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Discontent in Sudan as economic crisis bites and Bashir imposes austerity

Critics see announcement of economic reforms and cabinet reshuffle as latest moves by Omar al-Bashir to tighten his grip on power
People queue for bread outside a bakery in Khartoum in August 2018 (AFP)

KHARTOUM - Abdul Wahab Ahmed is one of hundreds of workers at a brick factory in the el-Giraif neighbourhood of Khartoum, the Sudanese capital.

But Sudan’s dire economic situation has left even those in regular employment struggling to survive, the 45-year-old father of three children told Middle East Eye.

“Some of them can’t afford to send their kids to school. Some only eat one meal a day,” he says.

Now, with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir announcing harsh austerity measures and his second major government reshuffle in the space of four months, Ahmed says he only expects life to get tougher.

“These political changes have nothing to do with us. Since the beginning of the year things have got worse and life has really become impossible because the price of everything is rocketing in the local markets.”

The “new economic strategy” announced by Bashir on Monday included cutting federal and state-level government spending by 34 percent, reducing the number of government ministries from 31 to 21, reducing the size of the presidential council and restructuring state-level government.

Mohamed Osman Kibir was appointed vice-president in this week's reshuffle (AFP
Bashir also pledged to tackle corruption and reform the national economy, promising more subsidies for the poorest, increased productivity and revenues, and finance for agricultural schemes.

In a televised address he admitted that the country’s dire economic circumstances had forced him to take action.

“I would like to thank all our people for their deep understanding of the tough economic situation that we face that has protected us from social unrest or chaos,” he said.

“Today we launch this new national initiative to stabilise and reform our economy through cutting expenses, fighting corruption, increasing productivity, supporting developmental projects and creating an environment conducive for local and foreign investment.”

Bashir’s new cabinet was his fourth major reshuffle since the last general elections in 2015. As part of it, former electricity and water minister Moutaz Mousa Abdallah was promoted to prime minister, replacing Bakri Hassan Saleh, who retained the post of first vice-president. 

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The previous government had only been appointed in May, following Bashir’s sacking of foreign minister Ibrahim Ghandour, after Ghandour had admitted to parliament that his ministry had run out of money.

Other changes, announced on Thursday, included the appointments of Ahmed Bilal Othman as interior minister and Abdullah Hamduk as finance minister.

Also promoted was Mohamed Osman Kibir, the governor of North Darfur state, who replaced Hassabo Abdul Rahman as vice-president.

Opposition plans protests

But the changes were dismissed as meaningless by Sudan Call, the country’s main opposition alliance, which said that Bashir was simply rotating through leaders of the ruling National Congress Party.

In a statement on Tuesday, it also vowed to take to the streets in opposition to Bashir’s near-30-year rule.

“This move is just an artificial and worthless show by the regime that will never solve the bad living conditions of our people,” the statement said.

“This rotation of the government positions between the NCP leaders is miserable and we are planning to organise wide protests to bring down the regime and stop the hunger of our people.”

Sudan has been enduring miserable economic conditions in recent months despite hopes last year that the lifting of US sanctions in place since 1997 would boost the country’s fortunes.

Long queues for bread, fuel, cooking gas and at ATMs have been a common sight in Khartoum and other states since the beginning of the year, while the country has also seen sporadic protests over rising living costs.

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One factor has been the lifting of subsidies on many basic commodities including fuel and bread to comply with International Monetary Fund (IMF) recommendations for reviving an economy that has been reeling since the secession of South Sudan in 2011 and the loss of most of Sudan’s oil fields.

Sudan has also devalued its currency twice this year, with inflation reaching 64 percent in July, compared with 25 percent in December 2017.

Bashir 'buying time'

And with Bashir backed by his party to stand for a third elected term in the next presidential vote in 2020, despite a constitutional two-term limit, some say their patience with the man who has led the country since seizing power in an army coup in 1989 is now wearing thin.

“President Bashir only wants to buy time in order to reach the next elections safely without any discontent or social tension caused by the suffering of the people,” Mustafa Abdul Azim, a security guard in Khartoum, told MEE.

But others welcomed the cuts to the size of the government, and warned Bashir’s opponents against actions that would destabilise the country.

“If you look at other countries in the region, we are doing better and we are at least a stable country,” Ala Eldin Ali, a taxi driver, told MEE.

“We need to be patient and see what the results of the current measures are. We have been calling for long time for cuts to government expenditure in conjunction with the subsidies cuts and now the government has responded positively to us as citizens.”

'It’s a move on the right direction, proving government is serious this time about overcoming the economic crisis'

- Mohamed Alnair, economist

Sudanese economic analysts are also divided over Bashir’s reform package.

Mohamed Alnair, an economist with posts at several Sudanese universities, told MEE: “It’s a move in the right direction, proving government is serious this time about overcoming the economic crisis.”

But he added: “These measures still need other complementary steps such as cutting the number of members of parliament, stopping the war [in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, where Sudanese government forces are involved in ongoing conflicts with rebel groups] and reducing defence and security spending, among many other measures.”

Radical overhaul

But Hamid al-Tijani, an economist at the American University in Cairo, called for a more radical and comprehensive overhaul of Sudan’s economy with a focus on increasing productivity.

He called on the government to revive stalled large-scale development projects such as the Gezira scheme, a near-century-old project once backed by the World Bank to use water from the Blue Nile to irrigate agricultural land in Gezira state, as well as for investment in the transport sector.

He also said the government needed to do more to convince the international community to drop about $50bn in external debts owed by Sudan, and said that expected benefits from the lifting of US sanctions had not yet materialised.

But Tijani told MEE the roots of Sudan’s economic problems were largely political, and that Bashir’s continuing rule was now the main obstacle to solving them.

Bashir has been nominated to stand for re-election in 2020 despite Sudan's two-term limit (AFP)
“All these political changes and government moves are connected and centralised around the re-nomination of Bashir for a third term, so these reforms will remain inactive,” he said.

Bashir’s re-nomination last month by the ruling party came despite a two-term limit imposed by Sudan’s current constitution. Bashir won huge majorities in elections in 2010 and 2015 but both votes were marred by low turnout, a boycott by opposition parties and criticism by international monitors.

“There is widespread rejection of Bashir’s renomination among the opposition as well as among some factions inside the ruling party itself. That is why Bashir needs to strengthen the inner circle around him to land safely in 2020 despite the mounting crisis,” said Tijani.

'Fighting the Fat Cats'

Bashir’s government has however displayed some seriousness in pursuing an anti-corruption campaign launched a few months ago under the slogan “Fighting the Fat Cats”.

On Wednesday, the state security court sentenced Abdel-Ghaffar al-Shareef, a former head of the political security department at the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), to seven years in prison on charges of corruption, money laundering and misuse of power.

The Sudanese Media Centre (SMC), which is close to the Sudanese security services, also announced the arrests of seven people including bankers and businessmen for alleged money-laundering crimes.

But Alnair called on the government to form an anti-corruption commission to implement the campaign more transparently and to ensure that due process was followed.

Tijani downplayed the arrests, saying: “It’s part of the internal conflict within the ruling party over the candidacy of Bashir.”

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