The 2019 Sudanese revolution has offered a genuine possibility of stability and peace for the first time in decades. This is, however, highly fragile due to an ongoing and increasingly severe economic crisis, protracted displacement, political threats to the transitional government, and now Covid-19.
Sudan has experienced nearly continous conflict since independence in 1956, and has required external emergency assistance every year since 1984. Over the past fifty years, humanitarian crises in Sudan have been the result of inequality in the distribution of wealth and power between centre and periphery, of conflicts and displacement, as well as drought and economic crisis. Omar al-Bashir’s authoritarian regime created famine and food crisis in the peripheries of Darfur, Kordofan and the Red Sea State, in 1991, 1996, 2001, and a severe conflict-created humanitarian crisis in Darfur from 2003 onwards. After a decade rule shaped by Islamist ideology, by the 2000s the regime governed mostly through political patronage and fear, including the use of militia and para-military groups to fight off rebellions (e.g. the atrocities of the government-alligned Rapid Support Forces – RSF - in Darfur). Moreover, the despair of many youth, with the protracted nature of conflict, economic crisis, and corrupt government, resulted in migration to Europe and ultimately the popular uprising.
Last year’s revolution and the end of al-Bashir’s regime has offered real opportunities for change, with a transitional civil-military government committed to promoting human rights and justice, negotiating peace with insurgents and holding democratic elections after three years. If succesful, these changes will address many of the root causes of conflict and humanitarian crisis in Sudan. The Sudanese government has also become more open to, and supportive of, humanitarian organisations – which throughout al-Bashir’s regime were considered spies or political tools of the West. According to the UN OCHA’s latest humanitarian overview, access to crisis-affected populations has improved. At the same time, the economic crisis, stalled peace negotiations, instabilities within the transitional government, and the Covid-19 pandemic further compounding all of these, risk jeopardising these positive developments.
UN OCHA estimates 9.3 million people to be in need of humanitarian assistance in 2020 including 1.9 million Internally Displaced People (IDP) and 1.1 million refugees. Many of the displaced are in Darfur, the majority of whom have lived in camps for over a decade; and some of whose land remains occupied. New displacements continue, albeit on a smaller scale than in previous years, highlighting the fragile situation in Darfur. The situation remains fragile, as evidenced by a recent attack by an Arab militia on a displaced camp in West Darfur. The 2020 humanitarian response plan includes assistance for 6.1 million of the most vulnerable people, but only 20% of needs were pledged by April. An additional challenge facing the new Sudan Government is how to change a political economy in which those close to the former regime gained significant benefits from relief logistics and distribution. Few relief operations were succesful in the past.
The economic crisis is a key reason for Sudan’s ongoing humanitarian crisis. Throughout 2019, staple food prices were high, despite a relatively good harvest, resulting from local currency depreciation, high inflation and shortage of fuel and of hard currency needed to import agricultural inputs. Crop production in the 2019/20 season was lower, and food prices are continuing to rise. The high price did not support farmers, however. Where the harvest was good, it mainly benefited middle-men, brokers and exporting companies such as Zain Communication, and banks, who bought food grains at low prices and sold them two or three months later at a high price domestically or otherwise exported them. Large numbers of people are expected to face a food crisis or emergency conditions, with IDPs and conflict-affected groups being among those who are most at risk.
With conflict a key cause of humanitarian crisis in Sudan, delays in the peace negotiations and power struggles within the transitional government are also causes for concern. Reasons for delay include demands for a secular state, for compensation for war-displaced, and disputes over appointing civilian governors. At the same time, the UNAMID peace-keeping force in Darfur is due to end in June this year. Power struggles between the civilian Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), the military council, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF); each with different internal and external backers, increases instability and the risk of conflict. These struggles will be affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. The lockdown in Khartoum has already led to further disputes over governors and poses risks to the economy, which in turn raises the possibilty of further uprisings or even a military coup. The head of the RSF, Hemedti, according to some reports, is leading on the health response, and positioning himself as Sudan’s saviour.
Covid-19 will deepen Sudan’s humanitarian crisis, and may feed into geographic and social inequalities. As elsewhere, the health and economic effect of Covid-19 are likely to be felt most strongly by the displaced, marginalised, and the poor, who live in poorly-serviced and overcrowded areas, and are often dependent on precarious labour opportunities. Large numbers of people are reported to be moving from cities in central and eastern Sudan to rural areas in the west of the country. Within Darfur, the lockdown in Al-Fashir will make it difficult for displaced populations to supplement their limited food rations. Food production, trade and imports are also being affected. For many Sudanese, migration has long been a response to conflict, famine or economic crisis, but this too – and the remittances it can provide – has been affected by mobility restrictions and loss of jobs both at home and abroad (e.g. in Saudi Arabia). Internationally, border closures further increase the risks associated with irregular migration. Some will find ways to benefit from the crisis, as Sudan has a long history of conflict and famine with winners as well as losers.
In the meantime, the humanitarian response is underfunded and the Covid-19 response remains focussed on health and behaviour to reduce the spread of disease. The Ministry of Finance plans financial assistance for 80% of the population, to ease the effect of lockdown. Early food initiatives include WFP assistance to the MoF in the purchase of 200,000 MT of wheat to bolster strategic reserves, and to the Ministry of Social Development for food assistance to 200,000 families in Khartoum and 400,000 families in the States. In this, the transitional government faces a challenge of making sure the most vulnerable receive the aid, as past government assistance was largely according to political priorities and traders close to the regime benefited from the strategic grain reserve. It has the opportunity to lead both a local and impartial humanitarian response; but will need widespread national and international support in doing so.