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On October 6, the United States announced that it would lift many of its longstanding sanctions against the government of Sudan. The time for removing the sanctions had come, U.S. officials argued, because Khartoum had lifted some bans on humanitarian aid and had been willing to cooperate with Washington on counterterrorism issues.
In truth, Sudan’s recent progress on those issues has been uneven but real, and the Donald Trump administration was right to remove some of the U.S. restrictions. Doing so will benefit Sudan’s small businesses, which have been languishing for decades without secure access to foreign investors and the international financial system.
The United States first imposed sanctions against Sudan in 1997, citing the country’s support for international terrorism, human rights violations, and meddling in the politics of its neighbors, such as Ethiopia and Eritrea. In 2006, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush expanded the scope of those sanctions, freezing the assets of some Sudanese officials involved in the conflict in Darfur, a region in the country’s west where security forces and government-backed militias were carrying out a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Just over a decade later, in January 2017, U.S. President Barack Obama temporarily lifted some of the sanctions on Sudan, promising that the next administration would fully remove them later in the year if Khartoum’s behavior improved. Sudan would have to cooperate with the United States on counterterrorism and take on the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group operating in the borderlands between Sudan and the Central African Republic. It would also have to curb the violence in Darfur and the states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, where government forces have been fighting a rebellion led by a group called the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North. And it would have to allow humanitarian aid to reach previously unreachable government-controlled areas and end its intervention in South Sudan, ceasing its support to opposition groups there.
Sudan has made some progress in a few of those areas, such as counterterrorism. On September 24, the Trump administration removed Sudan from the countries included in its travel ban and praised Khartoum’s intelligence-sharing work with the United States. (Washington still includes Sudan on its list of state sponsors of terrorism, but last year, the U.S State Department nevertheless described the country as a “cooperative partner of the United States on counterterrorism.”) That is also the case when it comes to humanitarian access. During a visit to Sudan in August, Mark Green, director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, visited Darfur and met with the country’s prime minister. “I saw firsthand signs of clear progress,” Green said. Khartoum has opened up some previously inaccessible areas, including parts of Darfur and government-controlled portions of Blue Nile State. The sanctions relief could help encourage the Sudanese government to lift some of the remaining restrictions on areas controlled by opposition groups near the border with South Sudan.
As for ending the hostilities in South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and Darfur, the Sudanese government mostly refrained from military offensives, such as aerial bombardments from mid-January to this month, but in recent months, there have been a few clashes between the government and a faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement, a rebel group. Khartoum also appears to have stopped sending weapons to opposition forces in South Sudan.
Sudan’s economy has been struggling for years, especially since 2011, when South Sudan became independent and took Khartoum’s access to its oil reserves with it. U.S. sanctions have exacerbated Sudan’s economic problems by undermining the country’s entrepreneurs and small businesses. Tirhal, a Sudanese ride-hailing mobile app, offers one example. Like its counterparts in other countries, Tirhal provides opportunities for car-owning members of the Sudanese middle class to earn extra cash. But the isolation of Sudan’s financial system has made it hard for the company to attract investments and expand into neighboring countries, as some of its competitors in the ride-hailing sector have.
Mustafa Faiz, an engineer, told me that his business, SmartDelivery, has struggled for similar reasons. SmartDelivery distributes produce directly from farmers to consumers. After the company won a competition among regional startups called Get in the Ring in January 2016, a few foreign groups, including a Dutch investor, sought to back it but couldn’t, thanks to the risk introduced by the sanctions. (In 2014, Fokker Services, a Dutch aerospace company, agreed to pay a $10.5 million settlement to the U.S. government after illegally exporting aircraft parts and services to Sudan and Iran.)
Sanctions relief should help businesses such as Faiz’s, improve companies’ access to online banking and payment systems, and let consumers and enterprises use international credit cards. It should also increase popular access to foreign educational platforms, make it easier to transfer money from abroad, and increase the purchasing power of the Sudanese pound. All these benefits should help Sudanese citizens see some of the benefits of economic freedom—and encourage them to demand more of it in the future.