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In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon
In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon
The local vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup
Commentary / Africa

In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon

Two years ago, the Cameroonian government declared war on Boko Haram. Despite some progress, the group’s violent impact is still seen and felt deeply in the remote north of the country. 

In March 2016, Crisis Group Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup travelled for four weeks into an insecure area only few researchers are given access to: Cameroon’s Far North Region. He was escorted three days by the military between the front-line towns of Ldamang, Mabass, Kolofata, Amchidé and Gansé, before he went on to travel alone across the region: to Maroua, the Minawao refugee camp, Mokolo, Mora, Kousseri and Goulfey. During the four weeks he spoke to a wide range of people, including traditional chiefs, local inhabitants and administration staff, refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), vigilante groups, local NGOs, humanitarian actors, academics, the military, former Boko Haram members, former traffickers, and others, some in presence of the military but the vast majority on his own. He completed his research in April and May 2016 with additional interviews in Kerawa, Bargaram, Fotokol, Makary, Hile Alifa and Blangoua. An in-depth Crisis Group report on the crisis in the area will be published soon.

This is the story of his journey.

Cameroon's Far North district. CRISIS GROUP

At 8 o’clock in the morning, I hear seven vehicles stopping in front of my hotel: two armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and five four-wheel-drive vehicles. Sitting inside are over forty Cameroonian soldiers, who are here to take seven journalists and me into Cameroon’s Far North district – a region that has severely suffered under Boko Haram, and still does.

I want to understand what – apart from weapons – it takes to counter Boko Haram.

I am joining this convoy because I want to find out how Boko Haram operates in this area, and how strong it is, two years after the government started to clamp down on the insurgency. I want to see how the people living here are affected, understand if Boko Haram still recruits fighters in the Far North, and hear how large its network of sympathisers remains. And I want to understand what – apart from weapons – it takes to counter Boko Haram. I am especially curious to learn about the so-called “vigilantes”, local self-defence groups that have gained a certain fame in this Cameroonian war on terror. What can these groups really achieve?

The starting point of our trip is Maroua, a buzzing city of 400,000 inhabitants and capital of the Far North region. The region has never gained the sad notoriety of Nigeria’s Borno state, but it gradually became an important refuge for Boko Haram fighters in the 2000s. And it has suffered immensely under the insurgency over the past years, particularly since 2014 when Boko Haram entered into open confrontation with the Cameroonian government.

The Alpha escort of the BIR in Maroua, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The group’s tactics then changed quickly: smaller incursions and occasional kidnappings soon grew into larger raids on towns and villages as well as strategic attacks against the Cameroonian army. In just two years, the insurgency staged more than 500 attacks and incursions, and around fifty suicide bomb attacks in Cameroon, making it the second most targeted country after Nigeria. According to Cameroonian soldiers, they fought fourteen fierce battles in Kolofata, Amchidé, Fotokol and Bargaram in 2014 and 2015 against sometimes hundreds and even up to a thousand heavily equipped Boko Haram fighters from mainly Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad.

In total, in two and a half years the insurgents have killed at least 1,300 civilians, 120 soldiers and abducted an estimated thousand people in Cameroon. They have burned down hundreds of schools and businesses and forced thousands to flee. Today, there are over 190,000 internally displaced Cameroonians in the Far North and around 65,000 refugees from neighbouring Nigeria, according to OCHA figures.

Before we leave Maroua, one of the soldiers gives me a helmet and a bullet-proof vest. This will be my outfit for the entire journey, the standard equipment for everyone travelling in this once peaceful area whose broken tracks are now sown with mines and improvised explosive devices (IED). These were laid by Boko Haram to block the government’s way into the territory. More than 50 incidents have been recorded since October 2014, with 22 of the mines killing at least 30 soldiers and wounding many more.

SABC News: "Boko Haram Has Leveled a Threat at Cameroon and its President Paul Biya"

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau threatens to step up violence in Cameroon. In a video posted online, Shekau threatens the people of Cameroon and its president, Paul Biya. SABC News

I climb into a mine-resistant armoured personnel carrier (APC). But our safety has a price: despite air conditioning it’s over 45 degrees Celsius inside. With sweaty faces, the journalists and I look at each other, suddenly understanding, at least slightly, the physical challenge that the soldiers patrolling the region experience each day.   

Twenty kilometres outside of Maroua the roads become bumpy. And then there are no roads at all. But the driver finds his way toward the north east and after four hours we arrive at Mabass, a village right at the Nigerian frontier. Mabass and the neighbouring towns of Tourou and Ldamang were repeatedly attacked by Boko Haram in 2014 but the insurgents never managed to fully occupy them.

We stop at a rocky plateau overlooking the vast sandy frontier area with Nigeria where the local commander, Captain Ticko Kingue, points at a lake in the distance. “You see the lake over there?” he asks. “That’s the Nigerian town of Madagali. This entire frontier area is plagued by the insurgency. Even last night there were attacks. We cannot go into Nigeria, not here, we’re not allowed to. So what we do is we prevent the insurgents from coming in”.

A soldier belonging to the Emergence 4 Unit deployed at Poste de Mabass, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

It is crucial that the Nigerian and Cameroonian armies cooperate in the fight against Boko Haram. But for a long time, the two country’s historically difficult relations painfully slowed down their military coordination. Today, two years since the Cameroonian government declared war on Boko Haram, there’s still a great need for better exchange of intelligence. But at least cooperation between the two armies has improved significantly within the context of the region’s Multinational Joint Task Force – partly operational since November 2015 with the aim of crushing Boko Haram.

Here in Mabass, we are very close to the Nigerian army base near Madagali. “Sometimes they come to us, especially if we can help them with equipment”, says Captain Ticko Kingue. “And they inform us how things are going on their side”.

On the other side of the frontier, most border towns are still held by Boko Haram. “It’s been a long time since they managed to occupy new territory”, Captain Kingue says. “But they keep trying. They usually come in large groups of 200 fighters or more. We call this a ‘combat de masse’. Usually they come at night in a surprise attack. Sometimes they pretend to attack a larger village or town to divert the army’s attention while they try to seize smaller villages”. Although Boko Haram use indiscriminate violence, they also sometimes target these smaller villages to seize supplies or preach to the population, as happened on 15 December 2015 in Kerawa, where Boko Haram members rounded up the population to preach to them for hours in Kanuri, Haoussa and Arabic.

At Poste de Mabass.

Crisis Group Cameroon Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup in conversation with local army commander Kingue at Poste de Mabass, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. (Subtitles available in French and English) CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Boko Haram’s firepower reached its peak between summer 2014 and spring 2015. In the face of Cameroonian, Chadian and Nigerian military pressure since then, Boko Haram had to change its tactics and appears to be in decline. The jihadist group lost much of the territory it occupied and has much less military equipment than it used to. The army claims it has dismantled most Boko Haram cells in Cameroon, killed about 2,000 members in fighting and arrested more than 1,000 suspects since 2014. Today, Boko Haram is ostensibly weaker and is not able to conduct large-scale attacks any more. But it is far from defeated. It still goes after smaller targets, and increasingly relies on suicide bombers.

Contrasting with the army’s success stories, a recent Amnesty International report documents severe failings and human rights violations in the Far North counterinsurgency campaign. According to Amnesty International, many of the army’s arrests were arbitrary, the rights of detained suspects were “routinely denied” and they did not receive fair judicial treatment. The Amnesty report has been widely criticised and rejected by the government, the military, civil society and the majority of local media. Crisis Group research raised similar concerns as Amnesty’s, but when speaking to a wide range of people it also found a high degree of local support for army actions in the face of Boko Haram’s bewildering violence.

Boko Haram is ostensibly weaker and is not able to conduct large-scale attacks any more. But it is far from defeated.

We continue our journey into the Mayo Tsanaga district toward the only refugee camp in the Far North. The camp near the village of Minawao is run by the UNHCR and hosts almost 57,000 people. Most of them are Nigerians from the border areas. More than 190,000 Cameroonians were also displaced, mostly fleeing to other villages and towns of the Far North.

When the camp was built in 2011, living conditions were extremely poor, but that changed, thanks to combined efforts by the UNHCR, other humanitarian agencies and the Cameroonian government. Housing is simple but resembles how people live elsewhere in the Far North. Refugees receive three meals per day, which is more than many ordinary Cameroonians get to eat. Children of all ages can go to school. Nonetheless there is still much room for improvement. The UNHCR claims that not even 10 per cent of the funds needed to care for all refugees have been provided. Because of that, sanitary conditions in the camp are still not up to adequate standards.

A child going to school at Minawao refugee camp. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Another problem is that refugees have nearly no opportunity to work. For security reasons – especially the fear of suicide bombers – refugees are not allowed to leave the camp. The UNHCR is currently trying to come up with social activities to help the fact that many refugees feel condemned to doing nothing.

The psychological burden is hardest on those who came to the camp traumatised by the atrocities they saw or experienced during the insurgency, particularly women and girls who suffered abuses. There are only a couple of psychologists in the camp providing care for the newcomers – not enough to give permanent psychological assistance to the thousands who need it.

Most refugees tell me that they want to return to their homes as soon as the security situation allows it. But nobody can estimate when that will be. Many find it hard to believe that they will be safe again in the near future. One refugee from the Nigerian town of Pulka in Borno state says, “I may have many complaints, but nonetheless we are fine here in Minawao. I won’t go back”.

Our convoy returns to Maroua before night falls. Situated 100 kilometres away from the border, Maroua is out of Boko Haram’s reach and therefore one of the safest places in the Far North. But it too has suffered violent attacks. In July 2015, Boko Haram sent four young girls as suicide bombers to four public places in Maroua. When they blew themselves up, they killed over 37 people with them and wounded 114 others.

Youth are seen by Boko Haram as easy prey. The insurgents can either recruit or force them into their ranks and use them for their purposes.

My tour with the military over, I meet with one of the survivors, 13 year old Kevin, who tells me what happened on the night of 25 July: “It was night and I was with my friends. We wanted to buy candy from a shop close to the Boucan bar. There was a queue with six or seven people ahead of us. And then suddenly, a girl who was sitting right next to the vendor blew herself up. I remember hearing the detonation of the bomb before I passed out. I only woke up later at Maroua hospital. It was there that I realised that one of my legs was completely burnt. There were lots of small splinters in my belly, chest and neck from the explosion. The government paid for the surgery and I could leave the hospital about a week later, but I wasn’t the same. They had amputated the lower part of my burnt leg and I learnt that one of my friends had died during the attack. My other friend is alive, but they amputated both his legs and his face is burnt. I had never seen the girl who had blown herself up in the neighbourhood before. After we left the hospital, neither the government nor any of the humanitarian NGOs followed up with us on what had happened. A Catholic priest passes by from time to time at our house to speak with my mother and help my parents buy medicine”.

Luckily, the horrors of the attack have not taken away Kevin’s hope for the future. When I ask him if he still goes to school he says: “Yes, I have passed the first trimester. My teachers are very happy with me. When I finish school I want to become an engineer”.

Hans De Marie Heungoup with a victim of a suicide bomb explosion. Maroua, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans de Marie Heungoup

65 per cent of Cameroon’s population of 23 million is under 30 years old. Children and youths are the most vulnerable in this war. Many are traumatised by the violence they see or experience at a young age.

At the same time, youth are seen by Boko Haram as easy prey. The insurgents can either recruit or force them into their ranks and use them for their purposes, like the four girls in Maroua.

Recruitment is helped by the fact that many young people are unemployed, poorly educated, belong to a part of the society that is not well integrated or don’t see a future for themselves for other reasons. Local authorities and traditional chiefs in Maroua as well as in Mokolo and Mora told me that Boko Haram has lost its appeal and capacity to recruit almost entirely. Very few youths are still joining the movement voluntarily. Nonetheless, forced recruitments still continue in the border areas. As Boko Haram indiscriminately killed Muslims and Christians, fundamentalist Muslims distanced themselves from the movement, stating that Boko Haram represents neither Wahhabi nor Salafi Islam. Many Imams and Muslim clerics told me that the war against Boko Haram has actually limited the spread of fundamentalist trends of Islam as hard-line preachers are now afraid to speak up in public. 

The Far North is the poorest of Cameroon’s regions, with 70 per cent of its people living on less than one dollar per day. During the past three decades, the influence of conservative Salafi Islam has increased in the region and many children grow up exposed to radical religious viewpoints. There is an urgent need for the state and public institutions to care for these youths and make sure they do not radicalise in the first place – and if they do radicalise, offer them help to leave the group and be fully re-integrated into society.

Maroua has a big prison, and the vast majority of suspected Boko Haram members arrested in Cameroon, almost 900 of them, are detained here. What is sorely missing is a de-radicalisation program, one that teaches a more tolerant Islam and re-integrates into society those who were recruited by force and are willing to abandon the movement. 

When speaking to the regional administration, I learn that there are also no public counter-radicalisation programs outside of the prison aimed at keeping young people and others away from extremist groups. The only efforts made in this direction come from civil society groups and the churches. Cameroon’s Association for Inter-Faith Dialogue (ACADIR) has set a positive example by organising conferences and meetings that have brought together religious leaders of different strands of Christianity and Islam. But these initiatives only scratch the surface of the problem. They don’t reach those who are the biggest threat to religious dialogue in the Far North: radical Islamist leaders.

If the government does not invest in development, the impoverished local population will stay vulnerable to radical groups and religious radicalisation.

If the government is to turn a security-focused approach into a long-term political strategy against radicalisation, there is still much to do. If the government does not invest in development, the impoverished local population will stay vulnerable to radical groups and religious radicalisation.

Last year, when the government launched an emergency development plan with a budget of roughly $10 million per year, hardly anyone believed that this could make a big difference. Most experts estimate that the current plan covers only about one per cent of what is needed to significantly improve the situation in the country’s least developed region. With $10 million, you cannot construct a road network in the Far North, develop public services in all areas, like health and education, help business owners get back on their feet, create employment opportunities and pay for preventive programs to keep especially the youth away from radical groups.

It might be possible for Cameroon to find other funding to do the job, but a correct assessment of the needs is necessary. Only then can the government show that it has understood the scope of the problem and can hope for help from its international partners.

Members of the BIR in the Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. PHOTO/Erwan Decherysel

I leave Maroua a second time to go up to the Mayo Sava district. This time, I am picked up by soldiers of the BIR, “Bataillon d’intervention rapide” (rapid intervention force). Of the approximately 8,000 soldiers deployed in the Far North, 2,400 belong to this well-trained and equipped elite unit. They take me to a place that has become a symbol of the war: Amchidé.

We are confronted with the sight of a ghost town. Formerly inhabited by 30,000 people, Amchidé is among the hardest hit places in Cameroon and the stage of three long battles between the army and the insurgents in late 2014 and early 2015.

Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The BIR camp of Amchidé has been baptised “Le Palais” (the Palace), not just because of its palace-like shape but also because it was one of the insurgent’s key strategic targets in Cameroon. Despite a dozen of conventional attacks, including three where Boko Haram mustered 800 insurgents, the city only fell for one day, on 15 October 2014. But the military base never succumbed. 

In Amchide.

Crisis Group Cameroon Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup in conversation with Captain Kiki, commander of the BIR military base of Amchide, Cameroon, in March 2016. (Subtitles available in French and English) CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The entire population of Amchidé fled during the fighting and only 10 per cent have come back – to an almost dead city. There are no businesses in Amchidé anymore, since the fighting has cut all Amchidé’s supply lines.

Most of those who came back are men, and about 40 of them joined forces to form a vigilante group. These vigilante or community defence groups are nothing new. In many Cameroonian towns and villages, unarmed vigilante groups have existed for a long time. But they have gained a new level of importance with the insurgency. They are groups of normal citizens – always men – patrolling their villages to make sure everyone is safe, especially at night. 

Members of the vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

As the Boko Haram threat increased, the government realised how these vigilantes can help in the fight on terror. It provided equipment, such as rifles, torches and night vision gear, and worked with traditional village chiefs who handpicked the most “suitable” men of their village to be part of the vigilante group. Vigilante groups have since played an important role against Boko Haram. They identify strangers they believe could be potential suicide attackers. And sometimes they even fend off smaller Boko Haram attacks. In the past year as well as this year, the Amchidé vigilante group and similar ones in Limani, Kerawa and Tolkomari have been involved in low intensity fights with small groups of about half a dozen Boko Haram fighters. In some cases they were able to surround smaller Boko Haram cells or win a fight against attackers. In other cases, they were not successful – and suffered casualties.

A member of the vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Although they are praised by the government and local authorities, the vigilante groups are not exempt from criticism. Sometimes, vigilantes have denounced local inhabitants as members of Boko Haram just to settle private accounts. In other cases, vigilantes have been suspected of providing information to Boko Haram and were therefore arrested by the army. 

In the case of Amchidé, the first vigilante group formed by the BIR had only Christian members, who harassed and extorted money from the local Muslim majority. Following complaints, the BIR dissolved Amchidé’s first vigilante group and formed a new one with Christian and Muslim members. 

Unarmed vigilante groups have existed for a long time. But they have gained a new level of importance with the insurgency.

The last stop of my four weeks’ research trip is Kousseri, an old market town in between the Chari and the Logone rivers. You only have to cross a bridge to reach the metropolis of N’Djamena, capital of neighbouring Chad.

In economic terms, Kousseri is the most important city in the Far North. It has strong links with Chad to the east and Nigeria to the west, especially the Nigerian town of Maiduguri. In the past two years, it has been flooded with Cameroonian IDPs and Chadian refugees. Its population has grown from 200,000 to 280,000. Many of them come from the city of Fotokol, 100 kilometre to the west on the Nigerian border, where Boko Haram caused most casualties suffered in the country during the main phase of the war between May 2014 and March 2015.

For a period of several months in 2014 and 2015, Boko Haram staged almost daily attacks on Fotokol. One especially heavy battle took place in Fotokol in early February 2015. For two days, about 1,000 Boko Haram insurgents were fighting against Cameroonian BIR forces and Chadian soldiers, killing 81 to 400 civilians, seventeen Chadian soldiers, seven Cameroonian soldiers and 300 attackers, according to various reports. 

One woman from Fotokol tells me that Boko Haram killed her husband. Another woman describes how Boko Haram raided the village asking: “Where are the Christians?”. Some IDPs in Kousseri tell me that they feel relatively safe now, but the violence they have seen is hard to forget, and life remains hard for them. They receive only limited support from aid organisations like the World Food Program and no support from the state. They have to find their own housing or stay with friends and relatives. Opportunities for work are scarce and the local economy has suffered from the fighting. Tens of thousands of merchants relied on cross-border trade. When the Nigerian border was closed due to insecurity, many of them were left without work. Aya, who used to own a large shop in Fotokol, lost everything. She tells me: “There is no possible turning back for me and my children. We have been chased from our village, our house was burnt; we have to make our life here in Kousseri”. 

Hans De Marie Heungoup with a displaced family from Fotokol in Kousseri, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

After four weeks in the Far North, when I return to the capital Yaoundé, the main concern resonating in my head is that people cannot imagine that security will be restored soon. The military battle against Boko Haram is ongoing and despite some successes it is far from won. At the same time, the military’s performance is tainted by accusations of human rights violations against the population, including arbitrary detention, torture, extrajudicial killings, and forced disappearances - allegations which the military mostly denies. During our discussion, the spokesman of the Defence Ministry replied to similar claims: “Cameroon’s army is republican and professional. We systematically investigate all human rights abuses cases and sanction. As you should know four soldiers in the Far North have been discharged a few months ago for committing grave acts against the honor of the army”.  

While his claim that all abuses are investigated is clearly an exaggeration, and it is not clear that all sanctions concern Human rights abuses, there has been some progress. Disciplinary measures have been taken against some officers and soldiers  in the Far North, who have been removed from operational assignments to administrative posts or dismissed. Some judicial investigations into rights abuses are underway. 

Still, efforts made are far from sufficient and the defence ministry’s focus on sanctions is too narrow. There are no financial or material compensations for victims of the families of victims that suffered human rights violations. Neither has the military officially apologised. The government should pursue a stricter and proactive sanctions policy against soldiers who committed abuses, publicise its sanctions and put in place measures that can rebuild communities’ confidence. If human rights violations by the army continue, they will jeopardise the success of the counterinsurgency, as parts of the population may radicalise and take the side of the insurgents. At the same time, Western countries might withdraw their support for the army, as happened in Nigeria when there was a rash of human rights abuses by Nigerian army.

If human rights violations by the army continue, they will jeopardise the success of the counterinsurgency. Parts of the population may take the side of the insurgents.

As much as security efforts are crucial to curb the insurgency, Cameroon, Nigeria and Chad also need to shape new policies that can prevent the emergence of new jihadist groups. More and more, the central authorities seem to understand that. At the ministry of defence and at the ministry of external relations, I meet several senior officials who recognise that a sustainable victory is impossible without development in the Far North. But then, they all add “the priority is to defeat Boko Haram militarily first”. Otherwise, the sad example of Chinese development workers who were kidnapped in 2014 by Boko Haram while building roads in the Far North could be repeated, they say. 

Boko Haram is much weaker today than in 2014. Nonetheless, the government must not delay proving to its population that it cares for its needs, and that it is trying to give those who feel neglected by the state new hope for their future. 

Internally displaced persons (IDP) fleeing from tribe clashes in Balela locality arrive at Kalma camp in Darfur, Sudan, on 24 July 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
Briefing 128 / Africa

A New Roadmap to Make U.S. Sudan Sanctions Relief Work

By 12 October, Washington will decide whether the steps Sudan has taken qualify it for lifting some U.S. sanctions. But to push forward afterwards will require a new roadmap that ties further sanctions relief and improved bilateral relations to political reform and human rights.

I. Overview

By 12 October, the U.S. will decide whether to permanently lift economic and trade sanctions it suspended since January 2017. As Crisis Group argued in its June 2017 briefing, Time to Repeal U.S. Sanctions on Sudan?, the administration faces a hard choice, but on balance lifting those sanctions remains the wiser course. Many disagree, raising concerns about any move that might appear to rehabilitate President Omar al-Bashir or suggest an easing of pressure on Khartoum to improve its human rights record. But the benefits to conflict prevention and humanitarian access attributable to Sudanese performance under the so-called “five-track plan” represent a tangible, if modest, step in the right direction. They are too important to let slip away by returning to an outdated sanctions regime. If it were to decline to lift sanctions now, the U.S. risks losing considerable future leverage with Sudan and reinforcing Khartoum’s deep-seated belief that Washington cannot be relied upon to honour its commitments.

Should the administration decide to lift the sanctions, however, such a decision ought to be viewed not as the end of a conversation about the future of U.S.-Sudan relations, but rather as its beginning. Washington should use the remaining sanctions to encourage further positive steps, both on areas covered by the existing roadmap for improved relations and on new ones, including notably political reform and human rights. In other words, the usefulness of a repeal decision only can be fully realised (and its risks appropriately managed) if the U.S. follows up with an approach aimed at pressing Sudan for more progress. This in turn will require empowering a senior U.S. official of appropriate stature and background who will be responsible for the next phase of this effort.

II. Lifting Some U.S. Sanctions, Leaving Others in Place

In January 2017, the U.S. announced that it would suspend certain specified sanctions against Sudan based on positive actions that President Bashir’s government had taken over the preceding months, and would repeal them permanently if progress were sustained over the subsequent six months. This decision marked the culmination of a policy of cautious engagement since 2015, after decades of hostile relations.

Washington defined criteria for lifting sanctions along five tracks: Sudan’s cooperation on counter-terrorism; addressing the threat from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA); ending hostilities in the “Two Areas” (South Kordofan and Blue Nile) and Darfur; improving humanitarian access to those areas; and ending negative interference in South Sudan. Last June, Crisis Group argued that although Khartoum’s progress on some of these was at best partial, it had done enough to warrant the permanent lifting of suspended sanctions. It also argued that failure to lift the sanctions risked undercutting those in Khartoum pushing for reform along the lines of U.S. demands and playing into the hands of hardliners.

The U.S. administration instead opted last July to delay its decision for three months. Although angered by the decision, Sudanese officials – pressed by their Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia in particular – stuck to the process, encouraged by belief that the delay at least in part reflected the U.S. administration’s Africa team was not fully in place and by hope that this delay would be the last. Officials in Bashir’s government who say they counselled patience in Khartoum claimed to Crisis Group that they faced an uphill battle but their arguments ultimately carried the day.

Measured engagement, with positive rewards held out in return for improved behaviour, is [...] more likely to induce positive change from Khartoum than continued attempts to isolate the regime.

The reasons Crisis Group cited in favour of lifting the sanctions are still valid today. Measured engagement, with positive rewards held out in return for improved behaviour, is in our view more likely to induce positive change from Khartoum than continued attempts to isolate the regime. The geopolitical winds that have shifted over the past few years in Bashir’s favour and allowed him to shore up support from new allies, particularly in the Gulf, make this all the more true.

Perhaps of central importance, lifting sanctions would not leave the U.S. bereft of powerful political and economic tools to continue to press for change. In fact, one could argue the opposite is true: the administration, by showing it is prepared to reward better behaviour, could gain additional leverage from those sanctions that still are in place. Those are far from insignificant: these include the U.S. designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism, as it requires Washington to veto international debt relief that Khartoum is particularly keen on securing. At the same time, the U.S. should signal that if Khartoum backslides in its behaviour, Washington would aim for a new series of targeted sanctions against key figures.

The U.S. administration raised another issue during this round, namely Sudan’s alleged military dealings with the North Korean regime. From a U.S. perspective the crisis with Pyongyang clearly overrides any interest it might have with Sudan and thus felt justified in adding this requirement. Senior Sudanese officials told Crisis Group that they immediately complied with the U.S. request. Assuming the claim is accurate, Khartoum’s compliance with this late breaking request will only fuel its sense of grievance should the U.S. government choose not to lift sanctions.

III. The Next Phase of U.S.-Sudan Engagement

Lifting sanctions should not, however, be the end of the conversation. Rather, it should usher in a new phase of engagement with Khartoum aimed at using U.S. influence and that of other foreign powers – notably, the UK, Norway, the Gulf monarchies and China – to nudge Bashir’s government toward further positive steps. This means coupling the lifting of sanctions with a discussion of the next phase of the roadmap: further normalisation of relations, including potentially returning a permanent ambassador to Khartoum, lifting the terrorism designation and enabling debt relief, in return for concrete Sudanese measures.

The U.S. should concentrate now on areas where the Sudanese government has made partial progress but could do much more, namely continuation of the ceasefire in the Two Areas, improved humanitarian access there and in Darfur, and playing a more constructive role in South Sudan. Importantly, a new phase of engagement should include improvement of Sudan’s dismal human rights record and ultimately the dismantling of militia groups in Darfur, responsible for much insecurity and violence against civilians in the region. For example, the recent killings of at least five people in the Internally Displaced People camp in Kalma, South Darfur, during clashes between security forces and camp residents, should be investigated.

A. War in the Two Areas

A first set of additional steps upon which the U.S. could insist relates to conflicts in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, where Khartoum has been fighting the rebel Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) since 2011. For now prospects of a breakthrough in talks between the sides, currently suspended, are gloomy. The SPLM-N is in the midst of a bitter leadership fight, lacks significant external support and thus has little military clout. Khartoum is reluctant to offer concessions to a group it believes to be on its last legs.

Still, Sudan could and should take immediate steps to improve the situation, including, first, maintaining its current ceasefire beyond the latest end-date in October; and, secondly, that it cooperates fully with talks on humanitarian access to rebel-controlled areas. Both these measures would diminish the suffering of people in conflict-affected areas and de-intensify conflict dynamics. The first step would be to reconvene a new round of the African Union-mediated peace talks to ensure both sides remain in dialogue.

B. Darfur

With rebel groups weakened and driven almost entirely out of the country, the government has been less concerned about the presence of aid organisations, and the possible diversion of assistance, and thus more open to humanitarian access. Relief workers report better, although not complete, access to Darfur’s Jebel Marra region, now mostly held by government forces. They note, too, improvements in their interactions with the government’s Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC), particularly with respect to travel notifications in non-conflict areas (generally granted within one day), visas and technical agreements (more readily approved).

That said, improvements are far from comprehensive. African Union-UN Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) personnel still face visa delays and officials continue to obstruct the entry of supplies into the country. Addressing such issues could be part of the package of additional demands the U.S. and others make of Khartoum. The Sudanese government also should cooperate with UNAMID in establishing a new temporary operating base in the Jebel Marra (this reportedly was recently approved by Khartoum), which would provide greater security for humanitarian relief efforts while the mission begins its draw-down in other areas.

C. South Sudan

Khartoum largely has refrained from destabilising South Sudan via proxies, though the recent, if limited, uptick in cross-border activity could test U.S. resolve. Crisis Group remains concerned that Sudan could exploit its links with Riek Machar, leader of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement/Army-In Opposition (SPLM/A-IO). Machar currently is in exile in South Africa and Khartoum should not take any steps that would allow him to undermine any efforts by a new SPLM/A-IO leadership to seek a political settlement with Juba, or to establish a political movement that would seek to challenge the ruling Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM). Sudan could be tempted to do this to pressure Juba to stop hosting Sudanese armed groups, make concessions on disputed border territories and maintain the deal on transit fees (an important source of hard currency) for South Sudanese oil exported through a pipeline to Port Sudan. Continuation of Khartoum’s relative restraint in South Sudan is a priority; it should be measured not only by the absence of arms and ammunition supplied to South Sudanese rebels but also in its willingness to renegotiate revenue sharing with the south.

For its part, Juba should be pressed to make good on its commitment to cease to host and give safe haven to Sudanese rebel groups, some of which have fought for it and contributed to conflict and insecurity in South Sudan. The expulsion of Darfuri SLM-MM units from South Sudan in May 2017, which precipitated an unwelcome, if short-lived round of fighting in Darfur, showed Juba beginning to uphold its side of the deal. It now must fulfil similar commitments regarding the Darfuri Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which without a safe haven outside Darfur is more likely to engage in the peace process. Juba also should continue to limit its support to and involvement with the SPLM-N. Without significant external supply of arms, ammunition and fuel, the group likely will be unable to increase the conflict’s intensity; this in turn will lessen the risk that Khartoum channel arms and ammunition to South Sudanese rebel groups.

IV. Conclusion

The unease many in Washington feel about appearing to reward Khartoum is well founded. President Bashir’s government is guilty of political repression and extreme violence in the country’s neglected peripheries. The small positive steps it has taken are still a far cry from those needed to improve its governance and end its wars.

Any lifting of U.S. sanctions currently suspended should not be presented as an implicit stamp of approval for President Bashir or mark Khartoum’s diplomatic rehabilitation in Washington. Rather, it should be seen as a first step along what will continue to be a long and difficult road. It reflects belief that cautious, time-bound demands, tagged to proportionate incentives, can achieve more than the continuation of the outdated sanctions regime.

Lifting sanctions should mark the beginning of a new phase of U.S. engagement, focused on nudging Khartoum – as well as Sudanese rebel groups and Juba – toward measures that are both within reach and would do much to improve the lives of Sudanese and South Sudanese people. This will require the U.S. administration to follow up vigorously, empower officials charged with carrying out this effort and signal to Khartoum both that real progress will lead to normalised relations and, conversely, that Sudan’s backtracking will trigger the imposition of targeted sanctions focused on Sudan’s leaders, not its people.

Washington/Nairobi, 29 September 2017