US delay on sanctions decision leaves Sudanese in limbo

Businessmen, shop owners, and Sudanese expats are desperate to finally ditch 20 years of US sanctions.

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The US temporarily lifted some of its sanctions on Sudan in January 2017 [Getty Images]

Khartoum – The Sudanese government, businessmen, and banks anxiously awaited a decision on Tuesday that they hoped would permanently lift decades-old US trade sanctions against Khartoum and aid in gradually bringing the country back into the international fold.

Mohammed Saad, a Sudanese expatriate living in Boston, had all but convinced himself that he would finally be able to send money back home to his family without having to use intermediaries or alternative banking routes.

“Nothing is as dependable as banks when you want your family to receive money that you work hard day and night to collect and send home,” he told Al Jazeera. “I waited for this day for six months.”

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But on Tuesday, the US state department announced it would postpone by three months a final decision on whether to permanently lift its sanctions on Sudan.

Some US sanctions on the central African nation – in place since 1997 over accusations of state-sponsored terrorism – were temporarily eased in an executive order signed by former president Barack Obama before he left office.

Many hoped that on Tuesday, new US President Donald Trump would make them disappear for good.

“I cannot stay in Saudi Arabia for ever,” said Hussam Greishi, a Sudanese expatriate back in Khartoum on annual leave from his work in Saudi Arabia.

“I would want to one day soon be able to return to Sudan and invest in a small business or grow a plot of land at my home town. That is why I am watching what will happen with the sanctions. The situation now is just not suitable for business.”

Obama’s executive order temporarily eased restrictions on Sudan’s gas and oil industry, unfroze some Sudanese assets in the US, and allowed for the import and export of selected approved goods and services.

But Hussam and many Sudanese youth say that despite the temporary order, their ability to send money back home has been hampered by the sanctions because of the isolation of the Sudanese banking system. The massive $8.9bn penalty slapped on BNP Paribas in May 2015 for violating trade sanctions against Sudan, Cuba and Iran still hangs heavy over the international banking sector.

Many banks have chosen to steer clear of Sudan despite the temporary sanctions easing.

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Mohammed Abd Alaziz, a software engineer, says Sudan’s isolation has held his professional development hostage.

“I cannot purchase original software versions due to the sanctions. I have to find alternatives every time,” he told Al Jazeera.

Azza Mubarak, a translator, is concerned that if the sanctions are not lifted, she will have to continue to buy references and materials for her work in hard copies, which cost considerably more than versions available for sale online.

“Most of the time hard copy versions are not available and when they are; they cost two or three times the regular cost because they are obtained through an intermediary destination, not directly from the US or Europe,” she said.

Wednesday’s three-month delay came on the heels of a tense campaign by human rights activists and US congressmen to pressure Trump to maintain sanctions over the country’s record of human rights violations.

Sudan-based political analyst Mohammed Humma said he had expected the decision on sanctions to be delayed.

“I expect the sanctions to be extended for another year or six months to monitor the implementation of the five tracks because this approach began to bear fruit with Sudan,” he told Al Jazeera.

The areas of concern – or “five tracks” – include giving more access to humanitarian workers in war zones, cooperating on counterterrorism with the US, ending hostilities against armed groups in Sudan, and halting support for rebels in neighbouring South Sudan.

Senior US officials told reporters on Wednesday the Sudanese government had sizeable progress on all five tracks, but the Trump administration needed more time to fully review the situation.

The extension also came with an added emphasis on human rights, religious freedoms and Sudan’s support for the UN Security Council’s resolutions on North Korea.

“The Trump administration has made it really clear that the number-one security issue for them and for the government is North Korea, and that is a global security threat,” one US official said during a call on Wednesday with reporters.

Sudan responded to the US’ delay by freezing talks with Washington on sanctions until October, when the three-month extension is set to end.

Sudan’s foreign minister, Professor Ibrahim Ghandour, called the US’ decision “illogical and unacceptable”.

“Sudan, as has been attested by the US government, has fully met its commitments under the engagement plan with the US,” he said.

“We look forward to the right decision by lifting the sanctions so Sudan can continue to be an effective partner with the US in safety and security in the region.”

In a January 2017 report, the US Department of State agreed, saying Sudan had made “significant progress” in each of the five areas in the period leading up to Obama’s partial lifting of sanctions.

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United Nations agencies working in Sudan, which are regularly affected by issues relating to humanitarian aid and access – one of the five areas of review – said in a statement on Monday that there had been “marked improvement in humanitarian access over the past six months”, since Obama’s executive order was signed.

But despite six months of eased sanctions, shop owners in Khartoum are still hungry for business.

“We hope the sanctions will be lifted and tourists will come so we can boost our struggling shops. We barely ever sell anything,” said one gift shop owner, who asked to remain anonymous.

After six months in limbo, Hadiya Adam, who sells tea in the capital, is not convinced that another three months delay will bring better results.

“Will prices go down? What will happen next?” she asked. “Sugar, vegetables and meat – what will happen to these?”

Mohammed Amin, a local journalist and commentator, said that while people in Khartoum and around Sudan were eager to see the sanctions finally lifted, they were well aware that it wouldn’t be a cure-all.

“They are all talking about the imminent lifting of sanctions, but they are not really waiting for it to happen now or after a year because they do not believe it will make for a noticeable change in their everyday lives or an immediate enhancement in living conditions,” he told Al Jazeera.

“They know part of the problem is the way resources are used and managed locally, not just the sanctions.”

Source: Al Jazeera