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This is a guest post by Aala Abdelgadir. Aala is a research associate for the Council on Foreign Relation’s Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative.
On September 22, Sudan’s government announced the lifting of fuel subsidies as part of an IMF-backed strategy to restabilize the economy. Protests broke out the next day in Wad Madani and spread to several other cities, including the capitol Khartoum. President Omar al-Bahsir defended this latest austerity measure as a necessary step to prevent the total collapse of Sudan’s economy, which has been teetering since South Sudan seceded in 2011 and took with it three quarters of oil profits, which accounted for 48 percent of Sudan’s government revenue.
In the two-hour press conference announcing the subsidy cuts, al-Bashir failed to acknowledge his government’s role in precipitating the country’s current economic crisis. Al-Bashir’s government helped incite a large-scale armed conflict in 2011 when it refused citizens’ demands for inclusive governance in the Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan states. Moreover he glossed over his government’s failure to reach an oil sharing agreement with South Sudan, leading to military skirmishes along the border and halting oil production for over a year since 2012 (with brief resumption). This colossal mismanagement of bilateral relations with South Sudan and costly internal contlict has drained government coffers and stunted Sudan’s meager economic growth prospects, which the IMF had forecast at 1.2 percent with sustained oil production.
Fuel prices doubled overnight after the subsidy cuts went into effect. The cost of transportation, food, clothing, and other basic goods spiked, intensifying preexisting economic hardships for Sudan’s beleaguered population, almost half of which lives in poverty and subsists on a monthly minimum wage of 450 Sudanese pounds (U.S.$102).
Since the outbreak of protests last week, the government has been slow to address economic grievances. It promised to raise minimum wage retroactively for salaries since January 2013, and offered a one-time handout of 151 Sudanese pounds (U.S. $21) to half a million poor families. But these conciliatory gestures have not pacified protesters. Many are incensed by the government’s repressive measures to shut down demonstrations, including its implementation of a “shoot to kill” policy that has resulted in over two hundred deaths and eight hundred arrests. To further silence protesters, the government is trying to control the country’s media outlets, suspending publication of major national newspapers and shutting down the internet for part of last week.
Public ire over the country’s untenable economic situation has mingled with both frustration over these repressive tactics and a general sense of political disenfranchisement, prompting calls for the dissolution of the current government and sustaining protests into their second week.
Political opposition parties, fed up with the government’s exclusive grip on power, have echoed the public’s call. Even some senior officials of al-Bashir’s own party signed a memo last week urging the president to cancel the subsidy cuts and stop the crackdown on protesters. On Wednesday, the spokesman of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which partnered with al-Bashir’s government in 2011, resigned. These developments threated al-Bashir’s reign and intensify the sense of political uncertainty, and perhaps opportunity, in Sudan.
If protests continue, al-Bashir will have few cards left to play, especially if his political allies do not stand behind him. Oil talks with South Sudan are at a standstill, and there are limited options for international borrowing due to the country’s bulky external debt and the sanctions imposed by the U.S. Therefore, the government will not be able to immediately ease the economic pressures on citizens. Instead, al-Bashir will have two likely options: cede some political ground and opt for inclusive political reform, or intensify government repression.