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Sudan’s government gambles over fuel-subsidy cuts — and people pay the price

“The cost of living is gradually becoming more unbearable; all prices have doubled, for everything, with the pound losing its value. And now the cost of fuel is increasing significantly. How can I send my children to school this year when the transportation fees increased from 10 000 Sudanese pounds ($40) for the school year to 10 000 a month for a single student, and I have three children in school,” Mohamed Ibrahim, a resident in Khartoum North, told Ayin.

With average incomes in Khartoum at about $100 a month, school transport costs are prohibitively expensive for Ibrahim, despite the fact that he works two separate jobs. 

More challenges fell on to civilians’ laps after the transitional government partially cut fuel subsidies on 27 October as part of its attempts to remedy the dire economic situation in the country, where inflation recently surpassed 200%.

As per the new orders, some petrol stations are now selling locally produced fuel at 56 Sudanese pounds a litre for petrol and 46 pounds a litre for diesel, roughly double the previous prices of 28 Sudanese pounds and 18 Sudanese pounds, respectively. Other stations are selling imported fuel at the international market rate: 120 Sudanese pounds a litre for petrol and 106 a litre for diesel.

The IMF’s prescription 

“Lifting fuel subsidies and liberalising the currency exchange rate are part of the government attempts to meet the technical conditions of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) — by having a good track record and showing commitment to economic reform — to enable reviewing Sudan’s debt and seeking possible future support,” says economist Khalid al-Tijani. “The government took this move, relying on financial support it expected from the donors’ conferences.”

Al-Tijani told Ayin that talks about lifting subsidies go back to the end of 2019 as the government prepared the 2020 budget, but the implementation was delayed, partially because of internal political disagreements and the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. “The government suspended the budget for the first quarter of 2020 as a temporary solution and called for an economic conference around March. It also wanted to see how the conferences of Friends of Sudan and donors panned out.”

The Sudan Partnership Conference held in Berlin in June pledged $1.8-billion to improve macroeconomic stabilisation and develop the Sudan Family Support Programme. Although welcome, the pledge was far less than the government had hoped for — estimating that $5.4-billion was needed to revive Sudan’s economy.

Public refusal

Transport costs are now prohibitively expensive for Khartoum residents with the partial lifting of the subsidy, while the fuel shortages continue and many public transport vehicles are no longer available on a regular basis. Transport prices witnessed an increase of 100% to 200%, which vary at different times of the day, without an official rate. The decision has been met with a barrage of criticism, both in public spheres and on social media. “Lifted fuel subsidies — this is in the name of raising the blood pressure and diabetes for the defeated Sudanese citizen,” Emad Hamid tweeted

The revolutionary umbrella group, Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), issued a statement on 31 October condemning the abrupt lifting of fuel subsidies and called for the removal of those who implemented the policy. 

The government seemed to have no supporters in its action, but Sudanese Congress Party was reported to stand by the move. Party representative Nuraldeedn Babiker told Ayin that it does, in fact, support lifting the subsidy, but not the way it was done by the government, calling it premature and problematic. 

“First — as a short-term plan — the government should have gained control over public funds, [ and] reformed investment laws, among other steps, in addition to identify[ing] all the people impacted by lifting subsidies; then restructure subsidies for them not to be affected. Then, in the long-term, subsidies should be lifted and the funds can go to basic services for the citizens,” Babiker said.

A huge burden 

The lack of clarity over the level of donor support and internal rifts within the government, such as the resignation of the former finance minister — not to mention disputes over economic reforms with the FFC — have put pressure on the government to act, says al-Tijani. Even the IMF has criticised the plan, he added. Lifting subsidies, even partially, and shifting to a liberalised currency exchange rate without the necessary cash reserves available in the central bank will lead to further disastrous inflation rates, al-Tijani warns, since the state will be forced to print more local currency.

Questions remain about how the government can achieve economic reform without having tangible control over the market, al-Tijani says. The security and military sectors, the Rapid Support Forces militia in particular, own corporations operating in the private market sector with little oversight of tax payments and other fees, he added. “The [fact that the] head of the Rapid Support Forces, also heads the [government] economic committee — besides controlling the gold market — is an example of this issue.”

Al-Mughtaribeen University (or “Expatriate University”) economics professor Mohamed al-Nair told Ayin that the government took a leap to the unknown by abruptly, albeit partially, lifting the fuel subsidies. “This is a step in the wrong direction as the government needed to achieve economic stability first — and it had a year to work that out — then consider the citizens’ situation and how they will be impacted.”  

“I can’t go to my work most of the days as the transport isn’t available, and many times I have to take taxis, which is a huge financial burden that my salary doesn’t cover. I had to apply for my annual break until things get better,” says Amal Abdullah, a commuter who lives in Omdurman and works in Khartoum. 

The way out

“The government put all its eggs in the foreign-aid basket and made up an unrealistic budget based on support that is not in hand. Therefore, expenses exceeded income, the central bank kept printing more currency and the inflation increased,” says al-Tijani, adding that the country needs to fix the basic economic indicators to move forward.

“Sudan needs to focus on productivity and support to farmers, [as well as] enhance the tax system,” he adds. According to the World Bank, Sudan has one of the lowest tax revenue bases in Africa. Sudan accrues about 6% of its gross domestic product from taxes; the average in Africa is more than double that, at 15%, according to al-Tijani. “Rich people are not taxed — most of them have the power to avoid taxes, while less privileged people suffer from taxation.”

Al-Nair also thinks that the government neglected production and placed too many hopes on financial aid. The university professor does not think the country will receive this elusive aid. “The government is unlikely to receive financial support, and if it continues down this road, it will not emerge from this darkness anytime soon.”

This report is published in collaboration with Ayin, an independent Sudanese media house. For their safety, journalists write anonymously.

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Ayin Network
Ayin, an independent Sudanese media house, which provides a platform for Sudanese journalists to report on sensitive issues. For their own safety, the journalists write anonymously

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