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?

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Should London leave the UK?

Almost 60 per cent of Londoners voted to stay in the EU. Is it time for the city to say good by to Brexit Britain and go it alone?

Amid the shocked dismay of Brexit on Friday morning, there was some small, vindictive consolation to be had from the discomfort of Boris Johnson as he left his handsome home in EU-loving Islington to cat-calls from inflamed north London europhiles. They weren’t alone in their displeasure at the result. Soon, a petition calling for “Londependence” had gathered tens of thousands of names and Sadiq Khan, Johnson’s successor as London mayor, was being urged to declare the capital a separate city-state that would defiantly remain in the EU.

Well, he did have a mandate of a kind: almost 60 per cent of Londoners thought the UK would be Stronger In. It was the largest Remain margin in England – even larger than the hefty one of 14 per cent by which Khan defeated Tory eurosceptic Zac Goldsmith to become mayor in May – and not much smaller than Scotland’s. Khan’s response was to stress the importance of retaining access to the single market and to describe as “crucial” London having an input into the renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU, alongside Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It’s possible to take a dim view of all this. Why should London have a special say in the terms on which the UK withdraws from the EU when it ended up on the wrong side of the people’s will? Calling for London to formally uncouple from the rest of the UK, even as a joke to cheer gloomy Inners up, might be seen as vindicating small-town Outer resentment of the metropolis and its smug elites. In any case, it isn’t going to happen. No, really. There will be no sovereign Greater London nation with its own passport, flag and wraparound border with Home Counties England any time soon.

Imagine the practicalities. Currency wouldn’t be a problem, as the newborn city-state would convert to the euro in a trice, but there would be immediate secessionist agitation in the five London boroughs of 32 that wanted Out: Cheam would assert its historic links with Surrey; stallholders in Romford market would raise the flag of Essex County Council. Then there is the Queen to think about. Plainly, Buckingham Palace could no longer be the HQ of a foreign head of state, but given the monarch’s age would it be fair to turf her out?

Step away from the fun-filled fantasy though, and see that Brexit has underlined just how dependent the UK is on London’s economic power and the case for that power to be protected and even enhanced. Greater London contains 13 per cent of the UK’s population, yet generates 23 per cent of its economic output. Much of the tax raised in London is spent on the rest of the country – 20 per cent by some calculations – largely because it contains more business and higher earners. The capital has long subsidised the rest the UK, just as the EU has funded attempts to regenerate its poorer regions.

Like it or not, foreign capital and foreign labour have been integral to the burgeoning of the “world city” from which even the most europhobic corners of the island nation benefit in terms of public spending. If Leaver mentality outside the capital was partly about resentment of “rich London”, with its bankers and big businesses – handy targets for Nigel Farage – and fuelled by a fear of an alien internationalism London might symbolise, then it may prove to have been sadly self-defeating.

Ensuring that London maintains the economic resilience it has shown since the mid-Nineties must now be a priority for national government, (once it decides to reappear). Pessimists predict a loss of jobs, disinvestment and a decrease in cultural energy. Some have mooted a special post-Brexit deal for the capital that might suit the interests of EU member states too – London’s economy is, after all, larger than that of Denmark, not to mention larger than that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined – though what that might be and how that could happen remain obscure.

There is, though, no real barrier to greater devolution of powers to London other than the political will of central government. Allowing more decisions about how taxes raised in the capital are spent in the capital, both at mayoral and borough level, would strengthen the city in terms of managing its own growth, addressing its (often forgotten) poverty and enhancing the skills of its workforce.

Handing down control over the spending of property taxes, as set out in an influential 2013 report by the London Finance Commission set up by Mayor Johnson, would be a logical place to start. Mayor Khan’s manifesto pledged to campaign for strategic powers over further education and health service co-ordination, so that these can be better tailored to London’s needs. Since Brexit, he has underlined the value of London securing greater command of its own destiny.

This isn’t just a London thing, and neither should it be. Plans are already in place for other English cities and city regions to enjoy more autonomy under the auspices of directly elected “metro mayors”, notably for Greater Manchester and Liverpool and its environs. One of the lessons of Brexit for the UK is that many people have felt that decisions about their futures have been taken at too great a distance from them and with too little regard for what they want and how they feel.

That lesson holds for London too – 40 per cent is a large minority. Boris Johnson was an advocate of devolution to London when he was its mayor and secured some, thanks to the more progressive side of Tory localism. If he becomes prime minister, it would be good for London and for the country as a whole if he remembered that.  

Dave Hill writes the Guardian’s On London column. Find him on Twitter as @DaveHill.