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Sudanese go hungry as prices spiral upward in wake of coup

CAIRO (AP) — Each day brings new financial burdens for Ikhlas Zakaria, a single mother of six who sells cups of tea at a roadside stand in a provincial town in Sudan. Prices for basic goods have skyrocketed, and at times she can only provide one meal a day for her children.

The cost of the water she boils for tea has doubled. Two of her children dropped out of school a few months ago to work in the fields, but their earnings are shrinking as dry spells hurt harvests.

“The situation has become impossible,” said Zakaria who lives in the war-ravaged Darfur region and whose husband left several years ago.

Across Sudan, living conditions have rapidly deteriorated since an October military coup sent an already fragile economy into free-fall. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and currency devaluations have compounded the economic pain.

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The Oct. 25 military takeover upended Sudan’s transition to democratic rule after three decades of repression and international isolation under autocratic President Omar al-Bashir. The African nation has been on a fragile path to democracy since a popular uprising forced the military to remove al-Bashir and his Islamist government in April 2019.

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The coup also stalled two years of efforts by the deposed government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to overhaul the economy with billions of dollars in loans and aid from major Western governments and international financial institutions. Such support was suspended after the coup.

The previous government also floated its currency to stop black market trading.

“The economy has been shrinking since the revaluation and this has been exacerbated after the coup,” said Sabna Imam, a Sudanese economics researcher at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

But a more recent devaluation has pushed prices higher: In March, the Sudanese pound slipped further, at one point trading at 800 to the dollar. It recovered some value but by then the damage was already done.

It triggered dramatic price increases for bread, fuel, electricity, medicine, health care and public transportation. In February, inflation reached nearly 260%, according to the country’s census agency. Such figures are expected to be even greater for March.

Volker Perthes, the U.N. envoy to Sudan, warned last month that the country is now at risk of missing critical World Bank and International Monetary Fund deadlines and the prospect of some $50 billion in debt relief is no longer secure.

“The combined effects of conflict, economic crisis and poor harvests will likely double the number of people facing acute hunger to about 18 million people by the end of this year,” he told the U.N. Security Council.

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Many of Sudan’s more than 45 million people are already living in poverty.

In Nyala, West Darfur’s provincial capital, where Zakaria lives, the price of sugar and petrol is twice what it was weeks ago. To make ends meet, Zakaria raised the price of a cup of tea by 50%. Some of her customers can’t afford that now.

In the capital of Khartoum, relentless anti-coup protests have paralyzed the city as protesters barricade streets to pressure the generals. With the latest bout of inflation, people were forced to cut their consumption by half, according to Ahmed al-Tayeb, who sells groceries in one of the city’s main markets.

He said he’s seen significant shortages in basic goods partly because of the closure of main highways linking the capital to Red Sea ports and the Egyptian border to the north.

Two U.N. agencies — the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization — are warning that the worst is yet to come.

The FAO said 5.6 million people are affected by the dry spells in addition to the 9.8 million people who are food insecure due to the economic crisis. It said this season’s rain level in most provinces is less than normal, with lengthy dry spells expected into the summer.

The two agencies said recent bouts of violence in the Darfur and Kordofan regions have damaged farms and left many jobless.

“In Sudan, we are currently sailing into the perfect storm,” said Carl Paulson, the WFP’s head of program in the country. He said a number of factors are to blame, most recently Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The invasion has driven up prices of fuel and food worldwide, but this is a bigger issue for poor countries in Africa and the Middle East, which depend heavily on imports to feed growing populations. Russia and Ukraine are the source of 87% of Sudan’s imported wheat.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said more than $1.9 billion is needed in 2022 to provide assistance and protection to 14.3 million people in Sudan.

Sudan has for years struggled with an array of economic woes. The country was plunged into an economic crisis when the oil-rich south seceded in 2011 after decades of war, taking with it more than half of public revenues and 95% of exports.

Sudan was also an international pariah after it was placed on the United States’ list of state sponsors of terror early in the 1990s. This largely excluded the country from the global economy and prevented it from receiving loans from international institutions like the IMF.

Former President Donald Trump removed Sudan from the blacklist after the transitional government agreed to pay $335 million in compensation for victims of attacks carried out by Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network while the terror leader was living in Sudan. The removal also was an incentive for Sudan to normalize ties with Israel.

Imam, the economic researcher, said Sudan had been expecting $700 million in the 2022 budget in foreign loans and aid to ease the burden of austerity measures, including the currency flotation and slashing of subsidies for bread and fuel.

But with suspension of such aid, the military-led government has increased taxes and other fees by 145%.

“This adds to people’s sufferings,” she said.

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