During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama called Darfur a “stain on our souls.” As president, he reiterated his charge that the regime in Khartoum was responsible for genocide. But in stark contrast to his rhetoric as a senator and a presidential candidate, President Obama’s administration has sought rapprochement with the very same regime that he had long excoriated.
Indeed, all his moral indignation has mattered very little in the eight years during which U.S. policy toward the regime has been guided by the view of Obama’s former special envoy for Sudan, Princeton Lyman: “We [the Obama administration] do not want to see the ouster of the [Khartoum] regime, nor regime change. We want to see the regime carrying out reform via constitutional democratic measures.”
These words — never disavowed — can make no sense in the context of the continuing genocide in Darfur, including this year’s massive scorched-earth campaign in Jebel Marra, the heart of Darfur. They make no sense in the context of the continuing war against the civilians in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, caught up in yet another “center-periphery” conflict that has defined the governing policies of the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party (NIF/NCP) regime since it came to power by military coup 27 years ago. During that time, millions of Sudanese have been killed or displaced or have had their lives rendered horrors of mere survival.
The people of Sudan — all of the people of Sudan who are not part of the regime’s gigantic kleptocracy — wish to see regime change. Their views have been clear for years, however fractious the political parties and alliances, however troubled the coalition of armed opposition forces. They live in an economy devastated by more than two decades of gross economic mismanagement that has left the people of this potentially rich country living lives of destitution and facing soaring inflation, a lack of critical imported goods (including food, cooking oil and essential medicines), water shortages and crippling external debt. That debt was $13 billion when the NIF/NCP came to power; it now exceeds $50 billion, an increase largely due to profligate military spending and the massive expansion of security services.
An extraordinary popular uprising began in September 2013, extending to many of Sudan’s cities. The regime’s response? Amnesty International established on the basis of morgue visits that “shoot to kill” orders had clearly been issued, given the disproportionate number of corpses with fatal bullet wounds to the head and torso. Some 200 people were murdered in Khartoum/Omdurman; more than twice that were killed elsewhere, although the regime has ensured that we have no firm figures.
This Monday, Dec. 19, will be a day of mass civil disobedience throughout Sudan; the hashtag #Dec19Disobedience exploded through social media in a way I have not seen in 18 years of full-time research on Sudan and its multiple wars and crises. Indeed, this hashtag uprising gives all signs of being the moment in which we will see the outlines of Sudan’s “Arab Spring.”
Belatedly recognizing what a threat the events of Dec. 19 have become, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir — wanted by the International Criminal Court on multiple counts of genocide and massive crimes against humanity in Darfur — has issued a clear, unambiguous and taunting warning:
“If you want to overthrow the regime, why don’t you criticise us in the streets? I will tell you why. We know that you will not come, as you know very well what happened in the past.”
The “past” invoked here is Bashir’s decision in September 2013 to issue “shoot to kill” orders.
The Obama administration has one last opportunity to move beyond Lyman’s disingenuous assessment of the regime and its ambitions. Too much has been sacrificed to this expedient view in the name of securing counterterrorism cooperation from Khartoum, which hosted Osama bin Laden during al-Qaeda’s formative years (1992 to 1996). The United States must issue — before Dec. 19 — a clear warning that disproportionate use of force will be a major obstacle to any improvement in relations between Washington and Khartoum.
On the other hand, if the Obama administration remains silent, it will be complicit in the large-scale bloodshed that looks increasingly likely come Monday.
Eric Reeves is a senior fellow at Harvard University’s François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights. He has written extensively on Sudan for almost two decades.