Last year the Sudanese revolution overthrew the 30-year dictatorship of Bashir, but there is an ongoing economic and political crisis. Spring Magazine interviewed Muzan Alneel — a Sudanese engineer, Marxist political activist, and blogger — to gain an understanding of the current situation. This article is the first of a two-part series, starting with the economic crisis and the ruling class response. The second part of the interview will look at how Sudanese people are resisting the ruling class, and analyze the steps needed to complete the revolution. These articles will be helpful in preparing for the upcoming meeting “Revolution time”, Saturday December 12.
What is the overall economic situation in Sudan?
The key figure for the economy is the inflation rate: this month it reached 229%! The economy is falling apart so the concept of unemployment takes on a whole other meaning. The government says that at the end of last year there was a 40% unemployment rate in youth, and 60% of the population is under the poverty line. But these figures aren’t relevant because people no longer have meaningful employment because their income doesn’t cover inflation.
In 2019 our minimum wage was 300 Sudanese pounds (or 400 with the “presidential gift”), which was $6 in US dollars (USD). The government changed the minimum wage for government employees to 3,000 pounds, but inflation wipes this out. When the revolution started, it was 60-80 Sudanese pounds for 1 USD, but currently it is 250 pounds.
We also face a fuel shortage, so people spend hours and days in fuel lines. The government proposed a price increase and removed subsidies for fuel but this was not accepted by the public and a similar decision — by Bashir’s government at the time — seven years ago was the reason for the 2013 protests. This was where we saw the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) for the first time in Khartoum and saw live bullets used against protesters. It also was the reason for the 2016 and 2018 riots. This fuel price increase had always been our cue to take to the streets.
We argue there is no real fuel subsidy. Within the last ten years they have removed the subsidy four times. And even when the subsidies are in place, both inflation and the falling value of our currency wipes out any reduction in the price of fuel. So the government is making consumers compensate for inflation and a failing currency. So it’s about the economy that’s falling apart.
Our current government is pushing the same policy and also removing the bread subsidy from the 2020 budget. That pushed actual resistance on economic issues and, due to the resistance from people to the 2020 budget, the government could only approve its budget for the first quarter of the year, and then said they would hold an economic conference in March. But the conference was delayed until September and during that time the government was already taking the steps it wanted and didn’t respect the (supposedly consultative) spirit of the conference. The conference’s main topic was removal of subsidies and the government was already signing Memoranda with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). And it established the Family Support Program, funded by “the troika” ( UK, USA and Norway) to provide income to poorer groups, some 80% of the population. It provides $5 USD per month per person. It is not known how that was calculated and it’s just propaganda so they can say they are doing something.
We now have more homeless people, a lot of whom became unhoused recently. There are lots of public schools now that start early so they can send kids home before lunch because they can’t afford bread for school kids anymore. It hasn’t been this bad since the 1990s.
But not everyone is poor, right?
There are wealthy people, though we have no statistics from the government on this. There are big corporate conglomerates. The military-industrial complex is huge and the military is the richest institution. The RSF is the second most powerful group in the economy because they control gold mining. In fact, the RSF has been bailing out the country’s treasury. When the issue with the budget started at beginning of this year, the government was saying there was no money for fuel or bread subsidies. Yet the army gave the treasury two billion dollars, so why and how does the army have this money?
Also there are some big companies and they are in bed with government; the government has subcontracted the importation of staples like fuel, wheat and sugar. This is done by the Strategic Commodity Portfolio, a collection of businesses who import on behalf of the country. We thought this would be cost-efficient for the country but instead they are making lots of money out of de-subsidizing, and the government is blessing this.
What is the basis of the economy and what are the challenges?
The main bases of the economy are gold, the import/sale of essential goods, agriculture and animals. Up until the 2011 independence of South Sudan we depended on oil, which is 75% in South Sudan and formed about 75% of our overall economy. Sudan had no back up plan, so when gold appeared it became our economic centre.
But things are different because the government had full control of oil but does not have the same control over gold as mining is done by individual miners and private companies. In fact, a lot of farmers moved to mining from agriculture because it seemed like easier money. Gold brought in similar revenue as oil but profits are not going to our treasury
Agriculture is supposed to be one of the main sources of wealth but we haven’t maintained its infrastructure and in the past three years farmers are only getting 25% of the land compared to 3 years ago. We rely on rain water but climate change means droughts, and many people don’t live as close to the Nile, so they need fuel to pump water.
Animal resources are needed and we have 100 million such resources such as cattle, which is huge. Every head of treasury discusses animal resources as low-hanging fruit for the economy, but we have never provided services to pastoral communities, no education, no roads, no markets close to them. So they have to bring their cattle to the capital (Khartoum). Lots of money goes to “middle men”. Members of the pastoral community are migrating with their cattle west of the “Sudan belt” towards Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo because in those countries they can get insurance etc. to support that industry. So we’re losing this industry. The head of the RSF (whose members are mainly from Darfur) is the first representative of the pastoral community that we have had in government! We haven’t cared about these people in the pastoral community. Of course they should have been included in decision making throughout the history of the modern Sudanese state, so it only makes sense that since no peaceful channels of representation are available, some of them will come through unpeaceful ones, i.e. with weapons.
What is the way forward?
We need lots of infrastructure work. If you look at electricity, education, roads, etc., they start from the capital and go for a few kilometres and then there is nothing else in the country. There are no roads connecting major cities without going through Khartoum. So we need services located where people live so they don’t have to move to the capital to work. It makes no sense to hit on the weakest link, which is what the government does by removing subsidies and not committing to free health and education. The way forward is the opposite of IMF neoliberal policies.
How is the government responding to the economic crisis?
The government’s response is to remove subsidies, and to issue lots of propaganda like “fuel is cheaper in Sudan than anywhere else”. (And we said “but our income is also low”). Or there are statements like “subsidies are only going to the capital” and this created a division between groups in the capital and elsewhere. The “centre vs. periphery” is a narrative that’s been used by all parties, for different reasons. For example, some say Sudan’s issue isn’t class, it’s Khartoum vs. periphery and this causes division in resistance communities. Or government will say subsidies only benefit the rich, but that’s not true.
This government had a lot of faith from people in the beginning, to a level that was frustrating to activists. But when the policies failed, people switched to oppose the government and to oppose the civilian revolution. So the new government narrative is that “all who oppose us are from the old regime/deep state.” The new narrative from the prime minister’s office is “people don’t understand, people are not exposed to the world to know these are the right policies, we have PhDs”. So they are very condescending.
The government is composed of the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) and the military. Even inside the FCC there are lots of divisions over policies. For example at the September economic conference I described earlier, the FCC created its own economic committee but during the conference this committee and the overall FCC took different positions.
So people see parts of the ruling class fighting each other but not on issues that affect people on a day to day basis. Even with the regional peace agreements there’s no public interest because people don’t see these as affecting their lives, except we have new military fatigues and cars! The disconnection with the public is growing. You saw this also in the recent marches to the prime minister’s office. At first the PM would come out to people, then it was someone from his office, then no one would meet the people. So no one is any longer marching to the PM’s office.
How is the army responding?
As mentioned earlier, the army is donating funds to the treasury. At the economic conference their participation was minimal. Any event that includes the public, or representatives from resistance committees, you rarely see both the civilian and military sides of government, because they have different audiences. But we know the military makes a lot of decisions about the economy e.g. direct contact with UAE (the main lender) and the military-industrial complex. A few months ago the PM said 83% of the economy is under the control of the army. The army “buys” people through hiring and offering high salaries. For example, they offer doctors jobs at $5,000.month whereas most doctors here are paid less than $100/month.
They also spend a lot on propaganda online, looking very professional. Hemeti and the RSF recently “donated” a mine to the government. This was a hill they took over as a militia years ago and they now donated to government, so this is not a healthy relationship. They use big donations as PR, e.g. they promise donations and then the actual donation is much less, but the military wants to be seen as the saviour.
What’s been the response of corporations, both Sudanese and foreign?
Is there a big private sector? Yes but the corporations haven’t had big decisions that are directly known by the public. They are more influential with government through the Union of Business Owners, which was the third partner at the economic conference and they paid for a lot of the conference itself. They were part of the decision on new fuel costs and where government investment should go. They had lots more influence within that conference than the FFC and local resistance committees.
The country makes money from renting land to foreign investors but there is not much other foreign investment, because we are largely outside the global economy and banking system until US sanctions end. Local businesses, through the Strategic Commodities Portfolio, are “the wallet” that does the importing and sale of staple goods.
Are there debates within the ruling class?
Yes there are debates around the economy within and between the FFC, its economic committee and the government. For example, with regards to subsidies, the recommendation of the FFC’s economic committee was not to lift subsidies until “inflation is under control,” however the government went against it.
The government has no political will to talk about its loans from the IMF. We want to break free from the IMF and the troika; of course the donors don’t carry these messages because it wouldn’t look good. Even the FFC has changed its position on subsidies and sees subsidies as a negotiation card. Instead of a principled stance they use this issue to try and negotiate with the government. The Sudanese now see the Communist Party (CP) as “one leg in and one leg out” even after its departure recently from the FFC,
There are lots of debate about “normalizing” relations with Israel. Again, instead of a principled stance on Israeli occupation, they turned this into a technical debate about whether the PM can make decisions without going to FCC. Otherwise the FFC would need principles and they don’t have any.
With the peace agreement there will be a revolutionary front (of various military resistance groups) that will be part of government and have cabinet positions. So we will see a whole other level of this debate around the political process.
Join the December 12 discussion Revolution Time, a discussion of the fight for freedom and justice by the Sudanese people, with presentations and group discussions in English and Arabic, with translations. Panelists: Muzan Alneel (Sudan), young revolutionary in Khartoum; Elham Abdelkhalig (Canada), co-founder of Kandaka International for Women’s Right; Wassim Wagdy (UK) , Egyptian revolutionary
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