In Sudan, economic protests have developed into a major challenge for the government, with widespread calls for President Omar al-Bashir to stand down.Tom Collins reports.
When Sudan’s government, in an attempt to stimulate the economy, raised the price of bread threefold in December last year, few would have expected opposition to President Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year grip on power to mount so acutely.
What began as protests in the north-eastern city of Atbara quickly snowballed into a widespread revolt that showed no signs of stopping as African Business went to press.
While Bashir has weathered previous storms, his management of the economy has prompted broad-based opposition and even some of his closest allies are reluctant to offer financial support.
Though he attempts to entrench his position by appealing to the army, observers see the events as a major challenge to the government.
‘Step down, that’s it’
The unequivocal demands of the protestors pose a serious threat to the government thanks in large part to the unified nature of the demonstrations.
Sudanese from doctors to students to politicians have taken to the streets with one simple demand: “Step down, that’s it.”
What began as economic grievances turned into calls for Bashir to step down at the end of his term in 2020, instead of seeking to amend the constitution to extend his rule.
The middle class are spearheading the movement through the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) – a trade union body originally formed as a coalition of doctors, journalists and lawyers – who have made repeated calls for “civil disobedience”.
Khalid Karom, spokesperson for the SPA, laid out his organisation’s demands: “Firstly, the renunciation of power by Bashir and the regime without any negotiations or preconditions.
Secondly, formation of a transitional government based on national frameworks. Thirdly, immediate cessation of all human rights violations.”
The country has ground to a halt as disobedience includes refraining from paying taxes, blocking major transport routes and boycotting government offices and services. Thus far the protests have remained peaceful.
To date, the government’s response has been a mix of appeasement and intimidation.
In February Bashir announced a state of emergency that saw extensive power handed to the police as well as the banning of public gatherings and protests.
Security forces have been given the power to detain suspected individuals and seize private property if they believe it is being used to plan political activities. Human rights groups estimate that more than 50 people have been killed since the beginning of the unrest.
But other moves hint at compromise, such as the release of women prisoners in March and Bashir’s attempt to initate dialouge with the protestors.
Bashir’s foreign and domestic policy has often mirrored this hot and cold approach as he attempts to court various factions in Khartoum, reshuffling parts of the government and overhauling the organs of state.
Bashir’s February decree dissolved the country’s central and state governments – appointing state governors who all hailed from the military in a bid to ensure the institution’s support.
Yet boosting the military meant that he had to balance the interests of the country’s other major and often competing power group: the Islamists.
With the same stroke of his pen, Bashir promoted key Islamist figures within his government.
His former defence minister, Ahmed Awad ibn Auf, became his vice president and Ahmed Haroun became deputy chairman of Bashir’s National Congress Party, before moving on to head the party after Bashir stepped down.
The fine balance between the Islamists and the military, and Bashir’s propensity to play both sides, explains why he also faces threats from within his own clique.
“The president knows that he has challenges from within the party not just on the streets,” comments Ahmed Soliman, Horn of Africa researcher at Chatham House.
“There are different kinds of Islamists and groups of people who very much dislike what has been done in terms of the political trajectory of the country who have moved over to the opposition.”
Regionally, Bashir has sought to align himself with both the Turkey-Qatar axis and its Saudi and Egyptian opponents.
Seemingly without contradiction, Bashir sent thousands of Sudanese troops to fight alongside Saudi-affiliated militia in Yemen while at the same time signing a partnership with Qatar to develop the Red Sea port of Suakin, which Doha intends to use as a naval base.
“Bashir has always had what seems like a fairly eccentric foreign policy where he tries not to identify firmly with any of the groups,” asserts Murithi Mutiga, deputy project director for the Horn of Africa at the International Crisis Group.
Bashir was unable to raise much needed financial support on his recent trips to Egypt and Qatar.
However, in March deals were signed for loans worth $300m with regional Arab funds, including the Abu Dhabi-based Arab Monetary Fund and the Arab Trade Financing Program.
Meanwhile, Sudan is barred from any IMF bailout while the country remains on a US state sponsor of terrorism list.
In November, the countries opened official negotiations on removing Sudan from the list.
But Washington has promised to veto any request for IMF assistance until Sudan complies with a series of political, humanitarian and security demands.
This helps explain why Bashir has recently touted its links to the Egypt-Saudi bloc – to open Sudan up to the international community and redouble on the success of having some US sanctions lifted in 2019.
In light of the current situation, however, further international assistance looks extremely unlikely.
A joint statement from the US, UK and Norway said: “Actions and decisions over the coming weeks will have an impact on the engagement of our governments and others in the coming months and years.”
Long economic decline
Without a bailout the economy is likely to continue to suffer. Soliman points out that the economy has been “in a long period of decline” and that so far the government has “failed to solve the economic conundrum.”
In 2011, Sudan lost around 70% of its oil receipts as a result of the independence of South Sudan.
According to a report by the Central Bank of Sudan, on average $300m of monthly revenues were lost.
Since that period the government has been unable to make up for this loss. Two sectors with great potential stand out – gold mining and agriculture – but the government has failed to invest and develop either sufficiently.
This, argues Soliman, is largely due to the nature of government dealings and its effect on dissuading foreign investment.
“Even if you look at the structuring of Sudan’s gold sector, which is bringing in revenue, it’s very opaque and there’s no regulation,” he says.
“There are various reasons for that: we think that large amounts of gold are being smuggled to the Gulf states and facilitating patronage networks, which of course puts off FDI.”
Government spending also falls short as most of the country’s money is used to sustain the security system, adds Mutiga.
“This is a system which has privileged a security sector over everything else… that has hollowed out the rest of the economy.”
Expenditure on the military and security organs is so large that some have described it as a “parallel structure” overshadowing not just economic sectors but social sectors like health and education, too.
Within the 2018 budget, 14% was allocated to national security and defence but only 3% to education.
Staying afloat has only been possible due to bailouts from regional partners, but these have dried up since oil prices fell in 2014.
Sudan’s foreign debt burden stands at a crippling $50bn, with repayments on the bulk of it in arrears.
Inflation hit 44.29% in February as the government printed more money to counteract the enormous budget deficit accrued by subsiding bread, fuel and other products.
Citizens stand in line for hours to withdraw money and the amount is limited.
While the current cuts attempt to balance the deficit, most feel shortchanged for having to bear the burden.
In the past, the government was able to place much of the blame for the depressed economy on external forces and the sanctions regime.
As Bashir now struggles to remain in control, many see his survival as contingent on the loyalty of the army who have broken ranks in the past.
“Historically there is a precedent for street-led political change where the army sided with the people in Sudan,” says Soliman.