Sudan: Last days of the Bashir regime?

Week-long protests following an increase in fuel prices mean that the situation is critical for President al-Bashir.

Protests across Sudan that erupted following last Monday’s the sharp increases in fuel prices have continued for a week. President Omar al-Bashir, who has governed the country since he overthrew Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi in a bloodless coup in June 1989, is facing his most severe crisis.

The protests began last Monday after the government lifted fuel subsidies to raise revenue. Austerity measures have recently escalated fuel prices, hitting people on low incomes hardest.

The measures were brought in after pressure from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which argued that fuel subsidies skewed government spending. The IMF estimated the subsidy as costing 12 billion Sudanese pounds, some US $2.27 billion.

The IMF argued that up to three-quarters of all tax went to pay for the subsidy, which disproportionately favoured the rich and led to smuggling across the country’s borders. But for the poor the doubling of the cost of kerosene for cooking, as well as the impact on transport and lighting, was crushing.

In the capital, Khartoum, and its twin city of Omdurman, people took to the streets. They were joined in cities across central and northern Sudan, with protests reported in many centres, including Kassala, Port Sudan and Atbara.

The al-Bashir government responded with tear gas and live ammunition. Estimates of deaths vary, from 50 to as high as 200, with a thousand demonstrators having been wounded. Hundreds more have been arrested.

Sudan’s most popular paper has been closed, as have the offices of the satellite channels Al-Arabiya and Sky News Arabia. The internet was cut, to prevent word of the protests spreading.

Despite the repression, the demonstrations have continued. A new movement, describing itself as “Sudanese Change Forces” has sprung up, demanding that President al-Bashir and the National Congress Party government, should step down.

It is far from clear how the authorities will react.  There are reports that senior members of the government have sent their families out of the country as a precautionary measure.

Support for the cuts in fuel subsidy appear to be eroding, even among government supporters.  Two dozen senior officials of the ruling party have sent a memo to the president urging him to reverse the price increases and to end the killing of protesters.

The authorities have so far refused to budge. Sudan will not reverse its decision to increase fuel prices, Information Minister Ahmed Bilal Osman told the French news-agency, AFP on Sunday. “No, it is not possible at all, said Mr Osman. “This is the only way out.”

The government argues that the protests have been infiltrated by armed members of various rebel groups who are united in what is called the Sudan Revolutionary Front. The Front brings together rebels from the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile with movements fighting the government in Darfur. The deputy leader of the ruling party, Nafei Ali Nafie, said on Saturday that the government would not allow the country to slide into chaos, blaming the deaths on ‘infiltrated elements.’

A spokesman for the Sudan Revolutionary Front, Yassir Arman, told New Statesman that the allegations were nonsense.  Blaming the deaths on what Mr Arman described as the government’s policy of “blood and iron,” he said that the Front would allow the peaceful protests to take their course, before considering force as a means of overthrowing the government. But Mr Arman said that a month long unilateral ceasefire declared by his movement to allow civilians to recover from the recent severe flooding, was about to end. 

The BBC’s former Khartoum correspondent, James Copnall, argues that the current protests resemble the wave of mass demonstrations of 1964 and 1985, which swept away two governments. But, he believes, the latest protests “are a long way from that point.”

Either the Bashir government will be able to re-assert its authority – and perhaps ameliorate some of the prices rises – or it will face mounting protests. So far the military have not made their position clear, leaving the police and those security forces that are allied to the regime to deal with the protesters. The next week is likely to be critical.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir waves to the crowd. Image: Getty

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Getty
Show Hide image

The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era