complete,” Hudson says. “I do know that it’s in a place where it can be put on hold.”

US alone?

To make the most of the leverage that it has, the US is keen to coordinate with other countries so they don’t bail out the military junta.

I don’t think they’re going to listen to the Americans.

Already, Germany followed the lead of the US on Tuesday and announced it was suspending all development cooperation. However, other countries are keen to maintain ties with Khartoum: Israel wants more intelligence cooperation following last year’s normalisation agreement, while Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have jointly promised $3bn in aid.

“I don’t think they’re going to listen to the Americans,” says Ari Ben-Menashe, a former Israeli-intelligence-officer-turned-Canadian lobbyist.

Ben-Menashe signed a $6m lobbying contract with Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan ‘Hemeti’ Dagalo back in 2019. He tells The Africa Report that the contract has since expired, but Dagalo’s office called him on Monday for advice – and possibly a new contract.

“They [are] concerned about the new administration in the US, they want to understand where these guys [stand],” says Ben-Menashe. ”And their real issue is they want help from the Israelis.”

Ben-Menashe claims to have helped set up the February 2020 meeting between Burhan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Uganda that paved the way for normalisation. He says the Israelis were the “leaders of the pack” when it came to supporting the Sudanese generals.

Ben-Menashe describes the military as a stabilising force and deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok as a corrupt actor undermining the country. He adds that the Biden team should take a page out of Donald Trump’s administration playbook, which made more progress with Sudan than the previous focus on sanctions did.

“The new Americans – I’m talking about the Biden administration – they really don’t have the experience and the knowledge about Sudan that the other guys had,” Ben-Menashe says. “Now they’re hemming and hawing, they don’t know what to do with this, and my advice to all of them is, put some water in your wine.”

The Biden administration, for its part, has made it clear that it’s looking closely at the Israeli-Sudanese relationship as it weighs its next steps.

“I think the normalisation effort between Israel and Sudan is something that will have to be evaluated as we and as, of course, Israel watches very closely what happens in the coming hours and the coming days,” the State Department’s Price said on Monday.

Won’t back down

Meanwhile, Sudan’s generals appear to have little interest in backing down, regardless of the cost to the US relationship.

“We’re talking about [US repercussions] as if any of this is leverage,” Hudson says. “None of this is leverage.”

“Five hours before the coup happened, the special envoy [for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman] was sitting with the head of the military, explaining to him in chapter and verse, ‘we will suspend debt relief, we will suspend all of this financial assistance. If you do this, here’s all of the things that we’re going to suspend.’ He did it. So how is that leverage?”

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