US treasury chief visits Sudan after ending pariah status

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US Treasury Secretary (finance minister) Steven Mnuchin arrived in Sudan Wednesday, the first visit by a senior American official since President Donald Trump’s administration removed the African country from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Mnuchin landed in Khartoum’s international airport, where he was received by acting Finance Minister Heba Mohammed Ali, and US Charge d’Affaires in Sudan Brian Shukan, the prime minister’s office said in a statement.

It is the first visit by a sitting US treasury chief to Sudan, the statement said. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in August became the first top American diplomat to visit Sudan since 2005, when Condoleezza Rice visited. Pompeo was also the most senior US official to visit the African country since last year’s ouster of Omar al-Bashir.

Mnuchin arrived in Khartoum, coming from a one-day-visit to Cairo, where he met with Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a close US ally. The visits were part of a flurry of activity during the final days of the Trump administration. Democrat Joe Biden becomes president on Jan. 20.

Mnuchin met with Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, and is scheduled to meet with other Sudanese leaders including Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, head of the ruling sovereign council.

The visit came ‘at a time when our bilateral relations are taking historical leaps towards a better future. We’re planning to make tangible strides today as our relations enter a #NewEra,’ Hamdok tweeted.

Mnuchin’s one-day visit was focusing on the country’s struggling economy and possible US economic assistance, including potential debt relief, the statement said. Sudan today has more than $60bn in foreign debt, and debt relief and access to foreign loans are widely seen as its gateway to economic recovery.

Sudan would receive $1.1bn direct and indirect aid from the US, in addition to a $1bn bridge loan to the World Bank to help clear Sudan’s arrears with the institution, Sudan’s Justice Ministry said last month.

Sudan is on a fragile path to democracy after a popular uprising led the military to overthrow al-Bashir in April 2019. The county is now ruled by a joint military and civilian government that seeks better ties with Washington and the West.

The government has been struggling with a huge budget deficit and widespread shortages of essential goods, including fuel, bread and medicine.

Annual inflation soared past 200 percent in the past months as prices of bread and other staples surged, according to official figures.

Last month, Trump’s administration finalised the removal of Sudan from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. The move was a key incentive for the government in Khartoum to normalize relations with Israel.

The two countries, Sudan and Israel, have agreed to have full diplomatic ties, making Sudan the third Arab state — after the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — to move to normalise relations with Israel late last year. Morocco also established diplomatic ties with Israel.

Sudan’s economy has suffered from decades of US sanctions and mismanagement under al-Bashir, who had ruled the country since a 1989 Islamist-backed military coup.

The designation dates back to the 1990s, when Sudan briefly hosted al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and other wanted militants. Sudan was also believed to have served as a pipeline for Iran to supply weapons to Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

Mnuchin’s visit came amid rising tensions between military and civilian members of Sudan’s transitional government. That tensions, which resurfaced in recent weeks, have largely centred on the Sudanese military’s economic assets, over which the civilian-run finance ministry does not have control.

John Prendergast, co-founder of The Sentry watchdog group, urged The US treasury secretary to pressure the military and security apparatus to allow ‘independent oversight’ to businesses they control.

‘As Secretary Mnuchin engages with the leadership in Khartoum, it is critical that he weighs in with strong support for international anti-money laundering standards and fiscal transparency, which are essential for Sudan to counter the looting of its national economy,’ he said.

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