Africa

Sudan feels the heat from fuel protests

  • 14 November 2013
  • From the section Africa
Sudanese anti-government protesters chant slogans after the Friday noon prayer in the Omdurman district of northern Khartoum, Sudan, Friday, 27 September 2013

The Sudanese security forces' recent crackdown on protests over rising prices has fundamentally changed the political situation in Sudan.

The country is still reeling from the killing of so many people who took to the streets in late September, angry at the removal of fuel subsidies.

The government now admits that 87 people were killed, while activists and rights groups say the number was at least 200.

Worryingly for the government, the poor state of the economy - which sent so many people onto the streets - is unlikely to improve any time soon.

Salah Sanhoury became one of the symbols of the protests.

This young pharmacist, who had lived most of his life abroad, comes from one of Sudan's best known families.

He had a strong social conscience, according to friends and family.

This pushed him to join in the protests that sprang up in cities around the country, including Khartoum, once the fuel subsidies were removed, and prices of petrol and many foods almost doubled overnight.

Mr Sanhoury was shot dead.

Now all his family has left is a few photos, and their memories.

"We are very sad," his uncle El Shiekh Sanhoury says.

"It is like someone is hitting you in the heart. We cannot believe it.

"We need justice. I am not just talking about Salah - there are hundreds of Salahs."

The square outside the Sanhoury family house became a rallying point for angry protesters.

In the end, it took only a few days for the government to quell the demonstrations.

Those on the streets had no leaders or organisational structure, and no common goal.

'Not political'

The first wave of protests was made up of mainly the poor and the most economically vulnerable.

Later people opposed to the government joined in, but their overtly political objective - to overthrow President Omar al-Bashir - was not shared by everyone.

"The people I was with just wanted to burn things," one protester told me.

"They were angry, not political."

People showed their anger on the streets - and petrol stations were also attacked
Salah Sanhoury became one of the symbols of the protests

No matter the motive, the government stopped the protests with a show of lethal force that was almost unprecedented in the capital.

Sudan has had a bloody history, and is currently fighting civil wars in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile.

However the violence typically takes place a long way from the capital, in the underdeveloped and politically marginalised periphery.

Mr Bashir's National Congress Party (NCP) had been able to argue to the people of the centre that it was keeping them safe from the angry hordes on the geographical margins of the country.

Now, though, the bullets, deaths and wailing relatives were in the capital.

Rabbie Abdelattie of the NCP says most of those killed were criminals.

Rights groups and people like the Sanhoury family strongly disagree.

One Sudanese businessman, who had voted for the NCP in the last election, said the crackdown had changed Sudan.

"Before I thought there was no alternative, but now the people cannot accept the NCP," he said, though he did not want to be named.

I wondered why there had not been a similar reaction to the deaths in Darfur, or southern Sudan before it seceded in 2011.

"There is a big difference between hearing it and seeing it," he said.

"This really hit home. Everyone has a relative or knows someone who was affected here."

Defections

The crackdown has also created fissures within the NCP.

A group of 31 prominent figures, led by the former presidential adviser Ghazi Salaheddin Atabani, issued a memorandum denouncing the way the protests were dealt with.

They may now set up their own political movement.

Mr Atabani is an Islamist intellectual who has been near the heart of power since Mr Bashir launched a coup in 1989.

The opponents of Mr Bashir are not prepared to forgive Mr Atabani for his role in the events of the last quarter of a century.

However Mr Atabani's apparent defection does reveal the tensions in Mr Bashir's loose ruling coalition, which is made up of Islamists, pragmatists, the military and the security forces.

Salah Sanhory's family say they want justice

The prevailing economic crisis will make things even harder for them.

Sudan has not recovered from the secession of South Sudan, as the new country took with it three quarters of the daily oil production.

The government hopes that removing the subsidies will please the international financial organisations, to help it get its crippling debt burden of well over $40bn (£24.9bn) removed.

However the problem for Mr Bashir and his colleagues is politics.

The president is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged genocide and other crimes in Darfur, which he denies - and Sudan is fighting several civil wars, as well as cracking down on demonstrations at home.

In those circumstances there is little chance of debt relief, or US sanctions being removed.

The economist and former minister Abda al Mahdi points out another problem - high military spending.

"Sixty per cent of our budget goes to spending on military and defence and security," she says.

"And so without political reforms that will end civil conflicts in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile, the government will not be able to undertake meaningful government spending cuts."

Faced with all these constraints, the economy is not likely to get better any time soon.

If there is one consolation for Khartoum at the moment, it is the relationship with South Sudan, which is showing signs of improvement.

However the deteriorating economy - and the sense of anger felt by many in the capital and even within the NCP after the events of late September - make this a worrying time for the government.

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