Streets of Sudan's capital are evidence of economic crisis

As political situation shows no sign of resolution, Sudan's 44 million people endure grinding economic pressure

A bakery in Khartoum, where state-subsidised bread is no longer available. AFP
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There is much less traffic on the streets of Sudan’s capital these days.

Gone are Khartoum’s notorious rush-hour traffic jams. Also gone are the long queues that have for years characterised the city’s petrol stations.

Cause for celebration? Hardly.

Petrol prices have more than doubled in the nine months since the military seized power in Sudan ― from 310 pounds ($0.67) a litre to 760 now ― forcing car owners to buy less petrol and cut down on the use of their vehicles.

Carpooling and communal taxis are becoming the preferred mode of transport for car owners.

And that is only one aspect of a deepening, multitiered economic crisis that has racked this impoverished Afro-Arab nation since a coup on October 25, testing the storied resilience of its 44 million people.

The Jarif West district of Sudan's capital, Khartoum. January 3, 2022. AFP

Sudan is not new to economic crises, having endured many since independence in 1956, but this one, say many Sudanese, is by some distance the worst.

“Things have reached a dangerous point and maybe heading towards an explosion,” said Mohammed Bakry, a businessman and father of three from Khartoum.

“You can endure a great deal, but not hunger.”

Ironically, the economy was finally showing signs of recovery in the weeks before the coup, thanks to inflows of western aid and an ambitious austerity programme that lifted subsidies from basic items.

Moreover, the coup has mired Sudan in an intractable political crisis. It has derailed a fragile democratic transition that began soon after the April 2019 removal of dictator Omar Al Bashir.

It also led to the suspension by the West of billions of dollars’ worth of aid and debt forgiveness desperately needed to overhaul an economy that has been ailing for decades.

The power grab also triggered a destabilising wave of street protests similar to those that forced Al Bashir’s generals to remove him three years ago. At least 115 protesters have been killed and up to 6,000 injured in the post-coup protests.

Sudan's military ruler Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan. Reuters

Led by army chief Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan, the military has so far resisted calls by the opposition to step aside and allow a civilian-led democratic transition to proceed.

For its part, the opposition is refusing to negotiate directly with the military, insisting that the generals step down and be held accountable for the killing of protesters since October.

With no sign of an imminent political breakthrough, economic hardship casts a dark shadow on the lives of millions of Sudanese who face a daily grind to meet their basic needs as soaring crime rates, chiefly theft, add another layer to the suffering.

Adding insult to injury, authorities have suspended “Thamarat”, an EU-backed subsidy system introduced by the civilian-led government toppled last October. The programme provided poor families with small cash subsidies to help them cope with the rising prices caused by economic reforms.

The tell-tale signs of an acute economic crisis are evident wherever you look in Khartoum.

The state-subsidised bread that costs five pounds a loaf, for example, is no longer available, forcing many to buy the much more expensive free market variety that sells for 50 pounds a loaf.

Many Sudanese households now bake their own bread, a traditional staple, consume less or eat homemade substitutes made from corn, which is cheaper than wheat flour, but only marginally.

The Sudanese pound since October has depreciated against the US dollar, which now costs 570 pounds compared with 430 on the eve of the coup.

The key traditional exports of livestock and agricultural products are sharply down, mainly because of the high cost of fuel and scarcity of imported production materials.

Inflation is in three digits at more than 200 per cent. Recent falls in inflation and the balance of payments’ deficit, according to Sudanese economist Abdel Wahab Gomaa, were caused by the economic recession, not recovery.

“Sudan has been gripped by a steadily worsening economic crisis since 2018. It got worse after Al Bashir’s removal, then during the reforms introduced by the transitional government and finally after last year’s coup,” Mr Gomaa said.

Many families in Khartoum say they are able to make ends meet only because of the financial assistance they receive from relatives or friends who work or live outside Sudan, particularly in the Gulf region or Europe.

In an indication of the despair felt by many, Khartoum has recently been awash with stories of moneyed families packing and leaving the country in search of an easier life, or maybe just less hard, in places such as Egypt or Turkey.

Those with less money at their disposal, the capital’s residents say, are selling their homes or renting them and leaving Sudan to start new lives elsewhere.

Painting an even grimmer picture of what is in store for the people of Sudan, the UN has recently warned that the number of Sudanese who will face acute hunger will more than double, to 18 million, by September.

With food becoming more and more scarce and less affordable, more people in Sudan are being pushed deeper into poverty and hunger, said a report by two UN agencies: The Food and Agriculture Organisation and World Food Programme.

“My salary is about 100,000 pounds, but I spend close to 300,000 to meet my family’s needs,” said private sector employee Mudather Mohammed Ahmed. “I buy things on credit and I borrow from relatives. But even then we have done away with so many things we used to have.”

Mother of four Wegdan Bouriqaa may be less unfortunate.

“There is no longer a correlation between salaries and what is realistically needed to survive in Sudan,” said the government employee who has recently taken up online sales to supplement her income.

“Our salaries [hers and her husband’s] cover about 30 per cent of our living costs,” she said. “We get some help from relatives in the Gulf. Rarely cash, but things that help, like clothes, stationary, school bags.”

Is she thinking of leaving Sudan?

“We are looking at Turkey. Thinking of Ankara, not Istanbul. I am just looking for safety for me and my family.”

Updated: July 27, 2022, 11:18 AM