Famine in Sudan

Alex de Waal

Adré food distribution centre in West Darfur, 29 February 2024. Photo © MAXPPP / Alamy 

The last time the people of Sudan faced a famine on today’s scale was in 1984. People knew a lot about the hunger that would follow after the rains failed for two years running. Older women who had lived through the years of scarcity in the 1940s knew a dozen varieties of wild grass, and many kinds of edible berry and root; they passed on these survival skills to their granddaughters. There was a name for every famine since the precolonial era. Abu Malwa was the year when grain was rationed by the smallest measure, Um Mukheita the year named for a common bush whose berries people were reduced to eating: they must be soaked in water for three days to remove toxins. Julu, meaning ‘wandering’, referred to the famine of 1913-14, when communities ranged as far as the Nile, or central Africa, in search of sustenance.

But the most catastrophic famine, in 1888-89, was simply called ‘year six’: it fell in 1306 according to the Hijri calendar. ‘The world changed,’ one elderly village sheikh explained to me in 1985. That calamity was brought on by a lethal mixture of cattle disease and the depredations of the Mahdist state, which plundered Darfur for materials for its treasury and men for its army – to fight Ethiopia in the east, Britain on the Red Sea coast and rebels in the west. No one knows how many died, but contemporary accounts describe entire districts desolate of inhabitants. ‘Year six’ has an echo of the Bengali term for the most severe famines recorded in oral tradition: mananthor, ‘when the epoch changes’.

The famine of 1984-85, which killed about 240,000 people across Sudan, most of them children, eventually became known as ‘Reagan’, after the US dispatch of food relief. (Aid workers and research students had to adjust to being hailed as ‘Reagan’ by grateful villagers.) That famine changed the Sudanese world too, though the repercussions took some while to become clear. As I later wrote in the LRB, the Bedouin chief Hilal Mohamed Abdallah saw that the changing climate signalled an end to the nomadic lifestyle of his people. Formerly the lords of the desert, the Arab camel herders became impoverished squatters on the leftover lands of farming villages.

Twenty years later the old chief’s son, Musa Hilal, gained international notoriety as the leader of the Janjaweed militia, killing, burning and raping their way across the land. Another twenty years on, the Janjaweed are no longer an auxiliary rabble but a transnational mercenary enterprise known opaquely as the ‘Rapid Support Forces’. Their leader, Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, known as ‘Hemedti’, defeated Hilal in a battle for Sudan’s most lucrative artisanal gold mine, at Jebel Amir in Darfur in 2017, becoming the region’s most powerful warlord. Were he to win the current war, it’s unlikely that Hemedti would appoint himself president. More likely, as the last in a line of Nile Valley freebooters who became kings or kingmakers, he would set up a puppet government, pocketing the Sudanese state as a wholly-owned subsidiary of his flourishing conglomerate.

The latest Sudanese civil war began in April 2023 with an attempted putsch by Hemedti against his partner and rival, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the Sudanese Armed Forces. Fifteen months on, the war has devastated the national capital, Khartoum, and wreaked havoc in Darfur and Gezira, the site of the world’s largest irrigation project, which is key to the country’s agricultural economy. For most of this time, the RSF has been on the offensive, with the SAF reduced to aerial counterattacks and occasional forays by infantry battalions alongside their own militia. The RSF is a looting machine, its forces plundering every town and village they occupy, while wantonly destroying public infrastructure, including universities and hospitals.

But the SAF controls Port Sudan and access to the sea. Last September the UN permitted al-Burhan to represent Sudan at the General Assembly, a decision that caused disquiet in Western capitals, and an unnecessary one: the African Union had already suspended Sudan in 2021 when the generals overthrew the civilian government. By recognising al-Burhan as the de facto Sudanese head of state, the UN dealt him a crucial card: it now requires his consent to deliver humanitarian aid. The SAF has no forces within three hundred miles of the Sudan-Chad border, but as the acknowledged government of Sudan, it has the legal authority to close the frontier and obstruct humanitarian aid not only by sea but overland into Darfur. The RSF’s arms smugglers take no notice, but the UN’s lawyers advise that aid convoys cannot move.

Perhaps 90 per cent of the hungriest people in Sudan are in the swathes of land controlled by the RSF, in Khartoum, Gezira and Kordofan but especially in Darfur. The SAF calculates, perhaps correctly, that if it can cut off food to those areas, the RSF will splinter or face rebellions from local militia. Barracks lore among the officer corps is that the Khartoum government blundered in 1989 when it allowed the UN’s Operation Lifeline Sudan to transport aid to rebel-held parts of the south. In their view, that allowed the Sudan People’s Liberation Army to supply itself, while foreign aid workers became champions of the rebel cause. Humanitarian aid was insidious: the nose of the camel entered the tent and in due course its body followed – the independent Republic of South Sudan. For an army struggling to make progress on the battlefield, starvation is a cheap and effective weapon, and the SAF intends to use it to the full.

On 27 June, the UN-accredited Integrated Phase Classification system for assessing food security (IPC) published a ‘snapshot’ of Sudan’s humanitarian crisis. It is, by numbers, the biggest in the world. Sudan’s population is 48 million, of whom more than 25 million are facing ‘high levels of acute food insecurity’, meaning that families are skipping meals and selling possessions to buy food. About eight million are in the ‘emergency’ phase, which means that many are scavenging for scraps and child death rates are edging up. More than 750,000 people are estimated to be in ‘catastrophe’, where they have nothing. IPC experts do not give projections for mortality, but these findings point to hundreds of thousands of Sudanese children starving to death over the coming months.

Many humanitarians are clamouring for the IPC to declare a ‘famine’ but it is hampered by a lack of robust data. Too much of the country is no longer safe for Sudanese or foreign NGOs, and cautious nutritionist-statisticians don’t like speculating about what’s happening where aid workers aren’t reporting on child malnutrition rates. Earlier this year, a team at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague calculated current food availability in every part of Sudan against the basic nutritional needs of the population. The results predict 2.5 million dead by the end of the year.

Measuring food crises by calculating calorie shortfalls is a last-resort practice. In 1984-85, the same approach predicted between 650,000 and two million deaths in Darfur. In the event, an estimated 105,000 perished. Others survived by eating wild foods, migrating to places where there was food or work, and selling their animals. Today’s Clingendael calculations take two key factors into account: that it’s harder to forage for wild grasses in a war zone, and that every neighbouring country faces food shortages too: there is nowhere for people to go.

Because the UN now recognises al-Burhan’s government in Port Sudan – in effect appointing the accused to the bench – some UN officials want to defer to him by ensuring that a famine is not declared. The day after the IPC report was released, Sudan’s ambassador to the UN, al-Harith Mohamed, issued an apocalyptic threat. Having dismissed the IPC numbers of starving as an ‘insignificant’ 2 per cent of the population, and blamed the food crisis on the RSF, he claimed there was an international conspiracy afoot to declare famine ‘from above’ as a pretext for ‘ill-wishers to intervene in Sudan’. Before gathering his papers and leaving the lectern, Mohammed added: ‘If you do this the Biblical Armageddon war is going to be launched in Sudan.’

To judge from recent form, the UN will tweak its office procedures in order to avoid using the f-word, or at least procrastinate, explaining that it doesn’t want to endanger its programmes and staff in Sudan. There’s a different office intrigue playing out in Sudan. Al-Burhan is primus inter pares of a group of generals and their patrons – some of them Islamists – who haven’t agreed their war aims and are thus in no position to negotiate with the RSF. Meanwhile they are agreed on a minimum agenda: no ceasefire, no aid across the front line. At some point, mass starvation looks likely to call time on this political parlour game, along with the ambitions of the SAF generals and Hemedti, as the Sudanese discover that the epoch has changed.


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  • 7 July 2024 at 12:33pm
    Jane von Maltzahn says:
    Thank you for raising global awareness of this on-going human catastrophe.