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The End of Omar al-Bashir—New Hope for Sudan

Since becoming independent from its former colonizer, the Republic of Sudan has fluctuated between democratically elected governments and severe dictatorships. Problematic civil wars and human rights violations have plagued the country. However, since December 2018 new hope has risen within this northeast African country.

Celebrating Sudanese protesters, (2019) VOA, Wikimedia Commons
Celebrating Sudanese protesters, (2019) VOA, Wikimedia Commons

In the wake of large-scale protests which demanded his removal from power, Omar al-Bashir, the long-time dictator, was ousted by a coup d’état. Witnesses of this Sudanese revolution have claimed it is a Sudanese sequel to the Arab Spring.

When Foreign Service Officer Donald Petterson took up his duties as ambassador to Sudan in 1992, al-Bashir had been in power for less than three years. Early in his tour, Petterson understood that it would not be an easy job, as Sudan already was in a precarious state. In the first year after assuming power in a military coup, al-Bashir wasted no time in moving against potential opponents. Many people were detained, tortured, or executed. Over the years, the al-Bashir government systematically did away with democratic institutions and civil rights.

After arriving, Petterson immediately tried to put diplomatic pressure on the Sudanese government, stressing that relations would not improve if the human rights situation, the harboring of terrorists, and the restrictions on humanitarian aid did not change. Following his first interactions with al-Bashir, Petterson received positive signals from the Sudanese government, and al-Bashir even indicated that he believed relations could improve. Although the U.S. chief of protocol reacted ecstatically to the possibility of improved U.S.-Sudanese relations, Petterson was hopeful yet still had strong suspicions about the real intentions of al-Bashir. Soon after this interaction, Petterson’s fears became reality. In Juba, a large city in the far south of the country, Sudanese security forces entered the USAID compound, detained thirteen local employees, and killed four.

In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, Ambassador Petterson discusses the atmosphere surrounding his arrival in Sudan and the implications for U.S.-Sudanese relations.

Apart from his ambassadorship in Sudan, Donald Petterson also held positions in Mexico, Zanzibar, Nigeria, Biafra, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Somalia, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.

Donald Petterson’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on December 13, 1996

Read Donald Petterson’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Sjorre Couvreur

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“When people found out I was going to be ambassador to Sudan, they didn’t know whether to congratulate me or to console me.”

Omar al-Bashir (2009) U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt  |
Omar al-Bashir (2009) U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt |

The Sudanese government regarded my arrival in Sudan in the summer of 1992 as an opening for improved relations. In the months and years ahead I would find that the Bashir government tended to misread certain events – like my arrival, or a visit by an official from Washington, or the election of a new U.S. president – to misread these as signs that relations between Sudan and the United States were on the verge of an upswing. On such occasions, I made it a point to caution Bashir, Turabi and others that although Washington did want better relations with Sudan, unless Sudan began to take steps to meet U.S. concerns, relations would not improve.

When I presented my credentials to Bashir, after an exchange of formal remarks, we sat down and had a frank talk. In it, I told him that relations were poor and would not get any better unless his government improved its human rights record, eased restrictions on the delivery of humanitarian aid, and stopped harboring terrorists. Bashir pretty much dismissed those concerns as baseless but indicated that he believed relations could be improved.

The chief of protocol was ecstatic afterwards, saying to me that Bashir had not before given so much time to talk to a new ambassador at a credentials presentation ceremony. I told Washington that this was well and good but that the talk with Bashir had broken no new ground. I said it indicated that the Sudanese government did not understand the depth of our differences and that they were not prepared to do anything to meet our concerns.

I made my rounds, meeting with Sudanese leaders and others, spreading the gospel, so to speak, of what was needed if relations were to improve. I said that Sudan had to stop providing refuge and support to terrorists, it had to move toward a restoration of democracy, it had to improve its abysmal human rights record, it had to stop impeding the flow of humanitarian aid to those who needed it, and it had to make a good faith effort to end the war. Despite a real desire on the part of at least some of the government’s leaders for closer ties with Washington, they were not willing to admit to any faults, much less change their policies and practices. To do so, they must have believed, would be to jeopardize their hold on political power.

Still, at that time perhaps we could have made some progress in bettering relations had there not been an incident that made things even worse.

Shortly before I arrived in Sudan, Sudanese security forces in Juba, a large city in the far south of the country, entered the USAID compound there and detained the thirteen Africans who were working there. AID had ended its operations in the South, but it had kept the compound open under the care of these thirteen employees to symbolize to the southern Sudanese that we cared about them and to indicate that we hoped to come back. At least that seemed to be the rationale. I never saw it in writing.

Q: Was it doing anything?…

PETTERSON: No. The employees were simply acting as caretakers. The regular radio transmissions from the Juba compound to Khartoum had stopped. Our AID director, Carol Becker, told me that she was deeply concerned. I took the matter up with, first, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asking them to look into it. Nothing came of this. I went to see Nafi Ali Nafi. Nafi, who had a Ph.D. in botany from the University of California at Riverside, was a top official in the government’s security apparatus and a member of the Bashir-Turabi inner circle. He said that Andrew Tombe, the senior employee at the USAID compound, had been conspiring with the rebels and was going to be tried for treason. Worried about that, I went to other officials. I talked to a man named Ghazi
Salaheddine Atabani, who was a junior minister and very influential. A few days after we met, Ghazi told me that the employees were unharmed. Actually, as I would find out later, Andrew Tombe and three others were already dead, having been executed. We didn’t know this.


BA and MA from the University of California at Santa Barbara
Joined the Foreign Service 1960
Somalia – Ambassador 1978-1982
Tanzania – Ambassador 1986-1989
Zimbabwe – Ambassador 1990-1991
Sudan – Ambassador 1992-1995