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Sudan’s economic, political future moving from difficult to unbearable

November 22, 2018 at 2:00 pm

Sudanese bank bills on 20 December 2017 [Alex Huguet/AFP/Getty Images]

These days, predicting Sudan’s political and economic prospects is perhaps a job best left to speculators and fortune tellers. The plethora of economic woes and political strife has become a part of life in Sudan that is increasingly difficult to explain or to predict what will happen next.  Politicians take time to studiously avoid taking ownership of the difficulties whilst newspaper editors employ tactics to avoid apportioning blame or responsibility for the unfolding events. To observers, few in positions of influence or power seem to have a strategic or even an imaginary plan that would go some way to reversing the current economic downward trends.

High stakes are being put in an unchangeable strategy that has been employed and pursued relentlessly by Sudan for years. That is the benign hope of clearing foreign obstacles to trade and inviting others to invest in Sudan. For example, the obstacles still include: removing the country’s name from the US list of state sponsors of terror, which would eliminate banking restrictions, provide debt relief and stimulate growth and investment. These goals also include encouraging European countries to invest in Sudan and strengthening relations with trusted allies like Turkey, Qatar and even, Russia – all are touted as avenues that might somehow lead to a turnaround in the country’s fortunes.

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Subdued optimism comes this week as the Sudan’s Foreign secretary, Al-Dirdiri Mohamed Ahmed, left on Tuesday for a tour of Europe which will take him to France, Germany, the European Union, Belgium and Britain. Meanwhile, Turkey’s Vice-President, Fuat Oktay, visited Sudan this week and pledged to increase his country’s oil and agricultural investment in Sudan to boost bi-lateral trade to $10 billion. Qatar has vowed to secure agreements with Sudan that would bring millions of dollars of business and the negotiations with Russia to increase military cooperation continue unabated.

Despite the talk of trade, in the last fortnight, Sudan has witnessed a return to long queues at gasoline and petrol stations, bread shortages, lines of people at empty ATM bank teller machines and rising monthly inflation rates, now almost 70 per cent. Black market dealing for hard currency sees the US dollar at 54, a record high. In addition to internal disputes over purchase of medicines outside the official government agency and restrictions prohibiting sales for land or automobiles in cash, the government’s removal of the rights for solicitors and the legal profession to make and validate private contract, is described by one member of the ruling government who preferred not to give his name as “a policy where nobody is blamed but everyone has to suffer”.

A Sudanese baker prepares bread in North Darfur, Sudan [UNAMID/Flickr]

A Sudanese baker prepares bread in North Darfur,
Sudan [UNAMID/Flickr]

Two years away from a general election, the prospect of Omar Al-Bashir running for a third presidential term, despite current constitutional restrictions, dominates the political debate – and provokes as much intrigue as the proposed return to Sudan of former prime minister Sadiq Al-Mahdi from self-imposed exile scheduled for late December.

The truth is there is a view that Sudan is languishing in a “state of fatalism” or a “que-sera” moment – in which the daily newspapers report, without respite, predictions of improvements and positive changes to come while no visible changes have occurred in the past six months and worst still, no tangible improvements are genuinely expected. The country appears to have taken on a collective philosophy akin to when civil servants feel powerless to help angry disgruntled citizens. In Sudan, “Anna zambee shinoo?” is often heard in circumstances of confrontation and frustration and is literally translated as, “What is my sin?” or “How am I to be blamed?”

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Last month, my hour interview with Al Mahi Khalafallah Al Mahi, general-manager of the government-backed Dan Fodio Conglomerate, was a fairly good and even-handed assessment of the circumstances that had led to Sudan’s precarious economic situation. However, whilst it is a little unfair to label the whole underlying premise of Al Mahi’s argument from start to finish as the “How are we to be blamed?” response; it is, I believe, reasonable to say that the interview fell short of making any reasonable assessment or critical analysis of policies pursued by the Sudanese government prior to and after the break-up of the country caused by the secession of South Sudan in 2011, that might have contributed to the current state of play.

Protesters demonstrate against the US sanctions on Sudan on 19 September 2017 [#jomo~I.M.J/Twitter]

Protesters demonstrate against the US sanctions on Sudan on 19 September 2017 [#jomo~I.M.J/Twitter]

Al Mahi rightly confirmed that the US sanctions, although lifted, are effectively still in place because of the refusal of the US Office of Foreign Office Control (OFAC) to give the green light for international banks to do business with Sudan. He also confirmed that down-sizing the government by almost 50 per cent was a fiscally prudent idea but Al Mahi, once an economic advisor to the government, says in truth Sudan’s problems are not essentially economic, but rather an externally-generated political issue. “We are forced to be like that,” he explained as he detailed the well-documented negative influence of United States’ policies on Sudan.

Interestingly, he is careful not to apportion all blame to foreign powers and stress the need to develop sound economic policies to respond to the circumstantial, mostly unforeseen events. “In the short term, Sudan’s economic and political future is to avoid the country’s condition from becoming difficult to unbearable!” he tells me.  However, it is arguable that for some, the move from “difficult to unbearable” may be slowly coming to its conclusion; and for other sections of the Sudanese society, the transition to “unbearable” has already taken place.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.