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Opportunity in Post-Revolution Sudan

Image courtesy of USAID

By Connor Lewis


The National Defense Strategy (NDS) defines long-term strategic competition with China and Russia as the principal priority for the Department of Defense (DOD). Within this context, the United States and China compete daily for hegemony and influence throughout the world. As a continent defined by underdeveloped economies, weak governance, and conflict, Africa is woefully susceptible to outside influence, especially when that influence promises investment and aid. While China has undoubtedly increased its activity and influence in Africa throughout the last decade, U.S. engagement in Africa has begun to wane. The U.S. must reverse course and take an active role in Africa if it wishes to out-compete China.

The recent political revolution in Sudan provides the U.S. with an opportunity to retake an active role in Africa. The U.S. should quickly adjust its foreign policy towards Sudan to support democratic institutions and solidify Sudan as a partner in the fight against Chinese influence, and violent extremism in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. Sudan's new Government is fragile and will undoubtedly be in the market for assistance from the world's major powers. The U.S. must play a leadership role in Sudan to ensure that Sudan's values and interests align with those of the United States. If the U.S. does not, China will.

A Turbulent Bi-lateral History

To understand the current bilateral relations between the U.S. and Sudan, it is important to look at the turbulent history between the two countries. Sudan gained independence from the joint colonial administration of Egypt and the United Kingdom in 1955 and became an independent country on January 1, 1956, at which time the U.S. and Sudan immediately established diplomatic relations. Sudan broke relations with the U.S. in 1967, following the six-day 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Relations were reestablished in 1972. After 1972, Sudan began to establish links with international terrorist organizations, most notably harboring Osama Bin Laden between 1991 and 1996. As a result, the U.S. designated Sudan a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 1993 and suspended U.S. Embassy operations in the country from 1996 to 2002. The State Sponsor of Terrorism designation includes restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance, a ban on defense exports and sales, controls over exports of dual-use items, and other miscellaneous financial restrictions.[i]

Further economic and trade sanctions were imposed in 1997 and 2006 due to the Sudanese Government's brutal crackdown in Darfur. The U.S. played a crucial role in negotiating the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the Sudanese Government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, which helped to lessen the atrocities in Darfur, and eventually led to the secession of South Sudan from Sudan in 2011. Between 2011 and 2019, much of the U.S.-Sudanese relationship was defined by lingering mistrust; rightfully so, given the turbulent history between the two and former Sudanese President Omar al Bashir's blatant disregard for human rights and standing indictments by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for genocide in Darfur. Bashir's regime made it nearly impossible for the U.S. to justify the complete normalization of relations, and as a result, although many of the additional economic and trade sanctions from 2006 were lifted in 2017, the State Sponsor of Terrorism designation and its associated restrictions remain today.

The Sudanese Revolution

In December 2018, Sudanese citizens took to the streets in protest against the Bashir regime. The protests culminated on April 11, 2019, when the Sudanese military ousted Bashir in a military coup. The military immediately suspended the constitution, dissolved the Government, and declared that the Transitional Military Council (TMC) would lead the country. According to military leaders at the time, the TMC would consist of only military personnel and would lead the country for the next two years, after which it would hand over power to a civilian administration. The military's proposal sparked outrage and further protests as the Sudanese people realized that they had simply replaced a brutal dictator with his enforcers. As a result of the continued protests, on August 3, 2019, the TMC and the Forces of Freedom and Change Alliance (FFC), a broader coalition of political leaders and activists claiming to represent the interests of Sudanese citizens, reached an agreement on a constitutional declaration. The declaration outlined the framework for a 39-month transitional governing body before democratic elections in 2022. The declaration also established an eleven-member sovereign council to serve as the collective head of state. The council is composed of five civilians chosen by the FFC, five military personnel chosen by the TMC, and a sixth civilian agreed upon by both. The council's chair is a military member for the first 21 months and a civilian member for the remaining 18 months. Additionally, the declaration allowed for the FFC to appoint a prime minister and a 20-person civilian cabinet. On August 21, 2019, the Sovereign Council appointed Abdalla Hamdok as Prime Minister for the 39-month transition period.

Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok

Sudan has transitioned from the ruthless Islamist dictator Omar al Bashir to an internationally well-respected economist and advocate of human rights, women’s rights, and economic development. Hamdok has held numerous roles within the international community, including Regional Director for Africa and the Middle East for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, and twice for the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). Before he was appointed Prime Minister, Hamdok served as the Deputy Executive Secretary of UNECA, where he was well respected as a brilliant economist and humble diplomat by the international community. In 2018, Hamdok refused a nomination from Omar al Bashir to be Sudan’s Minister of Finance, a job that would have given Hamdok access to the corrupt regime's financial, social, and political patronage. Hamdok's refusal is a testament to his moral and ethical compass.

Steps Towards Reform

Since Hamdok and the Sovereign Council took control of the country in August 2019, they have taken significant steps toward increased transparency and human rights. They have effectively repealed the Public Order Laws of the Bashir regime, which severely restricted women's rights to education, work, public gathering, and dress. Another success for women's rights is the Government's establishment of criminal legislation to make female genital mutilation illegal. Furthermore, the Government has outlawed flogging as a form of corporal punishment and has established committees to investigate past atrocities to include the killing of 120 unarmed protesters weeks after Bashir's removal. The Government has made it clear that it intends to distance itself from the former dictator Omar al Bashir. In December 2019, Bashir was convicted by the new Government for money laundering and corruption. He is currently serving a two-year sentence in Sudan. Additionally, Hamdok's Government has pledged to transfer Bashir to the International Criminal Court (ICC) following his two-year incarceration in Sudan. This serves as a clear sign that the transitional Government would like to move forward and resign itself from its country's troubled past.

Challenges to the Transition: Economy

While the transitional Government has made undeniable progress over the past year, Sudan's transition to transparent democracy and normalization within the international community is far from secure. The transition Government faces enormous economic, security, and political challenges. Before 2011, Sudan's economy soared on the back of oil production, high oil prices, and inflows of foreign direct investment. When South Sudan split from Sudan in 2011, it took with it 75% of Sudan's oil production.[ii] Since then, because of the country's lack of infrastructure, reliance on sustenance agriculture, and misappropriation of foreign aid under the Bashir regime, almost half of the population lives below the poverty line and 20% of the population is unemployed. The transitional Government must stabilize and reconcile the economy if it wishes to maintain the support of the people.

Challenges to the Transition: Security Forces

An even more pressing challenge facing the transitional Government is the potential power of its own security forces. According to an October 2019 International Crisis Group report, although Prime Minister Hamdok and his civilian cabinet have wide-ranging popular support, the security establishment continues to hold most instruments of raw power in the country.[iii] While this may not seem to be a pressing issue, it becomes a concern when considering that the security apparatus is far from a cohesive body and much of its leadership has been implicated in war crimes and human rights abuses, including the genocide in Darfur and the post-Bashir crackdown that killed 120 unarmed civilians.

Sudan's security sector can be understood through three key groups: the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), the Rapid Security Forces (RSF), and the Sudanese Intelligence Service and its allied militias, each of which has its own troubled history, loyalties, and agenda. The SAF, Sudan's professional military, led by General al-Burhan, was severely weakened under the Bashir regime. The SAF's inability to protect the capital against insurgent attacks and suppress the violence in Darfur led to mistrust among the SAF,Bashir, and the population. Rather than rebuild the military, the Bashir regime opted to fund and arm local paramilitary groups to fight the insurgency. This facilitated the rise of the RSF, which has grown far more powerful than the SAF. Thus, although General al-Burhan is now head of the Sovereign Council, General Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo, known as "Hemedti," who serves as Burhan's deputy on the council, is widely considered the most powerful man within the greater security forces apparatus. Many argue Hemedti is the most powerful man in the country, given his control of the RSF, immense wealth, control of lucrative gold mines, and support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo “Hemedti”

Hemedti, unlike his civilian counterpart, Prime Minister Hamdok, has a troubling history and reputation within the international community. Hemedti’s rise to power began as a member of the Janjaweed militia, the militia largely responsible for carrying out Bashir's genocidal campaign in Darfur. In 2011, Bashir chose Hemedti to set up the RSF, which is widely recognized as a rebranding of the Janjaweed. In 2015, when the Bashir regime sent troops to fight under the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, it was Hemedti and the RSF who contributed troops and reaped the financial rewards, not the SAF. Hemedti’s influence accelerated amid the Yemen campaign, as the Saudis and Emiratis provided the RSF with increased funding, enabling Hemedti and the RSF to attract recruits from Sudan's young and impoverished population. Furthermore, Hemedti has built a strong relationship with the two regional economic powers, a relationship he is likely to leverage during the transition. Additionally, Hemedti and the RSF are likely linked to the crackdown that killed 120 Sudanese protesters during the brief reign of the TMC. Although investigations into the incident are ongoing within Sudan, and no blame has been attributed, reputable human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and International Crisis Group, mostly agree that Hemedti played a key role in the crackdown.[iv]

Recommended U.S. Engagement

Sudan is at an inflection point, one that provides the U.S. with an opportunity to support reform and secure a long-term geostrategic partner in a region susceptible to increasing Chinese influence and increasingly networked VEOs. To do this, the U.S. must take a leadership role in supporting Prime Minister Hamdok's civilian Government while working carefully to reform, rather than disenfranchise, Sudan's fractured but powerful security apparatus. A key driver for the popular support of the Sudanese people is economic improvement. Without substantial improvements to the economy, Hamdok's civilian Government is unlikely to maintain popular support, which would allow wealthy strongmen like Hemedti to take control. There are clear, concrete steps the U.S. should take to support Hamdok and his civilian cabinet.

State Sponsor of Terrorism Designation

First, the U.S. should remove Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. The list includes only three other countries: North Korea, Iran, and Syria, all of which (except for Sudan) are identified in the NDS as rogue regimes and state sponsors of terror.[v] As reflected in its absence from the NDS, Sudan no longer fits the criteria. Sudan’s designation is a legacy issue; over 60% of the population is under 25 and were not alive when the designation was applied.[vi] It is outdated and has been for almost a decade. Since September 11, 2001, Sudan has proven to be a close partner in the fight against terrorism. While the atrocities of the Bashir regime made it politically untenable for previous administrations to lift the designation, the 2019 coup necessitates it.

Lifting the designation will provide tangible support as it will enable the transitional Government to apply for desperately needed debt relief from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. More importantly, though, may be the intangible benefits. Lifting the designation will restore Sudan’s reputation in both the public and private sectors of the international community. This reputational boost will encourage both public and private foreign investment and allow the transitional Government to participate competitively in the international bonds market. The international bonds market is a superior alternative to the bilateral and multilateral aid development model, but participation depends on a country's sovereign credit rating. The rating, much like an individual credit score, accounts for risk. Risk drives interest rates (the price of borrowing) and interest rates drive financing costs. Put simply, the higher a country's rating, the less expensive it is to borrow money making it more attractive to investors. Currently, in part because of its designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, Sudan does not have a sovereign credit rating, disabling it from issuing bonds in the international market. The Hamdok Government is comprised of multiple U.S. educated, Ph.D. level economists. The U.S. must empower them, not handcuff them. Removing the designation is the first step.

USAID Engagement

Secondly, through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. should provide direct support to the Hamdok Government. USAID is the largest bilateral donor of humanitarian aid to Sudan. [vii] Within the context of the Bashir regime, USAID worked around, not through, the Sudanese Government. This must change. For the Hamdok Government to retain support and legitimacy, it must be perceived as capable of providing essential services to the people of Sudan. USAID should work with and through the Government; it no longer needs to work around it.

Additionally, USAID should reopen its Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) mission in Sudan which was shut down in 2010.[viii] OTI’s mission is “in support of U.S. foreign policy, seize emerging windows of opportunity in the political landscape to promote stability, peace, and democracy.” [ix] Sudan's transition is a window of opportunity, and OTI can strengthen the Hamdok Government through targeted economic and governance programs. USAID and OTI engagement through the Hamdok Government will boost support and legitimacy and dissuade the transitional Government from engaging with malign actors.

Engaging Sudan’s Security Apparatus

Finally, the U.S. must work carefully to reform rather than disenfranchise the Sudanese security apparatus. Over the past two decades, the Sudanese have been a strong partner in the war on terror. As a result, U.S. intelligence agencies and DOD alike already have a working relationship with many of the key players in Sudan's security sector. These relationships should be cultivated and expanded. The U.S. should assign Army SOF teams comprised of Special Forces (SF) and Civil Affairs (CA) to interact directly with both SAF and RSF forces, while senior-level DOD and DOS officials engage the military leadership of the Sovereign Council. Engagement at the senior level should focus on uniting the SAF and RSF under a unified command structure. Engagement at the tactical level for the SF teams should be security cooperation to build capacity and relationships with the SAF and RSF. This engagement will enable U.S.-Sudanese bilateral counter-VEO efforts in the region.

The CA teams would provide incredible value and should be focused across multiple lines of effort. A Civil-Military Engagement (CME) program in accordance with USSOCOM Directive 525-38 should be established to ensure the CA effort is both effective and sustainable. Most tangibly, the CA teams can provide support to both the USAID humanitarian relief operation, as well as OTI programs. The CA teams can provide USAID with on the ground assessments and recommendations for aid distribution and targeted economic and governance projects. The CA teams can also work to mediate the uneasy relationship between Sudanese civilians and Sudanese security forces. They can do this through engagement with the civilian population and engagement with their SF counterparts, who will work closely with the security forces. Given their unparalleled access, the CA teams will also be able to provide the State Department Country team with unprecedented access to on the ground information regarding the civilian population. This information will drive economic development and governance reform programs. The presence of SF and CA teams will ensure that the security sector feels adequately involved and represented in the transitional Government, guaranteeing that the major power players in the apparatus work to reinforce the transition rather than undermine it. It will also promote reform and unification and provide the U.S. with a strong counter-VEO partner.

Counterargument Against U.S. Engagement

Arguments against proactive U.S. engagement in Sudan posit that U.S. engagement should be contingent upon a successful transition and that the State Sponsor of Terrorism designation and support for the transitional Government should be used as leverage for reform. This argument fails to recognize a few key points. First, as discussed earlier, the transitional Government has already taken significant steps toward reform and has worked to distance itself from its troubled past. Second, the transition needs the support of the U.S. to be successful. If the U.S. holds out support, the likelihood of a successful transition decreases dramatically. Third, if the U.S. does not take advantage of the transition in Sudan, China will. China has increased its engagement significantly across the continent and is already heavily involved in South Sudan. If the U.S. waits, China will fill the void and the Sudanese will be forced to accept. A drowning man will grasp any hand he sees. Moreover, Chinese involvement and engagement have never been contingent on human rights reform; in fact, Chinese involvement would likely support the Bashir era security apparatus over Hamdok's civilian Government. Thus, U.S. engagement before a complete stable transition is the best way to ensure sustainable reforms, and that U.S. foreign policy objectives are met.


The U.S. faces a choice. It can either take a leadership role in Sudan, support democratic reform and gain a geostrategic security partner, or it can passively allow China to do it their way. The NDS makes it clear that U.S. foreign policy decisions are made within a context of great power competition. In his statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee in January 2020, AFRICOM Commander, General Townsend, testified that “in Africa, counter-VEO is great power competition. In Africa, building partner capability is great power competition.” [x] In this regard, Sudan is great power competition. The U.S. needs to act quickly to secure a victory for the Sudanese people and U.S. national security. A secure and stable Sudan is an enduring American interest.

About the Author

CPT Connor Lewis is a recent graduate of the Civil Affairs Qualification Course and is currently attending French language training at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. He has experience working for humanitarian organizations in Africa and South America.

Disclaimer. The opinions, conclusions and recommendations expressed or implied above are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of any organization or any entity of the U.S. government.

ENDNOTES [i] State Sponsors of Terrorism - United States Department of State. (2019, April 30). Retrieved May 17, 2020, from [ii] The World Factbook: Sudan. (2018, February 1). Retrieved from [iii] International Crisis Group. (2019). Safeguarding Sudan's Revolution. Retrieved from [iv] Roth, K. (2020, March 20). Sudan Has a Window of Opportunity. The West Shouldn't Squander It. Retrieved May 17, 2020, from ; International Crisis Group. (2019). Safeguarding Sudan's Revolution. Retrieved from [v] Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America. (2018). Retrieved May 17, 2020, from [vi] CIA, 2018 [vii] Sudan. (2019, August 19). Retrieved May 17, 2020, from [viii] USAID, 2019 [ix] USAID, 2019 [x] Townsend, S. J. (2020, January 30). Statement of General Stephen J. Townsend, United States Army Commander United States Africa Command Before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Retrieved May 17, 2020, from

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