The sacking of Sudan’s Foreign Minister, Professor Ibrahim Ghandour, does not appear to be a surprise for many within the Sudanese diplomatic corps, unlike the rest of the country, for whom it is a major shock. Nevertheless, three years and one month after his March 2015 appointment, Ghandour’s differences with President Omar Al-Bashir on foreign policy have clearly become too numerous to be brushed aside; his complaint to parliament about unpaid salaries appears to have sealed his fate.
Two days ago, the now ex-Foreign Minister addressed the National Assembly and spoke to the media afterwards, criticising the Ministry of Finance and Sudan’s Central Bank sharply for not paying diplomatic staff salaries for almost seven months. His outburst brought him praise from beleaguered staff, but the presidency viewed his comments, according to one diplomat, “as unacceptable criticism bordering on betrayal” of a government currently undergoing major financial and economic difficulties.
The Foreign Ministry in Khartoum is one of a number of government departments that has not paid staff in full for months. Ghandour told the media that $26 million of the £59 million of the budget had not been paid.
Some diplomatic sources I spoke to denied that Ghandour’s emboldened plea and defence of Sudan’s diplomats in front of the nation’s parliament contributed to his demise. One who did not wished to be named said: “It was just a matter of time; his stance against the Americans was too weak; the Americans who have delivered few of our demands and still talk bad about Sudan despite all the good diplomatic work that has happened between Khartoum and Washington under Ghandour’s leadership.”
He accused Ghandour of “playing politics” in parliament, trying to present himself in his final hours as a hero and a defender of his ministry. The source suggested that the former official must have known that the writing was on the wall and so decided to criticise the government publicly for the first time since coming to office. Ghandour told parliament that despite his attempt to resolve the salaries’ problem with the Governor of the Central Bank, the issue had got so bad that “some Ambassadors are threatening to return to Khartoum, leaving their post abroad because of the difficulties facing their families.”
Whatever the truth of the situation, the firing of Ghandour without the immediate announcement of a replacement suggests that the decision was taken without prior planning. He had been one of the longest-serving Foreign Ministers in recent years and has long persuaded the presidency that his quiet diplomacy with the United States would produce results.
Due to the International Criminal Court warrant for President Omar Al-Bashir’s arrest, the US deliberately froze him out from all the negotiations leading up to the removal of the first set of sanctions on Sudan. Despite the embargo being lifted in October last year, the Sudanese economy has gone into free fall, with inflation reported at more than 56 per cent in March. Such was Al-Bashir’s frustration, that when the Trump administration extended the sanctions for three months last July, he threatened to disband the joint negotiating committee set up between Khartoum and Washington to oversee progress on the five-point plan imposed as necessary conditions to be fulfilled prior to the sanctions being lifted. Ghandour persuaded him to continue.
However, Al-Bashir’s concerns at the Foreign Ministry’s policy with the US led him to take matters into his own hands. He began by signalling to Awad Jaz, a former Petroleum Minister and unofficial intelligence boss, to make approaches to China and Russia as part of his role in dealing with the BRIC countries, much to the unreported displeasure of Foreign Minister Ghandour. In November last year, a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi was used by Al-Bashir to criticise Washington, accusing it of being responsible for the secession of South Sudan and the destabilisation of the region.
Diplomats were taken aback by President Al-Bashir’s call for Russia to set up a military base in Sudan. That and the subsequent anti-US rhetoric flew in the face of Ghandour’s attempts to court favour with Washington and secure the lifting of the final round of sanctions imposed due to Sudan’s name remaining on the list of states “sponsoring terror”.
The recent reappointment of Salah Gosh as head of the National intelligence and Security Service (NISS) may also have been a factor in the President’s decision to push the Foreign Minister out. Since resuming his role, Gosh has taken a more hands-on approach to foreign policy, inviting Egyptian intelligence chiefs to Khartoum, for example, which led to a breakthrough in opening the way for Al-Bashir’s recent visit to Cairo. Diplomats and commentators were quick to play down the possibility of the sacking being directed by the intelligence chief but the new minister will have to be able to work closely with NISS and thus be more important to the President.
Ghandour’s departure comes as Sudan tries to develop a new foreign policy that will see Turkey, Russia and Qatar become closer partners. Russia plans to build the first nuclear plant in Sudan and Turkey and Qatar have invested heavily in Swakin on the Red Sea coast. With two years before the next election and a failing economy, good foreign investment with strong partners appears to mean that Ibrahim Ghandour had outlived his usefulness.
His strength has no doubt been the good work that he has done with the Europeans, Britain and, to some extent, the US. However, it seems clear that the new policy for his successor will be to focus towards the north and east, with Russia, China, Turkey and Qatar firmly on the diplomatic radar.