By Campaign Agent Euan Stone
This month, alarming news has been reported from Sudan, a country which has endured years of economic problems and insecurity, that it is once again facing further domestic unrest. A number of protests have erupted across the country following the decision by the Sudanese government to substantially raise the cost of basic foods. This move is a consequence of an austerity budget that was introduced at the end of last year by the Government, in an attempt to quell the country’s dire economic situation linked to rising inflation.
Whilst in recent years such price increases have been commonplace in Sudan, it has been in the last month, with the news that bread prices were being doubled, that the latest spike in widespread unrest has been provoked. Most worryingly, it has now been reported that three people have died in separate incidents at these protests, including the murder of a young high school student in Geneina that has caused widespread international condemnation. Unfortunately, this pattern of Government-induced austerity measures, followed by civilian protest, is proving to be an all too familiar trend within the country. With the economy showing little sign of improving, the real concern now is that further unrest in the country could drastically escalate.
So, what exactly is the cause for this hike in bread prices that have led to such upheaval?
The simple answer: inflation.
For the first quarter of 2018, inflation in Sudan is predicted to reach 36.9%, rising more than 3% from the already drastically high figures witnessed at the end of 2017. Along with this, economic growth remains well below its potential. In an attempt to control inflation, the Sudanese Government have pursued a policy of harsh austerity, which has led, in the Government’s latest budget, to the removal of subsidies on wheat. Subsequently bread prices have more than doubled. For the Sudanese population, this represents a rise in the price of a 50-kilo sack of flour from 167 Sudanese Pounds (17 GBP) in one week, to 450 Pounds (46 GBP) the next.
The Sudanese Government has long faced serious issues in the battle to control inflation in the country. Towards the end of 2016, the Government was once again forced to cut subsidies on both fuel and electricity, causing prices to rise substantially, including up to a 30% price rise on petrol, contributing to further inflation. Therefore, this latest measure and the extremely negative reaction in the country hints at the continual failure of the Government to address this fundamental economic issue in the long term.
If we look back to the end of the last year, hopes had been high within the country that Sudan was on the verge of turning a corner economically. In October, the United States announced the lifting of Clinton-era sanctions on the country that had been put in place and sustained for over two decades, on account of both terrorism-related concerns and also issues resulting from the conflict in Darfur. President Obama had begun this process by temporarily loosening sanctions towards the end of his premiership, but the final move was initiated by the Trump Administration and can be seen alongside other progressive measures towards the country, including the removal of Sudan from the list of countries facing travel restrictions to the US.
This move was particularly significant in light of the years of excuses by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir that it was the US sanctions at fault for placing such strains on the economy of the country. Bashir is currently under an international arrest warrant issued by the ICC for several counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur. Bashir’s excuses carried little favour with economists. The reality of the situation is that, following the ceding of South Sudan which declared independence in 2011, the Sudanese economy has faced a drastic number of substantial economic problems. Crucially, the partition of the country included the loss of the majority of the country’s oil resources to the South, taking with it 75% of the old country’s reserves, a resource that had been the fundamental source of foreign currency and income for the government.
In fact, the lifting of sanctions by the US has even proved to contribute to a number of new complications for the country. With companies in the import-dependent country seeking to maximise the new opportunities created by the lifting of sanctions, there has been an obvious growing demand for the Dollar. Yet, with national banks unable to supply this demand, Sudan’s large import companies have looked to the black market for exchange, which towards the end of last year saw the US Dollar exchange rate hit an all-time high at 23.3 Sudanese Pounds to the Dollar.
With the country still ravaged by a high level of corruption, genuine progress and improvement will forever be limited until real structural change has been embarked upon internally. Perhaps some progress in this regard can be seen through the recent commitment by the Government, following the lifting of US sanctions, to embark upon a number of reforms to bring the country in line with the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund. The IMF concluded in 2017 that “the economic outlook hinges on implementing bold and broad-based reform to stabilise the economy and strengthen growth.” It is hoped that this could provide some pathway towards economic development and social improvements.
There is also the more immediate issue regarding the appropriate response to legitimate protest. In 2013, Amnesty International reported that as many as 185 deaths resulted from the Sudanese Armed Forces using excessive force against citizens protesting a hike in fuel prices. With the country’s main opposition parties calling for the mobilisation of peaceful protests against the Government, the eyes of the world will no doubt once again be focused on the nature of the response by President Omar al-Bashir’s forces to these demonstrations. Only last week, the European Union released a statement insisting that "We consider it crucial that people are permitted to exercise their right to freedom of expression, including freedom of the media and of political participation."
With the lifting of US sanctions at the end of last year being widely celebrated by the Sudanese Government, this latest development represents an extremely troublingly negative development against the expectations for progress that the Government had envisioned. Yet, with widespread agreement in the international community that such change is unlikely until President al-Bashir undertakes real structural reform, the possibility that genuine progress and change can be achieved is extremely difficult to envision. Any escalation to the violence witnessed in 2013 would no doubt raise new questions for the international community and Sudan’s hopes of moving beyond its troubled past.
Sources and Further Reading
- High school student killed in protests as price of bread doubles in Sudan, The Guardian (8th January 2018)
- Sudan 2017/2017 Report, Amnesty International (2017)
- Sudan’s bread prices double after government cuts wheat subsidies, Reuters (5th January 2018)
- Sudanese protesters attacked during march sparked by fuel subsidies, The Guardian (27th September 2013)
- U.S. lifts sanctions on Sudan, ending two decades of embargo, The Washington Post (6th October 2017)
- Donald Trump drops Sudan from US travel ban ‘after lobbying by UAE’, The Independent (25th September 2017)
- IMF Staff Completes 2018 Article IV Visit to Sudan, International Monetary Fund (27th September 2017)
Image: United Nations Photo @ Flickr