Sudan’s price hike ‘a huge disaster’ for the poor

Sudanese respond to a civil disobedience call against new austerity measures.

South Africa AU Summit President OMAR al-Bashir
The Sudanese government's decision to lift subsidies on medications comes as part of a new austerity plan [EPA]

Khartoum – A dramatic increase in the price of medication, fuel and electricity in Sudan has spurred calls for civil disobedience over social media and on the ground across the country. 

On Sunday, life came to a standstill on the streets of Khartoum, as Sudanese citizens responded to a call for three-days of civil disobediene. Some neighbourhoods in the capital saw limited movement of vehicles and pedestrians. Universities and schools were largely effected by the strike, as the majority of students stayed home, forcing some schools to cancel the school day.

“The new decision, which caused the increase, is a huge disaster,” local pharmacist Hatim Aldaak told Al Jazeera. “This will affect many citizens, especially the poor, because, as you know, the percentage of the poor in Sudan is very large.”

READ MORE: On the streets of Sudan: Dreaming of riches and apples

Protests against austerity measures are not new to Sudan. In 2012, another patch of austerity measures sent protesters on to the streets. Rising fuel prices in 2013 generated public outrage

A popular protest in September of that year took a bloody turn, as security forces cracked down on protesters killing 200 people.

You cannot imagine the reaction and emotional effect it has on us when someone comes into the pharmacy to buy medicine and asks for the price and tells us they can't afford it.

by Hatim Aldaak, pharmacist

Over the past two weeks, protests and strikes have been calling for the government to reinstate subsidies, which were removed earlier this month.

Medication prices increased between 150 and 300 percent, according to local pharmacists and press.

“You cannot imagine the reaction and emotional effect it has on us, when someone comes into the pharmacy to buy medicine and asks for the price and tells us they can’t afford it and they then leave with the medicine still on the shelves,” said Aldaak.

The cuts are reportedly part of wider austerity measures that have been implemented to address the country’s foreign currency crisis and fiscal deficit.

As part of the plan, the Central Bank of Sudan (CBOS) stopped providing foreign currency for the import of medicine, and announced a financial incentive for the exchange of US dollars at banks and official bureaus. This has raised the amount of the official exchange rate.

The lift of subsidies was also implemented on fuel and electricity. Amna Sayed, a 42-year-old mother and tea lady says she is struggling in every way. “It is not just the medications; I can barely send my two children to school. Transport alone is too expensive now and so is food. I sell tea, and even before these increases I hardly managed to get by,” Sayed told Al Jazeera.

Shop owners, such as Mohammed al-Amin, are similarly struggling. “A 50kg of sugar went up from 510 Sudanese pounds [$78] to 580 [$89], and a 10kg packet of flour went up from 65 Sudanese pounds [$10] to 85 [$13].”

“Most notably, 100kg of beans went up from 1700 Sudanese pounds [$262] to 2100 [$324], beans – which is the most consumed meal,” al-Amin told Al Jazeera, complaining that he is struggling to sustain his sales.

The government has defended its decision, saying it will focus on expanding medical insurance to those most in need. The prices are expected to be fully implemented in January, however, local pharmacists are already feeling the effects.

Hundreds of pharmacies protested the decision by participating in a strike on November 19 in the capital Khartoum. Many have taken to social media to mobilise. Last week, a Facebook group titled “Sudan: Civil Disobedience on Sunday November 27th, 2016” amassed close to 150,000 members in less than seven days. Using a hashtag that in Arabic translates to “restore medicine subsidy“, others on social media shared messages of heartbreak and called on government to return the subsidies.

Sudan’s drug prices are skyrocketing

Since 2011, following the split of South Sudan, Sudan has been struggling to recover from the loss of three-quarters of the country’s oil exports. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recommended that the Sudanese government gradually introduce such measures to address its crippling economy. 

Prior to the split, Sudan experienced substantial economic growth driven by oil exports and foreign direct investment, with nominal gross domestic product (GDP) per capita more than quadrupling between 1999 and 2010.

But Sudan’s growth was too heavily reliant on oil. When oil export revenues dropped and austerity measures introduced, the country entered a depression, losing more than 15 percent of its GDP in 18 months.

Meanwhile, in an effort to provide medicine to those affected, many in Sudan and the Sudanese diaspora have begun collecting money and medicine online to make donations.

UK-based Lena Omer along with her sister Rayan Omer and two friends launched a fundraising page. “You could call it a virtual pharmacy, to some extent. People are donating money through digital platforms,” Omer told Al Jazeera, stressing the participation of youth and their mobilisation through social media.

“Because we have the power to help those who can’t help themselves, we couldn’t turn a blind eye to this and decided it was the human thing to do to create a fundraiser.”

With reporting from Aya Elmileik

Source: Al Jazeera