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In the Shadow of Conflict: The Black Markets of Sudan’s War

Sudan's war economy seems to have expanded this time around, reaching new geographical areas, entering new markets, and involving more traders.

Some Chadian users on X, formerly known as Twitter, have been reporting a sudden increase of border markets of used cars in Saraf Omra, about 150 kilometers from the Chadian-Sudanese border. For seasoned second-hand cars smugglers, this kind of market is not a novelty, rather déjà vu: in the 2010s, those markets provided a pipeline for cars looted by the Seleka militia from the Central African Republic and by fighters in Libya. Used cars of all makes and models—locally known as “Boko cars”, in reference to the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram—have been flowing across the border through the regions of Darfur and the Northern state, into the rest of Sudan. In 2021, there were about 300,000 of those cars across the country

The ongoing war in Sudan not only revived the looted car market but also created new spaces where stolen goods from civilian houses across the country can be sold and bought. The war also introduced new means of livelihoods in the absence of regulation and policing. Even though Sudan’s economy has adapted to black market activities, this time around, the weak production of agricultural and industrial goods, the collapse of the banking system, and the state’s failure to pay civil servants has placed the economy in a state of paralysis. 

Experts argue that economic activities are about production and exchange, but in times of war “appropriation” becomes a viable source of income, as some individuals see theft as a more lucrative activity than the production of goods or the service sector. In the long term, this distorted economic behavior not only limits the state’s capacity to come up with sustainable policies but could potentially lead to the beneficiaries of these activities to reject any formal regulations, leading to even more violence. 

Those economic decisions reduced purchasing power, increased food insecurity, led to a disruption in public services, and impacted the population’s livelihoods

Long before the current war between the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), the Sudanese economy was in bad shape: it was dominated by military corporations, extractive industries with few rewards for local producers, and untraceable flows of trade with Sudan’s neighbors. Since 2018, the Sudanese economy has suffered from continuous currency devaluations and the fallout of the elimination of subsidies on basic goods such as wheat flour and fuel. Those economic decisions reduced purchasing power, increased food insecurity, led to a disruption in public services, and impacted the population’s livelihoods. The raging war has intensified these trends: the prices of basic commodities skyrocketed, as did rents, and the prices of other services such as transportation outside conflict areas, which increased 10-fold in some cases. According to locals in Darfur, people need to pay to be escorted by the armed movements to safer spots, and more than before, the business of human traffickers smuggling people across borders is booming.

New markets, recycled goods

Early on in the war, Khartoum and other large towns across the country were extensively pillaged, many by fighters from either warring party—mostly RSF, but SAF as well. Some of the looting was also committed by pre-existing criminal gangs, who systematically targeted homes of people who had fled the violence, and in some cases, civilians were forcefully displaced by looters themselves. According to locals from Khartoum, Wad Medani, and other towns across Sudan, fighters mostly looted cars and gold accessories. Culturally, Sudanese women hold great sentimental value for their gold, regardless of the amount. People purchase gold accessories as a way of saving money, and for those who can afford it, gold remains an essential part of the dowry, it is also passed down from mothers to daughters, consequently, when in need it is rare for women to sell their gold as a first resort, and many—my family included—hide their jewelry around their homes. Criminal gangs loot furniture, clothes, kitchenware, TV screens, refrigerators, and anything of value. 

Looters did not only target civilians and their belongings, but also industrial complexes and international humanitarian organizations warehouses. In many large towns across the country, World Food Program warehouses were the first to be emptied of their grains and food supplies stocks: three months into the war, the UN agency reported a loss of $60 million in food and humanitarian assets. All these stolen goods now have their own markets; Dagalo markets—in reference to Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, Hemedti, the commander of the RSF—controlled by locals who sell those stolen items have emerged across the country; and they have their own supply and demand rules. A TV could cost $10-$20, and a laptop could go as low as $5-$7 (2 to 3 percent of their initial prices before the war). Simultaneously, basic and necessary items are sold at record high prices in other places, in El-Obied, North Kordofan, two barrels of drinking water can cost $6, or an equivalent of a laptop in a Dagalo market.

Others have found other ways of making money: by salvaging cars, precious belongings, and even official documents such as passports and certificates from deserted areas in Khartoum or areas under control of the RSF. Based on personal experiences, either RSF soldiers, members of police forces (former or current), or adventurous civilians go to abandoned neighborhoods to recover items in exchange for a paid commission. A passport can be retrieved back for around $1,000, a four-by-four car could cost $3,000, while other valuables’ prices vary, and there are no guarantees on these kinds of deals. Another service provided includes having a person, or a team—mostly RSF soldiers—accompany a house owner back to their home to get what they need, and then take them safely outside Khartoum, for a considerable fee. The fee does not include payments demanded at the numerous checkpoints to get in and out of those areas.

Checkpoints have been used by various armed groups to impose their presence, collect unlawful funds, and filter who gets to stay or leave a certain area

Checkpoints have been used by various armed groups to impose their presence, collect unlawful funds, and filter who gets to stay or leave a certain area. Ali*, who recently left Central Sudan, recounts his experience with TIMEP: “both the RSF and SAF have deployed checkpoints with heavily armed members. When we arrived at a checkpoint, armed individuals asked for our IDs. The officer in charge then assessed whether to let us go or not, and at what cost, based on our occupation, appearance, and ethnicity. Normally, it costs around $10 per person to go through a checkpoint, but the price drastically differs if a Darfuri Arab ends up at a SAF checkpoint, or if a person suspected to be military intelligence is stopped at an RSF checkpoint. In some cases, the prices can be 10 to 15 times higher; in other cases, the person trying to go through gets imprisoned, to force family members to pay more to locate and free them.” 

According to Adam*, a resident in el-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur state: “moving from one side of town to another exposes you to numerous checkpoints, some run by RSF, others by SAF, and even others by people who dusted old Khakis, are carrying guns, and decided to make some money out of this checkpoint business.” According to him, a checkpoint in one of the main roads in el-Fasher can generate up to $300 a day. These forced payments that residents and merchants are subjected to has led to a rise in the prices of the goods in the local market.

One-way ticket at the price of 10

Even though Khartoum witnessed a mass exodus in April, May, and June, there are still millions living in the country’s capital who are subjected to near daily fighting, shelling, and aerial bombardment. Some inhabitants have decided to leave their homes, but many—the majority—are still trapped with no financial means to leave, or no place to go to. 

As the war ravaged Khartoum, regulated bus stations were among the first infrastructures to go out of service. In April and May of 2023, a ticket from Khartoum to Wad Medani (a 190 kilometer trip) had increased from $6 to $40, sometimes even more. A bus ticket from Khartoum to Cairo increased from $50 to $500. House rents went up as well, capitalizing on people’s vulnerable situation:, a two-bedroom section in a shared house in Kosti (in the White Nile State), Wad Medani (Gezira State), or Port Sudan (Red Sea State) would range from $2,000 to $3,000 per month, to be paid upfront in cash; before the war, a nicely furnished apartment in Khartoum would cost at most $1,500 a month. While many civilians fleeing the fighting had no choice but to pay these amounts, many others simply could not afford these prices. Khartoumers also headed to states where they had relatives or historical links, but for many families of Darfuri origins, heading back to Darfur was like escaping a frying pan into a fire. This pattern was repeated after the RSF attacked Wad Medani, the capital of Gezira state. 

Expatriate mercenaries

Sudan has had a fragile economy for years: in 2020, 85 percent of the country’s total labor force was already in vulnerable employment, dependent on daily wages and with no access to social protection. More than ever, many of those workers found themselves having to work within new market structures like the ones supplying ‘Boko Cars’ and other household items; this was done either by buying those cheaper goods or supplying them. Other people who are in dire need or former prisoners found their ways among mercenaries fighting with the RSF for cash payments and looting perks. 

As the demand for mercenaries continued, the RSF served as border guards, gold smugglers, and other services depending on who was paying

Just before the war, some of the two largest employers in Sudan were the RSF and the SAF. The ‘Janjaweed’, a tribal militia rebranded by the Bashir regime as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have used mercenaries. The Janjaweed originated from the ‘Marahil’, which was established by the Sudanese Armed Forces in 1985 to help fight a rebellion in the Nuba mountains. Back in the 1980s, SAF armed several Arab tribes—the Misseriya Humur, Rezeigat, and others. Over the years, Sudan’s central government deployed those militias: they fought in South Sudan, suppressed rebellions in Darfur, and more recently, guarded borders and fought as mercenaries with its allies abroad. For example, they fought with the RSF infantry deployed in Yemen with the KSA-UAE coalition: a soldier deployed for six months could make up to $20,000 per deployment. For perspective, in 2022, the average annual income in Sudan was $1,102. As the demand for mercenaries continued, the RSF served as border guards, gold smugglers, and other services depending on who was paying. With the current war, its new fighters are simply following an existing economic model. According to insiders, a soldier gets paid $600 dollars every three months, while an officer gets $1,000, not including unlimited access to war spoils, such as looted cars, gold and other valuables.

Income in jeopardy

After 11 months of war, many citizens continue to suffer from a worsened economic situation. From one end, civil servants are faced with high inflation with no access to their salaries, savings, or cash—the preferred means of payment, which is nowadays scarce. In Khartoum alone, 300,000 people are employed by the ministry of education, and schoolteachers in 14 out of 18 states have not been paid for months. The ministry of finance and economic planning has recently admitted its inability to pay full salaries; it announced in February that the state pays 60 percent of civil servants’ salaries. This comes at a time when the banking sector across the country is dysfunctional, with one bank managing to operate its mobile banking and the rest significantly reducing their operation after being subject to systematic looting across the country. 

On the other end, the agricultural season has also been jeopardized across the country. Across the rainfed sector in Darfur, many farmers could not access their land and others were forced to flee their areas. Those who were able to harvest were forced to pay tax or a percentage of their produce in order to go through checkpoints. Merchants in El-Obied, in Western Sudan, and Gedarif, in Eastern Sudan, two of the largest cash crops markets in Sudan, which usually have high contribution to exports, have reported a decline in the supply of the produce. At the local level, rotating communal markets, which are the main trading avenues between villages in Darfur, have mostly disappeared following waves of displacement and lack of proper security.

The continuous deterioration in the agricultural sectors exacerbates the situation of 24.8 million individuals, who […] are already facing the risk of acute food insecurity

The agricultural sector in Sudan employs 65 percent of the total population, many are in jeopardy as the winter agricultural season passes by. The Gezira Scheme, situated in central Sudan and one the world’s largest irrigated projects covering an area almost as big as Lebanon, is already in crisis. Farmers failed to secure enough fuel and funding, and missed the planting window. Their situation worsened as the RSF advanced toward Gezira State—it was later reported that many of the scheme’s assets were looted and vandalized. The continuous deterioration in the agricultural sectors exacerbates the situation of 24.8 million individuals, who according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs are already facing the risk of acute food insecurity. 

Brokering peace and mending the economy

Despite Sudan’s long history of wars, the war economy seems to have expanded this time around, reaching new geographical areas, entering new markets, and involving more traders. Now, 11 months into the war, many meditation initiatives emerged in the region and beyond. In December 2023, the mediation team in Jeddah announced that the negotiations between SAF and RSF had reached a dead end. On January 20, the Sudanese government withdrew its membership from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the east African regional bloc that has tried to mediate between the two warring parties. The most recent initiative, in Manama, Bahrain, has yet to yield any positive outcomes. Whoever tries to mediate in Sudan’s war, however, should be aware that any peace arrangement should encompass not only military matters but also cover the economic aspect of the war. The initiatives must help delineate alternative means for people to earn a living and in a regulated economy. Otherwise, these peace negotiations risk falling yet again.

Jawhratelkmal Kanu is an economist, program management expert, and a political economy analyst.


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