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Sudanese activists want the U.S. to support their push for democracy


To give a better sense of the role of the U.S. in the region, we are joined now by Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman. He's the Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa. Ambassador, welcome.

JEFFREY FELTMAN: Thank you very much for having me.

PERALTA: So what do you tell these young Sudanese people who say the U.S. has abandoned them?

FELTMAN: Well, our interest in Sudan is to have a stable Sudan, to have a stable Horn of Africa. The only way that you're going to have a stable Sudan is if the democratic aspirations of the people - the people that you've been interviewing, that you've been meeting - if those aspirations are met. So we are supporting the democratic aspirations of the Sudanese people as the only means to forge a stable Sudan.

PERALTA: So in Sudan, there was a deal struck between the civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, and the military. And the U.S. very much backed this deal. Why does the military have to play any role in Sudanese democracy when it's clear that the citizens who are out on the streets don't want them at the table?

FELTMAN: I mean, I agree that what has to happen now is that the civilian confidence in this transition - the civilian confidence in what happens between now and the elections, which are scheduled for late 2023 or early 2024, has to be restored. So how do you restore the civilian confidence that the transition's going to meet their aspirations? And that's through the military taking certain steps, like stepping back from some of the political decisions, confirming that they will be transferring the head of the Sovereignty Council, sort of the main constitutional body in the transitional phase, to a civilian next summer, to stop the type of violence against peaceful protesters, to lift the state of emergency. There's lots that the military needs to do now to be able to help restore the civilian confidence that their democratic aspirations will be met through this transition.

PERALTA: But why not let the civilians do that? Why do the - why does the military have to play a role?

FELTMAN: The reality is if you go back to those inspiring demonstrations back in 2019 that you referred to when they - when the civilians came together in peace to overthrow a dictator - to overthrow Omar Bashir - the constitutional declaration that was agreed upon between - by those that were looking to get rid of Bashir and afterwards was sort of an arrangement between the civilians and the military, an arrangement where the military could not pick the civilians, and the civilians recognized that they were not going to be able to sideline the military through the transition period. I mean, the goal, again, of - is to get to elections, have a civilian-led transition that leads to a democratic Sudan after elections in late 2023 and 2024.

And so that constitutional declaration that's supposed to govern the transitional period has a civilian-military arrangement in it. The problem now is that the civilians, for very good reason after October 25, don't trust that the military is going to fulfill its part of that - those transitional arrangements. And that's what we're trying to do - is to find ways to encourage the military to take the steps that would restore confidence in that civilian-military partnership and would restore the civilian role in that civilian-military partnership.

PERALTA: So let's move on to Ethiopia. On Friday, the U.S. said it was ending a trade deal with the country, citing Ethiopia's gross violations of human rights. What makes you think that the sanctions will make any difference, that it'll change the course of what's happening in Ethiopia?

FELTMAN: Well, I mean, the trade privileges that Ethiopia enjoyed up until January 1 are based on legislation that has conditions. The legislation says the countries that engage in gross violation of human rights will not enjoy these trade privileges. So it's a statutory requirement that the administration took. Our overall point has been that it is time now to end this war. There have been too many civilians killed, too many displaced. The human rights atrocities are appalling. And there's been insufficient humanitarian access to millions of people in northern Tigray now for months.

The Tigrayan Defense Forces - these are the forces that moved within 200 kilometers of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, a few weeks ago - those forces are back in their home state of Tigray. That was the demand of the government and, frankly, was the demand of United States, as well. That should trigger an end to the conflict. That should trigger a shift to negotiations. That should trigger an end to the human rights abuses and full humanitarian access to those who need food, medicine, fuel, cash, et cetera. So right now, that's what we are pushing for - is to push for the reality that the Tigray Defense Forces are back in Tigray to end this war.

PERALTA: That's Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman. He's the U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa. Thank you, Ambassador.

FELTMAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROOTS FT. MUSIQ'S "BREAK YOU OFF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.