It seems that the accelerated steps taken by Russia towards Africa have put pressure on the Biden administration and made it change its policies towards Sudan.
This was evident in the arrival of John Godfrey — the former official in charge of terrorism in the US State Department — to Sudan to be his country’s first ambassador there to support the democratic transition process after 25 years of cold diplomatic ties between the two countries.
Appointing an American ambassador in Khartoum is a major turning point in the policies of the Biden administration. This is because the Biden administration delayed sending an ambassador for a long time until the matter became the subject of criticism from many in Congress and the media as well. For example, last January, Republican Senator Jim Risch criticised the US administration’s delay in appointing an ambassador in Sudan and said in statements to the media that the delay “clearly indicates the absence of priorities that were given to nominating a name for this position, since former secretary of state Mike Pompeo announced and exchange of ambassadors with Sudan in December 2019.
Also, Cameron Hudson, a former official in the administration of President Barack Obama on Sudan and currently an expert in the Atlantic Council wrote a report for the American Atlantic Council several months ago criticising the lack of vision by the Biden administration towards Sudan, stressing that the step of sending an ambassador to Sudan is necessary to deal with its issues.
But despite all these sharp accusations, the administration was still reluctant to take this step despite there being no clear reasons for not sending on, as in December 2019, Pompeo announced that the US and Sudan had decided to start the process of exchanging ambassadors after a 23-year-gap.
In a statement posted on his Twitter account, Pompeo said: “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs warmly welcomes Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok on his first visit to Washington, and we are pleased today to announce that the United States and Sudan have decided to begin the process of exchanging ambassadors after a hiatus that lasted 23 years.”
Also in October 2020, the Sudanese Ministry of Justice announced that Sudan and the US signed a historic agreement on restoring Sudan’s political immunity. The ministry stated that the agreement was reached at the headquarters of the US State Department to settle cases against Sudan in US courts, which include the bombing of the two embassies in Nairobi and Dar Al-Salaam.
Under the agreement, Sudan agreed to pay $335m to be placed in a joint escrow account until the US fulfils its obligations to complete the procedures for Sudan to obtain its sovereign immunity after its removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The ministry confirmed that, by this agreement, judicial rulings against Sudan amounting to more than $10bn to compensate the victims in these cases will be dropped, future lawsuits will be prevented against Sudan, its sovereign immunity will be confirmed, and thus its legal status will be the same as all countries that do not fall in the list of countries that sponsor terrorism.
In fact, the real reason behind the Biden administration’s cold feet in raising the level of diplomatic representation in Sudan is that Sudan is simply not of high geostrategic importance to the US. Likewise, the Sudanese community inside the US does not have electoral importance or great economic and financial weight for the decision-makers in Washington to care about.
Accordingly, the sudden interest in US-Sudanese relations at this particular time cannot be understood in isolation from the Russian-Sudanese rapprochement, which began to raise US concerns, especially after Russia’s clear orientations towards the countries of the continent, which were represented in Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov’s recent Africa tour.
This is in addition to statements made by Sudan’s Minister of Defence Yassin Ibrahim Yassin at the Moscow Conference on International Security that took place a few weeks ago, where he stressed that it was necessary to participate in this conference “for the very special relations that bind us with Russia.”
Also, the visit of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo — Vice Chairperson of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council headed by Al-Burhan — at the head of a high-ranking delegation to Moscow on the eve of the start of the Russian attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022 falls within the framework of this rapprochement that, according to experts, serves Russian interests and contributes to expanding Russian influence in Africa.
Dagalo’s visit — known as ‘Hemedti’ — spanned eight days and is the longest visit by a senior Sudanese official to Russia. During this visit, the two sides agreed to expedite the activation of the agreements signed between the two countries.
For his part, Lavrov emphasised the depth of Russian-Sudanese relations and stated that his country is aware of the importance of the current developments in Sudan and is convinced of the Sudanese ability to address these problems, calling for non-interference in Sudan’s internal affairs.
It is also worth noting here that in November 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed his Defence Ministry to conclude a 25-year agreement with the Sudanese authorities to establish a new Russian naval base in Port Sudan that is capable of accommodating approximately 300 Russian soldiers.
Many recent reports also confirm that the role that Russia is playing in the Horn of Africa recently shows a strong desire to consolidate its presence in the Red Sea and that Sudan will be the key for Russia in Africa.
More importantly, a report published by English newspaper The Daily Telegraph confirmed that large quantities of gold are being smuggled from Sudan to Russia to assist the Kremlin in facing international sanctions.
Although the Sudanese government has denied the authenticity of this report, American newspaper The New York Times published a report that reconfirmed that one of the companies that mine gold in Sudan is the Russian Wagner Company that is owned by one of Putin’s close friends.
All these facts confirm that the American interest in supporting the democratic transformation in Sudan that suddenly appeared is nothing but another attempt to strengthen American presence in the region in the face of a Russian incursion.
The question now is when will the US truly support the democratic transformation of the countries of the region as it claims in isolation from its political interests.
* Marwa Al-Shinawy is an Assistant Professor at the International American University for Specialised Studies (IAUS)