Sudan: With Economy Burdened by $50 Billion Debt, People Demand Regime Change

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President Bashir. The protests have grown into regime-change demands. Photo: Aboyami Azikiwe--Flickr
 
[Commentary]
 
On the 19th of December, a protest over price hikes of basic food items rocked the city of Atbara in River Nile state in the Central region of Sudan. By the next day, protestors set fire to the building of the ruling party, the National Congress Party (NCP), in the city of Atbara. 
 
This incident was significant because River Nile State represents the stronghold of the regime as most of the ruling elite hail from this part of Sudan as well as other parts of what is referred to as Central Sudan. In the following days, the protest movement spread with new cities joining on a daily basis and protests broke out in cities and towns that had never protested against the regime.
 
On the 25th of December, a march was organized in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, and its aim was to deliver a memorandum to President Omar Hassan Bashir demanding that he step down. Initiated by the Sudanese Professionals Association, an independent body made up of non-government affiliated unions, the march never made it to the presidential palace; but it grew into one of the largest protests in Sudan’s contemporary history. 
 
The protests are now entering their first month and the number of demonstrations continues to grow with the public united around one demand: regime-change.
 
Sudan’s current President came to power through a coup in 1989. Since then, his government has fought a full-blown war on South Sudan --now independent after the 2011 referendum-- and the Western region of Darfur where the war continues to rage and over two million remain displaced. War is also ongoing in Southern Kordofan where Antonov planes have shot civilian villages for the last seven years and in Blue Nile where civilians fled to neighboring Ethiopia for safety. To sustain the war unleashed on its own citizens, the government spends up to 80% of the national budget on security. 
 
At the political level, the government regularly cracks down on dissent. Newspapers are subjected to pre-publication censorship or are confiscated from the printing house if they do not abide by the red lines which are too many to list. Civil society organizations were shut down in recent years and political party members find it difficult to assemble and hold meetings while human rights defenders are arrested, persecuted and could easily spend months in court fighting capital crimes.
 
Economically, things have not looked promising since South Sudan became independent in 2011 and took away most of Sudan’s oil and in no time, Sudan found itself lacking oil revenues representing 80% of its GDP and since no proper funds were pumped into the agricultural and gold-mining industries, there was no back-up plan to fall back on. The economy began crashing at a fast rate between 2011-2017 , but the country was still getting by through loans and grants from China and Gulf countries. 
 
Things started unfolding in the last quarter of 2017, as the country racked up $50 billion in loans and had no established industry or the ability attract investment to bring in much-needed hard currency. The little money that flowed into the country or was extracted from natural resources such as Gold found its way to the pockets of the ruling elite or was used by the government to pay off its militia forces.
 
By early 2018, a loaf of bread halved in size and tripled in price and what came to be known as the bread protests broke out. Dozens of activists and protestors were arrested and many spent weeks in detention as the regime showed its brutality. There were concerns that the 2013 protest movement that saw over 200 protestors shot dead in the span of four days would reoccur. 
 
Anger continued to build up throughout the year as banks set limits on cash to be withdrawn and citizens found themselves unable to access their savings or salaries. Movement became restricted at times as petroleum and diesel became scarce and petrol stations had lines that circle a few neighborhoods at a time. Outside the capital, the situation was even worse as fuel was rationed and those in need resorted to buying fuel from the black market at more than triple the price. 
 
By the end of 2018, the black market became a way of life. Cash is bought at the black market through a check at a high interest rate. Fuel is bought at the black market especially outside the capital. A permit is needed if you want to buy bread in bulk for a wedding or a funeral.
 
Most basic and life-saving medicine became unavailable as pharmaceutical companies fell into debt as the value of the Sudanese pound to the dollar plummeted at a rapid rate and the Central Bank of Sudan stopped giving them dollars at the official rate and they had to resort to the black market. Most people inside Sudan started buying medicine from outside and bringing it into the country and even then, you could be accused of smuggling medicine if you bring more than a three-months supply. 
 
Moreover, users used social media and other Sudanese living outside the country would send them medicine unavailable in Sudan. Last year, I resorted to twitter when my mother ran out of a critical medicine and we were unable to find it in Sudan. A tweeter was coming from abroad and brought with him a four-month supply. This collectiveness of the Sudanese people and their reliance on family members and acquaintances is what facilitated their everyday living for the last few years, but as the economy collapsed, everyone was affected and our reliance on our social network became difficult. 
 
In the second half of 2018, prices continued to triple on a monthly basis and bread lines grew longer due to a wheat crisis the government has been unable to explain. Some supermarkets stopped putting prices on products as price hikes were a daily reality. 
 
In September, in an attempt to absorb anger on the ground, the president did a quick cabinet reshuffle. He selected no-one other than his cousin, Mutaz Musa, to become the finance minister after a well-known Sudanese economist working for the UN in Addis Ababa turned down the post. Musa depended on his ability to use social media to send messages that the government will work on fixing the economic situation and a few quick fixes were done. A few weeks into his new stint, ATMs were once again stacked with cash and people were able to withdraw small amounts of money (limit is between 1,000 to 2,000 SDG equivalent to $21 and $42),  but this quickly became unsustainable.
 
The lines persisted as the government still lacked the vision to rescue the country and corruption scandals involving the ruling NCP officials became the norm. A number of security and political officials were arrested for their involvement in corruption scandals and millions of dollars were allegedly confiscated, but it remains unclear where this money made its way back to the economic wheel.
 
The movement that began last month is not independent of civil resistance efforts that spans decades. Hundreds of thousands were killed in senseless wars during the rule of this government. Arrests, total suppression of freedom of expression and a stifling civic space made it very difficult for people to organize, however, it still happened. It is usual for students at public universities to graduate in five or six years and not four years as universities are regularly suspended to curb student-led protests. Sudan saw mass protest movements in 1995,  2011, 2012, 2013 and 2018. Schools and universities were shut down last month to stop students from finding venues to organize, but recently, when the schools were re-opened, the students joined the protests.
 
This movement was first called the bread protests and it was inspired by the scarcity of bread and the ever-increasing prices of food. Hunger could instigate protests, but you can not sustain protests on a hungry stomach. Different reasons keep people on the streets and inspires them to protest again and again. Firstly, there is a growing sense of solidarity around the cause of regime-change as it became evident that the NCP is unable to improve the economic situation or move the country forward. 
 
Secondly, the Sudanese Professionals Association, the independent body calling for protests and marches around the country, was able to rally people around it because political parties have been unable to reach citizens for a long time and they were able to relate to a body that they see as revolutionary and not just politicians who are after political gains. Thirdly, the government’s extreme brutality in reacting to the protests drove people more angry and made them resilient. In the past week, there were calls by the association for a protest in Khartoum North and a day before the protest, hundreds rushed to the main hospital in Khartoum North to donate blood as news spread on social media that the hospital needs blood donations. People were donating blood because they were sure that the next day they would be shot during the protests.
 
The protests continue in Sudan and regime-change is now a demand that should not be ignored. This will not be quick and it should not be seen within the scopes of the Egyptian revolution where the president stepped down after 18 days. Bashir will not go down quick. He is wanted on counts of genocide and war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC) along with other Sudanese officials. He also controls militias and forces that are fighting hard for him. However, his own party, the NCP, see him as a liability and know that they can only survive if he is ousted from power. 
 
The army which had been brought closer to power in recent years after Bashir sidelined the Islamic movement that brought him to power, is also contemplating how to interfere. It is highly likely that a coup will shake Sudan in the next few months if the protests do not subside. The main challenge would be to sustain the protest movement after any interference from the army as Sudan could break the chains from the rule of Bashir, but the army which has been in control for most of its post-independence period, will be more keen to continue its rule over the country. Politicians and community organizers should understand that regime-change is not only Bashir’s rule, but it is an opportunity to drastically change the way Sudan is run and put it on the path to democracy while neutralizing the army. 
 
People inside Sudan are calling this a revolution and non-Sudanese should acknowledge this and support the people of Sudan by lobbying to impact foreign policy that considers this regime an ally when it comes to fighting migration and counterterrorism. A regime that kills peaceful protesters who are demanding their basic rights should not be considered an ally. The international community should support the calls of Sudanese citizens to live a dignified life in a democratic state that respects and protects them.
 
They should know that a stable Sudan that is at peace with itself is crucial for the stability of the horn of Africa region. 
 
 
The writer is a Sudanese journalist and commentator. 
 

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