IN "A VERY RICH COUNTRY,' SUDANESE FIGHT TO GET BY

IN "A VERY RICH COUNTRY,' SUDANESE FIGHT TO GET BY

Inside the pink-stone, British-built treasury, Sudan's finance minister speaks of a healthy, self-reliant economy, targets met and a rosy future.

But outside the grandiose arcaded building, the flawed reality hits you in the face. People are angry and resentful. They complain of inflation, hardship and low living standards.Hyperinflation has hit this huge African country in recent years, impoverishing people and adding to the pressures on the Islamic government, in power since 1989.

The National Islamic Front, the ruling power behind Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan al-Bashir's government, says inflation is the natural result of radical liberalization.

Officials preach that the country is moving from years of living on aid to a new self-reliance, and people should put up with the transition.

OFFICIAL OPTIMISM

"Sudan is a very rich country," Hassan al-Turabi, the influential head of the National Islamic Front, told Reuters.

"In a couple of years we will be exporting oil. We have animal wealth. We have mineral resources, we have agriculture and arable land. It is going to be exploited.

"They are turning towards their own wealth. We're mobilizing people. We know there is a transition and we have to struggle," said Mr. Turabi.

With the certainty of ideologues, officials often brush off criticisms of soaring inflation. They say the rising prices only affect salaried workers, a minority in an agriculture-based economy where most people are farmers who have something to sell as well as to buy.

But ordinary Sudanese, who have suffered famine and drought since independence from Britain in 1956 as well as a 12-year-old civil war in the south, wonder how much longer they must wait as their living standards continue to decline.

TROUBLE IN KHARTOUM MARKET

At Omdurman market, a warren of shops and stalls that serves the capital, Khartoum, traders sit around in largely empty shops. Few people come in, and even fewer buy rather than just browse.

Othman Ibrahim, a tailor and father of six, sat behind his sewing machine with a bag stacked with gallabyas (traditional robes). They were made during the Moslem feast of al-Adha in May and still await the customers who ordered them.

But the customers have not returned, because they can not pay the $1.50 bill, leaving Mr. Ibrahim mired in debt.

"I am borrowing money from the merchant next door to keep going, and when the people come and pay me I will give him back his money. I even bought the cloth with a loan. I have been borrowing for months," Mr. Ibrahim said.

Ahmed Youssef, a merchant, said: "We're living on the edge. If we sell, we eat, if we do not, we cannot. I used to buy one kilo (2.2 pounds) of meat every day, now I buy a quarter of a kilo every few days. I don't buy fruits or sweets for the children."

STATISTICS SHOW GROWTH

Finance Minister Abdallah Hassan Ahmad sees things differently and has a string of statistics to support his case.

He said gross domestic product has increased annually by an average of 8.5 percent since the reform program began three years ago. Agricultural production has gone up, and Sudan now has a surplus to export, he added.

Exports increased from $300 million in the financial year 1993-94 to over $500 million in 1994-95. Mr. Ahmad said inflation was down to 56 percent in May from 130 percent last year.

Western diplomats attribute the success to good rain rather than to the government.

"The GDP went up because they had a good harvest last year. If there is a good rain, there is a good harvest. If rain is bad, it is a disaster," one said.

Sudan's foreign debt is officially $12 billion, though some foreign economists say it is at least $16 billion, equivalent to a staggering 30 years or so of export earnings. Foreign economists put inflation at more than 80 percent.

RADICAL ISLAM AND ISOLATION

Many traders blame the government's radical Islamic ideology, and the international conflicts it has drawn Sudan into, for their economic woes.

"Since this government came, we have had strong enmity with the West and a severe boycott by most countries. This government came out with policies that strangled Sudan. We became isolated, and this has deprived Sudan of many things," said a shopkeeper.

Khartoum has become more and more economically and politically isolated

from the West since the Islamists came to power in a 1989 coup with their militant brand of Islam. The United States lists Sudan as a state that sponsors terrorism.

The tussle with the West has cost Sudan an estimated $800 million a year in aid. Sudan's sympathy with Iraq in the Gulf War in 1991 added to its problems, depriving it of remittances from Sudanese expatriate workers who had to leave Kuwait.

But officials say people should appreciate self-reliance.

"Years back, this country was hungry. People were feeding us from abroad. Our economy is self-sufficient now," Mr. Turabi said. "Sudan is an independent country."