Political changes of a magnitude not seen since the immediate post-Cold War period are underway in the Horn of Africa, a region at the strategic crossroads of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Sahel. Yet the risks and opportunities for the United States posed by these tectonic shifts have been largely neglected. As the unfolding situation in Sudan suggests, however, the region is at an inflection point that will define its course for a generation.
In medicine, the “golden hour” is the period in which the urgency of treatment determines the patient’s likelihood of survival. The United States’ response, or lack thereof, in the coming days and weeks to events in Sudan will determine whether it emerges more stable and on a trajectory toward reform or tips into the abyss.
After four months of mass demonstrations, the Sudanese military deposed President Omar al Bashir on April 11, establishing a council of generals to rule in his place that subsequently received support from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The protests have continued, however, and the depth of Sudan’s economic crisis, the proximate cause of the protests, and the legitimacy crisis facing the regime are unlikely to be resolved by a re-shuffling of the deck chairs. The longer that a civilian-led transition is delayed and demonstrators’ demands for democracy and an end to endemic corruption are unmet, the greater the risk of large-scale violence and insecurity.
State failure in Sudan, a country with a population twice that of Syria, would be catastrophic for the United States and its European allies. The consequent tidal wave of instability that would roll across North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Arabian Gulf would compromise U.S. efforts to counter terrorism, illicit trafficking, and illegal migration and would threaten one of the world’s most vital trade routes, the Red Sea connecting Europe and Asia.
But the U.S. policy response toward the changes in the Horn of Africa in general and in Sudan in particular has struggled to keep pace with events. Chastened by the experiences of Libya and Syria, Sudanese demonstrators have remained committed to nonviolence. Yet the Trump administration’s policy had until Bashir’s removal remained anchored in a process for bilateral normalization with Khartoum that had begun under the Obama administration. This sent a signal, intended or not, that the United States stood with Bashir’s regime. Since Bashir’s ouster, the United States has equivocated on the timeline for the establishment of a civilian government. As a result, the United States is now operating from a deficit of credibility among the forces of change.
The Sudanese people are on the vanguard of this transition, and they should remain so. However, the pace and scope of the developments demand far greater Western attention and support, not by dictating the nature of governance, security, or economic arrangements but by bringing to bear the United States’ political and financial resources to support a reform agenda that can undergird long-term stability. To that end, the United States and its partners should urgently articulate a detailed road map for restoring the country to economic viability that channels the support of regional states toward a civilian-led transition.
The United States must also use its influence to mitigate the fallout of the competition among Middle Eastern powers for dominance in the Horn of Africa — Turkey and Qatar, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on the other — which could spur fragmentation in Sudan.
While neither camp is likely to prevail over the other, their tug of war has led to the rapid militarization of the broader Red Sea. The pledge by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates this week to provide $3 billion of aid to Sudan’s military council could easily lead other regional states to back different elements inside Sudan.
Finally, Congress can ensure that the administration has sufficient resources to align its strategic ends with its means. The transition in Sudan can only succeed if the United States, in concert with its allies and partners, provides the requisite political and financial investments to match the magnitude of the changes and the opportunities these present. This likely means a supplemental appropriation from Congress and support for a process toward debt relief if a civilian-led transition is constituted in Sudan. A successful transition will ultimately be far less expensive than the political, security, and humanitarian costs of its failure.
This will be a make-or-break year for Sudan, and the United States vacillates at its peril.
Payton Knopf is an adviser to the U.S. Institute of Peace and a former aide to two U.S. presidential envoys for Sudan and South Sudan during the George W. Bush administration and to U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell during the Obama administration.