Poverty in Sudan: The Oil Curse

December 10, 2011
The all-pervasive and desperate state of poverty in Sudan affects a population of 44 million inhabitants. With around 500 to 600 ethnic groups, the federal state of Sudan is the ethnically most diverse country in the world but also a pretty unstable one.

In the region of Darfur alone, there are about 30 to 150 different tribes, highlighting the difficulty to follow and study these populations. If it looks quite suspicious that the country doesn’t rank at the bottom in terms of human development according to the UN, it’s because they found out the presence of oil in the country some 30 years ago (which artificially ranks it higher in the list). More surprising though is the fact that the nation-state has survived after 50 years of civil war. And that after decades of war, the presence of oil still shadows (by far) the problem of poverty in Sudan.

Poverty in Khartoum

Poverty in Khartoum Sudan
‍Poverty in Khartoum

The level of poorness in the capital of Sudan, Khartoum, is a radical conflict in itself if any improvement is to be made. The city’s population more than tripled in only 20 years, but close to no plan was undertaken by the government to… well… accommodate this influx of newcomers. You could call that a national program for the establishment of slums, true. All cynicism left aside, with “only” 2 million residents the problem is in a way not as acute as in neighboring countries.

It’s a matter of involving the government, private sector and inhabitants altogether in order to meet the society’s needs. But as poverty extends to more and more people, so does the phenomenon of catch-as-catch-can way of living and people gradually lose trust in the formal economy and “normal” ways of making a living. Registering one’s business, having a regular pay checks, pay taxes, etc…

What's more, the government lacks the most elementary data on poverty in Sudan, and in particular in Khartoum. Even when such information is available, institutions simply lack government support in terms of funding, decision-making power and general efficiency. Most speeches about job creation and fighting inflation are only there to pay lip service.

Privatization alone won't 

In the ongoing privatization process, the government should have paid attention to the fact that public companies benefit from privatization, which helps increase their efficiency and profitability, as long as they are overhauled to adapt the market and sustained by new investments. If not… they simply can't survive market competition, which leads to massive joblessness. And that's exactly what happened.

From indebted companies to those with age-old facilities, it’s likely that many could have not been rescued anyway, but little was made to help anyway. Facing the ineluctability, close to nothing has been done to limit the impact of the large-scale lay-offs: no social safety nets, compensation, job creation, or whatever plan to limit the number of people affected, etc…

In agriculture, privatization was a catastrophe. As the federal state abolished all grants and subsidies to farmers (even those aimed at modernizing the agriculture), local governments and households were simply out of resources and obviously in no position to make a loan. Therefore they found themselves unable to enhance the productivity of the sector, something that the country direly needs to do.

Overall, the privatization of the economy benefited very little to the government so far: poverty in Sudan has skyrocketed because of the rising unemployment, and fiscal contribution has been pretty scanty as some analysts observed that over 70% of companies were suspected of not paying any taxes (thanks to lack of private sector monitoring). It’s easily understandable then that the state can’t help its jobless citizens since it has no money to do so.

The conflict in Darfur

Impact of conflict & war in Sudan
Impact of conflict & war in Sudan

From the colonization of Sudan in 1916 to decades after its independence (1956), this remote region never got much attention, if none at all. It’s only in 1979 when oil was discovered in Darfur that things radically changed. However the locals were naturally not so keen on giving the oil away to Khartoum considering how their entire region was completely neglected for so long.

Droughts have affected the country for a long time and little was ever made to help the agriculture in Darfur, so that significant protests took place against the government which in turn resorted violent repression. The vicious circle had just started, directly fueled by oil and power relations.

When the provincial governor of Darfur Ahmed Ibrahim Diraige founded the Darfur Development Front in 1963 and the Sudan Federal Democratic Alliance in 1994, he spearheaded the first movement asking for more equitable participation in federal parliaments of all principal religions and ethnic groups. The creation of the Darfuri Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and its armed wing, the SLA (Sudan Liberation Army) in 2001 is an indirect part of his legacy.

The new movement was committed to continue Diraige’s efforts toward a more democratic representation of Sudan’s extremely diverse population including a better distribution of resources and increased autonomy for each province. While that sounds like rightful and fair policies that would help reduce poverty in Sudan, the SLA on the other hand is more of a secessionist movement. Considering the value of an oil-rich Darfur, the government chose to send the army.

Genocide in Darfur
Genocide in Darfur

Problem is that, being already busy with conflicts in South Sudan (see next section below), it decided to ally with the Arab militias Janjaweed which then became some sort of government-funded massacre-licensed special forces. And those troops were also granted support by important air raids that bombed entire areas of the region. They remain up to this day one of the main sources of butchery and displacement on Earth. In 2005 the UN and international pressure pushed the government to arrest military personnel responsible for war crimes including mass killings, rape and burning villages.

To give you some numbers, an estimated 180,000 people had died of poverty (hunger, disease) before 2004 when the conflict finally got the attention of world leaders (UN warning on “atrocities”, Powell declaring it a genocide, reports of the death of 70,000). As of 2005, international institutions declared that some 140,000 people had suffered violent death out of about 400,000 deaths in excess in the population. That leaves a few millions dead because of poverty.

As for displacement, the approximation is of 1.6 million, along with more than 200,000 who fled to the neighboring country of Chad. The UN approximated that over 2 million people (other than the displaced) were affected by the conflict in the year 2004. The following year this number rose to near 3.5 million. 

The conflict generated new issues: markets collapsing, widespread robbery and plunder, lack of access to resources and water, and to crown it all droughts struck the region at the same time. While this may look like more "usual" poverty in Sudan (considering the decades of civil war), new clashes emerged everywhere from this situation over the control or simple access to water and land. Weak and late international response helped this whole thing last for quite a time.

This is partly due to China stalling the situation until it eventually took the decision to act. The reason for China to actively but covertly support the Sudanese government (by selling it weapons) is that it has extremely important contracts to import oil from Darfur. But markets for oil and arms being global and tremendously profitable it’s likely that any other country could have taken its place at the time.

South Sudan: a never ending civil war?

The region of South Sudan has been torn by intermittent conflicts ever since the country’s independence. Since there has never been a population census over there, it’s been rather difficult to provide any figures about the impact of the civil war on the population and the state of poverty in Sudan. What’s sure is that it has affected the population as a whole, poor and better-off alike. The latter find themselves in somewhat better situation than the former but close to no one could avoid problems like food shortages in the region. This in turn created more clashes, more displacements and so on.

Although tensions remain high, a peace agreement was finally signed in 2005 and was planning a progressive demobilization and demilitarization of people enrolled. Among them some 20,000 child soldiers of the Southern Sudanese army who have been “relieved of duty” in 2010. In January 2011, South Sudanese have finally voted to separate from the North (independence to be declared in July this year). New clashes have occurred since then, there were fears that the war could break out again. But on the 9th July 2011 South Sudan peacefully became an independent country.

From 2005 to 2010, new funds were allocated to develop the South and its oil revenue, thus the peace agreement was a great opportunity to develop the agriculture of this humid area and turn it into a potentially very sustainable and productive one. But political commitment from Khartoum to help the South catch up was very much limited to words and a few actions. With about 40% of the population living in this part of the country, there was but a glimmering chance for taking millions out of poverty in Sudan in the absence of a comprehensive and united effort to develop the region. The new country may offer fairer foundations to change things for the better.

Oil in Sudan: blessing or curse?

Poverty in Sudan: fuelled by an oil curse?
‍Poverty in Sudan: fuelled by an oil curse?

On the (dim) bright side, the presence of oil in Sudan has brought intense attention from the international community and especially the powerful nations. Everyone took interest in ending the conflict and planning a future for the country. On the other side the countless political divisions have spurred appropriation of resources at the local level and caused new clashes.

Even Khartoum remains pretty opaque regarding its resource management and never appeared ready to  give up its oil revenues that easily. 

Injustices, grudges and protests are likely to keep on fueling armed conflicts, thus threatening the stability of the two countries and throwing countless more people into poverty in Sudan (North and South).

Little effort has been made to stop the growing, oil-induced social turmoil and corruption that affect the whole region. Even though Sudan has now more revenue than it ever had thanks to this very oil trade… the most simple thing to do would be to fund some social assistance to overcome land issues and poverty in Sudan and thus the extent of social unrest.


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Dario Berrebi

Digital strategist, researcher & filmmaker. 

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