One of the last acts of former President Barack Obama's administration was to remove US sanctions against Sudan - with the proviso that this would take effect in six months if the regime of President Omar al-Bashir improved human rights and reduced conflict in Darfur. When South Sudan excised itself from Sudan in 2011, the government in Khartoum thought it would be quickly rewarded by the removal of American sanctions against the country. Nothing happened until Obama's December 2016 announcement. How did Khartoum go about trying to change US policy?

SUDANESE President Omar al-Bashir took a gamble when he allowed the people of South Sudan to vote in a referendum for independence.  It was not easy for him to sell the idea of an independent South Sudan to hardliners in Khartoum. But he stuck to his guns even though he was fully aware that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the North and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in the South would not favour his country in economic terms. The Sudanese government made sure that the referendum went very well.

The outcome saw Sudan lose one-quarter of its landmass, one-fifth of its population and, crucially, 75 per cent of its oil wealth – all to the new country of South Sudan. Given this rather good deal for South Sudan, Khartoum feels it has not received the credit it deserves for South Sudan’s independence.

All sorts of pressure were applied by the US on Khartoum to ensure that it abided by the provisions of the CPA regarding the referendum. When US President Barack Obama addressed the UN General Assembly in September 2010, he presented al-Bashir with two options: to either see Sudan regain its place within the international community or remain in isolation if the regime was unwilling to live up to the obligations of the CPA.

Obama also sent envoys with the promise that his administration was ready to remove Sudan from the State Department’s list of countries allegedly sponsoring terrorism as early as July 2011 provided that the Sudanese government lived up to three major obligations: to conduct a transparent referendum; to respect the results of the referendum; and to implement all the post-referendum agreements relating to, among other things, border demarcation, oil revenue-sharing, currency and citizenship.

Since then, Khartoum has had to watch South Sudanese politicians tearing their country apart, while the international community, especially the US, has refused to remove sanctions on Sudan, which have increasingly become harsher. The US government in 1993 designated Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism and suspended its diplomatic operations in Khartoum in 1996. In October 1997, the US imposed comprehensive economic, trade, and financial sanctions against the Sudan.

Now supporters of the Sudanese government are backing it in its attempt to remove US economic sanctions, which have been against the country for the past 19 years, and drop the State Sponsor of Terrorism (SST) listing of the country, which has been in place for 23 years.

In January a petition was posted on the White House website calling on the Obama administration to end the sanctions, which petitioners said were “oppressing the poor and innocent”. The section on the website, We the People, is a 2011 initiative by the White House to give greater access to citizens to petition the US president to take action on issues close to their hearts.

So the anti-US sanctions campaigners took to the site, arguing: “The poor and helpless in Sudan are bearing the brunt of the economic sanctions imposed on the country by the United States 23 years ago. The intended goal of the sanctions might have been to weaken the oppressive government of Sudan, but they are producing exactly the opposite result.

“They are weakening and impoverishing the people of Sudan and strengthening the grip of the regime on the country. We plead with president Obama to do the right and humane thing by ordering an immediate end to the Sudan sanctions.”

The site has a threshold of 100,000 signatures for the president to act. However, a month later, after the deadline ended, there were 117,150 signatures – thus meeting the threshold. But a statement on the White House website said: “This petition has been archived because it did not meet the signature requirements.”

Nothing more was said, but there had been earlier discrepancies regarding the signatures.

By February 10 the site recorded 93,752, only to come up with a figure of just over 75,000 signatures three days before the February 15 deadline.

The petitioners were emboldened by an opinion piece published on January 14 on the website of the US magazine, Foreign Policy, which highlighted the dire plight of ordinary Sudanese people in the face of crippling US sanctions against their country. The petitioners’ argument was that the unintended consequence of US sanctions on the living standards of ordinary Sudanese has been exceptionally severe.

They noted that in key sectors such as finance, transportation, agriculture, health, and information technology there has been serious “damage to the lives and opportunities of ordinary people in Sudan to free themselves from poverty, wreaked by the US sanctions regime – including the State Sponsor of Terrorism (SST) listing”.

They argued: “Sanctions invariably tend to have a direct proportional relationship with the bottom of the pyramid. They hurt the poor hardest. Sudan has been no exception to this rule.”

For the Sudanese government, this was part of a concerted campaign because Khartoum said it “has a moral obligation to never give up actively trying to get US economic sanctions removed”.