Sudan: Exasperated - Sudan's Economic Struggles Continue

Abdalla Hamdok when he served as deputy executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa.
analysis

Anyone in Sudan will tell you, falafel is one of those cost-effective food staples people buy routinely. But today, like the other days since the protests started against the former regime last December, few people are buying, says Sadiya Seror at her small market stall in Barakha Market in the capital's twin city, Omdurman. "These days people can only afford one meal per day," Seror explains, "if you want to buy a meal for your family, it will cost around 175 [Sudanese Pounds] -before 175 would cover a family of five for three to five days."

The civilian-led demonstrations that started on 19 December to present day in Sudan were originally in protest over the escalating prices of bread but harbored deeper resentments towards a corrupt, restive ruling party. While some political agreements between the protestors and military council are gradually developing, the economy continues to decline to more desperate levels. The long queues at cash machines and bakeries persist across the capital Khartoum just as it was before former president Omar al-Bashir was overthrown by the protests in April. Escalating fuel prices and political instability has inevitably added to inflation. In December one US dollar was the equivalent to 47 Sudanese Pounds -now it's nearly double at 70 pounds per US dollar.

Sudan's economy shrank by 2.3 percent in 2018 and has only worsened since then. According to economics Professor Hassan Bashir from Neelein University, Sudan's deficit between imports and exports is now US$5 billion; this is up from US$ 3.3 billion at the beginning of the year. Sudan's trade deficit is twice the annual budget. "The government's only tactic to address this was chasing around in circles between the official dollar price and the black market rates, without any structural changes to the economy," Bashir told Ayin.

"People used to shout at us over the high prices," says Muhyadin Mohamed, a vegetable trader in Barakha Market. "But we used to pay 80 pounds to transport our produce, now it's 250 pounds to get things to the market." A new phenomenon has entered Sudanese markets whereby people appear to be more price surveyors rather than customers, Mohamed added. "Now you have people asking the price and then they simply leave without buying anything."

But it is not only traders that are feeling the pinch. Yassim Ahmed leads a team of casual laborers in Omdurman and earns around 200 pounds per day (roughly US$ 3) -the highest one can expect in the current economy, Ahmed told Ayin. But it is not enough. Ahmed estimates he needs 250 pounds to cover the basics for his family. "We fight everyday for a meal. Our country is very rich, we have agriculture, natural resources and yet you can't eat or get an education," he said. "Everyday things get worse." Water no longer comes from the pipes in Ahmed's area as before and people rely on water from trucks, costing 200 pounds for a barrel of water. If you don't have the cash, you remain stifling in temperatures that can occasionally reach up to 50 degrees Celsius / 122 degrees Fahrenheit.

Ahmed originally came to the capital 12 years ago from the Nuba Mountains where a rebel faction has fought the Khartoum government intermittently for decades. Upon arriving in the capital, Ahmed has primarily built houses for members of Bashir's former ruling party, the same party that conducted indiscriminate bombing campaigns against villages across the Nuba Mountains. "For example, I worked on the house for Ali Osman Taha [former vice president], when you get inside the house, it's like you're no longer in Sudan." Seeing the lavish lifestyles first-hand of the political elite while the majority of the populace struggle with rising prices, Ahmed joined the protest movement with the umbrella opposition group, the Freedom and Change Coalition. He visited the protest sit-in outside the army headquarters before security forces brutally cleared the site on 3 June and saw what he terms a "new Sudan". "I saw a new Sudan after 6 April at the sit-in protest site, the scene made me feel like crying," he said, "a stranger would give you water, we shared everything at the sit-in, we ate together -this is like a new Sudan for me."

Starker periphery

Despite all the hardships, Ahmed considers himself one of the more fortunate ones, remembering his friends back in the marginalised areas of the Nuba Mountains. "If I am staying here in Khartoum and facing hardship, how are people outside of the city? For sure it's more difficult in Nuba and Darfur," he said. "Here there is education and health services but it's expensive, if you are in a war zone -there is no education or health, that is the difference."

Mohamed Al Mustasim comes from Sudan's second largest city, Nyala, in South Darfur and says prices have doubled, if not tripled, since last December. "A kilo of meat was 160 pounds and it is now 360 pounds, families are now working extra hours, often extra jobs, just to meet the current prices."

Political deliberations continue between the opposition coalition and the Transitional Military Council, leaving financial insecurity and rising fuel prices to exasperate citizenry further. According to a prominent member of the Sudan Professionals Association, the primary civil society group that led the opposition protests, Dr. Mohamed Yusif, high prices and low incomes may well affect people's ability to continue the struggle for political reform. "The ordinary citizen and his family rely on his daily income, if he is protesting and calling for civilian rule and never reporting to work, his family might well be affected."

A long, steady decline

However challenging the current economy situation may be, the roots of this crisis stem a 30-year stretch since the former regime came into power, says economist and Afhad University lecturer Siddiq Kaballo. Under the authoritarian rule of Bashir, government spending was either misdirected or misused. Sudan's 2018 public budget allocated at least 30% to the military although independent economists believe the figure is much higher, at around 70% -leaving little else for public spending. Meeting these military costs has only lead to further economic decline. "The government failed to raise enough revenue for the budget because of privatisation and a decline in production," Kaballo said, "opting to increase the quantity of money by borrowing from the Central Bank [of Sudan] and issuing new money without real assets."

Corruption watchdog Transparency International ranks Sudan as one of the most graft-ridden countries globally. The former regime embezzled funds from key government resources such as oil and gold, sold public assets cheaply to government supporters and Gulf businessmen and tendered projects based on political loyalty rather than performance, Kaballo told Ayin. The net result of widespread graft and a decline in production has been higher prices and stagnant salaries.

The protest period only accentuated this pernicious trend further whereby official estimates nearly half the population are below the poverty line.

Coping mechanisms

"These days people eat one meal per day, they forget the idea of three meals as before," Sadiya Seror says, still waiting for customers with a full tray of falafel unsold before her. A new local Sudanese term has developed --"wazna"--referring to a half of a quarter of produce since few can afford a quarter kilo of meat anymore, Sadiya explains. People, especially women are the most affected, Kaballo said, with many families selling whatever assets they have and working multiple jobs in order to survive. Gold is one of the first assets people are selling off to make ends meet. "People come to sell more than we buy, because of the situation we have been living in, " jewellery shop owner Bashir Abdallah said.

A political and economic solution is required if Sudan is to ever truly recover. According to Dr. Mohamed Yusif, they are working with economic experts to prepare alternative economic policies to assist people and revive the national economy. "We are working on two tracks right now," Yusif said, "to provide emergency aid and to identify programs to help restore the economy in the long term." But Kaballo believes these efforts are too little too late. "The opposition and military council have wasted valuable time since April when the ex-president was overthrown," Kaballo says. "The three months from April to July were very important to prepare for the new agricultural season which starts in mid-June. Though the military council says it has taken the proper measures for the preparation for the [agricultural season and that fuel and agricultural inputs are made available, several agricultural schemes and areas complain that no gasoline or inputs have reached them or that the quantities are insufficient." At the macro-economic scale, Sudan needs relief for crippling $50 billion debt, which will mean first getting the country removed from America's list of state sponsors of terror. But Sudan has been on the list for some time and, according to the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Tibor Nagy, this will take time.

Time is a luxury, along with most commodities, few Sudanese people can enjoy at this time. "Right now I am working three different jobs," Suleiman Ibrahim in Omdurman said, "while my elder brother has gone abroad to help the family. There's no time left for any of us to meet as a family anymore, just survival."

(first published on The New Humanitarian – https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news-feature/2019/07/25/sudan-protests-food-cost-living)

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