Iin the center In the Gadarif market in eastern Sudan, Mohammed Siddig counts the cost of last year’s turmoil. The price of the fuel he needs to run his farm near the Ethiopian border has risen by about 300%. He paid a 400% increase in tuition for his four children. However, just as unrest in nearby Port Sudan hurt farmers’ exports, the state-owned Agricultural Bank cut their subsidies. “It’s completely unprofitable,” laments Mr Siddig. Prices for his latest harvest of sesame and sorghum are about half what they were the previous year. Now he’s in debt, a point he emphasizes by slapping a bag of chickpeas he bought on credit on the counter.
Sudan’s economy, already in disarray, slipped into recession last year. While that may have brought inflation down a bit, it remains in the triple digits, one of the highest rates in the world. About one-third of Sudanese (approximately 15 million out of a population of 44 million) need emergency assistance such as clean water, shelter or food. United Nations. Nearly 12 million people are starving. Eastern Sudan, theoretically the country’s breadbasket, should fare relatively better. But successive rulers in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, have long left deep scars with neglect of the region. The recent crisis threatens to reopen them.
While price shocks sparked by Russia’s attack on Ukraine did not help, the main cause of Sudan’s political and economic troubles is its second coup, which came after protesters toppled brutal Islamic dictator Omar al-Bashir. To three years later happened three decades of domination of the country. The army, led by the current president, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, seized power in a massive uprising. While the demonstrations continued, the generals agreed to share power with the protest leaders and promised to hold elections in 2022. But eager to avoid a repeat of the fate of Mr Bashir (now on trial), they were quick to accuse their civilian partners of mismanaging the economy and public service. In October 2021, they staged a second coup. Protesters have taken to the streets almost every week since.
The coup accelerated the collapse of the economy. Western donors and multilateral banks withheld tens of billions of dollars they had pledged to rescue Sudan’s economy and support its transition to democracy. The government responded by raising taxes and cutting public spending, sparking waves of strikes and protests. “The economy has stagnated,” Volker Perthes said. United NationsSpecial Representative to Sudan.
Coups also made chronic instability worse. Instead of an iron-fisted order, crime and lawlessness have spread. More than 265,000 people were forced from their homes by violence between January and October last year. “The government is weak,” complained Khalid Musa, a businessman in Ghadarif, whose house was recently burglarized in broad daylight.
Worst affected is the Darfur region, where government forces and the Janjaweed have since renamed the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), committed genocide in 2003. But the east, especially Blue Nile state, has also seen a surge in violence against land and political representatives.
Part of the confusion is due to a power vacuum in Sudan’s poorer surrounding states. “The center has lost its grip on power,” said Waleed Madibo, a Khartoum-based political scientist. About 11,000 police officers resigned due to low pay. Others have moved to the capital. Because of this, “anyone can do what he wants,” said Abbas Bashir, a teacher in Gadarif.
But many suspect that politicians and generals themselves are behind some of the trouble. They have long ruled distant states through a network of provincial nobility and traditional leaders known as “native administrations.” These date back to colonial times and have been cultivated by Mr Bashir as tools of control. Many were unhappy that he was overthrown. According to a tribal leader in Gadarif, two-quarters of the state’s indigenous government backed the coup, hoping to restore the old regime.
What price loyalty?
“In Khartoum, some of these tribal chiefs are trying to play politics, or are being used to play politics,” Mr Potus said. In 2021, for example, leaders of the Beja tribe in the Red Sea state imposed a six-week blockade of Port Sudan, exacerbating food and fuel shortages in the capital. The blockade was lifted just a week after the coup. Prices fell in due course.
More recently, Mohammad Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, the vice-chairman of Sudan’s junta and arguably its most powerful man, has been striking deals in the east.notorious commander RSFThose from Darfur may have been attracted by the strategic importance of the region. Gadarif and Kassala states have fertile land and gold. Along the Red Sea are ports that Russia and backers of the junta in the Gulf are eyeing.
Hemedti visited the area last year, reportedly handing out Land Cruisers to tribal leaders in exchange for loyalty. Since then, the Beja High Council of eastern tribal chiefs responsible for the blockade of the port has split. Some have accused Hemedti of being behind the split.
In December, leaders of the civilian bloc and the junta signed a new agreement pledging to install a fully civilian government and hold elections within two years. If implemented, it should bring respite to Sudan’s economy by paving the way for foreign aid and debt relief. “If you look at it objectively, it’s actually a pretty good deal,” said one Western diplomat. As far as the generals are concerned, they are bullish. General Ibrahim Jaber, who is in charge of foreign policy, said the deal had been “accepted around the world”.
But the agreement also opens dangerous fault lines. Pro-democracy activists see it as a lifeline to the junta. They vowed to demonstrate until the generals stepped down. However, they found themselves in the awkward position of several peripheral state leaders who supported the coup. These include former rebels such as the current finance minister, Jibril Ibrahim, and Darfur’s new governor, Minni Minawi. They were unhappy with the agreement’s promise to revisit another deal signed in 2020 that brought rebels in Darfur and southern Sudan into a power-sharing government.
Also opposed to the agreement were tribal leaders from the east, such as the head of the Beja High Council Saeed Thiriq, who denounced the agreement as un-Islamic and a tool of foreign powers. He has drawn closer to disaffected Islamists from Mr Bashir’s previous regime. He has threatened to arm the opposition if his demands, including separate talks for the east, are not met. These threats may sound hollow now, but they cannot be ignored: until the mid-2000s, eastern Sudan suffered from a long-running insurgency. “Our assessment is that the center of opposition … will come from the east,” one person said United Nations Official.
Talks are ongoing in Khartoum to name a new civilian prime minister. Negotiations on thorny issues, including the prosecution of the general for genocide and crimes against humanity, will also begin soon. “We are very committed to transitional justice,” Gen. Al Jaber said. But satisfying a diverse coalition disaffected by Sudan’s fragile transition direction will be tricky. “Those who think they can rule us from Khartoum are deluded,” Mr Thireek said in a recent speech. The phrase has echoes throughout Sudan’s history – a reminder that little has changed since the fall of Mr Bashir. ■