Sudan feels the heat from fuel protests

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.

Start Quote

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

End Quote El Shiekh Sanhoury Uncle of dead protester Salah Sanhoury

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.

Samar Mirghani tried to film the September protests on her phone - and was arrested

"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 take part in protests over fuel subsidy cuts in Khartoum, Sudan - 25 September 2013 People showed their anger on the streets - and petrol stations were also attacked
Photos of Salah Sanhoury 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.

Start Quote

There is a big difference between hearing it and seeing it... Everyone has a relative or knows someone who was affected here”

End Quote Sudanese businessman

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."


The crackdown has also created fissures within the NCP.

Rising prices

  • South Sudan ceded in 2011, taking with it 75% of Sudan's oil production
  • Fuel subsidies were partially removed in Sudan in July 2012
  • They were completely removed in September 2013
  • Fuel prices went up by more than 70%
  • Cooking gas went up too

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.

Sudanese relatives of Salah Sanhory, who was killed on Friday 27 September 2013 at his funeral in Khartoum, Sudan 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.

Start Quote

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”

End Quote Abda al Mahdi Economist and ex-minister

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.

Map showing position of oilfileds in Sudan, source: Drilling info international

Both Sudan and the South are reliant on their oil revenues, which account for 98% of South Sudan's budget. But the two countries cannot agree how to divide the oil wealth of the former united state. Some 75% of the oil lies in the South but all the pipelines run north. It is feared that disputes over oil could lead the two neighbours to return to war.

Satellite image showing geography of Sudan, source: Nasa

Although they were united for many years, the two Sudans were always very different. The great divide is visible even from space, as this Nasa satellite image shows. The northern states are a blanket of desert, broken only by the fertile Nile corridor. South Sudan is covered by green swathes of grassland, swamps and tropical forest.

Map showing Ethnicity of Sudan, source:

Sudan's arid north is mainly home to Arabic-speaking Muslims. But in South Sudan there is no dominant culture. The Dinkas and the Nuers are the largest of more than 200 ethnic groups, each with its own languages and traditional beliefs, alongside Christianity and Islam.

Map showing infant Mortality in Sudan, source: Sudan household health survey 2006

The health inequalities in Sudan are illustrated by infant mortality rates. In South Sudan, one in 10 children die before their first birthday. Whereas in the more developed northern states, such as Gezira and White Nile, half of those children would be expected to survive.

Map showing percentage of households using improved water and sanitation in Sudan, source: Sudan household health survey 2006

The gulf in water resources between north and south is stark. In Khartoum, River Nile, and Gezira states, two-thirds of people have access to piped drinking water and pit latrines. In the south, boreholes and unprotected wells are the main drinking sources. More than 80% of southerners have no toilet facilities whatsoever.

Map showing percentage of who complete primary school education in Sudan, source: Sudan household health survey 2006

Throughout the two Sudans, access to primary school education is strongly linked to household earnings. In the poorest parts of the south, less than 1% of children finish primary school. Whereas in the wealthier north, up to 50% of children complete primary level education.

Map showing percentage of households with poor food consumption in Sudan, source: Sudan household health survey 2006

Conflict and poverty are the main causes of food insecurity in both countries. In Sudan, many of the residents of war-affected Darfur and the border states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan, depend on food aid. The UN said about 2.8m people in South Sudan would require food aid in 2013. The northern states tend to be wealthier, more urbanised and less reliant on agriculture.

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