Although the Sudanese people threw off the autocratic rule of Jaafar al-Nimeiri two years ago, they are still struggling to undo the economic and political damage that he wrought and to reorient their foreign policy in a way that will enhance their flexibility and credibility in the international arena.

In the quest for badly needed aid and support for ending the debilitating civil war in the south, the current prime minister, Sadiq al-Mahdi, has articulated a foreign policy of non-alignment, in contrast to the close relationship Nimeiri had with the United States. In Mahdi’s view, Sudan should neither become entangled in the East-West rivalry nor take sides in regional conflicts. His desire for amicable relations with all of Sudan’s neighbors and the significant external powers makes sense, given the location and social complexion of the country. But the government is already discovering that the policy is not easy to implement. The major internal priorities of the new democratic government are to end the war, resolve the country’s staggering economic problems, and chart a constitutional course that will balance the varied religious and political interests in order to stabilize parliamentary rule. Diplomatic priorities are closely linked to those domestic concerns.

Sudan is the largest country in Africa, covering a million square miles. Its pivotal location astride the river Nile links the Arab world and sub-Saharan Africa and borders the vital international shipping lane that passes through the Red Sea. The country is vulnerable, unable to police its borders with eight states, and open to pressure and influence from all sides. Sudan is at present impoverished, heavily indebted to foreign governments and international funds, and unable to realize the potential offered by its agricultural and mineral resources. Its economic problems derive in part from the harsh climate and difficult soil and in part from ill-conceived and poorly executed government policies that have burdened rather than improved the lot of the people.

The Sudanese population is heterogeneous, a combustible mix of ethnic groups and religions. The majority of the 22-million population are Arabic-speaking Muslims, but at least a third belong to non-Arab ethnic groups with diverse languages and Christian or traditional African beliefs. The fact that the non-Arab, non-Muslim third lives largely in the southern part of the country creates a persistent cleavage with the politically and culturally dominant north. During the bitter 1955-72 civil war, southern rebels sought independence or at least autonomy. The new rebellion that began in 1983 under the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) is not secessionist but demands that a fair share of power in the central government be allocated to all Sudanese, regardless of ethnic identity.


Sudan’s internal problems and their external complications are serious concerns to the United States. Its geostrategic location means that changes in Sudanese political orientations have repercussions on the entire African continent and the Red Sea littoral. American strategy must take into account the implications of shifting Sudanese relations with Egypt and Libya, the contending powers to the north, and with Ethiopia, the key African state to the southeast. In this volatile region, the United States is seeking to preserve its strategic interests and to ensure that Sudan’s nonalignment is not transformed into realignment against Washington.

U.S. relations with Sudan today are especially complicated because Washington had strongly supported Nimeiri through much of his 16-year autocracy, in the belief that he was a vital regional ally. After resuming diplomatic relations with the United States in 1971 (broken after the 1967 Middle East war), Nimeiri provided support for Egypt and later a counterweight to Ethiopia. At a time when most Arab and African states were keeping a discreet distance from the United States, Nimeiri was eager to advance American interests in the Arab world and the Horn of Africa. In return, he received substantial aid, which he hoped would transform Sudan into the regional breadbasket and a major actor on the African continent.

Khartoum became closely aligned with Egypt, its powerful neighbor along the Nile and historically the Afro-Arab country with the greatest influence over Sudan. Nimeiri and Anwar al-Sadat signed an integration pact in 1974 and a military defense alliance in 1976. Nimeiri was virtually the only Arab ruler to support Sadat’s peace initiative with Israel and to retain diplomatic relations with Cairo after March 1979. Ties were further consolidated by a comprehensive integration charter in 1982, signed by Sadat’s successor Hosni Mubarak. Khartoum also provided Egypt with a rear base for its air force, the guarantee of a friendly regime on the vital Nile and Red Sea, and a balance against the increasingly hostile Libyan government.

U.S. officials perceived an enhanced importance in Sudan after the overthrow of the longtime American ally, Emperor Haile Selassie, in Ethiopia in 1974 and the installation of a pro-Soviet Marxist regime there. Sudan provided sanctuary for more than a half-million refugees from Eritrea, Tigre and Oromo, allowed their liberation movements to maintain offices in Khartoum, and closed its eyes to arms that entered Sudanese harbors on the Red Sea and were transported across the border by the secessionist forces. Sudanese involvement was occasioned in part by religious and ethnic ties with some of the Eritreans, but also by a desire to support conservative Muslim regimes like Saudi Arabia that funded some Eritrean groups in order to weaken the radical forces in Addis Ababa.

Yet Nimeiri paid a price: the Sudan-Egypt axis harmed his image in the Arab world, exacerbated his tensions with Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya and damaged his standing internally. Ethiopian and Libyan involvement in attempted coups in Sudan further reinforced Nimeiri’s dependence on Washington—and on Egypt, which helped foil coup attempts against him in the 1970s. A siege mentality grew in Khartoum, as Nimeiri’s fears of encirclement and subversion by his neighbors escalated. The Libyan invasion of Chad in 1980-81 threatened to expose Sudan to attack along its western border. Two years later, Qaddafi joined with Ethiopian leader Haile Mengistu in aiding the rebellion in southern Sudan. The alliance of Libya, Ethiopia and South Yemen, formed to counterbalance Egypt and Sudan, completed Nimeiri’s sense of encirclement and superimposed the Soviet-American rivalry on the regional conflicts.

Meanwhile, Nimeiri’s problems at home were growing. He clamped down successively on the Sudanese Communist Party, Islamic groups and secular politicians, and provoked many southerners by canceling the region’s special status in June 1983. He angered a wide range of Sudanese by decreeing his version of Islamic law in September 1983. Businessmen were also alienated by the regime’s corrupt practices, and military officers resented Nimeiri’s frequent, politically motivated purges of the officer corps. By April 1985, Nimeiri had offended nearly all the political and military forces in Sudan.

Despite massive American aid programs, the Sudanese economy was in a shambles. The United States was providing more aid to Sudan than to any other African country except Egypt. In 1983 and 1984 nonmilitary aid totaled $375 million. The government piled up huge debts to international, Western and Arab creditors. By the 1980s the debt burden was growing by almost $1 billion yearly, inflation was running at more than 25 percent annually, and foreign currency receipts from exports covered only half of the import bill.

Moreover, Sudan was hit by severe drought that further damaged the economy and dislocated millions of persons in the east and west of the country. In late 1984, when the government finally admitted the seriousness of the drought, donors began to supply substantial food aid, with the United States providing nearly 80 percent. But the Sudanese public increasingly viewed U.S. aid as principally aimed at keeping Nimeiri in power to guarantee American interests.

Nimeiri’s downfall came during his April 1985 visit to Washington. By then residents of Khartoum had taken to the streets to protest his economic policies and to denounce his harsh rule. A general strike paralyzed the capital, and virtually all the political forces and unions joined together to formulate a Charter of National Salvation calling for the removal of Nimeiri and the restoration of democratic rule. Nimeiri delayed returning, inadvertently giving the political forces time to convince the armed forces to throw their weight behind the popular movement. The high command closed the air space, leaving Nimeiri stranded at the Cairo airport on his way home. The officers then formed a Transitional Military Council (TMC) to serve as head of state for one year and to rule in conjunction with a civilian Council of Ministers.


The transitional government was unique in the annals of the Third World: it involved a genuine sharing of power between the military and civilians, and its term ended after one year, exactly as the officers had pledged. The transitional government’s most notable achievement was to reestablish parliamentary processes and preside over free multiparty elections in April 1986.

In these elections, the two major political parties, Umma and Democratic Unionist (DUP), gained two-thirds of the seats in the constituent assembly. Although the DUP had been the largest party in the 1950s and 1960s, it came in a distant second in 1986, with 24 percent of the votes, to Umma’s 39 percent. Umma’s base is the Ansar religio-political movement that is heir to the militant nationalist and Islamic Mahdiyya movement of the late nineteenth century. The DUP, based on the Khatmiyya Sufi order, is currently more conservative in its religious and economic orientations than Umma, and is closely aligned with Egypt. The other parties are ideologically or ethnically oriented. The National Islamic Front (NIF), which espouses a revivalist Islam and had supported Nimeiri’s Islamicist policies, gained 20 percent of the parliamentary seats. The Communist Party and other small ethnic parties, including five in the south, together gained only 15 percent of the seats.

The war prevented candidates from standing for election in the majority of the southern districts. Furthermore, due to peculiarities in the electoral law and splits in the Umma and DUP, most observers believe that the NIF won twice as many seats as its real popular strength warranted. As a result, the assembly overrepresents Islamic forces and underrepresents the south.

Sadiq Mahdi, great-grandson of the Mahdi who ousted the Turkish-Egyptian forces from Khartoum in 1885, was elected prime minister by the constituent assembly on May 6, 1986. Mahdi, educated at Oxford University, had served as prime minister in 1966 when he was only 31 years old. When Nimeiri seized power in 1969 he turned against the Ansar and forced Mahdi into exile. Mahdi was detained in Cairo, and later used England and Libya as bases from which he helped to organize political opposition and tried to overthrow Nimeiri. He criticized the alignment with Egypt and the United States as inviting attack from pro-Soviet neighbors and restricting Sudan’s diplomatic freedom. Although Mahdi returned to Khartoum in 1978, his reconciliation with Nimeiri was short-lived. He continued to oppose one-man rule and denounced the religious laws. This was such a serious challenge that Nimeiri jailed him for 15 months.

Following the April 1985 uprising, Mahdi wanted the Umma Party to occupy the moderate center as an umbrella that would cover a wide range of ideologies and ethnic groups. But when it failed to win at least half the seats in the assembly in the 1986 elections, Umma had to share power. Mahdi conceded to the conservative DUP not only the plum foreign affairs and interior portfolios but also the presidency of the five-member Council of State, the body that ratifies government decisions. Residual cabinet posts went to the southern parties. Umma’s authority was also circumscribed by the NIF, which formed a tough, articulate and well-financed opposition bloc that presses for a full-fledged Islamic constitution and opposes concessions to the SPLA.

The composition of the parliament and government thus reflects the reemergence of traditional political forces, the strength of the Islamic movement, and the marginality of and divisions in the southern groups in Khartoum. This fragmentation and polarization is not auspicious for tackling the twin problems of the war in the south and the economic collapse.


The fighting in the south has proved the most politically intractable problem facing the government. The Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), of which the SPLA is the military arm, was formed by Colonel John Garang de Mabior, who holds a doctorate in agricultural economics from Iowa State University. Spokesmen emphasize that the SPLM wants to eliminate religious and racial discrimination by reinstituting a secular political system. The SPLM maintains that the rebellion was launched not merely against Nimeiri but against the system as a whole, which they perceive as heavily dominated by northern Muslim and Arab political forces.

The transitional government failed to understand this and assumed, rather naïvely, that the SPLM would stop fighting as soon as Nimeiri was removed. Moreover, the TMC did not fulfill the two principal conditions laid down by Garang: first, that the government reinstate the secular penal code and constitution and, second, that it convene a constitutional conference that would restructure the national institutions and not just concern itself with the south.

Nearly a year after Nimeiri’s ouster, in March 1986, professional and political groups—not the government—organized a week-long conclave in Ethiopia. The Koka Dam declaration that emerged from this gathering stated explicitly that the Islamic laws should be repealed and the secular constitution of 1956 reinstated. Because the Umma Party (though not the DUP and NIF) signed the declaration, it appeared to lay the groundwork for post-election conciliation efforts. In the meantime, however, the situation on the ground in the south deteriorated markedly for the government forces. The SPLA controlled much of the countryside, pinned down the army in isolated garrisons and prevented food from being supplied to government-held towns. The SPLA even pressed north toward the Blue Nile, where vital hydroelectric and agricultural projects are located.

As soon as he took office, Mahdi articulated a three-pronged approach to end the war: he would deal with the fundamental issues underlying the rebellion by convening a constitutional conference, while simultaneously strengthening the armed forces and seeking an agreement with Ethiopia to persuade the SPLM to negotiate. In essence, he would offer the carrot of negotiations and the stick of military and diplomatic pressure in order to convince the SPLM to talk.

It remains questionable whether this approach will succeed. During the summer of 1986, the SPLA continued to gain ground militarily, taking advantage of the rainy season, and paralyzed air transport by shooting down a civilian airliner. By midwinter the armed forces had regained the initiative, due to easier transportation during the dry season and to a reorganized high command and reinforced armed guards that accompanied food convoys through the war zone. Nevertheless, the war cannot be won by either side; the army faces severe difficulties combating guerrilla forces in the swamps and forests of the south, and the SPLA has trouble attacking and administering towns. The war is also a heavy drain on the national treasury: the 1986-87 budget allocated 30 percent of current expenditure for defense and security.

At the political level, a breakthrough appeared possible when Mengistu arranged a meeting between Mahdi and Garang in Addis Ababa on July 31, 1986. But the meeting ran aground on the key issue of Islamic law. Garang insisted that the government adhere to the Koka Dam declaration and cancel the Islamic decrees of 1983. Although Mahdi said that he would cancel the decrees, he maintained that new Islamic laws would be legislated that would take the rights of non-Muslims into account. Garang stated that any religiously based system was unacceptable since it would perpetuate religious discrimination and inequality. A profound philosophical gap was evident.

The gap widened when the SPLA shot down a civilian airliner in August. Mahdi responded bitterly, calling the SPLA a terrorist organization and a puppet of Ethiopia. He accused Mengistu of seeking to set up a communist regime in Sudan and vetoing peace efforts. The prime minister asserted that he would only resume contact with Garang if he renounced violence and proved that he was independent of Addis Ababa. Mahdi’s stance received widespread support in the north, and groups sympathetic to SPLM goals were placed on the defensive. The government’s saber-rattling peaked in early December when Mahdi stated that he was now actively supporting Eritrean rebel groups and the foreign minister threatened to retaliate after Ethiopian planes raided Sudanese villages in pursuit of Eritrean forces.

Ethiopian assistance to the SPLA is substantial: logistical support, sophisticated arms (including SA-7 missiles), and military training as well as a powerful radio station on its soil and a political headquarters in the capital. Mengistu originally backed the SPLA for three main reasons: in retaliation for Sudanese support for Eritrean rebels, as a means to destabilize Nimeiri’s regime, and as part of the radical alignment’s opposition to the Egypt-Sudan-U.S. axis.

Today the motives are less clear. In part, Ethiopia has built up an investment in the SPLA that it does not want to relinquish before obtaining major political gains. In addition, Addis Ababa distrusts Khartoum because, it maintains, past governments have failed to implement bilateral accords. Moreover, as Mahdi argues, Mengistu probably distrusts the freewheeling political life in Khartoum and cannot tolerate a democratic neighbor. Finally, the issue of Eritrea complicates relations. Some Sudanese believe that Mengistu will not allow a political settlement in the south without a simultaneous accord on Eritrea, although Sudan does not have as much leverage over the Eritrean secessionists as Ethiopia has over the SPLM.

The SPLM has clearly become more dependent on Ethiopia since the fall of Nimeiri. Before, it also obtained financial support and arms from Libya and had sanctuaries in neighboring Kenya and Uganda. Nevertheless, it is an exaggeration to claim that Ethiopia controls the SPLM. Its support has enabled the SPLA to mount more sophisticated military operations, but the causes of the war are internal to Sudan. Even if Ethiopian support were withdrawn, widespread guerrilla warfare would continue in the south.

Khartoum and Addis Ababa have backed off from direct confrontation at present, although some fear that Sudan might be tempted to raid SPLA sanctuaries inside Ethiopia. This could invite retaliatory raids that would be costly for Sudan, since its dams and agricultural projects are within striking distance of the Ethiopian air force. There are hints that Mahdi is willing to reopen contacts with Garang, but obstacles to a negotiated settlement remain. Mahdi fuels division by not only using heated rhetoric but also arming Arab and southern tribes against the SPLA. Moreover, his appeal to Islamic states for arms and funds to prosecute the war adds a religious and racial dimension to the strife.

Most important, Mahdi has failed to act internally to tackle the causes of the rebellion. He has delayed confronting the issue of the legal basis of rule. His proposed amendment to the constitution, which would place Islam, Christianity and traditional beliefs on a par, satisfies no one. The NIF opposes the elevation of the status of non-Muslims, and secular and southern politicians object to making religion the basis of the legal code. They threaten to walk out of the assembly and to refuse to apply Mahdi’s amendment if it is passed. Although public revulsion against the Islamic decrees is widespread, Mahdi, like the transition government before him, has feared that outright cancellation would be criticized by influential conservative forces as undermining Islam. His vacillation on this issue has reduced his credibility and can only increase suspicions on the part of the SPLM leadership.

In sum, Mahdi’s three-pronged approach remains far from succeeding. He has neither resolved the fundamental issues underlying the rebellion nor found the basis for an accord with Ethiopia to reduce the strife. His military gains lend enhanced credibility to the government, but are only useful if they are utilized strategically to place the government in the best position for negotiations. The constitutional conference is unlikely to be convened before the summer, and the participation of the SPLM remains problematic. Because prolongation of the war damages the economy, weakens democratic processes and complicates relations with neighboring countries, failure to end it could undermine all of the government’s plans.


The bleak economic situation inherited by the transitional government forced it to seek emergency aid to contain the famine, and oil to keep the infrastructure functioning. The United States and Western Europe provided massive food aid during summer 1985, and Arab states shipped tons of free oil to Port Sudan. Although the major Arab funds and bilateral donors resumed some of their loans and rescheduled part of the debt in order to give the fledgling government a fair chance to correct the mistakes of the past, negotiations with the International Monetary Fund proved complex. During autumn 1985 Khartoum tried to meet some of its terms by reforming the currency, limiting wage increases in the public sector, and paying back a small portion of the service charge. But it could not agree to all the IMF terms, and in February 1986 the IMF declared Sudan in default.

Over the past two years, key areas of the economy have deteriorated. Inflation soared to nearly 40 percent annually, remittances from workers abroad declined sharply, and exports remained low. Earnings on cotton in 1985-86 dropped to $125 million, less than half the usual sum, due to crop damage from disease and low world prices. Shortages caused the government to ban meat and livestock exports and even to import some meat and sugar. Only food crops registered a surplus. In autumn 1986 a bumper crop of sorghum was harvested, enabling the government to stockpile a million tons in case the rains fail this summer and to arrange to export more than a million tons to Saudi Arabia, Iran and Libya in barter deals. Sesame and groundnut production also increased.

The country remains totally dependent on oil imports of nearly 100,000 tons a month. Libya has pledged 50,000 tons monthly, and Sudan seeks similar pledges from the Arab Gulf states and Iran. Nevertheless, the fundamental budgetary situation remains untenable. With revenues only half its expenditures, the government must either resort to inflationary borrowing from the central bank or rely on massive infusions of foreign aid.

Considerable social tension has built up as a result of these economic difficulties. Food riots in the west in September 1986 were followed by violent demonstrations in Khartoum in November. At first the government blamed the troubles on Nimeiri’s supporters and then on the NIF, which, it argued, were trying to destabilize and undermine the new government.

The Mahdi government has had difficulty formulating a coherent economic policy, but it has taken a bold approach to creditors and particularly the IMF. In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly in October 1986, Mahdi declared that Sudan would follow the lead of Peru and link repayment of external debt to its export earnings. Moreover, it would keep in mind its social obligations at home in calculating the rate of repayment. The finance minister subsequently clarified that the government was considering paying a maximum of ten percent of its annual export earnings toward debt repayments. He noted that the government was negotiating with some creditors to cancel certain debts and transfer others to local currency.

Mahdi even argued that some loans could never be repaid, since these were illegal debts contracted by Nimeiri. Officials in the Finance Ministry doubt that the government can legally cancel such debts, but they maintain that the country needs a debt repayment freeze of at least a decade if it is to recover from the economic collapse. In any event, the government has budgeted only $200 million for FY 1987 to service its debts. That is a third of anticipated export receipts, but only a small fraction of the interest due. Nearly 100 percent of export earnings would be required to meet all the outstanding debt obligations. The government has not even budgeted a payment on the $400 million owed on its $2-billion debt to the IMF. Thus, discussions with the IMF are conducted in a low key, with neither party anticipating an accord, much less a standby agreement, in the near future.


The search for aid and oil has formed an important part of Sudan’s diplomatic efforts and has underlined the shift in foreign policy orientation asserted by post-Nimeiri Sudan. In less than a year in office, the prime minister, the president of the Council of State and key cabinet members have visited all the major donor countries and the significant Arab and African capitals.

Mahdi stressed his neutrality in regional conflicts and non-involvement in the superpower rivalry by visiting Moscow prior to his trip to Washington, exchanging visits with Qaddafi while postponing his call on Mubarak in Cairo, and traveling to Iran a month after the president of the Council of State visited Iraq. Throughout these travels Mahdi asserted that Sudan was no longer tied to the American-Egyptian axis internationally or to the pro-Iraq camp regionally. He emphasized that Sudan would not subordinate its interests to others’ priorities, and would not be anyone’s client state.

The complications involved in balancing relations with mutually antagonistic countries are particularly evident in Sudanese ties with the United States, Libya and Egypt, but also with Iran and Iraq. The rapprochement with Libya, for example, worries Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United States; contacts with Tehran concern the major Arab capitals at this critical period in the Iran-Iraq war. Some Sudanese fear that Mahdi’s attempt to be friends with everyone may result in his being friends with no one.

Moreover, Mahdi’s effort to pursue this line is complicated by the lack of coherent foreign policy making processes and by disagreements between Umma and DUP over regional alignments. The Foreign Ministry, for example, has not been utilized for policymaking, and Mahdi’s views on international issues differ in important respects from those of the president of the Council of State and the foreign minister, who are senior members of the DUP. This has caused confusion abroad and has made some observers question whether Khartoum has a clear sense of its foreign policy goals.

The American-Sudanese relationship was clearly put at risk with the fall of Nimeiri, but both sides have sought to maintain essential contacts. Sudan did not want to lose vital economic aid and Washington wanted to dampen the backlash in Khartoum. Washington continued to provide the nearly half-billion dollars in economic and military aid that it had committed to Nimeiri for the 1985 fiscal year. Khartoum welcomed the massive infusion of emergency aid from the United States but distanced itself from the military dimensions of the relationship. The transitional government emphasized that it would not provide military bases for the United States, and joint military maneuvers that had been scheduled for summer 1985 were canceled by mutual agreement.

Despite these conciliatory gestures, two emotional issues heightened tension during winter 1985-86. The first involved the 1984-85 airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel from Sudanese soil. Although Americans generally perceived the airlift as a humanitarian act, most Sudanese felt that it was a slap in the face to Arab sensitivities and betrayed their solidarity with the Arab struggle against Israel. In late 1985 Nimeiri’s vice president was put on trial for treason and accepting bribes for facilitating the CIA-funded operation. The trial was televised daily and received wide press coverage. The American embassy complained about the coverage and criticized the charges, causing a decided backlash. Once again, Washington seemed to be treating Khartoum as a client.

The second, more fundamental issue was Sudanese-Libyan relations. When Sudan signed a military protocol with Libya in July 1985, spokesmen in Washington expressed grave concern and even hinted that the protocol could jeopardize future U.S. aid. The U.S. embassy in Khartoum also reduced its staff in the autumn and Americans were warned not to travel to Khartoum on the grounds that Libyan subversives were residing there. The transitional government resented these public expressions of non-confidence but quietly expelled some Libyan envoys.

Relations might have been smoothed over if the United States had not bombed Libya in April 1986. The air strikes coincided with the heated Sudanese election campaign, in which politicians competed to voice solidarity with Arab and African causes and to vent frustration at foreign influence. In that volatile atmosphere, the American raids brought angry anti-American demonstrators to the streets of Khartoum. When an embassy employee was wounded the same night, the ambassador ordered the evacuation of most of the staff and all dependents. Letting its concern over terrorism drive its policy, Washington temporarily played into Qaddafi’s hands by reducing the American presence in Sudan. The evacuation sent a pointed message to the government that American patience had its limits and that normal relations and aid would not be restored until security was tightened and the government adopted a more cautious stance toward Tripoli.

As soon as Mahdi became prime minister he stressed that U.S.-Sudanese relations should resume a positive course; he had no desire to antagonize unnecessarily a superpower with extensive interests in the region, and he wanted to ensure that American aid would continue. Nevertheless, the 1986 level of aid turned out to be $126 million, only a third that of the previous year; military support funds were reduced from $45 million to $19 million. The reduction reflected in part the end of the famine and in part the cool bilateral relationship.

But Mahdi recognized that the Soviet Union was not a viable alternative source of economic aid and diplomatic support. Although Sudanese officials were close-mouthed after Mahdi’s visit to Moscow in August, the results were apparently disappointing. The Soviets seemed wary of Sudanese policy and unready to commit themselves to the new regime, either by trying to persuade Mengistu to reduce his commitment to the SPLM or by providing substantial infusions of aid. In February 1987, however, Sudan and the Soviet Union signed a three-year barter pact that called for trade of $100 million a year. Nevertheless, Sudan still needed to restore normal relations with the United States.

When Mahdi visited Washington in October 1986, he emphasized that political values in Sudan closely resembled those of America. The United States, he maintained, should help the Sudanese entrench their democratic institutions rather than let economic problems overwhelm the fragile new parliamentary structures. The United States was responsive to Mahdi’s overtures: the ambassador expressed strong support for Sudan’s democracy, U.S. Agency for International Development personnel returned in the autumn, and new assistance programs were discussed. Nevertheless, drastic cutbacks in all U.S. foreign aid meant relatively small sums for Sudan. For 1987, Khartoum was slated to receive only $5 million in military support funds and approximately $65 million in economic aid, two-thirds the 1986 level. Tentative projections for 1988 call for about the same level.

U.S. embassy officials recognize that the diminution in aid makes for an embarrassing comparison with the largesse bestowed on Nimeiri. Nevertheless, they feel that higher levels cannot be justified until the Sudanese government outlines and implements a coherent economic strategy that would include dismantling some state controls, altering the exchange rate and reducing the rate of inflation. Despite lingering mutual suspicions and less aid, however, a more realistic and balanced relationship has begun to be worked out. But the balance remains tenuous, and could be jeopardized by renewed American-Libyan hostilities or too warm an embrace by Khartoum and Tripoli.


The transitional government reestablished relations with Libya as a visible way to signal a change in diplomatic orientation as well as to obtain valuable economic aid. Qaddafi was quick to take advantage of the shift; he was the first head of state to visit Khartoum after Nimeiri’s fall. He stopped aiding the SPLA, shipped free oil to Port Sudan, and promised emergency and development assistance, particularly to the western province of Darfur that adjoins Libya and Chad. Libya advertised widely the military protocol of July 1985, although it consisted of only modest matériel and training. In March 1986 Qaddafi even loaned two bombers to raid the south in support of the Sudanese army and stationed nearly a thousand Libyan soldiers in Darfur.

Sudanese officials soon realized that Qaddafi was difficult to manage. They were embarrassed by his self-invited visit and his publicity of the military protocol, and annoyed by his criticism of multiparty rule and his persistent calls for Libyan-Sudanese union. When he took office, Mahdi faced a particularly delicate situation, since he had obtained crucial support from Libya while in exile in the early 1970s.

Nevertheless, Mahdi was concerned by the growing and open access of Libyans to Sudan, both because of the potential for internal subversion and because of its international repercussions. The French government, for example, complained that the Libyans stationed in Darfur could serve as an advance guard to attack Chad from the east. Mahdi also wanted to preserve Sudanese territorial integrity and support the unity of Chad under Hissene Habre. Therefore, during his visit to Tripoli in August 1986, Mahdi insisted that Qaddafi withdraw most of the Libyan forces from Darfur and underlined that he could not accept Libyan objectives in Chad.

Mahdi was also embarrassed by Qaddafi’s visit to Khartoum in September 1986, during which he not only reiterated his call for unity but also urged the overthrow of Mubarak and acts of violence against Americans. Mahdi was anxious that Qaddafi’s visit not jeopardize his contacts with Saudi Arabia and the United States, which he was scheduled to visit a few weeks later.

The government finds itself in a quandary. Sudan requires a steady supply of oil from Libya and needs to keep Qaddafi from reverting to political subversion. But achieving a balanced relationship will be difficult, given Qaddafi’s mercurial nature. Qaddafi may already realize that he is not gaining the expected political dividends: his call for unity has been rejected, his troops have been largely sent home, and his pressure on Khartoum to break relations with Washington and Cairo has been ignored. Observers do not expect Qaddafi to jeopardize the basic relationship by rash acts, such as renewed attacks on Americans, but he may be less liberal with his economic aid. Mahdi does not want to provoke Qaddafi’s open hostility, since he recognizes Libya’s potential for subversive action. Finding the optimal balance of good-neighborliness and distance will remain a difficult task.

In contrast with the opening to Libya, relations with Egypt have been tense. The inevitable backlash against the special ties during Nimeiri’s rule is compounded by Nimeiri’s presence in Cairo. Mubarak has been adamant that Nimeiri will not be deported to stand trial in Khartoum, on grounds that Egypt traditionally provides haven for political exiles. Even were Nimeiri not in Egypt, the Sudanese would have insisted on a major restructuring of the bilateral relationship. They believed that the numerous political, economic and military accords were designed by Nimeiri to keep himself in power rather than to benefit the country. Furthermore, many Sudanese suspect that Egypt harbors colonialist inclinations in the guise of promoting unity of the Nile valley.

Consequently, the transitional government froze the integration plans and unilaterally dissolved its bureaucratic structures. Khartoum also distanced itself from the military defense pact and sought to renegotiate the bilateral trade protocol. In fact integration had been more symbolic than real, but the abruptness of the Sudanese action angered Egypt, particularly as it coincided with the signing of friendship accords and the acceptance of military aid from Libya, Cairo’s sworn enemy.

Cairo apparently hoped that the DUP would carry the Sudanese elections, since its leaders publicly advocated the resumption of friendly ties with Egypt. The Umma, in contrast, had long been critical of special relations with Egypt. Thus, even though ministers from the DUP trooped to Cairo to assert their support for ties with Egypt, Prime Minister Mahdi maintained a reserved stance. Relations reached their nadir during the summer of 1986, when Egypt suspended bilateral trade, the Sudanese government filed a legal case in Cairo for Nimeiri’s extradition, and Mahdi and Mubarak met in a tense encounter at the summit conference of the Organization of African Unity in Addis Ababa. According to observers, neither man was impressed by the other’s leadership qualities.

The two sides did not reassess their positions until late November, when they exchanged high-level ministerial visits. The Egyptian government expressed willingness to resolve the trade dispute to Sudan’s satisfaction, but the Cairo court continued to postpone hearings on Sudan’s demand that Nimeiri be stripped of his right to asylum. Egypt wants to secure at least the neutrality of its southern neighbor, as it is worried that Libyan troops might return to Darfur in force. Some observers believe that Cairo would invoke the bilateral defense pact—even unilaterally—if Sudan allowed Libya to place a significant military presence astride the Nile.

Since November, Mahdi has begun to perceive Egypt as a potential balance to Qaddafi. He finally visited Cairo in mid-February, and signed a Brotherhood Charter, which he declared supersedes and replaces the integration accords undertaken by Nimeiri. Nonetheless, the legacies of the past weigh heavily on the present attitudes, and formulation of a new relationship based on equality, while possible, may prove complex.

Finally, Sudan’s new approach to Iran and Iraq has caused concern. Nimeiri had strongly supported Iraq, which provided significant oil supplies at concessional prices; he broke diplomatic relations with Iran and even sent volunteer fighters to assist Iraq. The new government has restored relations with Tehran, negotiated the return of some Sudanese prisoners of war, and stressed its neutrality in the Iran-Iraq war. In December 1986 Mahdi visited Tehran, where he offered to mediate between the two countries and expressed sympathy for Iran as a revolutionary Islamic state. He also negotiated the terms of Sudan’s $60-million bilateral debt, which canceled the interest due and spread out the remainder for ten years; and he signed new accords to barter sorghum for petroleum and educate Sudanese students at Iranian universities. Mahdi hailed these accords as normalizing relations with a major Islamic country, promoting Sudan’s economic interests, and fostering diplomatic resolution of the Gulf war.

Though it paid some economic dividends, the opening to Iran was controversial internally as well as abroad. Southern and secular political forces resented Mahdi’s emphasis on the common Islamic bases of the two societies and feared that he might seek to emulate Tehran’s Islamic constitution. The NIF expressed concern that the Shia version of fundamentalism might be introduced into Sudan, in competition with its own Sunni beliefs. The DUP criticized the relationship for unnecessarily irritating Iraq and causing anxiety in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.


Sudan is still searching for a formula for its foreign relations that will minimize the risk of external intervention across its borders and reduce the possibilities of destabilization at home. The new government’s emphasis on nonalignment and good-neighborliness has won significant international support, but it has also encountered problems in implementation. These derive from its severe internal difficulties: the festering strife in the south and the economic collapse.

Until Khartoum articulates and implements a comprehensive political program to resolve the underlying causes of the civil war, Addis Ababa cannot be expected to reassess its bilateral relationship and reduce its support for the SPLM. Sudan can pressure Ethiopia by aiding Eritrean secessionists and confronting the SPLA militarily. Nevertheless, the critical internal issues need to be resolved; they call for international mediation, not intervention.

Overcoming the economic problems also requires a rethinking of external relationships. Sudan’s economic future was mortgaged by Nimeiri, and the difficulties will not be surmounted simply by new loans and grants. Finding means to forgive or reschedule significant parts of the debt burden is essential.

The government, in turn, needs to devise a serious program to restructure key sectors of the economy and to balance government revenue and expenditure. To date it has focused on short-term palliatives such as barter deals to obtain oil, appeals to the goodwill of donors to reschedule debts, and the windfall of an ample grain crop. These palliatives will not last. Regional donors and oil suppliers will expect political dividends on their investment. Libya can withhold oil and aid if it is displeased with Sudan’s continuing relationship with the United States and the thaw with Egypt. Saudi Arabia can do the same to express its concern about Khartoum’s rapprochement with Tripoli and Tehran. Thus, the government risks being buffeted by the conflicting interests of its major donors.

Furthermore, if the IMF and Sudan fail to reach an accommodation, international confidence in Khartoum’s economic policies will drop even lower and the prospect for external support will further diminish. This, in turn, will reduce the government’s ability to handle internal social conflict and revive the economy, thereby putting the democratic experiment at risk.

Despite these dangers, Sudan has achieved a degree of balance in its external relations. The honeymoon with Libya is over, tension with Egypt has abated, and relations with the United States are relatively even. Diplomatic contacts with African neighbors such as Chad and Uganda have reduced friction over border incursions and paved the way for constructive relations. And the political implications of the rapprochement with Tehran should prove possible to contain, given Sudan’s distance from the battlefield.

The United States is watching these developments cautiously. The days of heavy-handed intervention are past. A new relationship is evolving that is based on respect for Sudanese national sovereignty and recognition that the Sudanese will not be anyone’s client. The United States can help ease the debt burden, encourage a negotiated resolution of the war and support the democratic process by judicious economic aid and debt relief as well as by opposing renewed polarization in the region. In the long run Washington would gain more by such a balanced posture than by seeking a special relationship with the politically fragile and strategically located Sudan.

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  • Ann Mosely Lesch is Middle East Associate for Universities Field Staff International (UFSI). She formerly worked for the Ford Foundation and the American Friends Service Committee in the Middle East, and has lived in Cairo since 1980.
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