After more than 25 years of estrangement, the United States has upgraded its diplomatic representation in Sudan from chargé d’affaires to ambassador in a serious attempt to strengthen relations with Khartoum. The US administration decided to appoint John Godfrey as its first ambassador to Sudan since 1996, when Washington cut diplomatic relations with Khartoum due to its support for Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Officials and experts praised the decision, calling it an important step towards strengthening bilateral relations between the two countries. This move coincided with the difficult circumstances Sudan is currently experiencing, leading many to question the timing and implications of the appointment and Washington’s underlying goals.
President Joe Biden’s administration early on showed that it would prioritize Sudan by appointing Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman and adding a Sudan/South Sudan unit to the Africa office of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). As such, the appointment of John Godfrey as ambassador to Khartoum affirms Washington’s determined intent to engage carefully with Africa. In doing so, the US hopes to strengthen its influence and restore its position in the continent through developing and supporting African capabilities, which will shore up its competitive position and dual containment of China and Russia. The US is interested in Sudan for many reasons:
1. Achieve greater US engagement in Africa: Since 1981, successive US administrations have interacted with African countries based on “constructive engagement” and viewed the continent from the perspective of American interests. This policy model was meant to strengthen its influence and restore its position there through development and support for democracy, thereby bolstering its competitive position in the face of China and Russia. This is especially pertinent vis-à-vis Red Sea security following the agreement between Moscow and Khartoum, which allowed Russia to maintain a military base on the Red Sea. Washington aims to prevent unwanted Russian or Chinese expansion through a greater US presence in the region. This was evident from the recent visit of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Africa, which revealed the finer points of US policy towards Africa under President Biden. The visit also aimed to highlight Washington’s image as a key actor in regional and international initiatives to restore peace and promote democracy, at a time when China, Russia, and other international players vie for more influence in the continent.
2. Change the structure of the post-Bashir regime: There is no doubt that Sudan is currently undergoing radical changes at all levels. Following the fall of Omar al-Bashir’s regime in 2019, the commander of the Sudanese army, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan made decisions on 25 October 2021 that he described as a “correction of the transition path.” After intense international pressure, al-Burhan reached an agreement with Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok on 21 November 2021 to reinstate the latter, release all detainees, and investigate abuses committed during popular demonstrations since 25 October 2021. Both parties pledged to protect the transitional period and work to bring the nation back together. On the other hand, Sudan has witnessed major changes to the security, military, and intelligence forces, as well as seen the release of a number of prominent political figures, ministers, and activists who have been detained since 25 October 2021.
3. Monitor and support the democratic transition process in Sudan: The issue of democratization in the Horn of Africa is of great interest to the Biden administration, as confirmed by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit to Africa. Given that Sudan is one of the most important tools for democratic transformation in Africa, Washington has allocated an aid package worth $700 million to the nation. However, this aid is subject to the results of the democratic transition of power in Sudan. Blinken affirmed this, saying the US wants to see more progress towards democracy in Sudan before providing the aid.
Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of African Affairs Molly Phee also visited Sudan, during which time she held talks with Sudanese officials about mechanisms for solving the current crisis and restoring the democratic transition. Prior to Biden’s two virtual Summits for Democracy on December 9-10, the current Sudanese situation could be a useful card in the US president’s hand. If the transition works, it would then validate Washington’s winning strategy of democratic values and respect for human rights around the world. The appointment of an American ambassador is further proof that the US is eager to play an important role during the transition period to ensure its success. It also shows that the US wishes to implement the political agreement and democratic transition, form a competent government, and then create other transitional institutions, such as the Legislative Council, commissions, etc.
4. Make economic gains from closer relations with Sudan: Sudan has around $59 billion in external debt (more than 190% of its GDP in 2019) and an inflation rate of around 400%. With the Sudanese economy in freefall, the transitional government planned to save the economy through obtaining new loans, and Washington found a golden opportunity for tweaking Khartoum’s policies. As such, the US rejected what took place in Sudan in October 2021, imposing more diplomatic and economic pressures, and most notably suspending $700 million of financial assistance. Washington then raised the level of diplomatic representation in Sudan to guide its relationship with the country. This process includes arranging its priorities, laying the groundwork for its interests, and controlling its strategic starting points. The US knows well the scope of Sudan’s economic resources, especially metals and gold, as well as how to exploit and direct them.
5. Support the transformation in Sudanese-Israeli relations: Pro-Israel lobbying groups within the US contributed to the success of the January 2021 agreement to establish Sudanese-Israeli relations. This led to the lifting of American sanctions on Khartoum and opening the door to more economic aid, not to mention Tel Aviv’s role in supporting Sudan’s efforts to get off the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, which happened in December 2020. This transformation also helped put an end to some long-standing issues. Sudan agreed to pay $335 million in compensation to the victims of the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in the Kenyan and Tanzanian capitals, and to the victims of the 2000 bombing that targeted a USS destroyer (the USS Cole) off the coast of Yemen. In return, the US provided a short-term loan of $1 billion to pay Sudan’s arrears with the World Bank as part of a larger effort to address Sudan’s heavy external debt burden.
5. Respond to domestic pressures to pay attention to the Horn of Africa: Advocates of African causes within the US have a direct role and influence on American interest in the Horn of Africa. This support is demonstrated through a caucus made up of like-minded legislators of African descent, as evidenced by the holding of party caucuses in Congress. Despite the agreement reached between Hamdok and al-Burhan, some members of Congress have not abandoned their insistence on advancing draft bills of individual sanctions to hold Sudanese officials accountable. For example, Democratic Senator Chris Coons introduced a bill to impose sanctions on those who threatened democracy, peace, and human rights in Sudan. On the other end of the political spectrum, a ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, James Risch, stressed the need for Washington to continue supporting the Sudanese people and holding those who threaten Sudan’s future accountable.
The promise of accountability was echoed by Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Gregory Meeks, who sternly warned that “the world is watching and will hold military and civilian authorities accountable for their actions.” Congress also issued a law in December 2020 to support the democratic transition in Sudan, with a primary focus on limiting the military’s ability to run the country’s economy. Perhaps the most critical stance came from the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, who expressed his concern that the Sudan agreement would “gloss over the military junta’s brazen overthrow of civilian leadership and the death of tens of peaceful pro-democracy protestors.” As a result, Congress is using the bargaining chip of sanctions to pressure the US administration on Sudan.
6. Commit to counterterrorism and support security agencies and national armies: Perhaps one of the main features of contemporary US policy toward Africa is the commitment to counterterrorism and support for military and national security forces. The US military seeks to establish a network of bases in the African continent, primarily in the Sahel region and Horn of Africa. Sudan is one of the most important nations for confronting terrorist organizations, and thus, raising the level of bilateral relations with it will help eliminate those organizations. To that end, Sudan’s name was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism so that it could play an active role in Washington’s efforts to combat these organizations in Africa.
7. Affirm the centrality of Sudanese relations with Ethiopia: US interests are directly impacted by Sudanese-Ethiopian relations, including the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, tensions along the Sudanese-Ethiopian border, and the widening conflict between Tigray and the federal government in Addis Ababa. All these variables underline the pivotal and strategic role that Sudan can play in regional developments.
8. Concern over escalating impact of Sudanese and South Sudanese refugees: This issue keeps the American administration up at night. The US could face an increase in the number of refugees from Sudan if it does not support the democratic transition in Khartoum. After the events of this past October, the UNHCR indicates that nearly 7 million Sudanese and South Sudanese people have been forcibly displaced, either within their country or around the world.
A Veteran Diplomat
There is no doubt that the presence of John Godfrey as US ambassador in Khartoum will have a significant impact on the development of regional and international relations. Godfrey was able to overcome current and former US officials familiar with the matter and top the list of candidates to be the first American ambassador sent to Sudan in decades due to his many notable personal qualities:
1. Experience in African and Middle Eastern Affairs: Godfrey holds a Bachelor’s in Political Science from the University of California, Los Angeles and a Master’s in Middle East and North African Studies from the University of Michigan. As a veteran diplomat, Godfrey served as Deputy Political Counselor for Northern Affairs at the US Embassy in Baghdad from 2009-2010, as Staff Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, as Political and Economic Chief at the US Embassy in Ashgabat, and as Political Officer in Damascus, where his tour coincided with the death of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad’s succession. At the Riyadh embassy, Godfrey served from 2008-2015 as Deputy Chief of Mission, and before that as Political Counselor. From 2013-2014, he worked with the Deputy Secretary of State at the time, Bill Burns, a period that encompassed the Russian invasion of Ukraine and attempt to annex Crimea, as well as the emergence of ISIS.
2. Experience combatting terrorist organizations: Godfrey is Principal Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism, and was the Acting Special Envoy for the US State Department for Counterterrorism. He is a seasoned diplomat in Middle East and North African affairs. He served as Political and Economic Counselor at the US Embassy in Tripoli from 2007-209, and was part of the team that finalized the US Claims Settlement Agreement to secure compensation for the families of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing. Godfrey then served as Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, and as Arms Control Counselor at the US Permanent Mission to International Organizations in Vienna from 2010-2013.
A Notable Transformation
In conclusion, Godfrey’s appointment as the first US ambassador to Sudan in 25 years underscores a notable shift in the US’ view toward Sudan. The Biden administration has always promoted the principle of “collaborative relations” in discussing Africa based on the exchange of interests and partnerships, which emphasizes the US orientation towards Africa. There is no doubt that this approach will yield many mutual benefits for both parties. While Washington needs a high-level envoy to help nurture Sudan’s fragile transition to democracy and achieve US interests in the region, Khartoum desperately needs political and economic stability at this time. It can achieve this by working to reconnect with the international community and rebuild bilateral relations abroad with international donors. In this regard, Ambassador Godfrey’s personal experiences and qualities undoubtedly qualify him to be a major influence on the development of regional and international relations for the US and Sudan.