The big news these days is the lifting of the US sanctions that were placed on Sudan 20+ years ago. Everyone is talking about – actually, have been talking about it for several months now. But there are such mixed opinions and feelings about whether they should have been lifted or kept in place, with the decision met with much bitterness by many activists and members of opposition, as it translated to some form of diplomatic victory for and reward to the Sudanese government despite the latter’s continuous human rights violations.
About a year ago I was invited by a respected business entity to a dinner and discussion with several other youth, the purpose of which was to give some perspective on how the sanctions were affecting this sector and what could be done to ease this effect. I was surprised to meet several high ranking American diplomats including former ambassadors, and the officials in charge of advising the US administration on sanctions – all sanctions. It was a pleasant evening overall, and through some after-dinner chitchat I managed to gain an (interesting) understanding of just what exactly the team was planning on advising. The answer was that the main direction was towards lifting the sanctions, not because the Sudanese government has been behaving well, but because there were simply no clear criteria put in place to measure progress in the issues that had warranted the sanctions in the first place – not to mention the fact that the initial decision to place the sanctions was a questionable move by the then-president Clinton to make up for some bungle or another and to give his congress the blood they were asking for. In fact, the whole Sudanese experience had been such a failure that all decisions for future sanctions on other countries and individuals were thought through and tailored carefully to avoid the pitfalls of the Sudanese experience. Basically, the sanctions weren’t working, except to starve and destroy the people and infrastructure.
So was the decision to lift these sanctions, especially with all the chaos and killing going on in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, the right decision?
The fact is that the Sudanese government is a murderous, irresponsible parasitic regime that has been sucking the life out of the people since the day it set foot in this country, and continues to do so, with or without these sanctions. It is and will continue to be corrupt and tyrannical, oppressing rights and free speech, systematically dismantling what little infrastructure in the country is left, and breeding thieves and opportunists and liars.
But the question is will keeping these sanctions in place change this? It doesn’t seem so. The regime is pretty comfortable where it is now, well fed and clothed, getting fatter on the bones of the people it sucks on, trapping them like flies with taxes and customs and utility bills for zero services. And it has many friends who are more than willing to help where Washington won’t. The fact is that the regime will not dry up and fall off the stump of the once-prosperous and leafy tree this country was with these sanctions in place – at least not in the near future. It will just keep up with the same shit it’s up to now, getting stronger and fatter and more monstrous by the day. While the country’s progress and decline has been related somewhat to these sanctions, the fact is that the main reason for the mess we’re in is the government’s greed and managerial incompetence. Mainly because of it, but not completely.
The government has been like a really bad kid which the US/international community has been continuously trying to discipline, spanking and putting in the naughty corner for years with simply no results. Even after successive agreements and negotiations, accusations of genocide and criminal activity, literal isolation and continuous embarrassment, nothing has happened. The oppression, killing and genocide continues unabated.
The fact is that these sanctions should have been lifted years ago, before the damage they did became irreversible. Because of the blockade, factories that employed thousands shut down, and families lost their livelihood. This was especially traumatic in areas like my small hometown where local factories were a main and vital source of jobs and income. The healthcare industry suffered just as much with radiotherapy machines breaking down in the middle of cancer patients’ therapy sessions, and all treatment would be put on hold for days and weeks until the machines could be coaxed back into functioning without the necessary spare parts. And it wasn’t just US manufactured items that were blocked from entering the country, but other countries of origin as well, since the US made sure no one else would be filling the gaps it left. In the absence of legal hard currency the black market flourished and sent the Sudanese pound down the drain, causing erratic price hikes in the market. I won't mention the air fleet and railways because the sanctions' role in their demise was very, very secondary.
The fact is, that because of these sanctions an entire generation of Sudanese youth grew up suffocated and buried in the hole that this country became, cut off from the rest of the world, knowing nothing but that they are unwelcome, unworthy and unincluded. Oppressed not just by the regime but by everyone else as well. To them, everything outside this country is inaccessible and out of their reach even if they could afford it, because they don’t deserve it. And it’s very rare that they could afford it, because with the fluctuating black market hard currency rates no one can afford anything.
But the fact also is that lifting these sanctions will help people other than this damned government, in some way or another. It helps small and large business owners stabilize their procurements, without the hassle of relying on the unstable and unpredictable black market to buy and sell their merchandise. People travelling for treatment and studies can more easily transfer their much needed cash to hard currency and receive transfers once abroad. Easing the sanctions will help lab technicians and histopathologists – and hence patients – to conduct their tests and analyses now that much needed reagents and material can finally be obtained. The same goes for hospitals: reagents for arterial blood gas testing equipment, spare parts and new technology for radiology and radiotherapy machines, and laparoscopic surgical equipment for more advanced procedures. Distance learning and online educational software for working professionals who simply can’t afford to stop working for studies. And, most important of all, Sudan will be on the web: website hosting, online procurement, online businesses accessible to the outside world. Artists and designers can exhibit and sell their work, small startups can save on workspace and work online, and the world will finally see what the Sudanese have to offer.
The fact is that there is no right answer to this; there are only expected and hoped-for results. There is optimism and pessimism in equal measures. No one can predict for sure how things will go, but only the naiive will assume that it will get unequivocally better. Our problem is and always will be the regime, and just as it has managed to prosper under these sanctions it will sure as hell keep prospering without them. But it is also undeniable that without these sanctions, some aspects of life in this country will get a little better.
We can only hope.