In early June, violence began in Southern Kordofan State (which lies inside North Sudan, on the border with South Sudan) when the government in Khartoum started to disarm residents who had fought on the side of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) during the 1983-2005 civil war. With peacekeepers from the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) unable to halt the violence, and with Khartoum pressing for UNMIS to end its mandate once Southern independence happens on July 9, many fear an escalation of conflict. The crisis in Southern Kordofan – which observers like UN Dispatch’s Mark Leon Golberg are calling “ethnic cleansing” – raises the issue, once again, of how much leverage the US has over the regime in Khartoum.
Yesterday President Barack Obama released a statement praising a peace agreement in Abyei, another Sudanese border region, and condemning the violence in Southern Kordofan:
The situation in Southern Kordofan is dire, with deeply disturbing reports of attacks based on ethnicity. The United States condemns all acts of violence, in particular the Sudanese Armed Forces aerial bombardment of civilians and harassment and intimidation of UN peacekeepers. With a ceasefire in Southern Kordofan, alongside the agreement to deploy peacekeepers to Abyei, we can get the peace process back on track. But without these actions, the roadmap for better relations with the Government of Sudan cannot be carried forward, which will only deepen Sudan’s isolation in the international community. Without a cease-fire and political negotiations, the people of Southern Kordofan cannot enjoy the right to have their political grievances addressed. The negotiations now under way in Addis Ababa demand the urgent commitment from both sides to peace and to the agreement for immediate help to those civilians caught up in this conflict.
This statement highlights one of the biggest potential leverage points Washington has with Khartoum: the “carrot” of normalized relations. Yet as author Bec Hamilton wrote on Twitter, the perceived value of this “carrot” may be disappearing: “That’s no longer leverage since Khartoum doesn’t believe it will ever happen (and they are probably right).”
Former US Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell adds that with some of the final status issues between North and South Sudan unresolved, and with voices in Khartoum pressing Bashir to act tougher toward the South, the US has less room to influence Bashir or move forward on matters like removing Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
In addition to applying pressure from afar, the US is also working on the ground to promote peace in Sudan, with Special Envoy Princeton Lyman heading to Sudan this month. Still, the limited nature of the “carrots and sticks” strategy, as the Carnegie Endowment’s Marina Ottaway told AFP, will constrain what diplomats can offer or threaten. Lyman himself portrayed US influence over Sudan as limited in this recent interview with NPR.
If the US can’t strong-arm Khartoum, can anyone? Hamilton says that multilateral institutions and China have greater leverage over Khartoum than the US. China will soon have an opportunity to exercise its influence if it wants: Sudanese President Omar al Bashir is scheduled to visit China and meet with senior officials from June 27-30. China has a stated interest in peace for Sudan. After all, with 75% of Sudan’s oil in the South, China has incentives to maintain strong relations with both North and South – and to prevent them, if possible, from engaging in conflict that would disrupt oil exports. Washington, which recognizes the possibility for Chinese influence over Khartoum, greeted news of Bashir’s trip with the hope that China would assist in peacemaking.
Stepping back and looking at what all this means for the trajectory of US influence in Africa, I have a theory that I’m not totally wedded to, but that I’d like to try out on readers. Let me know what you think:
The limits in Washington’s leverage over Khartoum throw into relief some of the ongoing changes in Africa’s political landscape. I do not believe that Washington could ever consistently dictate outcomes in Africa – certainly there were African regimes during the Cold War who stayed in power despite American opposition to them, and African rebel movements that defied America’s friends – but the end of the Cold War, and the rise of China, have altered America’s role in African politics. Rather than leaning on client states and building relationships predicated on ideological sympatico, over the last two decades Washington has pursued an ad hoc policy toward Africa, experimenting with disengagement (Somalia after Black Hawk Down), noninterference (Rwanda in 1994), militarization (such as AFRICOM and smaller military programs in Africa), pro-reform rhetoric (such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has used in her trips to the continent), and intensive diplomatic engagement (as in Sudan).
The inconsistencies in this overall strategy, combined with the rise of other actors, has given African regimes greater freedom to maneuver than they had during the Cold War. This helps explain why Khartoum, a regime that signed a US-brokered agreement partly in hopes of achieving better relations with the US, feels able to act contrary to the expressed wishes of the American president. After all, if Bashir doesn’t like what he hears from Washington he can, and will, go and see what they say in Beijing.