The writer is co-author of ‘Sudan’s Unfinished Democracy’
Today Sudan is facing nationwide starvation and state collapse. Just four years ago, when non-violent protests brought down the 30-year dictatorship of President Omar al-Bashir, the country seemed to have a bright democratic future within its grasp.
But the hopes of the tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees and diaspora members who returned home were cruelly thwarted — by generals who sought power to satisfy their avarice and by a cynical international response that pandered to those soldiers in the name of stability. However, there is a chance to respond to the current crisis with a new financial model for diplomacy and humanitarian action.
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Fighting erupted in the capital Khartoum in April, pitting a conventional army headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan against paramilitaries led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as “Hemeti”. Since then, neither side has landed a knockout blow.
In the meantime, more than a million have abandoned their homes. Already an estimated 160,000 have reached Egypt. Eventually many will make their way to Europe.
In Khartoum — and increasingly in other Sudanese cities — people are dying of starvation, thirst, heatstroke and untreated illnesses in their own houses and apartments. Doctors and health workers are struggling to keep hospitals open. They need electricity, water, medical supplies — and salaries.
The conventional model for humanitarian operations is food convoys and emergency medical stations. Those may be appropriate for the crisis that is unfolding in rural areas of Darfur, but starvation in Khartoum warrants a radically different approach: delivering cash directly to people. For those who have money in the bank, this means mobile banking using cell phones. For those who have relatives abroad, money transfer services. For everyone, direct credit to their phones.
The technologies are tried and tested. Kenya has some of the most advanced mobile money systems in the world. Somali money transfer companies have experience in operating where there’s no functioning government. And aid agencies have increasingly moved towards cash as the most effective form of assistance. Sudan’s crisis demands that we take this to scale.
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Financial diplomacy can help unlock the political crisis too. For the generals, the battlefield is only part of the contest. The other more strategic part is money. Both sides need huge material resources to pursue the war. The Biden administration imposed targeted sanctions on military-related businesses But so far, these measures are a tool without a strategy.
A bolder step would be to support Sudan’s financial technocrats and set up an independent, civilian-run banking sector. This could include a central bank of Sudan independent of each of the warring parties. This has happened elsewhere, including Libya and (briefly) in Yemen.
When American and Saudi Arabian negotiators met the warring parties in Jeddah in early May, the belligerents represented themselves — not state institutions. Neither participated as the “government of Sudan”. There’s a vacuum waiting to be filled. And on the basis that, in this war, it’s the money men who are the kingmakers, that vacuum should be filled by civilian technocrats.
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Support from international financial institutions will be vital. Sudan will need a financial bailout and reconstruction funds. The country’s donors and creditors should start by putting those funds exclusively under civilian control.
Averting starvation and state collapse in Sudan requires cash-based humanitarianism and assertive financial diplomacy. We owe it to the courageous Sudanese civilians who brought down a dictator.