Tensions are back to overshadow Sudan-US relations which had seen considerable improvements since the overthrow of former Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir in April 2019.
The US State Department issued a travel warning on Thursday calling on US citizens to “reconsider travel to Sudan due to Covid-19... crime, terrorism, civil unrest, kidnapping and armed conflict”.
“Members of known terrorist groups continue to be in Sudan and could pose a threat,” it said, adding that the groups may target Westerners and their interests in Sudan.
The Sudanese side voiced “reservations” towards the US warning. On Friday morning, Khartoum called on Washington “to show caution when warning its citizens to reconsider travel to Sudan”.
Sudan’s Foreign Ministry stressed “the great change brought about by the glorious revolution of December 2018” that led to the ouster of Al-Bashir after 30 years at the helm.
The country was now one of “political stability, free demonstrations and protection of human life and the rights of Sudanese citizens, with peace negotiations underway with armed struggle movements”, the ministry said.
The US warning appears yet another hurdle in tough negotiations ongoing between the two sides to lift Sudan from the US list of countries harbouring terrorism.
Sudanese ministers have said on many occasions that taking Sudan off the US list is “a matter of time” due to the complicated procedures of US law.
In early August, Sudan welcomed statements of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee in which he reiterated the US wish to lift Sudan from the list of countries harbouring terrorism, and its support for democratic transition in Sudan. The committee’s Chris Coons, a Democrat with an interest in Africa, urged the US administration to remove Sudan from the terrorism list to win a “new democratic partner in the region”.
Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdouk earlier said the country’s efforts succeeded in persuading the White House to reduce the compensation requested of Sudan to the families of the victims of the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 from $11 billion to $400 million.
“The Sudanese people are not guilty” of the wrongdoings committed by Al-Bashir’s regime, he added.
It looks like settling the compensation issue is key to taking Sudan off the US terrorism list. The US Supreme Court had decided to fine Sudan $800 million, instead of $4 billion ruled in 2011 by a lower circuit court. In 2017 Sudan appealed the ruling on the basis that the punishment was decided based on amendments in 2008 to a law that is not applicable to events that took place 20 years earlier.
Sudan engaged in negotiations to compensate the families of 17 sailors who were killed during an attack on the USS Cole while it was docked in Yemen’s Aden Port in 2000. Sudan managed to successfully close this file, which was a key condition for the US to consider lifting Sudan off its list of countries harbouring terrorism.
Al-Bashir’s regime was implicated with Al-Qaeda in the attacks on two embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that claimed the lives of 224 people, including 12 US nationals, and the USS Cole in Yemen, the victims of which were all Americans.
The two embassies’ bombings were the largest executed by Al-Qaeda three years prior to the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington that left 3,000 people dead.
The US listed Sudan as a country harbouring terrorism in 1993 and imposed sanctions on Khartoum in 1997. In 2006, Washington intensified its embargo on Sudan due to the Darfur conflict that began in 2003 and resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of people, the rape of thousands of women and girls and the forced displacements of millions who inhabited the westernmost region of Darfur.
Al-Bashir’s engagement in peace with the Sudan’s People’s Liberation Movement since 2003 — and which led to the independence of South Sudan in 2011 via a referendum — didn’t improve the Khartoum regime’s image at the time. Washington lifted its sanctions on Khartoum in 2010, but the decision didn’t reflect positively on the country’s plummeting economy. Sudan saw no foreign investment, nor serious economic negotiations to reschedule Khartoum’s massive debts due to the country being on the US list of countries supporting terrorism.
However, Sudan “seriously cooperated” during the US war on terrorism following the 9/11 attacks, the US embassy had said at the time.
In 2009, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the US strategy to deal with Sudan. The strategy was based on ending conflicts, human rights violations and genocide in Darfur, implementing the comprehensive peace agreement between North and South Sudan, and providing reassurances that Sudan will not provide a safe haven for international terrorists.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly