By tomorrow, U.S. President Donald Trump will decide whether to lift near-20-year-old economic sanctions on Sudan based on recommendations by the State Department involving a five-track engagement process.
Naturally, the government and some Sudanese citizens support the move to lift sanctions, but few in the marginalised conflict area of the Nuba Mountains share this sentiment.
In a surprise move before leaving office in January, the Obama administration issued an executive order to lift Sudanese sanctions after a probationary six -month period citing measured improvements in humanitarian access, a cessation of hostilities and other benchmarks.
Sudan’s Foreign Minister was quoted in the government media, as saying anything other than the permanent lifting of U.S. sanctions is “illogical and unaccepted.” Some in the capital Khartoum envision the lifting of U.S. sanctions will incur greater foreign investor confidence, a godsend for a country in dire need of foreign currency to contend with soaring inflation.
The United Nations in Sudan and other international actors appear to support for the sanctions to be lifted, arguing that international engagement with Sudan has produced better results than isolation. “The past months have clearly shown that constructive engagement is the best way to maintain the progress already made,” a UN statement read. “Recent months have seen UN agencies and partners increasingly working in areas that were previously inaccessible […] notable areas of increased access include parts of the Jebel Marra region in Darfur, some of which had remained inaccessible to humanitarian actors for the past seven years.”
But the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan State and Blue Nile State are not Darfur and humanitarian access remains blocked in the six years of conflict.
Unresolved promises of autonomy following South Sudan’s secession from Sudan triggered the rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North (SPLA-N), to rebel against Khartoum in September 2011. The civil conflict has officially closed South Kordofan and Blue Nile states to external humanitarian aid, with the two warring parties continuing to disagree on the modalities of aid delivery.
“From my vantage point here in the Nuba Mountains, there has been no improvement in the humanitarian situation,” says Dr. Tom Catena in an op-ed, the award-winning and sole foreign doctor working in the Nuba Mountains. “The fact of the matter is that things are now as bad as they have ever been in Sudan.”
Local Nuba agree. Entrenched with cynicism, the Nuba people living in the conflict zones having survived years of indiscriminate bombing campaigns by the Sudan air force who have bombed civilian targets over 4,000 times.
Joseph Ismail is a health worker in Heiban town and believes Khartoum will not uphold its agreement to have sanctions lifted, including a cessation of hostilities and humanitarian access to the conflict zones. “Lifting the sanctions is not in favour of the people in the periphery,” Ismail said. “This will encourage President Omar al-Bashir to increase the budget for war against us in the marginalised areas.”
Outsiders such as Brad Brooks-Rubin, Policy Director to the advocacy organisation The Enough Project, concur. During testimony to Congress, Brooks-Rubin said the Sudan government “used the provisional easing of the sanctions put in place in January, not to begin the necessary reforms of the structural deformities of the country’s economy, but instead to order fighter jets and battle thanks from its traditional suppliers, Russia and China.”
Even though Sudan has upheld a cessation of hostilities over the past six months, air force planes continue to hover overhead, Ismail added, terrorising people and preventing them from farming at this crucial planting period.
Sudan forces have routinely targeted food supplies in a war of attrition against the Nuba people says Osman Tola, the executive director of the rebel agriculture ministry. “This is a cold war, where blocking humanitarian access is worse than physical battles,” says Eckhlass Osman, a resident of the rebel capital, Kauda.
According to the South Kordofan-Blue Nile Coordination Unit and the Famine Early Warning System, two organisations that monitor food security and displacement, hunger levels in the Nuba Mountains has reached critical levels and is expected to deteriorate further in the months ahead. Substantial numbers of households in South Kordofan are relying entirely on wild foods or compelled to relocate to refugee camps or government-controlled areas in search of sustenance.
In this context, the Nuba people cannot understand why the U.S. would reward a regime by lifting sanctions. “If the international community lifts the sanctions, they will be committing a serious crime against us,” said Abbas Al-Nur Dawod, the Secretary-General of the Chamber of Commerce in the rebel-controlled area. “Lifting sanctions will help the Sudan government economically and enable them to commit more crimes against us,” he added. “That’s why I call on the entities that want to lift the sanctions to actually increase them.”
Others are less opposed to the idea of lifting sanctions but the timing. In a letter signed by bi-partisan U.S. Congress members, the officials, “request that you delay lifting these sanctions for one year or until your administration has been able to fully staff the department of state and national security council, and you have named a special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan.” The congressmen believe there simply is not enough evidence, even access to information, to confirm improvements on the two tracks that, the letter reads, most affect the Sudanese people: unimpeded humanitarian access and cessation of hostilities.
This may be the crux of the problem. Without comprehensive access to the conflict zones, the U.S. is in no position to gauge an informed decision whether to lift economic sanctions or not. The press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranks Sudan 174 out of 180 countries worldwide for good reason. Sudan remains one of the toughest places in the world to work for both local and international journalists –and that is by design. “It is not easy for local and foreign reporters to access conflict areas in Sudan unless they have permission from NISS (security),” said journalist and press freedom advocate Abdelgadir Mohammed. “Moreover, local reporters are banned by law from reporting about the conflict zones, it counts as an alleged threat to national security.”
Without adequate access to the conflict areas and seemingly no official presence on the ground in the Nuba Mountains, the voices of some of the most affected Sudanese are, once again, ignored.
“We have not seen anything positive from Bashir,” Ismail said, “what does the U.S. want to accomplish by lifting these sanctions now?”