(Bloomberg) -- The man holding the fate of Sudan’s economy in his hands holds court from a plastic chair under a tree near the Red Sea, demanding the government’s dissolution and a swift election.Mohamed Alamin Tirik draws leverage from his chieftainship of the Beja community, the predominant group in eastern Sudan, and has wielded it to impose a blockade on the nation’s main port that’s brought trade to a halt since Sept. 17. He accuses Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s administration of betraying the people who rose up to oust dictator President Omar al-Bashir in 2019, and is unapologetic about the economic hardship the protest has wrought.
The government is “diverting from the goals of the revolution,” Tirik said near the town of Sinkat, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) southwest of Port Sudan, in his first interview with a global media outlet since the blockade began. “We want to urge the international community to stand with Sudan’s people and not with this hijacking government.”
The protest has disrupted about $126 million worth of trade, Danish shipping giant A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S estimates. It’s also cost the state-owned port operator $15 million in foregone revenue, while transport companies are losing about $400,000 a day, according to port officials, shipping companies and labor unions.
The trade snarl-up comes at a tricky time for the African nation, which has been edging toward democracy since al-Bashir’s ouster and is seeking help to reduce debt. Last week, a coalition of powerful former rebel groups split with their civilian allies in the government and called for the establishment of a new administration. Envoys from the U.S., U.K. and Norway are due to arrive in the country this week to try calm tensions.
Hamdok last week described the port shutdown as “the most dangerous political crisis yet to face Sudan’s transition” and called on the Beja to hold talks with the government to end the standoff. Yasser Arman, a political adviser to Hamdok, claims that the military -- which has lost some clout since the prime minister took office -- is the hidden hand behind the protest.
But Tirik, who sports a neatly trimmed grey beard and wears flowing white traditional robes and a turban, rejected accusations that the Sudanese Armed Forces, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, had manipulated him into staging the blockade. He also denied that he favored a military takeover, but said he wanted greater financial autonomy for the Beja, who were under-represented and marginalized within the government.
“A military coup is also unacceptable for us,” he said. “The people don’t want it and neither does the international community.”
Al-Burhan has expressed sympathy with the Beja and called on the government to respond to their demands.
The blockade has led shortages of fuel, bread and other essentials in some areas, and is reversing recent gains made by the government in taming inflation and increasing exports.
About a dozen trucks carrying several hundred Beja, who wielded swords and daggers and chanted slogans in Arabic praising Tirik, were seen entering Port Sudan on Oct. 17. They were observed by dozens of police officers, but there was no sign of military personnel.
Construction materials, wheat, sugar, electronic appliances and other goods are trapped inside the harbor, which under normal circumstances is used by at least 1,000 trucks daily, according to Bushra Abdulaziz, the secretary general of the Sudanese Logistics and Transportation Union, which represents thousands of truckers.
Maersk had 1,315 containers ready to be unloaded and another 935 waiting to be put onto vessels when port operations ceased, said Mohamed Osman Widaa, the company’s Port Sudan branch manager.
“We will need a lot of time to recover from this because you have to clear all stocks,” he said in an interview in his Port Sudan office. The shutdown will have a knock-on effect, with 50% of Chad’s trade passing through Port Sudan, and Sudanese farmers unable to access fertilizer and pesticides needed for the upcoming planting season, he said.
Port Sudan is located on one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, with access to the Suez Canal and Mediterranean Sea, and is one of a handful commercial transit points on the Red Sea that hasn’t had major international investment.
Emirati port operator DP World and companies from the Philippines, China and Qatar have, however, expressed interest in developing and operating Sudan’s ports.
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