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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.

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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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Sudan protests

Sudanese protests have evolved in the space of less than six months from complaints about bread prices to calls for long-term leader Omar al-Bashir to go and demands for a civilian-led transition to democracy.

Here's a summary of the key moments so far since the protests began. 

19 December 2018: People take to the streets in the city of Atbara to protest against a government decision to triple the price of bread, torching a local ruling party office. By the next day protesters on the streets of Khartoum and other cities calling for "freedom, peace, justice". Police try to disperse the crowds, resulting in at least eight deaths. Dozens more will be killed in the weeks of protest that follow

22 February 2019: Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir declares a nationwide state of emergency. He swears in a new prime minister two days later, as riot police confront hundreds of protesters calling for him to resign

6 April: Thousands gather outside the army's headquarters in Khartoum, chanting "one army, one people" in a plea for the military's support. They defy attempts by state security forces to dislodge them and troops intervene to protect them

11 April: Military authorities announce they have removed Bashir and that a transitional military council will govern for two years. Despite celebrations at Bashir's demise, protest leaders denounce the move as a "coup" and the protesters remain camped outside army headquarters.

14 April: Protest leaders call on the military council to transfer power to a civilian government

20 April: Sudan's military rulers hold a first round of talks with protest leaders

27 April: The two sides agree to establish a joint civilian-military ruling council, but talks stall over differences in the composition of the council, with both sides demanding a a majority

15 May: With negotiators reported to be close to agreeing a three-year transition to civilian rule, military leaders suspend talks and insist protesters remove barricades outside the army's headquarters. Talks resume on 19 May but break down again on 20 May, with the opposition insistent that a civilian must head the transitional governing body

28 May: Thousands of workers begin a two-day strike to pressure the military rulers and call for civilian government

3 June: At least 35 people killed and hundreds injured, according to opposition-aligned doctors, as security forces firing live ammunition move to disperse the protest camp outside army headquarters

4 June: General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the military council, announces that all previous agreements with protest leaders are scrapped and says elections will be held in nine months

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.