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Trump and Sudan
In November, the U.S. voted in president-elect Donald J. Trump in a surprising tight race with Senator Hilary Clinton. In the first week after his electoral win, not one of the 29 world leaders Trump spoke to were from sub-Saharan African countries, suggesting Africa is a low priority for the upcoming administration. Possibly the only mention of Sudan comes from a 2012 tweet where Trump refers to Sudan, the third largest country on the continent, as a “small country.”
It is still unclear whether Trump’s picks for political posts may influence U.S.- Sudan relations. One possible candidate whom Trump has referred to as a “counter terrorism” expert and former adviser to the House of Representatives is Walid Phares. A Lebanese-born Maronite Christian, Phares is an advisory board member of ACT for America, a group the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as a hate group for its extreme anti-Muslim stance. Phares claims the U.S. will continue to impose economic sanctions on Sudan and usher international support “in his first 100 days of office” to develop a policy on the Nuba Mountains area.
J. Peter Pham, however, is a potential contender for the Undersecretary of African Affairs and supports lifting Sudan’s sanctions in his role as Africa Director for the Atlantic Council, a foreign affairs policy think tank. In a June article on the Council’s site, Pham questioned the legitimacy of the U.S. upholding sanctions against Sudan for sponsoring terrorism and called for more engagement with Khartoum. The Council has called on greater engagement with Africa as a whole, including other dictatorial regimes such as Eritrea.
Another candidate that may encourage closer relations with the Sudanese government is Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, former Exxon oil mogul Rex Tillerson. The candidate is yet to be endorsed by the Senate and may face some challenges for nomination due to his close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, told the media he was convinced it will be “much easier” to deal with a businessman like Trump than the current administration. The Sudanese government has also expressed readiness to resume dialogue with the U.S. over the lifting of economic sanctions imposed on Khartoum since 1997.
What it means…
Several African leaders share Bashir’s optimism – including political leaders from countries with dubious human rights records such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Zimbabwe and Chad. Trump’s support of torture and repeated claims to aggressively counter Islamic militancy may appeal to some African leaders – including Sudan – who believe Trump will take a lenient view on human rights abuses. In the same interview, Bashir says Trump will focus on domestic interests “as opposed to those who talk about democracy, human rights and transparency.”
If nominated, Tillerson may usher closer ties with Khartoum given his past record of working with African regimes with poor human rights records in pursuit of oil. As an Exxon CEO, Tillerson maintained relations with infamous African authorities in: Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Angola and former Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi. Although Sudan’s oil reserves were considerably reduced after South Sudan’s secession in 2011, it is still a major producer and may be viewed as a strategic energy partner and alleged ally for U.S. counter-terrorism intelligence.
Witney Schneidman, a fellow at the Brookings Institute, expects the Trump administration to be less engaged in economic development initiatives in Africa. If Tillerson is nominated, Africa may enjoy U.S. support through energy via fossil fuels but little else under a Republican-led administration. This could affect the $7.1 billion humanitarian and reconstruction assistance the U.S. provided Sudan between 2002 and 2015.
The Sudan government will have to juggle any new improved relations with the U.S. carefully so as not to upset one of their leading trade and investment partner – China. Trump has appointed Peter Navarro, an economist known for his extreme anti-China stance, as his trade council chief. The Sudan government will have to avoid upsetting China in order to seek favour with the U.S. who will likely oppose Chinese investments and other developments across Africa.