The people of Sudan are accustomed to volatility, but even for them, the current moment is fraught with uncertainty. A convergence of social, economic and diplomatic unrest has sent Sudan into a state of anxiety, straining society and raising the prospect of new domestic turmoil.
On Jan. 16 and 17, protesters in cities from Darfur in the west to Port Sudan in the east took to the streets angry over the rising prices of essential goods. They blamed the government of President Omar al-Bashir for economic mismanagement and corruption. Inflation in Sudan is running at more than 30 percent, partly because the abrupt ending of wheat subsidies in December, combined with a ban on wheat imports, caused the price of bread to double overnight. The austerity measures were part of a 2018 budget that apportioned 75 percent of funds to security, while Sudan’s neglected health and education systems teeter on the brink of collapse. The security services offered a robust defense of their generous allocation by beating nonviolent protesters on the streets of Khartoum and other cities. Opposition politicians, journalists and several hundred demonstrators were detained, and the print runs of six newspapers that covered the protests were seized.
Following decades of economic misrule in Sudan, a moment of reckoning appears to be approaching. The Central Bank of Sudan, under pressure from the International Monetary Fund to undertake economic reforms, announced a partial floating of the currency on Jan. 19. The move was intended to close the yawning gap on the currency markets between the official exchange rate and the more accurate one on the black market. Instead, the value of the Sudanese pound has continued to plummet, officially approaching 40 pounds to the dollar, compared with 28 pounds at the beginning of the month. Foreign currency is scarce; factories are slowing production in the face of surging operating costs; essential goods are in short supply; and some shops have shuttered. Pharmacies in Khartoum have closed their doors because government price controls force them to sell medicines below the cost of importing them.