Bread riots in Sudan over subsidy cuts, austerity plan
Cairo - Protests raged across Sudan against commodity price hikes and the government’s austerity plan with increasing concerns about the government’s response to the unrest.
Sudanese authorities detained dozens of protesters, confiscated several newspapers and jailed opposition politicians. The Sudanese Congress Party’s former leader Ibrahim al-Sheikh and senior party official Jalal Mustafa were among those arrested.
“The authorities are reacting so brutally to peaceful protests by citizens who do nothing but express their anger at their inability to cope with the sharp rise in commodity prices,” said Sherif Mohamed Osman, the spokesman of the opposition Sudanese Congress Party. “There is a catastrophic increase in the prices of basic commodities and ordinary people are no longer capable of living.”
The protests erupted January 5 in several Sudanese regions after the removal of government subsidies caused the price of bread to double. This was preceded by the suspension of a controlled foreign currency exchange rate regime in which the monetary authorities kept the rate of one US dollar to 6.7 Sudanese pounds. The devaluation of the national currency resulted in an official exchange rate of one US dollar to 18 Sudanese pounds. A parallel foreign currency exchange market is seeing exchange rates of one US dollar to 30 Sudanese pounds, however.
The rise in the exchange rate is affecting prices of basic commodities in a country where more than half the population of 40 million lives in poverty.
The pound devaluation and the slashing of bread subsidies are parts of an austerity plan that went into effect in January with the implementation of the 2018 budget. The measures, Sudanese economists said, are necessary if the country’s economy is to survive in the long term.
“The unemployment rate is very high, the economic growth rate is far below the aspired level and the inflation rate is hitting new heights every day,” said Mohamed al-Nayer, an economics professor at Khartoum’s AlMughtaribeen University. “The reform measures will take their toll on the living standards of the majority of the people and may push millions more people into poverty in the days to come but they are indispensable.”
Sudan’s annual inflation rate was 34% and 20% of the Sudanese workforce was jobless in 2017. The 2018 budget targets economic growth at 4% while lowering inflation to 19% but achieving those goals would come at a cost.
Other expected reform measures include barring the purchase of foreign currencies from outside the banking system, ensuring subsidised commodities reach those who deserve them and reducing government spending and importation of non-essential commodities.
However, those measures might fail because of endemic corruption and the absence of foreign investment. In 2017, Transparency International described Sudan as one of the “most challenging” environments for anti-corruption in the world.
Many questioned why the Sudanese economy was in such dire straits given that last October US President Donald Trump eased two decades of trade and economic sanctions. That should have injected life into Sudan’s economy, which had been incurring an estimated $4 billion in losses annually. The easing of sanctions also saw Sudanese banking restored to the international financial system, with many expecting an influx of foreign investment. That has failed to happen.
“Anger is rising because of the deteriorating living conditions of the people,” said Adam Mohamed Ahmed Abdullah, a professor of political science at Alzaiem Alazhari University.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, on a visit January 11 to the south-eastern state of Sennar, said the government would take measures to mitigate the effects of the commodity price hikes.
On the same day, Trade Minister Hatim al-Sir said the ministry would work to keep commodity prices under control and would issue guidelines on commodity prices to prevent exploitation by traders.
Few of those protesting, especially on university campuses, seemed to believe al-Bashir or his cabinet.
The bread riots took a bloody turn January 7 when one student was killed and five others wounded in Geneina, the capital of West Darfur state. Anti-riot police used tear gas to disperse the protesters and were accused of using brutal force.
Sudan had similar protests in 2013 and 2016 but police crushed them, killing dozens of citizens.
Osman said he expected the protests to develop into a wider anti-government movement that would seek to oust the Bashir government.
“The protests are only a symptom of the deep anger in every Sudanese home at the failure of the regime to solve the problems of the Sudanese people,” he said. “It is already starting to snowball and it will get bigger day after day, especially with the regime thinking that it can silence the people. There is an economic catastrophe and people will not starve silently.”