By Gesu Antonio Baez
Early this year, Former US President Obama (in one of his final moves as president) signed an executive order to lift economic sanctions against the East African state of Sudan, in efforts to resume economic activity between the two countries which has been blocked for more than two decades. The Arab League and Sudanese government rejoiced, promising to impress the USA during the six month probation period required prior to the lift taking on full effect. Yet many rights organisation such as Human Rights Watch cried that it was much too early to be lenient on a country where conflict still ensues in both the western state of Darfur and at the southern border with South Sudan.
One thing about embargoes that nobody tells you much about is how very much “in your face” they are, especially in the everyday life. It was the first thing I noticed when I found myself in Khartoum; something I noticed much more than the vast sea of dessert terrain that you are bewildered by right before landing in the Sudanese capital.
You see it in the endless amount of Chinese products available in the stores – from soaps to TVs and cars (among the few countries trading with Sudan). You notice it when you go into a store to try and buy simple things – such as toothpaste – only to realise the entire city had run out of stock. More notably, you notice when you try to make card payments and your bank suddenly freezes access to your funds, punishment for being in a “rogue state”.
But apart from the banal things in life that can make the everyday in Sudan rather stressful, you notice it more on the issues where they matter the most, such as healthcare. In the town of El Obeid located in the state of North Kurdufan, I spoke with hospital staff and NGO workers who have been trying to scrap the little funds they could to provide continued medical training in OB/GYN ultrasound to key personnel; training that was vital in order to ensure quality services to pregnant mothers (according to the World Bank, Sudan suffers from a maternal mortality rate that is at 311 deaths for every 100,000 live births whereas the USA is at 14 deaths and the UK at 9). One of the many effects of the embargo is that in addition to a trade ban, funds for development were also diverted from the country, with aid money being given only for humanitarian efforts in Darfur, as Plan International Sudan representatives explain to me on the ground. The reasoning is fair enough, but it had a detrimental effect on a country whose citizens wanted it to progress. Many have taken desperate measures and into their own hands, as this was explained to me when I learned Ministry of Health staff in North Kurdufan State putting together a pool of funds from their own salaries (which were far from adequate) in order to pull together the finances to invest in improving maternal health services, such as vital training and acquiring key medical devices.
If there is one thing that the US policy of implementing embargoes has proven it’s that there isn’t concrete results that demonstrate its effectiveness. From Cuba to Iran, the goals of the US government for embargoes leading to regime change hasn’t progressed to any and ultimately, it hurts the people of the target country more than it hurts the regime. Despite lamenting on the relaxing of the embargo on Sudan, Human Rights Watch actually explained back in 2002 when referring to the Cuban embargo, that embargoes themselves have no effect in promoting human rights or any change as they are nothing more than a “failed policy”.
The embargo has kept Sudan from actually developing internally and according to a UNICEF Report economic growth results in lower levels of conflict and economic policies aimed to improve the economic output of the country actually serve as both peacekeeping and conflict prevention agents. It’s via development that conflict can actually be reduced as it increases opportunities for the disenfranchised, particularly the 19.50% of Sudan’s population which is unemployed. Building the commodities of the countries and increasing its access to the global market are important factors in this and therefore if reducing the violence in Darfur and Southern Sudan was the aim of the US’s policy, then for this it has failed miserably – Darfur still remains a region in the midst of tension and the Nuba mountains are now seeing more violence.
Which is why in order to keep the peace and ensure progress for Sudan, newly elected US President Donald Trump will have to honour the executive order made by his predecessor. As of late, Trump has been no friend to Sudan – the country is among the six under the travel ban and even before his election, Trump tweeted his disdain for the US marines not being allowed to have a presence in the country back in 2012 as it’s such a “small country”. But if Trump is serious about bringing safety to American borders as he constantly declares, then that starts with working with countries and fostering both negotiation and economic liberties. This means lifting the economic embargo is a crucial factor in achieving this.
The Sudanese let out a sigh of relief when Obama signed in the executive order and then held their breaths once more as Trump placed the ban only two weeks after. At present, the Sudanese people are still holding their breaths, waiting for the Trump administrations next move. For the sake of stability in the region, let’s hope it’s one of relief.
Gesu Antonio Baez