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Unrest, protests and demands for change in Sudan

By Jehron Muhammad | Last updated: Jan 1, 2019 - 4:28:00 PM

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Trade unions and professional associations, including the Sudan’s Doctors Union, called for a nationwide work stoppage in protest against price hikes, including the doubling of the cost of bread, the scarcity of petroleum and Sudan’s overall worsening economic conditions. 

The escalating protest, according to published reports, actually began on Dec. 19, in the eastern city of Atbara over a government decision to raise the price of bread. Protests then spread to at least three other cities, including the capital Khartoum. “Amnesty International said on Friday that at least nine people had been shot by security forces, while local journalists reported on Saturday that as many as 28 may have been killed. The authorities also arrested 14 leaders of an opposition coalition,” Reuters reported.

Khalil Charles, a journalist, who frequents Sudan, and works for TRT World, a Turkish international news channel based in Istanbul that broadcasts in English, speaking on TRT said the protest in the streets of Sudan appeared to start after opposition leader and former Sudan prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi returned to Sudan. “I spoke to the opposition leader before he went back to Khartoum. He was saying that on the 19th of December he wanted to go back and have a popular peaceful uprising against the government. And that’s seems to have happened.” 

After returning to Sudan, after nearly a year in self-imposed exile and calling for a democratic transition in Sudan, Al-Mahdi, speaking to thousands of supporters, proclaimed, “The regime has failed and there is economic deterioration and erosion of the national currency’s value.” Al-Mahdi, who was Sudan’s last democratically elected prime minister, now heads the Umma party.

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Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir

“This is the biggest urban challenge to face Bashir’s government since it came to power, the scale of the protests is unprecedented,” said Mohammed Osman, a Khartoum-based independent analyst, by phone to the Financial Times. “It is very hard to see how the regime can survive this wave unscathed.”  

Mr. Bashir,  for his part, took over the reins of power in a military coup in 1989 and has used his control of the army to closely rule the country.

Sudan’s current troubles go back to 2011 when Southern Sudan, during a referendum succeeded, with much Western support, from Sudan, forming Africa’s newest nation state. This had a devastating effect, including the loss of three quarters of Sudan’s oil output, its main source of foreign currency. Before the secession of South Sudan, the Sudanese had a good economic life simply because the government was drilling oil from the South, used oil revenues to develop the North and provide public services. This included education, healthcare, roads, infrastructure, electricity, communication, and other basic services.

The demonstrations broke out after the government’s announcement of the new budget. This included the scrapping of basic food subsidies, which  resulted in overnight the 100 percent rise of the price of bread.

In addition, the government devalued the currency to 31.5 pounds to the dollar in February, after raising it from 6.6 pounds to 18 pounds to the dollar in January. The official inflation rate is 34 percent annually, but many believe the actual figure is much higher. Reported unemployment rates are around 15 percent. 

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In this Dec. 20 handout photo provided by a Sudanese activist, protesters chant slogans during a demonstration, in Khartoum, Sudan. The protest was one in a series of anti-government protests across Sudan, initially sparked by rising prices and shortages. Photo: AP/Wide World Photos

Not discussed much is the fact that the removal of sanctions may have done more harm than good. When the U.S. decided to remove economic sanctions on Sudan last October, President al-Bashir’s government was ecstatic. This appeared to usher in the beginning of a new era in the “often tempestuous relationship with Washington.” This created a false sense of hope in politicians and in the Sudanese people, who began to erroneously see an end to their economic crises.

According to BBC, sanctions stopped any transactions using U.S. currency or products. In practice this meant any business which operated in the U.S. was not able to trade with Sudan. So for years international banks would not operate in Sudan, and their companies and government run operations were largely unable to get spare parts for things like airplanes or vital health equipment. Though sanctions ended in theory, business with U.S. companies never changed.

This is how, the Western press, after lifting sanctions framed Sudan: “The United States lifted 20-year-old trade sanctions on Sudan in October 2017. But many investors have continued to shun a country still listed by Washington as a state sponsor of terrorism, whose president is wanted by the International Criminal Court over charges of masterminding genocide in Darfur, charges he dismisses,” reported Reuters.

“Thirty years that is enough (time) for a government to prove whether it can be successful or not,” Sara Abadelgalil, president of the Sudan’s Doctor Union, said to Al Jazeera. She added, since nobody is listening to the voice of the people of Sudan, “and there is no hope for any improvement … the Sudanese Professional Association found that it’s the right step forward to start a series of strikes,” she said. “The first team would be the doctors, and that would be a  strike at selected locations starting tomorrow (Dec. 24).” 

She also said, “People are on the street not just protesting because of fuel and bread, they are protesting because there is a failure of the whole system.” That includes, she said, “The health sector … education sector and other sectors in Sudan.”

Khalil Charles of TRT said the Sudanese government would have you believe that the protest “started when the IMF (International Monetary Fund) did some restructuring in late 2017.” he said, “However, it has to be said that mismanagement and corruption has been major factors in bringing the situation to where it is today.”

Mr. Charles, who is married to a Sudanese national, added, “It’s come to a head. … What we see  now is the unions have come out and said they’ve had enough.” 

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