Anti-government protests have rocked several cities and towns in Sudan since last year, December. The protests started over the rising costs of bread and fuel, but has escalated into a call for the overthrow of long-time President Omar al-Bashir.
The protest began on December 19 in the city of Atbara, and has spread across the country, including to the capital, Khartoum. In some cities, security forces have used tear gas on protesters and witnesses report the use of batons and live ammunition by riot police. Protesters have attempted to storm official buildings and set fire to tyres in the streets.
Al-Bashir’s years in office have failed to lift Sudan out of its rampant poverty or bring peace and unity to the religiously diverse country. Sudan was Africa’s largest country until 2011, when the mainly animist and Christian south seceded, taking with it about three quarters of the country’s oil wealth.
In power since 1989, Omar al-Bashir is already one of the region’s longest serving leaders. His ruling Popular Congress Party has nominated him to run for another term in office next year.
He was indicted in 2010 by the International Criminal Court for genocide in Darfur, where a revolt was brutally suppressed by forces loyal to the government, including militias. Tens of thousands died in that conflict and hundreds of thousands were displaced.
CAUSE OF THE PROTEST
The main trigger for the continous protests was the government’s decision to increase the price of a loaf of bread from one Sudanese pound to three (about $0.02 to $0.06).
But anger has been boiling across Sudan, with some describing it as a “ticking time bomb”, over the rising costs and other economic hardships, including soaring inflation and limits on bank withdrawals.
“There is no cash at the ATM machines most of the time. Banks keep sending people away with only 500 SDG [about $10.50 at the official exchange rate] in their pockets, which is barely enough for a day,” said 29-year-old Yusuf Elhag, who has been protesting in Khartoum.
In 2011, South Sudan seceded from Sudan, taking most of the oil fields that its now northern neighbour relied on to boost its economy. Although the United States lifted its 20-year-old trade sanctions on Sudan in October 2017, the country has been unable to recover from losing three-quarters of its oil output.
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The Sudanese people have been fighting for a better quality of life for decades. The country gained its independence in 1956. Two years later, Ibrahim Abboud took power in a military coup that forced out the elected civilian government. During Abboud’s rule, Sudan’s economy suffered, leading to widespread discontent.
At least 40 people have been killed in the clashes, according to rights groups, but the government has acknowledged only 24 deaths. Authorities have also detained more than 800 people since the unrest began, along with dozens of opposition leaders.
SUDAN’S SUPPRESSED OPPOSITION
The government has declared a state of emergency and imposed curfews in towns where some of the first protests took place. Schools and universities have been closed. National newspapers have been censored or shut down.
The Internet has been disrupted, and several phone carriers have restricted access to WhatsApp and other social media sites. Security forces have deployed tear gas and live ammunition against protesters as the death toll reaches 40 and continues to rise.
As Sudanese activists have made clear, these protests are about much more than the deepening economic crisis. Protesters are demanding the overthrow of the ruling NCP party as well as the small group of political and economic elites, including some opposition party leaders, who have held power for decades.
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Framing this uprising as spontaneous riots against rising bread prices also obscures the ways working-class Sudanese have mobilized against the regime, particularly in smaller towns, which have been hit hardest by recent austerity measures following decades of political neglect and repression.
OMAR AL-BASHIR’S REFUSAL TO STEP DOWN
Sudan’s President Omar Al Bashir has promised to push through economic reforms – as he defied calls from protesters and the opposition to step down.
Two parties have withdrawn from the governing coalition as anti-government demonstrations continue – but President Bashir is refusing to budge.
Al-Bashir is yet to show any signs of succumbing to the protesters’ demands, with the 75-year-old president blaming unnamed “infiltrators” and foreign powers for the unrest.
Yet, the official tone has softened over the past few weeks with al-Bashir and his top officials seemingly trying to win over demonstrators by promising to tackle financial problems and release political prisoners.
Former Prime Minister Moetaz Moussa described protesters’ demands regarding improving the economy as “legitimate”.
SUDAN’S ECONOMIC DECLINE
Sudan’s worsening economic crisis has caused fuel, cash and bread shortages that in turn set off a wave of unrest that has surged across the country over the past two months.
The economic downturn has also alienated the professional classes, who blamed Bashir and the ruling National Congress Party for their troubles. According to businessmen, activists and academics it has also undermined Bashir’s authority and encouraged a protest movement that has persisted despite a security crackdown in which dozens have died.
The Sudanese Professionals’ Association has unveiled plans to submit a request to the parliament to raise the base level from which monthly public sector salaries are calculated of 650 Sudanese pounds – now worth just $13.60 at the official exchange rate – on December 25, six days after protests began to escalate.
In a country where more than half the population of 42 million are under 19, many of the protesters are young men and women struggling to find jobs that could pay them a living wage. Businessmen said an unskilled factory worker in Khartoum earns from 1,000 to 1,500 pounds ($18 to $27) a month and a skilled worker may make double that, barely enough for a family to survive.
Some families in the capital have pulled their children out of school over the last year or are serving them fewer and less nutritious meals, making them more susceptible to disease, according to a government presentation to social workers last month in Khartoum.
The economic crisis has hit salaried staff, young people and the unemployed particularly hard. Families have had to sell scarce belongings and crime has risen, the presentation said.
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Since the protests began the government has been spending even more money on largely imported, subsidized products including bread and fuel. But it has all but run out of the foreign currency it needs to pay for them, causing widespread shortages.
Sudan already has foreign debts of more than $50 billion, and has been struggling to attract new external financing. By the end of 2018, inflation was running at more than 70%. It then dipped to 43%, according to official figures, though one U.S.-based economist put it at nearly double that.
President Omar al-Bashir has named a new prime minister as he pressed on with a shake-up at the top, even as protest leaders dismissed his move to impose a state of emergency across Sudan to quell nationwide demonstrations.
Bashir’s three-decade rule has been rocked by two months of protests that a deadly crackdown has failed to suppress. Days ago, he imposed a nationwide state of emergency and dissolved the federal and provincial governments.
In a televised speech to the nation, the veteran leader pledged to form a government of technocrats to address Sudan’s chronic economic woes, which have been the driving force behind the protests.
On Saturday, Bashir sacked his vice president and long-time ally Bakri Hassan Saleh, replacing him with Defence Minister General Awad Ibnouf. In a separate decree, he appointed Mohamed Tahir Ela, former governor of the agricultural state of Gezira, as prime minister.
But protest organisers and their supporters in the political opposition dismissed the reshuffles. They said the state of emergency showed that Bashir’s rule was weakened and only its overthrow would now satisfy the protesters.
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