As Sudanese complain they are not feeling the benefits of a reviving economy, economists and the opposition are warning that conditions in one of Africa's poorest countries are ripe for further unrest.
Oil has boosted state income since exports began in mid-1999 while official inflation figures have dropped sharply and economic growth has climbed after a new program of International Monetary Fund (IMF) reforms was started in 1997.
But as recently as September a wave of unrest, sparked in some cases by a breakdown of services and late payment of wages, broke out in Sudanese provincial towns and was allegedly orchestrated by an opposition party that claims it has secret plans to overthrow the government.
"I've done it before and I can do it again," said Islamist Hassan al-Turabi who helped President Omar al-Beshir seize control in a 1989 military coup but joined the opposition in the past year after he was purged from positions of power.
Turabi, whose Popular National Congress (PNC) party was blamed for the unrest, boasted to AFP that this time he plans to change the regime from below, although diplomats and Sudanese analysts said he was incapable of rallying enough popular support to defy Beshir's security forces.
It was partly due to the threat of social discontent that the government decided to try to reverse the economic demise with the help of the IMF, said one western diplomat who asked not to be named.
"The government realized that it could not stay in power if the economic situation continued," he said, recalling that widespread discontent fuelled the uprisings that toppled two former Sudanese presidents.
Beshir's Islamist military government, which found itself economically isolated from the rest of the world after taking power by force and taking an extremist stance, has been accused of neglecting development and channeling funds into Sudan's long-running civil war instead of public services.
Even in the capital Khartoum, many of the streets are little more than unpaved dusty tracks, while residents complain that the Sudanese dinar is now worth a fraction of its value before Beshir came to power.
Sudanese economist Mohammed Hashem Awad, a former commerce minister under a previous government, also accused members of the ruling National Congress (NC) party of embezzling public money and deliberately neglecting the poor.
But western diplomats said the government has been making serious efforts to reform the economy in the past three years, streamlining the public sector, preparing electricity for investment and spending more on infrastructure.
Inflation is now down to seven percent from around 20 percent according to government figures, and the World Bank said the economy grew by 6.4 percent in 1998 while gross domestic product (GDP) was only $290 per capita that year.
The government has also introduced pay rises above inflation and stepped in this month to resolve a strike by postal workers demanding to be paid.
Exports of 200,000 barrels of oil per day now account for some 10 percent of GDP, not including the benefits to infrastructure from oil firms like Canada's Talisman which is investing around $10 million a year in roads and schools for Sudan, one diplomat said.
"The overall trend for the economy is getting better, but the impact on the people takes time to filter through," another western diplomat added.
Khartoum petrol pump attendant Yasser, 18, who earns the equivalent of $28 a month filling automobile tanks, says the oil exports and economic liberalization have not made his life any better.
"The economic situation has not improved at all. Maybe it did for some people in the ruling party but not for me," said Yasser, who also moonlights in a telephone office to help his father support his mother and four sisters.
In fact, the IMF reforms have put further economic pressure on many who have been affected by dismissals in the public sector and the removal of subsidies means prices fluctuate more, which economists warn could increase discontent.
"I'm expecting trouble," said economist Awad who warned that underdevelopment in Sudan's outlying regions could give people a reason to take to the streets.
But both Awad, a Khartoum University economics professor, and the diplomats said the Sudanese people were disillusioned not only with Beshir, but also with the leaders of the opposition, some of whom like Turabi have been in power before.
"There could be an uprising by the people, an economic one. But they're saying 'If we do, who will we get?' The same old people, is the answer. That's what happened before," Awad said. — (AFP, Khartoum)
by Peter King
© Agence France Presse 2000
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com )