By Peter Schwartzstein, Journalist in Residence
At 10am on a midweek summer morning, the village of Hasa in Sudan’s River Nile state feels all but abandoned. Stray dogs idle in the shade; vultures peck at what remains of a cow carcass. Only in the Nile-side fields, where a few elderly farmers labor, is there any kind of activity. “This is the time when we need to prepare the land. There should be more of us,” the head of the local agricultural association said. “But everyone’s stopped farming. It’s just not possible.”
The scene is similarly disconcerting at the Souk Al-Shaabi, the main market in Omdurman, just across the river from Khartoum. Vendors here struggle to sell anything other than their cheapest produce. Shoppers barter extra furiously, ultimately coming away with many fewer goods than before. At the souk’s entrances, growing crowds of beggars plead for alms – or at least the odd morsel of fruit or vegetable.
It’s an ugly thing watching a country in the throes of a full-blown food crunch. But from farm to table, almost everything in Sudan that could go wrong has gone wrong. Small-holder agriculture is mired in its worst crisis in at least 25 years, while food prices across the country have climbed to crippling new highs. Some crop staples, like sorghum, cost more than double what they did at the beginning of the year. As these woes continue to bite – with little hope of any let up, urban and rural Sudanese alike fear that widespread hunger and possibly considerable unrest lie in wait. “This year is so bad that even areas you don’t usually worry about, I’m worrying about,” a senior UN official said.
Already, farmers up and down the country have ditched their fields in droves, leaving hundreds of half-empty ghost settlements in their wake. Hasa’s population has fallen from around 3000 to less than half of that since 2000. Over the same period, Khartoum’s numbers have more than doubled, mostly from incoming rural migrants. Among those who’ve remained on their land, crop yields are so staggeringly low – sometimes as little as 200 kg of sorghum an acre – that farmers can scarcely recover their initial expenses. Many have taken to living off remittances or rare bits of non-agricultural work instead.
In the cities, too, people are suffering. Meat prices have risen beyond the reach of even much of the middle class, as have many fruits and vegetables. Onions prices have risen threefold this year. A 50 kg bag of sugar that went for 300 SDP ($16) now sells for 1200 SDP ($65). In the increasingly desperate dash for affordable food, many families have changed up their diets, adding cheap staples, like pigeon peas, that they’d never previously tried. “First there were gradual price increases, but then things went up and just kept on going up and up,” Souad, a housewife in Omdurman, said. “Most people are adapting because they have no choice. But they are defeated.”
Crises like this are seldom shaped overnight, and Sudan’s problems have been brewing for decades. Starting with the oil boom of the 1970s, the state slowly lost much of its interest in agriculture, relying for the most part on energy revenues instead. It has offered farmers little to no finance, or even help with seeds or fertilizers – yet it’s shown few inhibitions about relentlessly taxing them. Farmers in Northern state estimate that up to 50 percent of their meager earnings go to the government. With its attention elsewhere, Khartoum has also allowed huge swathes of once-impressive infrastructure to collapse, all the while failing to build up much-needed storage facilities. 700,000 tons of crops, perhaps 10 percent of Sudan’s production, spoil after harvest, according to the World Food Program. At the 2.2 million-acre Gezira Scheme, Africa’s largest irrigation project, the intricate canal network is so clogged with sediment that water can scarcely penetrate many of the channels.
Then there are the rash of slow-burning environmental and climate change challenges, which have only become more debilitating in recent years. Away from the Nile, the rains aren’t falling as they once did, hugely complicating farmers’ lives. Blistering summer temperatures, which can top 50 C, are getting even more unbearable, a particular problem as the Sudanese diet has shifted towards wheat from sorghum and maize, which hold up better in the heat. And the desert is burrowing deeper into agricultural areas. This problem has been compounded as farmers have migrated to urban areas or, in northern Sudan, been lured away by the promise of quick riches in the gold mines. Without sufficient strength in numbers, many villages lack the capacity to combat the encroaching sands.
Events this year have, however, brought both farmers and food consumers to the brink. In late 2017, the Sudanese pound began tumbling, falling to around 50 against the dollar on the black market this summer. Given that most agricultural inputs and all equipment is imported, considerable extra costs have needed to be passed on. Tubs of urea jumped from 250-300 SDP last year to 600 SDP this year. Shortly after that, the country’s largest oil refinery went off-line, contributing to dramatic fuel shortages across the country. Diesel-powered water pumps idled, and much of the machinery that’s needed to work the 40-50 percent of land that’s mechanized or semi-mechanized was parked up. Unable to prep their land by the time the rains came in late July, farmers have left huge chunks of land fallow. FAO lists Sudan as ‘On Watch,’ with at least four million people deeply food insecure. Resident experts anticipate even more intense shortages into the new year.
So might this crisis finally prove the state’s undoing? President Omar al-Bashir has demonstrated remarkable staying power over his thirty-year tenure, and there’s every possibility that his regime will navigate these difficulties too. But coming at a time when Sudanese are already reeling from myriad other frustrations, this food crisis has put the country on edge. Six newspaper print runs were seized earlier this year for criticizing the government during a week in which bread prices doubled. Rapid Security Forces (RSF) are still stationed outside many gas stations, where mile-long queues of cars – and tractors – wait. In large parts of the countryside, where the state has forked over swathes of land, including prime food-growing expanses, to mostly Gulf Arab agribusinesses, villagers are up in arms against what they say is the appropriation of their grazing land. Khartoum has brutally suppressed dozens of village protests.
What’s more, no one, either in government or out, appears to have much of a solution to the raft of increasingly violent farmer-herder clashes that are gripping chunks of the countryside, particularly in semi-arid North, South, and West Kordofan states. Traditional grazing grounds and seasonal migration routes are shrinking – from 600 to 300 miles in places, and, in, desperate bids to feed their flocks, some herders are moving deeper into farmland. Instead of moving north-south with the rains, many are now going in east-west into the periphery of the Nile valley, further complicating the livelihoods of those embattled farmers. Already weak and with few resources at its disposal, the state has done little to blunt these clashes.
Through necessity, Sudanese have become extremely resilient, and from city to village, many are somehow adapting to these latest blows. “People are used to being harassed by the state. This food situation won’t change anything,” a doctor in rural Gezira state said. But for the political establishment, there’s an ominous precedent. The horror drought and subsequent famine of the mid-1980s is widely believed to have played a part in longtime president Gaafar Nimeiry’s downfall in 1985. There’s every possibility that food woes might once more contribute to the Sudanese state’s undoing.