Sudan: Austerity Package Sparks Protests

Scenes of police using tear gas to disperse protesting students who are demonstrating against government's austerity plan. ( Resource: Sudan Revolts Against Austerity Plan

Khartoum — Protests have taken place in Khartoum, nearby Omdurman, and other Sudanese cities over the past few days after Sudanese president Umar Al-Bashir announced a new austerity plan.

Sudanese police used tear gas and batons against some 200 protesters chanting anti-regime slogans in Omdurman market on 19 June. Earlier on in the day, witnesses said police had also used force to disperse two university demonstrations.

Bashir on 18 June announced the gradual removal of fuel subsidies and an increase in taxes and customs duty on luxury products, among other measures. The plan aims to help increase revenue and narrow a US$2.4 billion budget deficit caused by the loss of oil revenue since the secession of South Sudan in July 2011.

"The current economic and political context is threatening to unleash a revolution of the hungry that will inevitably topple the government," said Hafiz Ismail, an economist and Sudan director of the London-based advocacy group Justice Africa.

The protesters also complained of a 35 percent hike in public transport tariffs in Khartoum. Sudanese inflation rose to 30.4 percent in May from 28.6 percent in April, according to the country's statistics agency.

Students gathered at the gates of Khartoum's Sudan University chanting "No to price hikes" and "People want the regime down", before the police dispersed them using "excessive violence", according to Ghazy Badridden, a faculty of engineering graduate who participated in the demonstrations.

Students from Ahlia University in Khartoum were driven out of their classrooms after a large number of security personnel, accompanied by students who belong to the ruling National Congress Party, entered the campus in pick-up trucks, attacking student with clubs and batons.

The last straw

Opposition groups have rejected the new austerity package, saying it will hit working people hard and increase inflation and poverty among the already vulnerable population.

"These new measures will be the straw that broke the camel's back," said Ibrahim al-Sanousi, an assistant to the Popular Congress Party's (PCP) leader Hassan al-Turabi. "People are already tired of the regime which continues to oppress them. They'll take to the streets until they overthrow the regime."

Al-Sanousi was only released in June after spending five months in detention on suspicion of communicating with armed rebel groups.

At a meeting in mid-June in Khartoum, Sudan's opposition National Consensus Forces (a coalition of opposition political parties including the Umma Party, the PCP and the Communist Party) agreed to launch a large-scale campaign of protests against the removal of fuel subsidies. It further discussed ways of toppling the regime, as well as an interim constitution and a transitional programme to rule the country in a three-year post-regime period. Opposition groups are scheduled to meet on 26 June to sign the two texts.

Sudanese government spokesman Rabie Abdul Ati played down the negative impact of the new measures, and said opposition moves to mobilize the street against the regime would fail.

"The Sudanese have been through harsher times during the nineties and they didn't revolt," he told IRIN by phone. "People are aware of the crisis we've been through after the secession, loss of oil and then the shutdown of oil production, and they know these reforms are the only way to restore the recovery of the national economy."

The removal of subsidies will see hikes in the price of fuel

Sudan, which has been subject to US economic sanctions since 1997, lost three-quarters of the formerly united country's oil production when South Sudan gained independence in July. Negotiations since then have failed to yield an agreement on how much landlocked South Sudan should pay to use a pipeline and processing facilities in Sudan.

"The austerity package will not help the economy grow, rather it will prolong the recession, curb the purchasing power of consumers, and will only affect the poor," said Justice Africa's Ismail. "The government said the new package will save $2 billion annually. Well, it can save five-times the amount by cutting military spending...

"The only way out for this regime and for the economic crisis is political. This regime is unable to solve the conflict in Darfur and the three border states, or settle the conflict with South Sudan, or even manage its relations with the world."

Arrests

Police arrested more than 25 students on 19 June, according to lawyer Khansaa Ahmed Ali, having arrested 79 people - including 25 students - the previous day for participating in a demonstration in the district of Bahari, Khartoum.

Sudanese political activist Mohamed Alim, 28, was also arrested at his house in Khartoum by security officials on 20 June, according to lawyer Wagdy Saleh.

In a separate incident, security forces on 18 June arrested at least 40 members of opposition groups during a meeting at the premises of the Haq movement in Khartoum. A statement issued on the state-run SUNA news agency, said the police had contained a "small demonstration" in Bahari, Khartoum, and had arrested "students and intruders who tried to incite riots attack citizens properties".

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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