Guest Columnist

Sudanese people need U.S. support

Forty years ago, an Iowa newspaper published a column about Sudan titled “Impoverished Land of Richness,” written by a recent Drake graduate (me) serving as an intern at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan. Later, I became a U.S. diplomat and eventually served as ambassador to Sudan’s neighbor, Eritrea. When two rebel groups in eastern Sudan signed a peace treaty with Khartoum, I organized a series of workshops to strengthen civil society in former rebel communities in eastern Sudan. My interest in Sudan has remained high, as our son Owen taught in Khartoum for four years. Meanwhile, thousands of Sudanese have moved to Iowa, becoming our neighbors.

The foreboding I felt for Sudan in 1979 was borne out, unfortunately. The Sudanese people have suffered civil war, secession, genocide, oppression, and decades of kleptocracy. When Sudan’s strongman Omar al-Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide, was ousted after mass protests in April, investigators found millions of dollars’ worth of cash stuffed into suitcases at his residence.

The massive public demonstrations in Khartoum were led by educators, women, doctors and other professionals. After the dictator’s downfall, protesters were outraged when Bashir’s henchmen announced they were now in charge.

Then, on June 3, troops opened fire on protesters, killing scores of unarmed civilians in what some called “Sudan’s Tiananmen.” In the wake of the June 3 mass murders, foreign mediators helped forge a power-sharing agreement for a three-year transition to democracy. The temporary ruling council comprises six civilians and five soldiers, with a military officer in charge for the initial 18 months.

The situation is very unstable; several coup attempts have been foiled. The security forces are divided into three camps: regular military, secret police, and the thuggish paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The RSF arose from the Janjaweed militia that spearheaded Bashir’s genocidal campaign in Darfur; its leader is a gangster who controls gold mines in Darfur and received millions for supplying gunmen to the Saudi-backed side in Yemen’s civil war. The Janjaweed widely employed rape as a weapon of war and practiced ethnic cleansing in Darfur.

The RSF’s leader, Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagolo, is the most powerful commander in Khartoum today. He is feared and loathed by many Sudanese. Should the rule of law come to Sudan, Hemeti could be indicted for war crimes. Thus, he has every reason to hold on to power.

What can the United States do? Professional diplomats may be able to use traditional diplomacy free of tweets and political grandstanding to persuade the Sudanese commanders to yield power. American diplomats should highlight trade, aid, investment, the exchange of ambassadors and the lifting of the “state sponsor of terrorism” status once the transition is complete. Sticks include reimposing crippling financial and trade sanctions should the commanders balk. Responsible generals need to sideline Hemeti and marginalize the RSF.

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Prospects for democracy, human rights and the rule of law are at a crucial juncture. We need to support the Sudanese people.

• Ron McMullen, a native of Northwood, served as U.S. ambassador to Eritrea and now teaches at the University of Iowa.

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