Sudan‘s President Omar al-Bashir has promised the New Year will bring about economic development, as security forces dispersed anti-government protests in the capital using tear gas and live ammunition.
In a speech marking 63 years of Sudanese independence, Bashir said the 2019 budget, approved on Sunday, would help the country “brave through the current crisis”, referring to anger over rising price and shortages of basic commodities, which has fuelled demonstrations across Sudan over the past two weeks.
“For the first time in history, we build [the budget] on development projects … aimed at lessening people’s suffering by maintaining subsidies on certain goods and items, raising salaries, and refraining from tax burdens,” Bashir told an audience in Khartoum, the capital.
He also mentioned bilateral partnerships with China, Russia and Gulf states as a means to reaching this goal. “We have been engaged in strategic partnerships that aim at raising the efficiency of our economy… [and] providing a solid foundation for our national production base.”
The demonstrations, sparked by price hikes and fuel shortages, started on December 19 and quickly developed into anti-government rallies demanding Bashir’s resignation.
Commenting on the speech from Khartoum, Al Jazeera’s Hiba Morgan said: “When the protests began, Bashir said he would take economic measures to reduce the inflation rate. But protesters say they have heard these promises before and throughout his 29-year rule.
“What they want is for him to step down and hand over power to an interim government until elections are held.”
Bashir also called on Sudanese people “from all political sides… to stand united and engage in dialogue … as the only means to resolve differences”, a scenario that appears unlikely given the current unrest.
“Protesters don’t have a certain political body that represents them. It will be very hard for him to negotiate with a group that doesn’t have a certain leader,” explained Morgan.
March to presidency
Bashir’s speech comes after Sudanese security forces fired tear gas and bullets at hundreds of demonstrators in central Khartoum on Monday as they attempted to march towards his palace demanding his resignation.
Crowds of men and women, chanting “freedom, peace and justice” and “revolution is the people’s choice”, gathered in the capital’s downtown area where they were quickly confronted by anti-riot police, witnesses said.
Officers made dozens of arrests, as others looked on from rooftops and armoured vehicles with machine guns parked up in surrounding streets. Hundreds of policemen and security forces deployed to key squares across the capital in the early morning to prevent the march.
According to Sara Abdelgalil, President of the Sudanese Doctors’ Union in the United Kingdom, hospitals reported at least four protesters were wounded during the demonstrations.
“One fractured skull, one live bullet to the thigh, one in the neck and a burn in the neck from the tear gas. There are also cases of acute asthma attacks and other minor injuries,” Abdelgalil told Al Jazeera.
One demonstrator was killed after being hit by a bullet, BBC Arabic reported on Monday.
Several lawyers on strike outside courthouses in Khartoum and in Sudan’s second-largest city Wad Madani were also arrested, a lawyer told Reuters news agency.
Authorities have shut schools and declared a state of emergency in several regions since protests first broke out in the northeastern city of Atbara on December 19. Security forces have repeatedly used tear gas, stun grenades and live ammunition against demonstrations, witnesses say.
According to government estimates, at least 19 people, including two security personnel, were killed in clashes in the initial days of demonstrations. Amnesty International last week said it estimated the death toll to be at 37.
The United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has appealed “for calm and restraint” and called on “the authorities to conduct a thorough investigation into the deaths and violence”.
Addressing police generals on Sunday, Bashir cited a Quran verse about retribution in an apparent defence of security measures against protesters: “What is retribution? It’s killing, is it not? It is execution. Our Lord described as life because it is a means of deterring others so that we can maintain security.”
Sudan is facing an acute foreign exchange crisis and soaring inflation despite Washington lifting an economic embargo in October 2017.
Inflation is running at 70 percent and the Sudanese pound has plunged in value, while shortages of bread and fuel have regularly hit several cities.
Monday’s march was called for by a group of professionals, including doctors, teachers and engineers, after it organised a similar rally on December 25.