The warlords’ favourite lobbyist signs up with Khartoum

By Patrick Smith
Posted on Wednesday, 3 July 2019 21:03

Ari Ben-Menashe has signed a big lobbying deal with the troubled military junta in Sudan. REUTERS/Howard Burditt

Sudan’s junta has hired Ari Ben-Menashe to launder its image, buy arms and join the Libyan war.

In the midst of the ruling generals’ latest crackdown on democracy activists – the security forces killed at least seven civilians and wounded more than 180 in mass demonstrations on 30 June – the veteran Israeli-Iranian lobbyist and retired intelligence agent Ari Ben-Menashe flew into Khartoum.

His first call was with General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as “Hemeti”), the deputy leader of the junta. The two men seem to admire each other, although Ben-Menashe, who has been involved in lobbying skulduggery and intelligence operations for four decades, may be less popular with other members of the military junta.

Hemeti’s helper

Hemeti wants to burnish his image as the public face of Sudan’s Transitional Military Council (TMC). By meeting with top international diplomats and giving interviews to international journalists, he has sidelined General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, the substantive leader of the TMC.

On 1 July, Ben-Menashe told the BBC that Hemeti was “the only man” that could bring stability to the Sudan.

Ben-Menashe also suggested that the military had no plans to hand over power to a civilian authority as demanded by the African Union (AU) and other organisations.

Skirting sanctions

Ben-Menashe is selling strategic advice to the junta, as well as supplying weapons, despite international sanctions. He also promised to secure a meeting between officials of the junta and US President Donald Trump and negotiate a $500m commodity deal with President Vladimir Putin’s government in Russia. Sudan is one of the countries targeted by Russia in its new Africa strategy.

Such grand promises don’t come cheap. On 9 May, Ben-Menashe signed a contract for $6m – paid up front – with Hemeti, who is the commander of the Rapid Support Forces, whose fighters are drawn mainly from the Janjaweed militia in Darfur. London-based rights organisation Amnesty International has called for an investigation into Ben-Menashe’s contract.

Pressure building

International pressure is building on the junta. It’s accused of massacring more than 120 people in Khartoum on 3 June when it destroyed the protest camp opposite the defence ministry. It faces suspension from the AU if it does not agree to a clear plan to hand power to civilians by the end of July. UN human rights experts have condemned the junta’s use of “excessive force” against civilian protesters.

In the contract, Ben-Menashe has promised to win international recognition for the junta, “to correct unfavourable international media coverage” and to obtain meetings for the junta with “the heads of various Middle East governments”. But the most egregious clause in the contract is Ben-Menashe’s commitment to Hemeti “to obtain funding for your Council from the Eastern Libyan Military Command in exchange for your military help to the Libyan National Army”.

Sudanese troops headed to Libya?

This exposed a plan by Ben-Menashe and Hemeti to supply Sudanese soldiers to the Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, whose military campaign to seize control of Tripoli from the UN-recognised government under Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj has resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths.

Ben-Menashe also said he would “strive to obtain funding and equipment for the Sudanese military”. That clause and Ben-Menashe’s offer to embroil Sudan in Libya’s civil war breach US and international law and are a further threat to regional stability.

The deal should easy for Ben-Menashe to arrange as he is registered as lobbyist in the US for the warlord Khalifa Haftar. Haftar has won the backing of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which also happen to be the strongest regional backers of the Sudanese junta.

However, this could be a bridge too far for some generals in the junta who are wary that hiring out Sudanese soldiers to Haftar’s militia in Libya could worsen tensions in the national army. Many of Sudan’s pro-democracy activists are already demanding the junta withdraw troops, financed by Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, from the war in Yemen.

Bombing targets

The latest atrocity in Libya occurred on the evening of 2 July, when jets bombed a migrant detention centre in Tajoura, a suburb east of Tripoli, killing at least 40 people. Sarraj’s government immediately blamed the air strike on the “war criminal Khalifa Haftar”. Haftar’s militia, the Eastern Libyan Military Command, denied responsibility. Diplomats are calling for an independent investigation.

Neither the Sarraj government nor Haftar has an air force, but in recent months independent observers have reported that jets from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, both supporters of Haftar’s militia, have been bombing targets around Tripoli to destabilise the Sarraj government.

Ben-Menashe’s contract also promised that he would find US capital to invest in an oil and gas project to be developed jointly with South Sudan. If such a project exists, it is a closely held secret, according to oil experts in Juba. Just as confidential is Ben-Menashe’s plan to assist in the “integration of South Sudan with Sudan in the form of a Sudanese Union modelled after the European Union and the integration of the marketing of the oil and mineral reserves into a consolidated entity”.

Puzzling implications

Activists and diplomats are puzzling over the implications of Ben-Menashe’s lobbying contract with Hemeti. Will it split the junta or drag Sudan into the conflict in Libya at the behest of warlord Haftar? How seriously should it be taken, even if Ben-Menashe has already received the $6m fee from Sudanese government coffers? Some diplomats dismiss Ben-Menashe as a serial fantasist. A lobbyist in Washington DC tells The Africa Report that the deal was considered the most toxic in the US capital at the moment.

Ben-Menashe came to international prominence in 1980 when it emerged that he had helped the election campaign of Ronald Reagan, the Republican presidential candidate.

It is alleged that he helped delay the release of US hostages held in Iran since the overthrow of the Shah in the previous year. The incumbent, President Jimmy Carter – a Democrat – had been working to secure the release of the US hostages. Had Carter succeeded before the elections, he almost certainly would have won. And history could have been very different.

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