Academics join protest over Sudanese fuel price hikes

People across Sudan have taken to the streets in protest against the government’s decision to fully liberalise fuel prices at a time when the country faces record-breaking inflation.

Unrest erupted on 9 June following a protest call from the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), an umbrella association that was formed in 2016 as an alliance of professional groups of doctors, engineers and teachers, along with the University Professors Association.

The SPA had also played a leading role in the mass protests that started on 19 December 2018 over a government decision to triple the price of bread, and which led to the ousting of former president Omar al-Bashir on 11 April 2019.

“The SPA calls on all revolutionaries and revolutionary forces to go out onto the streets now and every day to resist and overthrow these unfair decisions,” the organisation said in a statement on Facebook on 9 June.

“The decision to raise fuel prices for the third time confirms that this authority does not care about the citizens and their suffering, and increases the confidence of our people that its policies are nothing but a new version of the al-Bashir regime, even if it is covered with false propaganda,” the statement added.

In a separate statement, the SPA said the decision by the ministry of finance and economic planning to adopt a fuel pricing mechanism based on the import price would lead to the price of a litre of petrol rising from 150 (less than US$1) to 290 Sudanese pounds, an increase of 93%, while a litre of diesel would increase by 128% from 125 to 285 Sudanese pounds. This was done “to satisfy the international financial institutions” the organisation claimed.

With Sudan’s annual inflation climbing to 342% in March, the country has been implementing reforms monitored by the International Monetary Fund, including a sharp currency devaluation in the hopes of turning around the economy and attracting debt relief and renewed financing.

Government justification

Jibril Ibrahim, Sudan’s minister of finance and economic planning, said citizens would experience the “painful initial effects of some liberalisation policies”, but that these were, nevertheless, the only way to “remove the distortions” in Sudan’s economy and work towards stable economic reform.

The now-abandoned subsidy policy was “one of the failed and unfair policies” in which citizens were treated unequally, Ibrahim said.

Ending fuel subsidies would help to rationalise fuel consumption and prevent smuggling from Sudan to neighbouring countries where fuel is more expensive.

In February this year, Sudan had the world’s sixth-cheapest petrol prices. The new pricing mechanism has caused the country’s position to drop to 15th-cheapest in the world, and 5th-cheapest in Africa after Angola, Algeria, Nigeria and Ethiopia.

Ibrahim said the fuel subsidies cost Sudan US$1 billion a year, and this saving would now be re-directed to ‘ordinary people’ and important sectors such as education. A relief mechanism to reduce the cost of public transportation for students will also be established.

Impact on university students

Ebaidalla Ebaidalla, an associate professor of economics at the University of Khartoum in Sudan, told University World News the end of fuel price subsidies would undoubtedly lead to “catastrophic economic and social effects in all sectors, especially higher education”.

In addition to the economic impact of COVID-19, Ebaidalla said, the increasing cost of transportation and other basic needs will put a heavier burden on families, especially the poor, and may deprive many students of access to higher education. It would also increase the university dropout rate, thus negatively affecting the higher education development needed to achieve sustainable development goals in Sudan.

This might ultimately also lead to more education inequality, since students from rich families will continue to have better access to universities, Ebaidalla added.

Sudan is one of the poorest countries in the world, with more than 40% of its citizens living below the poverty line.

It has 128 higher education institutions, of which 36 are public and 20 private, as well as 53 private colleges and 19 technical university colleges, according to a June 2020 study entitled ‘Higher Education and Scientific Research in Sudan: Current status and future direction’.

Impact on academic community

The higher cost of living will also affect Sudan’s academic community, adding to other challenges such as poor payment of fees and a transportation crisis, Ebaidalla said.

“Government needs to consider providing some supporting allowances for the academic community and financial support for poor students, such as a cash transfer to enable them to pay the transportation fees, or to force the private sector to transport poor students at low cost,” Ebaidalla said.

Sudan’s academic community already faces several challenges, including poor payments, transportation crises and the increasing prices of the major commodities resulting from the high inflation rate and the deterioration of the value of the Sudanese pound, according to the 2020 study titled ‘The Effects of the (2020) Wage Increase in Improving the University Professors’ Working Conditions in Sudan’.