Sudan: Poverty, social crisis worsen amid economic collapse

May 30, 2014
Refugees from Darfur.

Sudan’s people are bearing the brunt of the country’s deepening economic crisis.

According to Bella Bird, World Bank director for Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan, half the population is now living below the poverty line. Last August, Sudanese economist Hassan Satti estimated the real figure would likely exceed 95%.

Prices for fuel and food staples have been steadily rising. The price of bread has doubled in the past year alone. At the same time, real wages have declined. The minimum wage is below US$50 a month, but many earn less. Sati estimates that wages cover just 5% to 6% of family expenses.

Running out of options, people are selling household items and even parts of their houses, such as doors and windows, to pay for food. Children are forced to leave school and find work to help their families survive. Many families are entirely dependent on remittances from relatives working overseas.


Millions of people have left Darfur, in the country’s west, where a government-backed war has been waged for the past decade. They arrive in Khartoum with nothing to sell, no jobs and no money to feed their kids.

More than one million people have been displaced in the past three years as a result of military offensives in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states. This has swelled the ranks of the unemployed and impoverished in the cities, and halted production in food growing areas in those states.

The public health system has collapsed, with no adequate treatment available in public hospitals and nothing offered for free. People are dying in emergency wards due to lack of life-saving equipment and medical personnel. Those who can afford it, attend expensive private hospitals owned by government officials.

The number of children dying of malaria is on the rise. Previously eradicated diseases, such as typhoid, have returned with a vengeance. Preventable deaths, such as women during childbirth, are rising.

Wages and working conditions for doctors are so poor that most have left Sudan. Many now work in Saudi Arabia for no more than US$1000 a month.

Desperate poverty has led to rising levels of crime, and there is little security. Outside Khartoum, where infrastructure and services are limited or non-existent, the picture is considerably worse. Last month alone, 3000 teachers applied to transfer to Khartoum, as life beyond the capital becomes increasingly unsustainable.

Thousands of people are fleeing Sudan every day, in search of a better life elsewhere. The government says it issues 3000 exit visas each day, but many people leave without official documentation. Some have died in the desert as they attempt to reach Libya.

NCP rule

The crisis is a manifestation of 25 years of National Congress Party (NCP) rule.

The regime, led by President Omer al-Bashir, came to power in the 1989 National Islamic Front coup. At the time, the economy was dependent on agriculture, with major farming projects producing cotton, sesame, sorghum, ochra and gum arabic.

Under state farming schemes (including the largest, the Jazeera Project), farmers owned and worked their land. The government provided water, machinery, fertiliser and other essential materials. The output was shared between farmers and the government.

However, once in power, Bashir’s regime began targeting this sector for privatisation. Machinery was sold off, forcing farmers to hire it.

Banks attached unfair terms and conditions to loans, including the requirement to grow wheat, a crop unsuited to Sudan’s climate. Farmers were increasingly burdened with national, state and local taxes, as well as illegal taxes.

Gradually, more and more farmers were forced to leave their land and head to the cities to look for work. The cotton factories were sold off and the vibrant cotton export industry came to a halt. Only 10% of the land used for the Jazeera Project is now productive.

The discovery of oil in the mid-1990s provided the regime with an avenue for quick profits. Economic development and planning in other areas were abandoned.

Free market ideology was rampantly pursued and the government sold off infrastructure at cheap prices. Collective spaces were actively dismantled, from the Jazeera Project to the unions.

The working class was fragmented as hundreds of factories were closed down, inflating the informal sector and raising unemployment. Sudan’s railway network — once a stronghold of the Sudanese Communist Party-led railway union — was almost entirely destroyed. Today, infrequent train services run on only a handful of lines.

With he income generated from oil export, corruption to flourished unchecked, aided by ongoing economic deregulation. Money laundering became a common pastime for government officials.

Internal security forces have been implicated in arms and drug smuggling. Some 85% of economic activity is officially unaccounted for.

Under the government’s extensive cronyism, people were installed in positions of power and responsibility on ideological grounds, without the necessary skills or qualifications.

This “one-party” culture continues to prevail, and only members of the ruling NCP (or those who are careful not to oppose it in any way) gain employment in the public sector.


To maintain its rule, the regime channelled about 80% of its income to security forces, including militias of armed thugs mandated to terrorise the people. Even after the end of the three-decade-long north-south civil war in 2005, military and security budgets continued to account for the overwhelming majority of government spending.

This spending funds the regime's wars in various outlying regions, including Darfur, as well enforcing the NCP’s agenda by brute force on an increasingly unhappy population.

The government operates a perpetual “war budget”, without explaining or justifying how much is spent on its killing machine. Bashir’s latest expenditure has been to install the 3000-strong Rapid Support Force in Khartoum. This militia is composed of Janjaweed fighters, known for their brutal role as the government’s proxy force in the war in Darfur.

Their leaders are receiving high incomes and are established in offices in the capital. National Umma Party leader Al Sadiq al-Mahdi was arrested and jailed on May 17 for pointing out their crimes, including kidnapping, rape and murder.

After South Sudan won independence in 2011, Bashir’s government was faced with a sudden loss of more than 70% of its oil income. There was no forward planning by the government to find replacements for this income, and its loss sped up the economic collapse. Prices rose dramatically.

The regime tried to retain some of South Sudan’s oil profits by enforcing unfair prices for the use of Sudan’s refineries and export infrastructure. Other ad hoc avenues for generating income were also pursued, such as gold mining.

Rather than any organised, large-scale mining, people who are able to obtain gold detecting instruments conduct random searches. The government then buys the gold at high prices (printing money at will) and sells the gold cheaply to obtain foreign currency. This has contributed to the rapid decline of the Sudanese pound.

This gold rush has had devastating impacts on the environment and the health and safety of workers involved. Unskilled miners have died operating heavy machinery without adequate safety equipment, in areas where it is unknown whether it is suitable land for digging.

In northern Sudan, ancient archaeological sites have been destroyed, and precious historical relics have been dug up and sold off.

Debt repayments were made by obtaining new foreign loans. The West turns a blind eye to the regime’s crimes against its people as long as it maintains control and follows the austerity plans determined by the international financial institutions.

Sudan’s economy, however, cannot recover while the regime remains in power.

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