Rethinking Sudan: Problems Remain but There are Opportunities for the US-Sudan Relationship

Rethinking Sudan: Problems Remain but There are Opportunities for the US-Sudan Relationship

By Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf

This month, as many as fifteen million people will participate in Sudan’s first multiparty elections in 24 years. Witnessing this process will be more than 1000 international observers. Some organizations say that more preparations are needed - although others have said that Sudan is ready.

There will be challenges - compounded by a lack of electoral experience, underdevelopment, and a recent history of conflict in Sudan. But this effort at multiparty elections by one of Africa’s most important nations is part of a trend by Sudan to transform itself and move forward. Sudan hopes to become a respected member of the international community, recognized as a key nation at the heart of a critical region.

With many countries in the region appearing increasingly vulnerable, the international community has a vested interest in a strong, stable Sudan. Such a nation would be a valuable strategic ally in safeguarding Red Sea shipping lanes and acting as a bulwark against potential failed states and the spread of extremism. It would also enhance the international community’s ability to advocate on issues within Sudan that are important to it, such as further cooperation on counterterrorism issues and resolution of ongoing problems in Darfur.

In this context, it is time for both the US and Sudan to replace frosty relations with constructive engagement.

Relations between the two nations have been strained since 1989, when the National Islamic Front took power in a coup. In 1993, the US designated Sudan a “State Sponsor of Terror,” in response to the suspected presence of al-Qaeda and sanctions were imposed in 1997. Relations reached a nadir in 1998 when US cruise missiles attacked a pharmaceutical plant suspected of developing chemical weapons.

Tensions between the US and Sudan have also been affected by conflicts between the Government and minority groups. Civil war between the nation’s North and South raged for almost 50 years. In Darfur, violence between nomadic militias (some with support from elements within the Sudanese Government) and agriculturalists dominated much of the past decade. The US labeled Khartoum-led actions as “genocide” and instituted additional sanctions. The Sudanese take issue with such allegations and oppose sanctions, which are seen as punishing innocent people rather than the intended targets.

Recent developments have changed the dynamic of the US-Sudan relationship. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between Khartoum and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement ended systemic conflict between North and South. It gave South Sudan an autonomous Government and, in 2011, the region will vote on full independence.

Agreements between Khartoum and groups in Darfur, as well as strong involvement by the international community, have improved conditions there. Khartoum has prosecuted 200 individuals, including officials, for war crimes in Darfur, acknowledging that such acts took place. While tensions remain, history shows that engaging rather than disengaging improves international leverage in the area.

US State Department reports on Sudan also reveal progress by the Sudanese Government in addressing terrorism. In 2004, the US removed Sudan from its list of countries “not fully cooperating” in anti-terrorism efforts. Perhaps it is time to revisit the appropriateness and effectiveness of sanctions as well.

With these game-changing developments in mind, the Cordoba Initiative (CI), an organization which I founded, is embracing an active role as a facilitator for progress in US-Sudan relations. Drawing upon my identity as a Muslim leader with strong roots in both the West and the Muslim world, I created CI to further my life’s work - helping two of the world’s great civilizations find the common ground and shared vocabulary to move forward. Both the US and Sudan understand the benefits of improved relations and have signaled their interest. Yet both have faced roadblocks along the way. CI specializes in facilitating constructive communication between the Muslim world and the West and can help both nations over roadblocks.

It will take a broader effort to bring success for the US and Sudan. Elected officials and opinion makers in the US need to look at 2010 Sudan with fresh eyes. I encourage them to consult State Department documents supporting the idea that the time has come for the US and Sudan to talk about re-engagement. The April elections are a powerful gesture of Sudan’s seriousness and Khartoum can consider addition gestures of goodwill on issues important to the US. The road ahead is not easy but there are tremendous possibilities, not just to advance the interests of both nations, but to make our world a better place. This opportunity should not be missed.

About the Author

- Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is a prominent Muslim elder statesman and independent voice for moderation, tolerance, and understanding. He is the author of three books, including What’s Right with Islam: a New Vision for Muslims and the West (one of the Christian Science Monitor’s Top Five Books of 2004). Imam Feisal has been interviewed by CNN, the BBC, New York Times, and Washington Post among others.

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Cordoba Initiative Unveils New Push in Sudan