Sudan protests: Why it’s in the government’s interests to respond with
restraint

Posted on November 30, 2016 by Magnus Taylor

With protests against price rises for pharmaceuticals and fuel spreading,
Khartoum must act carefully to avoid endangering its recent successes.

Since early November, a disturbing pattern of economic protests and
political arrests has emerged in Sudan. This is putting in danger the small
gains made by Khartoum over the past year: the recently concluded National
Dialogue; the continuing African Union-backed peace process with rebel
groups; and a generally improving relationship with key international
players, notably the US and UK.

While the demonstrations in Khartoum and other Sudanese cities remain
peaceful, the security services have reacted with the old-style pre-emptive
arrest of many opposition activists and political figures.

For President Omar al-Bashir to maintain his Islamist regime’s recent
progress away from international isolation, it is imperative that his
government free political prisoners and above all avoid the previous tactic
of violent repression.

The government should also pay attention to the causes of the protests: the
removal of fuel subsidies; and an unexpectedly sharp rise in the price of
pharmaceutical products, which pharmacies were previously able to buy with
a preferential exchange rate.

Future measures should be introduced in a more sympathetic fashion.For
external powers seeking to facilitate the end of Sudan’s internal
conflicts, these protests should serve as a reminder that Khartoum’s
greatest weakness is its poorly performing economy.

Making ends meet

In September 2013, Khartoum faced its most serious popular protests since
the 1985 intifada as Sudanese flooded the streets of the capital and other
major cities against the government’s removal of the long-standing fuel
subsidy, which had in turn increased the price of many basic commodities.

The government clampdown killed upwards of 170 people.The immediate cause
of the economic crisis was the secession of South Sudan, along with its oil
reserves, in July 2011. When this happened, Sudan retained control over the
export pipeline, but oil transit fees, along with growing gold and
livestock exports, only made up for some of the loss of the oil exports
that were previously its main source of hard currency. This doomed the
Sudanese pound to a steady decline against the US dollar and has forced
major cuts in public spending.

The September 2013 protests had a profound effect on opposition politics,
but made little lasting impact on the National Congress Party (NCP)
government’s policies. Several key figures who criticised the security
response were kicked out of the party and subsequently began a new life in
opposition. In an attempt to address critics, President Omar al-Bashir in
January 2014 announced the start of the National Dialogue which, after much
internal wrangling, eventually commenced in October 2015. It concluded with
a fanfare of regional bonhomie a year later.

A ‘national monologue’

Dismissed by many opposition figures as a “National Monologue”, the
National Dialogue was ostensibly intended to find a “comprehensive
solution” to Sudan’s conflicts, but it failed to gain traction with any of
the serious armed groups and much of the political opposition.

Khartoum nevertheless achieved its aim of buying some political space
domestically and to hold and win elections in April 2015. It also wanted to
demonstrate to the international community, then distracted by the war in
South Sudan, that it was making a genuine attempt to end its own internal
conflicts.

This tactic was partially effective as international actors initially
supported the National Dialogue. They have also backed the now stalling
Africa Union-led mediation process between the government, rebel groups and
political opposition. It was hoped that rebel groups might be persuaded to
join a genuinely inclusive dialogue, but they ultimately judged it to be
over-dominated by the government and stayed away.

Nevertheless, the groups remain engaged in peace negotiations, despite the
painstaking rate of progress. A violent crackdown on current or future
protests would further alienate the political opposition and undermine
international support for the peace process.

Since the September 2013 protests, and with the new mandate granted to
President al-Bashir by his 2015 election win, Khartoum’s position has
somewhat strengthened. Government finances received a temporary boost
through cash injections from Gulf States, a reward for its pivot away from
Iran and deployment of troops in their war in Yemen.

Khartoum has taken advantage of this period of relative stability to cut
government spending. The government has also learnt from its previous
experience of public protest and mostly tried to impose the austerity
slowly.

Protesters are wary too, not having forgotten the trauma of 2013.However,
demonstrations have been spreading in response to the exponential increase
in the price of medicines and the less dramatic rise in the costs of other
commodities. Many pharmacies are now unable to stock essential items, and
in a chaotic U-turn on 25 November, demonstrating its nervousness over
plans for further civil disobedience, the government suddenly announced
that it had scrapped the new pricing structure.

Time for restraint

Amid widespread criticism of the austerity measures, several opposition
parties, including the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) and the Sudanese
Congress Party (SCoP), have called for protests and subsequently, online
activists coordinated three days of “civil disobedience” intended to
function as a general strike across Khartoum. The government has reacted by
jailing the SCoP’S leadership.Reforms to the subsidy regime, championed by
international financial institutions, are conceived as technocratic
responses to an unsustainable economic policy. But the protests and
government responses demonstrate that Khartoum has a serious problem with
economic management, further undermined by the NCP’s current reliance on
the security services and patronage to remain in power.The corrupt and
ineffective public sector, as well as costly wars in the peripheries, makes
it unlikely that any revenue gains made by the removal of subsidies will be
spent on improving the lives of the poor who, according to the World Bank,
make up nearly 50% of the population. The protesters understand this and do
not trust the government’s motives or competence.The government would
better serve its own interests and those of the country by showing
restraint. Its current strength gives it much room to be conciliatory and
to tolerate legitimate dissent. The credibility of its recent political
engagement with opposition must be buttressed with some accommodation with
these forces. And doing so now will also help boost its slowly improving
relations with vital international partners.

Magnus Taylor is a Horn of Africa Analyst at International Crisis Group,
the independent conflict-prevention organisation.

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