With America’s election of Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Memo: Georgia voters deliver blow to Trump Warnock win puts Democrats within reach of Senate majority Eric Trump warns of primary challenges for Republicans who don’t object to election results MORE as president, a shift in U.S. foreign policy seems likely. The humanitarian and security situations in Sudan and South Sudan are dire and deteriorating, so the question is, will a Biden administration lead the efforts of promoting democracy, human rights, and justice and accountability in the two Sudans?
The Trump administration reframed U.S. foreign policy, favoring transactional relations and geopolitical competition. In a March/April 2020 Foreign Affairs article, “Why America Must Lead Again, ” Biden promised to renew his commitment to U.S. democratic values and to re-engage with the world: “As president, I will take immediate steps to renew U.S. democracy and alliances, protect the United States’ economic future, and once more have America lead the world.”
To begin again, Sudan and South Sudan are good places to start — leading the world in ending violence and promoting democracy. Since the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir by a nonviolent uprising in April 2019, Sudan’s transition to democracy is still struggling to survive. Despite its efforts to reform state institutions, the new transitional government led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok continues to face political, economic and security challenges that may set back its nascent democratic reforms and strengthen the military and the supporters of the old regime.
In South Sudan, the rumbling civil war, displacement of civilians, and gross human rights abuses, including gender-based violence, continue to inflict humanitarian and security horrors on its impoverished population. More troubling is the incompetence of the transitional government, as reflected in its failure to respond to worsening economic conditions and corruption, unimaginable humanitarian and natural disasters, and a fractured and volatile security environment. Such a failure raises doubts about the legitimacy of the government and the viability of the state itself.
For sure, Sudan and South Sudan matter to the United States on national security and economic grounds. Both countries are endowed with abundant arable lands and rich mineral resources, including gold and oil, but their wealth is squandered by unscrupulous political elites. Previous U.S. administrations made concreted efforts to contribute toward an end to two decades of civil war between the north and the south, stop the genocide in Darfur, and combat terrorism during the al-Bashir regime.
More importantly, the United States played a critical role in making the independence of South Sudan possible in 2011. Two years later, South Sudan’s political elites unleashed a civil war. Since 2013, nearly 400,000 people have lost their lives and more than 4 million have been displaced. Two peace agreements signed in 2015 and 2018, brokered by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), have failed to end the conflict and ensure orderly and credible democratic reforms in the country.
No doubt, the independence of South Sudan did not help both countries to resolve the compound crisis of citizenship, governance, economic underdevelopment, justice and accountability. Critical to the future of both countries is how each country accommodates excluded populations, including those in Darfur, Southern Kordofan, and Blue Nile in Sudan, as well as the array of ethnic groups in South Sudan.
The trouble with both countries is structural — how to govern a multi-ethnic society that is deeply fractured by decades of civil war and impunity. While the IGAD mediators treated the conflict in South Sudan as a political rivalry between two leaders, Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, in Sudan, the African Union (AU) focused on brokering a partnership between the civilian and the military to secure a transitional government.
The IGAD and AU assumed that a power-sharing pact would transition both countries to peace and democracy. This regional approach ignores the underlying fact that the renewed crisis and the rise of human suffering are signs of deep decay in the existing political system. More importantly, the power-sharing arrangements rewarded corrupt political elites in South Sudan, and protected the military officers who committed war crimes in Darfur at the expense of the pro-democracy forces — in particular, young women and men who spearheaded the peaceful uprising in Sudan.
Following failed attempts by the regional actors at resolving the crisis and ensuring successful transition, the U.S. must come to the aid of those who champion change and democracy in both countries. Despite the U.S. humanitarian assistance to save lives in Sudan and South Sudan for years, it fell short of making sustainable peace and development possible. Democratic and Republican administrations embraced the strategy of “African solutions for African problems,” but that strategy has failed to deliver. A strategy to address the root causes of the crisis, promote democracy and good governance, and uphold the rule of law and accountability is needed.
There are two possible options for Sudan and South Sudan to resolve their crisis. The first and most desirable option would be to reform their states and establish an inclusive democratic state. The second option is to allow state fragmentation to run its course, but this would threaten the security of the entire region of the Horn of Africa. Therefore, the U.S. strategy for Sudan should concentrate on strengthening the pro-democracy forces represented by Hamdok, and support his efforts in rebuilding the state apparatus, addressing the worsening economic crisis, and reaching amicable peace agreement with rebel groups in Darfur and Nuba Mountains.
To end the culture of impunity, the U.S. must pressure the transitional government to respect its international obligations to justice and human rights, including holding accountable those who committed war crimes in Darfur.
In South Sudan, the U.S. should maintain the United Nations arms embargo against the government, preserve the U.S. Treasury Department’s existing sanctions against individuals and companies, and pressure the AU to expedite the formation of the Hybrid Court as stipulated in the 2015 peace agreement. Politically and diplomatically, the U.S. should build a multilateral coalition to support the ongoing peace process sponsored by Sant’Egidio in Rome, with the goal of forming a credible interim government led by a new generation of political leaders to transition the country to a viable state and inclusive nation.
Clearly, a more robust U.S. engagement with Sudan and South Sudan would better serve the U.S. national strategic interests of promoting democracy, protecting human rights and supporting economic development, as well as combating terror in the troubled region.
Amir Idris is a professor and chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at Fordham University, New York.