Humanitarian Impacts of Sudan’s Removal from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List

The anticipated removal of Sudan from the United States’ State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST) list is a crucial opportunity for Sudan’s transitional government. Navigating a tenuous power-sharing agreement between civilian and military authorities, the government has overseen substantial humanitarian response to multiple crises, and taken steps that enhanced humanitarian access, but challenges remain. Historic flooding affected 875,000 Sudanese civilians, put 10 million people at risk of contracting water-borne diseases, and destroyed 82,000 homes. Inflation has reached over 200 percent, reducing purchasing power for the average Sudanese, and complicating humanitarian agencies’ ability to respond. The cost of food is rapidly rising while availability declines due to Covid-19 containment measures. While the removal from the SST is an important step, its pairing with an agreement to normalize relations with Israel has been costly politically for the transitional government.

Q1: How will Sudan’s removal from the SST list impact the humanitarian response in Sudan? (Grace Gonzales)

A1: Removing Sudan from the SST list has been a priority for the transitional government since the overthrow of the Bashir regime. The removal is accompanied by a second agreement that restores Sudan’s sovereign immunity, preventing further lawsuits against Sudan in U.S. courts. Once completed, delisting will ease Sudan’s path toward debt relief and loans in multilateral fora, measures the United States will now be able to support. The Sudanese government will be able to benefit from development funding, increasing its ability to respond to humanitarian needs in the south while simultaneously addressing the high inflation that lowers citizens’ purchasing power. Sudan still bears $62 billion in external debt, including approximately $3 billion owed to international financial institutions. The transitional government faces difficult decisions as it juggles the competing priorities of meeting humanitarian needs and increasing purchasing power for food, while navigating debt repayments and debt relief negotiations.

The announcement of an agreement with the United States has been accompanied by pledges of increased humanitarian assistance from other donors, primarily the United Arab Emirates, but also including Israel. One day after Sudan agreed to normalize relations with Israel, a key requirement of the delisting deal, the United States announced $81 million in humanitarian assistance. An additional $60 million from the United States followed days later, bringing its total humanitarian assistance to Sudan in fiscal year 2020 to over $496 million. While not tied to the United States–Sudan negotiations, India has also recently announced a package of assistance to Sudan, suggesting increased acceptance of engagement throughout the international community.

Q2: What ongoing challenges remain as a result of Sudan’s agreement to be removed from the SST List? (Jacob Kurtzer)

A2: Last minute pressure from U.S. negotiators to conjoin normalized relations with Israel as a precondition to a deal could jeopardize public support for Sudan’s transitional government. Some opposition figures expressed resentment of the linkage between normalization and the removal of SST, and opposed normalization for being in contravention of Sudan’s historic position towards Israel. The transitional government already faces an uphill battle with a staggering economy; additional public opposition would be a further burden. Economic woes tied to the removal of fuel and food subsidies sparked months of protests that ultimately ousted former president al-Bashir. Exacerbated by Covid-19 and massive flooding, the Sudanese economy is forecasted to shrink by 7.2 percent in 2020. While analysts warned of potential negative consequences of tying the SST decision to normalization, fears of unrest have yet to manifest. It remains an open question, however, whether the decision will be exploited by parties opposed to the current leadership.

Economic challenges in combination with some public opposition to normalizing relations with Israel could be challenging for the fragile government. Questions surrounding the transitional government’s political mandate and the mechanism through which the power-sharing civilian and military authorities make foreign policy decisions remain unclear. On one hand, normalizing relations with Israel in exchange for economic relief and access to finance gives Sudanese leaders some domestic political protection. On the other, the decision raises questions regarding the limits of the civilian transitional government’s authority to make foreign policy decisions and which body—the civilian government under Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok or the Sovereign Council led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan—has the final say. Mr. Hamdok and civilian officials within the cabinet are more critical of warming relations with Israel than their military counterparts.

This is also a particularly sensitive time for Sudan’s regional relationships as the government resumes negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) with Egypt and Ethiopia after three months of suspension. These negotiations will have lasting impacts on water resources and regional partnerships.

Q3: How has the transitional government managed the humanitarian response during the transition? (Grace Gonzales)

A3: Under the previous regime of President Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese government heavily restricted humanitarian access. In contrast, Hamdok’s transitional government lifted many barriers to humanitarian access that impeded aid groups’ ability to provide assistance. Despite this welcome step, restrictions on movement still hinder the work of both local and international aid organizations, illustrating that unimpeded access is yet to come.

In response to historic flooding levels in the summer of 2020, the transitional government and multilateral humanitarian agencies have strived to manage the needs of the 875,000 Sudanese affected. However, government agencies and humanitarian partners continue to struggle to meet all the needs while funding from international donors remains limited.

There also remain concerns regarding corruption within the government’s humanitarian response. A number of the logistics companies used to transport humanitarian assistance are owned by military officials who do not pay taxes to the government. Without full vetting of local contracting partners, implementing agencies run the risk of contributing to the enrichment of corrupt officials. International humanitarian donors should target support toward Sudan’s civilian humanitarian agencies and continue to press the transitional government for the assurance of completely unimpeded humanitarian access.

Q4: How can international donors empower and partner with local aid organizations more effectively? (John Goodrick)

A4: Sudan’s ongoing transition provides an opportunity for international institutions to build strategic partnerships with existing local organizations already addressing the needs caused by massive flooding, the pandemic, and political violence. Sudan’s removal from the SST list is a sign from the current administration that such engagement is consistent with the administration’s policy.

Challenges exist for localizing humanitarian response, but the benefits in Sudan outweigh the drawbacks. Empowering local organizations ensures aid delivery is tailored to local demands and sensitive to cultural and political dynamics. It sparks greater agency and empowers Sudan’s existing civil society organizations already addressing humanitarian needs and human rights issues, such as the SIHA Network and Nuba Women for Education and Development Association, and builds capacity that allows for quick local responses to crises in the future.

UN agencies, donor governments, and prominent international humanitarian institutions should engage with local partners through cash assistance programming, investing in research and innovation, and supporting supply chain and logistics when necessary. Traditional donor governments should apply diplomatic pressure at the UN Security Council to advocate for unfettered humanitarian access and protection of local humanitarian workers who are increasingly targeted by armed actors. International aid organizations operating in Sudan should focus on crisis response training and capacity building and work through local service providers for last mile delivery.

As Sudan embraces their opportunity for a brighter political reality with increased funding to address civilian needs, this will be an opportunity for international humanitarian stakeholders to deliver on their promises of a more localized humanitarian response.

Q5: How are Sudan’s military and civilian leaders using humanitarian issues to gain legitimacy? (Judd Devermont)

A5: Sudan’s military and civilian leaders, locked in a transitional arrangement for 39 months, are vying for domestic and international legitimacy in their contest for political control. This posturing has been most evident in managing the Covid-19 pandemic, responding to recurrent flooding, and addressing persistent humanitarian access issues in Darfur, Blue Nile, and Southern Kordofan. Understanding how this political competition is evolving is essential when pressing for greater humanitarian action in Sudan.

When Sudan recorded its first Covid-19 infection in mid-March, Hamdok moved swiftly, imposing a curfew and sacking a governor who flaunted government orders to suspend large religious services. The military, chiefly the Deputy Sovereign Council Chairman Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo “Hemeti”, tapped the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) to its own play for the public’s attention, running a quarantine center, disinfecting the streets, and providing free medical advice. The two sides also dueled over responses to flooding last year and this year, with Hamdok committing to an “immediate and strategic intervention” and Hemeti dispatching RSF convoys to assist victims.

This political jousting has been most acute and complex in Darfur, Blue Nile, and Southern Kordofan. Both sides have credited their diplomatic interventions as critical to advance a landmark deal with rebel groups in the conflict zones; Hemeti signed the agreement on behalf of the government while Hamdok and al-Burhan attended the ceremony. Many Darfuris, however, have grievances against Hemeti’s RSF for perpetrating human rights abuses in the region since the early 2000s, and consequently have appealed to Hamdok for protection and urged him to bring those responsible for war crimes to justice.

If further advances in opening the humanitarian space are to be achieved, it is critical to be mindful of Sudan’s history and clear-eyed about political maneuvering over its future. David Beasley, Executive Director of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning World Food Program, modeled how to do it last year. He led a humanitarian confidence-building visit to South Kordofan—the first UN visit to the area in nearly a decade—and publicly thanked Hamdok, Hemeti, Burhan, and one of the region’s rebel leaders.

Jacob Kurtzer is the interim director and senior fellow of the Humanitarian Agenda at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. Judd Devermont is the director of the CSIS Africa Program. John Goodrick is a program manager and research associate of the CSIS Humanitarian Agenda. Grace Gonzales is a temporary researcher with the CSIS Humanitarian Agenda.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Jacob Kurtzer
Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Humanitarian Agenda

John Goodrick

Grace Gonzales

Temporary Researcher, Humanitarian Agenda