Why Protests Are Raging Against Sudan’s Leader

(Bloomberg) -- When Omar al-Bashir led a military coup that kicked off Sudan’s Islamic revolution in 1989, he probably didn’t imagine one day taking direction from the International Monetary Fund. He’s done so nonetheless, devaluing the currency and cutting government subsidies in a bid to steady an economy that’s been reeling from the loss of three-quarters of its oil reserves when the crude-rich southern part of the country seceded in 2011. Now al-Bashir is the one facing rebellion. Protests against soaring living costs have erupted in towns countrywide, prompting a brutal crackdown by the security forces and pleas to other countries for financial help.

Why Protests Are Raging Against Sudan’s Leader

1. How did the economy get so bad?

Sudan was engulfed in civil war for two decades before a peace deal was struck in 2005 and led to the country being split in two. South Sudan assumed control over most oil fields, stripping the al-Bashir administration of a large chunk of its revenue and foreign exchange. Recent declines in crude prices have further dented income from Sudan’s remaining reserves. While the government has sought to diversify the economy by encouraging mining, it remains a fledgling industry, and the bulk of the population depends on subsistence agriculture to survive. In October 2017, the U.S. lifted economic sanctions it had imposed on Sudan two decades earlier for its alleged sponsorship of terrorism.

2. How serious are the protests?

While there have been previous uprisings against al-Bashir’s rule, the scale of the demonstrations that began Dec. 19 is unprecedented. There have been more than 380 protests, more than 40 people have been killed and more than 1,000 arrested, according to rights group Amnesty International. The government says at least 24 have died. The latest two fatalities occurred Jan. 17 after the authorities used “massive force” against demonstrators, according to the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors.

3. What are the protesters’ grievances?

Their main gripes are about skyrocketing costs of food, medicine, fuel, electricity and transport -- price increases largely driven by several currency devaluations and the scrapping of subsidies in line with the IMF’s recommendations. Shortages of gasoline and banknotes have also stoked outrage, and there are widespread complaints about government corruption, inefficiency and intolerance of dissent.

Why Protests Are Raging Against Sudan’s Leader

4. Why is the world taking notice?

Beyond humanitarian concerns, there are trade issues involved. Prior to South Sudan’s succession, Sudan ranked as sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil exporter, and it still produced 72,000 barrels of oil a day in 2017, latest available data shows. It also serves as a conduit for all crude produced in the south. Sudan’s government has signed an accord with Russia’s Rosneft Oil Co. and Rosgeologiya OAO to build a 200,000-barrel-a-day refinery at Port Sudan on the Red Sea. The country is also the world’s biggest exporter of gum arabic, a sap that’s extracted from acacia trees and used in sodas and pharmaceuticals.

5. How has the government responded to the unrest?

Al-Bashir has accused foreign countries and “mercenaries” of inciting the violence and rejected calls to step down. Besides deploying the security forces, efforts to stem the dissent have included suspending some school and university classes, interrupting internet access, curbing the use of social media and declaring a state of emergency in several regions. Al-Bashir said his administration raised the salaries of state workers and will take other steps to alleviate economic hardship. Central Bank Governor Mohamed Khair al-Zubair announced plans to seek funding, from unidentified nations as part of a three-month plan to boost revenue and bring in hard currency.

6. Where can Sudan look for support?

Gulf Arab nations are most likely to look favorably on requests for aid. Unidentified countries in that region granted Sudan about $2 billion in concessional loans in 2015, the Finance Ministry said at the time, while state media in the past two years has reported the central bank receiving deposits from the United Arab Emirates. Sudan has also strengthened its relations with Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. in the past four years, contributing aircraft and thousands of troops to their battle against rebels who have seized control of Yemen’s capital and the surrounding area. Turkey’s government has also voiced support for al-Bashir, with a senior ruling party official describing the protests as a ploy against a legitimate government.

7. Is al-Bashir at risk of losing power?

It’s possible but unlikely. While street protests helped topple Sudan’s government in 1964, the security forces quashed uprisings in 2013 and 2018, and there are no signs that their loyalty to the 75-year-old president is wavering. Al-Bashir, who has been indicted twice for war crimes and genocide by the International Criminal Court, also continues to dominate the ruling party -- its lawmakers last year backed plans to abolish presidential term limits. That would clear the way for him to stand for reelection in 2020.

The Reference Shelf

  • A Bloomberg story about the central bank’s efforts to salvage the economy and another about al-Bashir’s response to the crisis.
  • The IMF’s summary page on Sudan.
  • Amnesty International’s response to the crackdown.
  • The International Criminal Court’s case against al-Bashir.
  • BBC country profiles of Sudan and South Sudan.

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