The Sudanese government‘s quest for political survival has sparked deadly protests.The International Monetary Fund‘s (IMF) advice to the Khartoum government, which is seeking an internationally brokered write-off for its $42bn in foreign debt, was unambiguous but politically illiterate.
What they [Khartoum] spend on fuel subsidies is about what they spend, as we understand it, on war
“Fuel prices are not only fiscally costly but also inefficient and inequitable; their removal would deliver substantial gains to Sudan … International experience shows most subsidy reforms occur without major civic unrest” said the Bretton Woods institution.
More than 210 unarmed civilians were killed, according to the Khartoum-based Sudan Doctors’ Syndicate, in the protests triggered by the government’s announcement of subsidy cuts and concomitant rises in fuel and transport prices on 23 September, 2013.
Hospital staffers said most of the dead and wounded were shot in the upper body, suggesting a shoot-to-kill policy by police and government militias.
The director of the Khartoum morgue resigned after telling journalists that the National Intelligence and Security Service had ordered him to issue fake death reports.
For the NCP government in Khartoum, sticking to the IMF-suggested subsidy cuts became a matter of political machismo.
“There’s no way the government will consider cancelling recent economic measures,” said information minister Ahmed Bilal Osman.
Vice-president Ali Osman Taha told students in Khartoum at the height of the protests: “A government that backs down from taking the right decision for the benefit of society is not a government worthy of the trust and support of the people.”
The government believes that demonstrating that it is an enthusiast for fiscal rectitude, although it is fighting wars against its own people on several fronts, will boost its case for a debt deal.
Both the IMF and the British government are encouraging that view in Khartoum.
In a surreal determination to stick to the script, the IMF’s mission chief to Khartoum, Edward Gemayel, told a group of officials during the IMF’s annual meetings in Washington DC on 12 October that: “Sudan has a long track record of implementing sustainable economic policies.”
As he talked up the progress made in discussions with the government on fiscal reforms, Gemayel skirted the matter of protests against subsidy cuts, which had spread from Khartoum to Port Sudan, Kassala, El Obeid and Wad Medani.
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Donald Booth, the US envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, was more direct: “What they [Khartoum] spend on fuel subsidies is about what they spend, as we understand it, on war. So if they could make peace, they also would have been able to save money.”
Unquestionably, the September protests point to a longer-term political crisis. Initially, protests erupted spontaneously in Khartoum and several other cities.
They quickly escalated as youth organisations and trade unions coordinated a campaign for the resignation of the government.
Another sign of the protests’ seriousness was a letter to President Omar al-Bashir urging the government to reverse the subsidy cuts and stop shooting demonstrators.
Bashir’s response was to order an investigation into the authors of the letter, which was signed by Ghazi Salah Al-Deen Al Attabani and more than 20 other dissenting officials from the ruling party.