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Friday, 19 January 2018

Fragile economy, growing protests in Sudan

Economic woes are pushing the Sudanese to the street in protest, while the government is acting to clamp down on media criticism

Haitham Nouri , Monday 15 Jan 2018
Sudanese men
Sudanese men shout slogans during a protest in the capital Khartoum on July 18, 2014. (Photo: AFP)
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A few days into the new year, breadlines started to grow in Sudan as well as at petrol stations hours after parliament passed the 2018 budget that almost tripled the value of the dollar in a country still emerging from two decades of US sanctions. The Sudanese government also announced a reduction in subsidies, more than doubling the price of flour.

Immediately, queues started forming outside bakeries that had raised prices. Despite many promises, authorities in Khartoum were unable to transform Sudan into a “breadbasket” despite the availability of 200 million acres of agricultural land and rainfall in central, western and southern Sudan, as well as the largest and most diverse livestock in Africa.

“At the beginning of President Omar Al-Bashir’s rule, he promised the Sudanese people they will eat what they plant and wear what they manufacture,” according to Sudanese economic analyst Khaled Al-Nour. “Nearly three decades later, this promise has not yet been fulfilled.”

Kamal Al-Tijani, an economics writer, said the cost of living has risen beyond the capacity of citizens, and there have been no increases in salaries. “Since US sanctions were lifted in October, there has been negligible improvement and the budget has stayed the same.”

Meanwhile, drivers have been queuing up outside petrol stations across the country because of fuel shortages. Prices are expected to rise by at least 50 per cent, according to Al-Nour. Sudan lost its oil resources when South Sudan seceded in July 2011, causing a 68 per cent drop in foreign currency revenues. The fuel crisis has extended to butane gas used for cooking and raised the price of electricity as well.

There have been demonstrations in several cities protesting price hikes, as well as widespread clashes and quarrels between consumers and bakery owners, whose chamber of commerce threatened to shut down if prices continued to climb.

One student was shot dead in the city of Geneina on the border with Chad during protests, which was followed by a decree by the local government to shut down schools in the province of West Darfur.

Protests erupted 2 January, one day after celebrations of Independence Day (1 January, 1956), in Downtown Khartoum and three cities to the south. Security forces confiscated editions of local newspapers, according to Eman Osman, chief editor of Al-Midan newspaper. Osman told Al-Ahram Weekly that the latest issue of her newspaper was seized Sunday after publishing news about the demonstrations and criticism of government policies.

Al-Midan, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, was confiscated along with Akhbar Al-Watan newspaper published by the opposition Sudanese Congress Party (SCP) while SCP Chairman Omar Al-Daqeer and other key party figures were arrested. Several private newspapers were also seized for criticising the government, such as Al-Tayar, Al-Mostaqela, Al-Sayha and Al-Qarar, according to Fayez Al-Slek, former chief editor of Al-Tayar. A report by Jahr Foundation on freedom of speech stated that Sudan is among the worst for press freedoms, with the government confiscating dozens of editions in 2017.

Sudan’s parliament adopted the 2018 budget in the last days of 2017, allocating to defense, security and the presidency more than six times the budget for education, health and social security. According to the Finance Ministry, the defence sector is allocated SDP24 billion, security SDP11 billion, the presidency SDP1.2 billion and federal government agencies SDP2.4 billion. Meanwhile, education was allocated SDP147 million, health SDP542.8 million, higher education SDP2.4 billion and social security SDP2.5 billion.

Despite these difficult circumstances, Khartoum continues to antagonise its neighbours. It recalled its ambassador to Cairo for consultations without giving reason, and deployed troops in the province of Kassala on the border with Eritrea after newspapers close to the regime reported there were Egyptian troops in Asmara.

Although Khartoum denied there are Egyptian troops in Eritrea, it justified troop deployment in Kassala in anticipation of domestic developments in Asmara triggered by a massive wave of refugees that armed groups from Darfur could take advantage of. It later revised its reason, stating it is to disarm this eastern province where tribal clashes occurred.

Bashir declared a state of emergency in the provinces of Kassala and Kordofan as part of the campaign to disarm tribes in these two fragile provinces. Nonetheless, growing protests may yet put the regime in a precarious situation.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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