Sudan's capital, Khartoum, and neighboring Omdurman, as well as Port Sudan and other parts of the country, are being rocked by mass protests and government repression, with the loss of at least 70 lives so far in Khartoum alone. The immediate cause of the flare-up is a sharp increase in fuel prices, but the roots of the clashes go much deeper.
The Sudanese government of Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who seized power in a coup d'etat in 1989, has been locked in many-sided internal and external conflicts. In 2011, after a long civil war, Sudan was forced to relinquish control over its southernmost provinces, which split off to form the new independent nation of South Sudan. The potential for conflict between Sudan and South Sudan was immediately clear: South Sudan ended up with most of the two countries' oil reserves, while the pipeline needed to get oil from South Sudan to Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast, and thence to markets, runs for hundreds of miles through Sudan's territory.
To make up for the loss of those oil reserves, al-Bashir's government tried to charge exorbitant fees to South Sudan for use of the pipeline, leading to a brief war last year. South Sudan has also been talking to Uganda and Kenya to explore the possibility of building a new pipeline to cross these countries to the Kenyan port of Lamu, which would leave Sudan cut out completely.
Furthermore, some forces which had been fighting against al-Bashir's regime ended up within the territory of Sudan, and have continued to clash with Sudanese troops in the South Kurdufan and Blue Nile provinces. Also, there is a long-running armed conflict in Sudan's Western province of Darfur; the cruelty of militias affiliated with the Bashir government in that conflict has caused the Sudanese president to become a wanted man in the eyes of the International Criminal Court.
Within Sudan today, there have been frequent but relatively small-scale protests against basic economic inequities in this rather poor country (per capita Gross Domestic Product is stalled at $2,400) and the authoritarian nature of al-Bashir's "Islamic" regime. Protests have been organized by a variety of political parties, some of them grouped into the National Consensus Forces. On the left, the Sudanese Communist Party is the most considerable.
Back in the 1960s, the Sudanese Communist Party was one of the largest communist parties in Africa. It was part of the ruling alliance of President Gaafar Nimeiry, but in 1976 Nimeiry moved to suppress the Communist Party, accusing it of being behind a coup against his regime. Nimeiry then moved in a direction friendlier to the United States and Western Europe, while at the same time declaring his government to be Islamic.
Since then, the Communist Party has sometimes been able to function openly, sometimes not. In recent years, it has returned to a position of prominence in Sudanese politics, as an implacable foe of the al-Bashir regime.
The current disturbances began with a government announcement on Sept.17 that it would remove its subsidies on gasoline, diesel fuel, cooking oil and wheat. The action was spurred by pressure from the International Monetary Fund, which is demanding neoliberal reforms in exchange for extending credit.
Objections arose immediately from the people and from opposition parties. The Communist Party questioned whether the subsidies actually ever existed, the implications being that the government had been using the money for other purposes, and that it was simply jacking up the prices. Al-Bashir and his ministers bizarrely claimed that they were benefactors of the Sudanese people because under their regime, people got to taste hot dogs and pizza for the first time. The government also claimed that raising money in this way was not going to hurt the poor, who it said do not have cars and therefore have no need to buy gasoline.
When the government refused to roll back the price increases, demonstrations began in Khartoum on Sept. 23, and spread to Khartoum where it was reported that the headquarters of al-Bashir's National Congress Party was burned. The government response was repression, but some reports indicate that police refused to fire on the protesters. So the government deployed its "Al-Bashir Pioneers" militia. At writing, there have been at least 70 deaths, as well as injuries arrests. Entire issues of opposition newspapers have been confiscated, and the press has been told it may only publish information provided by the police. Two members of the leadership of the Sudanese Communist Party, 79-year-old Sidig Yousif and prominent trade unionist Mirghany Atta Alaman, were among those arrested.
The demands have expanded beyond the protests about the price increases to calls for a halt to repression, the end of al-Bashir's regime, and a constituent assembly to restructure the Sudanese state and deal comprehensively with all of its problems, including the fighting in Darfur.
Photo: Clashes this week in Sudan. Via Sudanese Communist Party