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Sudanese workers go on strike over Port Sudan privatisation deal

1,800 workers participated in Monday's strike at the main gateway for Sudan’s imports and exports
The Philippine port operator has given the Sudanese government a $460m down payment on the deal (AFP/File photo)

Nearly 2,000 workers at Port Sudan have gone on strike in the Sudanese city of the same name, amid ongoing discontent over a deal with a Philippine port operator, AFP reported.

The strike at the port's southern container terminal kicked off on Monday following the agreement with the Philippine's International Container Terminal Services Inc (ICTSI), port employees and a union official told the news agency.

Work at the terminal was suspended on Monday morning, the sources told AFP.

The strike began as the Sudanese prime minister visited the port in an attempt to stem opposition to the deal.

Othman Taher, head of an opposition trade union, said 1,800 workers participated in the strike, he told AFP.

The workers are demanding that plans to privatise the port be scrapped, he said.

Strikes, protests and a massacre: The port in the Sudanese storm
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"Our message and our demand to the government is to refuse the privatisation and cancel the contract with the Philippine company to protect the country's resources," Taher said.

Port Sudan is the main gateway for Sudan's imports and exports, and any disruption at the port could have dramatic effects for the rest of the country.

While protesters have called for the sell-off to end, the government's hands are very likely tied to the deal, as ICTSI has already given the struggling Sudanese government a $460m down payment.

Early last month, ICTSI subsidiary ICTSI Middle East DMCC signed a 20-year concession deal with the Sea Ports Corporation of Sudan to operate, manage and develop the South Port Container Terminal at Port Sudan, according to a disclosure from the company obtained by AFP.

The transfer of the facilities would take place in the first quarter of this year, it said.

The funds provided through the deal are desperately needed in Sudan, as spiralling inflation and crippling austerity measures have stoked popular resentment across the country.

But when Port Sudan's labourers got news of a secret deal that would hand control of the port’s services to a Philippine company based in Dubai, workers became terrified the deal would threaten their jobs in an already catastrophic economic climate.

The Sudanese government has sought investment and support wherever it can, but particularly from wealthy Gulf states.

Ongoing anti-government protests

While the government hopes the ICTSI deal will help the failing economy, thousands of people across Sudan have called for President Omar al-Bashir to step down over rising living costs.

With a central slogan of "Fall, that's all," the anti-government protests - which first erupted on 19 December - have been described as one of the most significant threats to Bashir’s 30-year rule.

Why are Sudanese protesting against their government?

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Hundreds of people have been taking to the streets of a series of towns and cities in Sudan since 19 December 2018 to protest a government decision to remove subsidies on wheat and electricity.

Sudan's economy has been struggling over the past decade with inflation spiking to around 70 percent over the past year alone.

This has caused the price of bread to double, cash shortages and salaries left unpaid. The austerity measures adopted by the government are part of larger economic reforms proposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The mobilisation on the ground against the price hikes - organised by a group known as the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) - found almost immediate resonance among opposition leaders, youth and women movements and rapidly turned into a larger show of discontent with 75-year-old President Omar al-Bashir. 

Protesters have been reportedly chanting "freedom, peace, justice” and “revolution is the people’s choice” as they march through the streets of the capital, Khartoum.

Sudan's armed forces have responded to protesters with tear gas and at times, live ammunition, mowing down at least 30 people, according to government figures.

Human Rights Watch, the international rights watchdog, says the death toll is closer to 51.

The protests have energised the Sudanese diaspora culminating in the biggest ever challenge to Bashir's rule since he took over the country in 1989.

More than 1,000 people, including opposition leaders, activists, protesters and journalists, have been arrested since the protests broke out.

Rights groups say that more than 51 people have been killed in the protests, though Sudanese officials put that number at 31.

Bashir has so far resisted the calls to step down, saying that change can only come through the ballot box and blaming the unrest on unnamed foreign powers.

But he and some senior officials have adopted a more conciliatory tone in recent weeks and promised to free detained protesters.