The Deadly Charm of Sudan's Regime

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Sudan's government remains in power despite international sanctions, regional isolation and worldwide condemnation for the refugee crisis in Darfur. Ted Dagne, an Africa specialist at the Congressional Research Service, tells Scott Simon that a combination of deadly force against enemies and charm towards critics keeps the regime in power.


The government of Sudan has apologized to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for roughing up members of her staff and reporters who traveled with her to Khartoum this week. The incident illustrates the often hard-nose tactics that Sudan has used to control what outsiders are allowed to do, see or learn in that country amid years of civil war and a raging humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Ted Dagne is a specialist in African affairs for the Congressional Research Service who's been to Sudan many times and is returning next week. He joins us from California..

Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. TED DAGNE (Congressional Research Service, African Affairs Specialist): It's a pleasure.

SIMON: It's always a bit of a surprise when a secretary of State gets roughed up on some foreign visit. Was this a little less surprising than it might be if it happened other places?

Mr. DAGNE: Not really. It's not unprecedented. I mean, they rough up people all the time, especially NGOs, humanitarian workers, including press. But nothing happens in Khartoum, Sudan, without the authorization of higher-ups and they're also very quick to apologize.

SIMON: Give us some idea, if you can, Mr. Dagne, about how over the years President al-Bashir and his former government, which recently changed over the past few days, has used either policies or tactics, some of them involving force, to keep the international community at bay.

Mr. DAGNE: This government when it came to power in 1989 through a military coup, no one really took them seriously. President Bashir was not a known entity nor some of the other people around him. Of course, everybody knew Hassan Al-Turabi, the Islamic leader, but governments in the region basically looked at them and they say, `Ah, they probably will not survive long.' But this regime, I think, has been underestimated consistently by its enemies and by its friends. And as a result, it was able to survive for a decade and a half. They use force to subjugate their opposition, deadly force, unheard of in the past, I think, in Sudanese politics. They use charm sometimes to pretend that they're really innocent. In fact, the foreign minister is being described by people as Mr. Smiley because he always smiles and he always pretends that he's the nicest guy in the government. So this is a regime that has survived international community sanctions, regional isolation, opposition right and left from within the country. Yet they've been able to charm everybody to stay in power.

SIMON: Do you think the economic sanctions levied on Sudan have had a measurable effect?

Mr. DAGNE: The US government imposed a series of sanctions beginning in the early '90s which basically denies any US company or individual from doing business with the government of Sudan. Yet the government of Sudan has managed to get the Europeans, the Chinese and others to invest in its oil sector.

SIMON: Does the fact that China buys so much oil from Sudan ensure that China can use its veto on the Security Council to prevent the United Nations from doing anything substantial?

Mr. DAGNE: Oh, they have done so effectively over the past couple of years. So the Chinese, in particular--they have 40 percent interest in the oil sector--have used their veto power effectively to protect the government of Sudan and the United Nations Security Council.

SIMON: Does the international war on terror complicate Sudan's position? Are they able to impart and use information that's helpful to nations in that effort that prevents those nations from being tough on them on genocide?

Mr. DAGNE: To a certain extent, yes. This is the same government, the same president that provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden for five years until 1996. And this is also the same government accused of having a role in the first Trade Center bombings. It wasn't until after September 11th that the Sudanese government began allegedly to cooperate with the United States.

Now US officials have said publicly that the Sudanese government is providing valuable information about terrorist activities. What is not clear is what kind of cooperation is the Sudanese government providing that trumps the genocide that is being committed in Darfur? So it really raises a very fundamental question that a Third World government that claims to have no connection with terrorism is still providing the only super power in the world valuable intelligence that justifies continued relationship with that regime.

SIMON: Ted Dagne, specialist in African affairs with the Congressional Research Service, thank you very much.

Mr. DAGNE: You're welcome.

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