Khartoum: the political economy of bankruptcy

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Jun 25th, 2012
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By Magdi El Gizouli

Unlike the 30 January 2011 protests the current wave of demonstrations gripping the capital and a number of other towns in the country has tapped into the wider resources of the Sudanese nas (common people). Over the past seven days protests erupted in several Khartoum neighbourhoods joining students, the unemployed, and the workforce of the so-called informal sector. In Omdurman, the imam of al-Arda mosque urged worshippers last Friday to oppose the economic policies of the “oppressive” government. Three mosques in al-Kalakla, an impoverished neighbourhood in southern Khartoum, became centres of anti-government agitation exporting protestors to the streets. Over the week similar demonstrations occupied the police and security forces in al-Obeid, Kosti, al-Gedaref, Port Sudan, Wad Medani, and Atbara. This is arguably the largest of anti-government protests to plague President Bashir’s regime since 1995, the date of the last major student revolt in the country.

The immediate trigger of the demonstrations was the government’s decision to abolish fuel subsidies, a measure that the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) sought to market to its own constituency, before the general public, within a wider austerity package that included the downsizing of the government at the central and state levels by almost one half. The Minister of Finance, Ali Mahmoud Abd al-Rasool, said it all in an address to the parliament on 13 June. “Lifting fuel subsidies and increases in commodity prices, these are dealings of a bankrupt state”, he told the house. Ominously, it was the Just Peace Forum (JPF) of al-Tayeb Mustafa that pioneered brazen public refusal of the termination of fuel subsidies. He warned the government in an editorial published in al-Intibaha’s 3 June edition of “playing with fire”. In one thrust Mustafa combined his regular chauvinist rhetoric against what he termed the government’s “defeatist” stance towards South Sudan with a harsh criticism of the NCP’s economic performance. The Sudanese people, he stated, did not yet revolt against the regime because they could not identify a viable alternative to the NCP. The security authorities confiscated the entire edition of al-Intibaha, and Tayeb Mustafa swallowed his long tongue for the next two weeks while on a trip to the revolutionary Egypt. He bounced back on 20 June to praise the resurgence of political Islam in the region carried by the masses of the ‘Arab Spring’. How does Sudan compare to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, where the likes of Mohamed Mursi, Rashid al-Ghanoushi and Abdelhakim Belhadj emerged from long imprisonment and exile to dominate the political scene, asked the presidential uncle. The first is the presidential candidate of the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood, the second the chief of Tunisia’s ruling Islamist al-Nahda Party, and the third is a former Taliban operative who now heads Libya’s Islamist al-Watan Party. The abolition of fuel subsidies was voted down by the NCP-dominated parliament when proposed by the Minister of Finance last December in his initial 2012 budget draft. The issue has since then become a theme of ever stiffer contestation within the ruling party. The financial gurus of the NCP, including the chairperson of the party’s economic sector, went on campaign to argue the necessity of the measure while the middle ranks, well represented in the parliamentary bloc of the party, dissented. Instead, the NCP crowd demanded the downsizing of the swollen executive branch and the slashing of the perks and payments of senior government officials. The leadership council of the NCP devised the current package of austerity measures as an in-house compromise so to speak. Signalling the threatening nature of the rift President Bashir himself presented the austerity package to salvage the 2012 budget to the National Assembly on 18 June. He declared the gradual lift of fuel subsidies without further elaboration, the reduction of the central and state governments, and the enforcement of higher taxes on capital, consumer products, telecommunications and imports. The house applauded when the President, with the famous grimace on his face, announced that government ministers will from now on have to make do with a single car, no more cars for the madams as the Minister of Finance put it, and will be starved of foreign travel perks.

The government, however, moved to enforce the lift of fuel subsidies without awaiting the formal approval of the parliament. The prices of benzene and gasoline jumped on 20 June to 12.5 and 8 Sudanese pounds per gallon, a day before the Minister of Finance addressed the house to detail what the President had summarized. The NCP parliamentarians heckled the Minister over what several referred to as frank circumvention of the legislature. Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, Sudan’s First Vice President, and a man known for his composure, fretted in defence of the Minister of Finance. The decision to impose the new prices, he told the house, was dictated by the need to pre-empt hoarding by malicious traders, and above that the need to drain the vibrant smuggling market to South Sudan and Sudan’s other neighbours. In that sense, he claimed, the enforcement of the new prices was a security precaution rather an economic manoeuvre, since it is the South Sudan-based rebels fighting the government in South Kordofan, the Blue Nile, and Darfur who benefit from the smuggling of fuel. Taha then went on to explain that the government has taken the decision to reduce the number of constitutional office holders at the central and state levels from a current 572 to 318. The reduction, he said, with the exception of two positions, will be shouldered solely by the NCP. Taha, almost in panic, laid the blame for the country’s dire economic situation on the consumption habits of the population. The Sudanese, he lectured, are living beyond their means. It is their generosity towards foreigners that drains the tourism sector of revenue, and their tendency to maintain extended families where one individual works and ten others rely on his income, that stymies production. A gesticulating Taha read out his own salary statement to the house in an attempt to counter the claim that the government was spending way too much on its officials. The manoeuvre seemed like an import from those popular talk shows where the guests excel in illustrating their personal perversions and family conflicts to an audience primed to demonstrate understanding and ultimately sympathy.

Apart from the feigned self-exhibition Taha defended the expansion in the levels and offices of government, particularly at the level of the states, with the need to secure “political satisfaction” as he phrased it, in other words the dictates of political patronage. What is at risk, evidently, is the sustenance of the patronage network that roots the NCP. The crack between the NCP bigwigs, recycled time and again in the central government, and the wider nomenklatura that grids the regime in the states, has repeatedly produced threatening dissenters, from the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) to ambitious local strongmen like the former governor of South Darfur, Abd al-Hameed Musa Kasha and the former governor of Gedaref, Karamalla Abbas. The demotion of the Kasha stoked days of rioting in Nyala last January, while Abbas was forced to resign following a public imbroglio with the Minister of Finance over the failure of the latter to allocate funds for the purchase of cars to service the Gedaref government.

The author is a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute. He publishes regular opinion articles and analyses at his blog Still Sudan. He can be reached at m.elgizouli@gmail.com

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