(Bloomberg) -- Salah Mohamed was a child when Omar al-Bashir seized power in Sudan’s Islamist-backed coup. Three decades on, he’s braving bullets and tear gas in joining a wave of protests aimed at bringing the controversial leader’s rule to an end.
The 39-year-old pharmacist is one of thousands of Sudanese who’ve taken to the streets nationwide since mid-December, enraged by soaring living costs and a government they accuse of corruption and incompetence in everything but meting out violence. Al-Bashir, who’s quelled several internal rebellions and been indicted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes, is now facing an existential challenge much closer to home in unrest that’s left dozens dead.
Sudan’s political crisis has “its roots in the exclusionary style of government and the economic quagmire that it has created,” said Harry Verhoeven, author of ‘Water, Civilisation and Power in Sudan.’ “Having run out of political legitimacy and with no more money to spend, the only instrument of survival the Bashir regime can fall back on is heavy-handed repression.”
It’s a tool that’s worked for Sudan’s government before, including in September 2013, when a reduction in fuel subsidies sparked demonstrations in which Amnesty International says security forces killed at least 185 people.
The scale of the new protests, though, is unprecedented in Sudan’s recent history and follows what’s perhaps been the worst year in a torrid decade for its economy, still reeling from the loss of three-quarters of the united country’s oil reserves when South Sudan seceded in 2011.
Three currency devaluations, inflation nearing 70 percent and shortages of cash and fuel have made a mockery of government claims that the lifting of two-decade-old U.S. sanctions in October 2017 would herald an economic revival.
Doctors and journalists have staged strikes, while 22 political parties on Jan. 1 withdrew their limited representation in the government and called for parliament to be dissolved. An opposition coalition is pledging regular demonstrations and demanding al-Bashir’s resignation. There were renewed protests in parts of the capital, Khartoum, and its twin city, Omdurman, after midday prayers Friday. More are planned next week.
Demonstrations that have roiled Khartoum and more than 25 other towns and cities have been met with an iron hand. Al-Bashir this week vowed that authorities wouldn’t “allow our country to slide into insecurity,” saying force was used to protect property, not to kill. The government has said 19 people, including two soldiers, have been killed, while Amnesty and a doctors committee put the toll at at least 37.
The Sudanese Journalists Network, an independent body, said Friday that at least three journalists were detained the day before. Three professors at the University of Khartoum were also arrested at their offices, according to the family of one, Muntasir al-Tayeb.
In between blocking social media and blaming infiltrators and foreign powers, Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party has acknowledged some of the protesters’ grievances. Al-Bashir on Thursday touted a pay-rise for public-sector workers and floated the promise of better health insurance and pensions. The central bank has a three-month plan to bring in hard currency and print more banknotes as it searches for foreign funds.
But fresh financing for Sudan -- such as the $2 billion in loans reportedly provided by Gulf Arab nations in 2015 -- offers only a temporary solution to its economic woes, according to Mohamed al-Jak, an economics professor at the University of Khartoum.
“The structural problems of the Sudanese economy mean repeated trouble,” he said, stressing the need for long-term plans to fight corruption and reintegrate the economy within the global financial system.
For Alex de Waal, the executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University in Massachusetts, Sudan’s high levels of corruption and inequality mean any economic growth that does come from fresh investment is “wholly swallowed up by a relatively small elite close to the center of power.”
While Sudan has tried various strategies to attract funds -- successfully campaigning against U.S. sanctions, raising oil shipments from South Sudan and cementing ties with Saudi Arabia by contributing troops to its war in Yemen -- they “haven’t benefited the population at large,” De Waal said.
All that doesn’t mean al-Bashir is likely to lose power -- indeed, analysts such as Robert Besseling of EXX Africa say the 75-year-old will probably press on with a bid to abolish presidential terms and seek re-election in 2020. Al-Bashir has ruled since the 1989 coup, transforming the country into an Islamist one-party state in the 1990s that for a time hosted Osama bin Laden, before power struggles brought a change in tack.
Mere economic reform may not be enough to satisfy those who’ve recently marched in Africa’s third-biggest country, where popular protests toppled a government in 1964.
“We want freedom, we want to be part of this world,” said Mohamed, the pharmacist, who was shot in the head with a rubber bullet during a Khartoum protest. “Since I grew up, I’ve only seen one president.”
(Updates with recent arrests in paragraph above Foreign Powers subheadline.)
--With assistance from Okech Francis.
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