Sadiq al-Mahdi returns to Sudan as unrest erupts over price subsidies

Mahdi called for the formation of a transitional consensus government tasked with reforming the economy.
Thursday 20/12/2018
Sudanese leading opposition figure Sadiq al-Mahdi addresses his supporters in Khartoum, December 19. (Reuters)
A call for reform. Sudanese leading opposition figure Sadiq al-Mahdi addresses his supporters in Khartoum, December 19. (Reuters)

CAIRO – Leading Sudanese opposition figure Sadiq al-Mahdi has returned to Sudan after nearly a year in self-imposed exile. His return coincided with demonstrations across the country against rising bread prices and shortages of fuel, both of which are subsidised by the government.

“The regime has failed and there is economic deterioration and erosion of the national currency’s value,” said Mahdi, who heads Sudan’s opposition Umma party.

He spoke December 19 in Omdurman before 7,000 supporters who chanted “The people want a new regime” and “No to war. Yes to peace.”

Mahdi, Sudan’s last democratically elected prime minister, was overthrown in 1989 by an alliance of Islamists and military commanders that still form the nucleus of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s National Congress Party.

“The prescription is to call for a memorandum of national salvation signed by all the sons of the nation and representatives of the parties and civil society,” Mahdi said.

The memorandum, Mahdi said, would commit to a ceasefire, ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid and strengthen public freedoms.

He called for the formation of a transitional consensus government tasked with reforming the economy and having a constitutional conference on peace, human rights and democratic governance.

Sudan’s next presidential election is scheduled for 2020.

Unless the constitution is changed, al-Bashir, in power since 1989, is not permitted to stand again when his present term ends, having won two elections since a 2005 constitutional amendment imposed a two-term limit. However, most of lawmakers have backed a constitutional amendment that would allow al-Bashir to seek re-election.

In reaction to Mahdi’s speech, members of the Umma party, who were expecting him to call for mobilisation against the regime, posted messages on social media suspending their membership out of frustration with Mahdi’s proposals.

The Sudanese government and the National Congress Party issued statements welcoming Mahdi’s return to Sudan.

Since the beginning of 2018, bread prices have more than tripled in Sudan after the government stopped importing wheat.

Officials had hoped to create competition between private companies importing wheat, which would serve as a check on price rises. However, many bakeries have since stopped production, citing a lack of flour. This forced the government to increase flour subsidies 40% in November.

Even with the increase in subsidies, bread prices tripled to 3 Sudanese pounds ($0.06) and triggered violent protests across the country. Eight demonstrators were killed in eastern Sudan, officials said, during clashes with riot police on the second day of protests.

"Six were killed and a number of people were wounded" in the eastern city of Al-Qadarif, Al-Tayeb al-Amine Tah told local broadcaster Sudania 24, without providing further details.

Two other protesters were killed in the city of Atbara, around 400 kilometres east of Khartoum, governorate spokesman Ibrahim Mukhtar said. Images on social media had earlier shown the ruling National Conference Party’s offices in Atbara, 320km north of Khartoum, set on fire. Other fires were scattered across the streets at the centre of the protests.

A state of emergency and 12-hour curfew was declared in Atbara, 300 km north of Khartoum. Soon after, security forces were reported to be using tear gas to disperse protesters. Port Sudan, the capital of the state of the Red Sea, also had protests.

Similar anti-austerity protests in 2013 were met with a brutal crackdown, resulting in the killing of nearly 200 people.

Since 2011, following the South Sudan break from Sudan, Khartoum has been struggling to recover from the loss of three-quarters of the country’s oil exports. Prior to the split, Sudan had substantial economic growth driven by oil exports and foreign direct investment, with nominal GDP per capita more than quadrupling from 1999-2010.

Sudan’s growth was too heavily reliant on oil, however, and when oil export revenues dropped and austerity measures were introduced, the country entered a depression, losing more than 15% of its GDP in 18 months.

In October, Sudan sharply devalued its currency from 29 pounds to the dollar to 47.5 pounds to the dollar after banks and money changers set the country’s exchange rate.

The move led to further price increases and a liquidity crunch and the gap between the official and black market rates has continued to widen.

Sudanese Prime Minister Motazz Moussa said inflation for 2018 was expected to be 63% but Sudan’s annual inflation edged up to 68.93% in November from 68.44% in October.