In Khartoum, military commanders sit alongside civilian officials in a transitional arrangement that makes everyone uneasy. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemeti, is on the power-sharing sovereign council that will lead the country until elections scheduled for 2022. Hemeti was a commander of the Janjaweed militia that devastated the Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit communities of Darfur in western Sudan over a decade ago. He now heads a proxy militia that was responsible for massacres of pro-democracy protesters in June. No one should doubt that any and all democratic progress could be destroyed upon his command.
Even as Hemeti sits on the sovereign council, the prime minister chosen by the pro-democracy protesters, economist Abdalla Hamdok, has forged ahead with building a cabinet of technocrats more diverse than Sudan has ever seen. On Tuesday, the nation’s new minister of justice, Nasredeen Abdulbari, appeared on behalf of his government at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva: “We believe peace can only be achieved if we address the root causes of Sudan’s wars, which are the marginalization by the state of the peripheries.”
For Sudanese and all who follow Sudan, it is impossible to overstate how extraordinary it is to hear such a sentence uttered publicly by a Sudanese official. From British colonialism onward, those on the periphery — what is now South Sudan, along with the Three Areas, Darfur and East Sudan — have been excluded from power. Decades of war and the associated deaths of millions of Sudanese flow from this common root cause.
What makes the acknowledgment of this reality all the more remarkable is that Abdulbari is himself of Fur ethnicity. Back in 2004, when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell stood before the Senate to proclaim that atrocities unfolding in Darfur constituted genocide, it was literally unimaginable that 15 years later, a lawyer hailing from one of the groups targeted for destruction would be the Sudanese minister of justice.
The rest of Abdulbari’s speech in Geneva detailed the new government’s plans to advance human rights. These include the establishment of a legal reform commission to “amend or abolish tens of pieces of legislation in Sudan that restrict freedoms or are inconsistent with international human rights law,” and the decision to join international human rights treaties including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention against Torture. The day after the speech, the Sudanese government matched words with action, signing an agreement with the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to open a country office with access to all areas of Sudan.
These are dizzying developments to all who know Sudan. For more than two decades, U.S. officials, Republican and Democratic alike, have invested thousands of hours of policy analysis and diplomatic engagement, along with billions of dollars in aid, in the hope that Sudan would emerge from a genocidal dictatorship. Finally, democracy has gained a foothold.
To say the current situation is fragile underplays the risks. The structures that supported al-Bashir’s reign remain, and Sudan’s history counsels that failure is more likely than not (of the three democratic governments Sudan has seen since independence in 1956, all have been overthrown by the military). But this reality must not lead the international community to hedge, waiting to invest fully in supporting the efforts of the new government until a complete democratic transition seems like a sure bet. The time to pull out all stops in support of the democratic aspirations of the Sudanese people is now.
Hamdok and his cabinet have been clear about their desire for Sudan to shed its pariah status. And they have specifically asked that the United States remove Sudan from the state sponsor of terrorism list. Doing so would allow wide-ranging sanctions to be lifted. For Hamdok’s fledgling government, now responsible for an economy in free fall after decades of corruption, this would be a lifeline. This is the moment for the United States to lead the way.
In a time of growing authoritarianism worldwide, Sudan’s extraordinary protest movement serves as a beacon of hope. As Abdulbari put it in his speech to the council: “The people of Sudan have — by making enormous sacrifices — practically proven that ending an authoritarian regime and starting the process of establishing a free, just and peaceful society is possible. The international community should show its solidarity with the people of Sudan.”