KHARTOUM – As the sun set over Khartoum, a group of Sudanese men walked into a bakery to buy bread ahead of breaking their dawn-to-dusk fast in the holy month of Ramadan.
“The price of bread has risen too much,” said Adel Abdelrahman as he bought a few loaves in a northern district of the capital.
“We are facing very hard days. . . . We are buying one loaf for 1 (Sudanese) pound when we should be getting five or 10 loaves at this price.”
It was a trebling of bread prices in December that ignited initial protests against longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir.
Five months on — and with al-Bashir deposed — citizens and bakery owners insist that the price of the staple remains too high, despite a drop back from a January peak of 3 Sudanese pounds per loaf.
The demonstrations first broke out in the central town of Atbara and quickly morphed into a nationwide movement against al-Bashir’s ironfisted three decade rule.
The army finally ousted him on April 11 after tens of thousands of protesters camped outside military headquarters in central Khartoum.
Protesters remain at the site, now demanding that the generals themselves step down.
Bakery owner Abdelrahim Mohamed said that although bread prices were the trigger that brought “people onto the streets,” citizens were also angry about other issues.
“Sudanese people are very simple,” Mohamed said, as behind him employees prepared fresh dough. “They want education, health and a safe life. Nothing more.”
For years resentment had mounted nationwide over a worsening economic crisis that saw inflation touch 70 percent earlier this year, while fuel and foreign currency shortages also bit hard.
The economy has been struggling since the south seceded in 2011 to create the world’s newest nation, taking with it the bulk of oil revenues and dollar inflows.
Al-Bashir’s government had long offered hefty subsidies on fuel, bread and several other food products, but these led to heavy budget deficits and became unaffordable.
To tackle the crisis Sudan introduced several austerity measures including cutting these subsidies, but this only fueled further anger.
“Al-Bashir and his henchmen have destroyed the country,” said Abdelrahman, waving around the packet of loaves he bought from Mohamed’s bakery.
The bread crisis was also fueled by a January 2018 government decision to stop importing grain, which left the task to private companies.
This led to a decline in the supply of wheat, in turn forcing flour producers to raise their tariffs and sending bread prices skyrocketing.
Bakers say bread is more easily available these days, with traders sourcing subsidized locally produced wheat amid the ongoing harvest season which ends in July.
“After this period, we will have to import wheat again — but a new crisis is not expected thanks to support from the state,” said Badr al-Jalal, a member of the bakers’ union, referring to newly hiked subsidies offered to importers.
Sudan, a country of about 40 million people, is a major wheat importer.
It ships in about 2.5 million tons annually despite its own domestic production of about 700,000 tons, said former Finance Minister Ezzelddine Ibrahim.
“Fuel, electricity and bread subsidies account for 35 percent of the spending by the state, which has tried to lower them by all means,” he said.
Ibrahim contended that for Sudan to pull itself out of the current malaise, it will need help from international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund.
Observers say that a $3 billion aid package offered by oil-rich Gulf states Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates since al-Bashir’s ouster is also expected to help tackle the bread crisis in the near to medium term.
The two countries have deposited $500 million at Sudan’s central bank, while they are also set to provide $2.5 billion for food, medicine and petroleum products.
Fatima Hussein, who works at Mohamed’s bakery, relies heavily on the free bread she gets from her employer.
“Others don’t have this chance,” she acknowledged.
“I have seven children and to buy bread for them I would need to spend 50 (Sudanese) pounds daily — I don’t have that kind of income,” she said.