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Can Trump be trusted to remove Sudan from its terror list?

Morris Kiruga
By Morris Kiruga
East Africa Editor of The Africa Report

Posted on Thursday, 22 October 2020 00:18

trump
President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday, July 17, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

On 19 October, US President Donald Trump made a public promise on Twitter to remove Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list.

He said he would do so as soon as the post-Bashir transitional government in Khartoum pays the $335m it owes as compensation for the 1998 Al-Qaida attacks in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as several other acts of terror.

The timing of the promise is obvious. Trump has a narrow window between now and election day on 3 November, and the possibility of losing to his Democratic party challenger Joe Biden is giving him sleepless nights. So he’s bound to promise as many things to as many people and countries as it takes to gather votes from America’s multi-cultural society,  especially the wild cards that are diaspora communities with stakes in both the US and their home countries.

READ MORE Sudan’s quest to come off US terror list: what’s done, what’s missing

The promise itself is not a surprise. In late August, Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew from Israel to Khartoum to discuss the specifics. In September, Pompeo wrote to the US Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell on the issue, saying the US had a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to close the case on Sudan. He called the window to get it done “unique and narrow”, implying that it is hinged on Trump’s presidency.

‘Love-hate relationship with Trump’

Africans have a love-hate relationship with Trump, who have followed a President they can’t outrightly despise or embrace after he supported the overthrow of  Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, just a few years after his administration had paid billions of dollars in compensation to atone for its sins in Lockerbie.

Luckily, Sudan staged its own revolution and got rid of the brutal dictator who not only gave the country a bad name, but could not travel to do his diplomatic duties because of an ICC warrant.

READ MORE Catch me if you can: Omar Bashir and the ICC

The problem isn’t that Trump wants to use the Sudan issue for political mileage, it’s more that at best, he has little knowledge of the African continent and its identity issues especially in the last three decades.

Wrong carrot and stick

During the 25 August meeting this year, his secretary of state tried to get Khartoum’s transitional government to repair its relations with Israel. Prime Minister Hamdok, knowing that rushing through such an emotive issue in the Arab world would only derail the transition and delicate peace in Sudan, declined.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stands with Sudan’s Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the head of the ruling sovereign council, in Khartoum, Sudan, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. (Sudanese Cabinet via AP)

He explained to Pompeo that his mandate was transition, which includes fixing Sudan’s exile from global financial institutions.

READ MORE After the UAE, who is next to normalise relations with Israel?

At worst, Trump believes that the US has always wielded its big stick with abandon on African issues, ignoring local contexts for Washington’s goals. It is easy to see why, in the age before ‘Presidential Tweet diplomacy’, many believed in the mighty US’s far-reaching powers.

He also got caught in the “shithole countries” debacle of 2018. In the wake of that public relations crisis that threatened to become a diplomatic one, he first issued a mea culpa of sorts to the African Union in January, then sent Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson on a six day visit. He fired him two days into the trip, while he was sick in a Nairobi hotel. Among the things Tillerson had to cancel was a visit to the 1998 bombings memorial in the Kenyan capital, which is a pilgrimage every US diplomat makes when they visit.

Trump’s administration also tried to arm twist Ethiopia into signing a deal with Egypt and Sudan on the GERD issue, which triggered protests in the US capital in February 2020.

READ MORE US decision to halt aid to Ethiopia over GERD risks complicating talks

Unlike many infrastructure projects on the continent that are being funded and built by the Chinese and are therefore caught up in the Trump Administration’s attempts to push back Beijing’s influence, the GERD is an Ethiopian project funded and built by its citizens. But that didn’t seem clear to Trump and his representatives, as well as the implicit and tacit support Meles Zenawi’s administration sought from other countries in the Nile Basin before embarking on the project.

Understanding Sudan’s needs

Sudan is caught up in the GERD issue for two reasons. One is that it is literally in the middle of Ethiopia and Egypt, and any open conflict between them would include Khartoum whether it wanted to pick a side or not. The other, less existential reason is that it also needs the GERD for reasons it clearly stated.

Just days before Trump’s 19 October tweet, Khartoum signed a preliminary deal with General Electric on 15 October to boost its power production, which is one of the reasons why it can’t outrightly side with Egypt and the US against Ethiopia.

READ MORE GE bets on digital solutions for growth in African renewables

The deals, and interest, in bringing in Sudan from the cold are definitely good news for a country that is balancing between repairing what Bashir broke, and keeping some form of consensus on the future. The transitional government’s mandate will end in 2022, and in the meantime it is facing an economic downturn, flooding, a region-wide locust invasion, and many other immediate problems.

READ MORE Sudan declares an economic state of emergency

An invitation to the global community of nations is not only long overdue, but it is too important to be used as a flimsy campaign promise.

Bottom line

If Trump is reelected, the African Union needs to make sure he keeps his promise to accept Khartoum’s apology for Bashir’s mistakes only in the form of monetary compensation, and not in a client state relationship the US likes to foster with Sudan’s friends and enemies.

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