Hunger and food insecurity have been far too common in Sudan. As severe drought and famine swept through East Africa in the 1980s, the Sudanese acutely felt the effects of these deprivations. Darfur, in particular, was one of the most drought-affected regions. About 20 years later, at least 180,000 Sudanese died from hunger and related disease during the Darfur genocide in 2003 and 2004. Many that survived the conflict still live in IDP camps, where daily life is incredibly difficult, especially for vulnerable groups such as women and children, who sometimes go the entire day without eating.
The worst drought in sixty years is again pushing East Africa towards crisis, as millions of people desperately need food. In Ethiopia, 10.2 million people have a critical need for food aid, while in South Sudan 2.8 million people face crisis-level food insecurity.
Sudan too faces hunger. In April 2014, the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) found that 3.3 million people faced stressed or crisis levels of food insecurity and that IDPs comprised about 80 percent of this food-insecure population. Further, the FAO raised concerns of a worsening humanitarian crisis, fearing that this emergency is “largely slipping from the radar of the international community.” The U.N. World Food Program (WFP) estimated that 4.5 million Sudanese face food insecurity due to conflict, lack of access to land or livelihoods, and rising fuel and food prices. Accordingly, WFP characterizes Sudan as one of the world’s “most complex humanitarian emergencies.”
In the Nuba Mountains, the Sudanese government combines a campaign of indiscriminate aerial bombardment with the denial of humanitarian assistance, effectively using starvation as weapon of war. A recent evaluation found that 80 percent of households in the Nuba Mountains survive on only one meal per day, leading to soaring rates of malnutrition among children. Continued fighting has exacerbated food insecurity by forcing many people to flee their homes and preventing farmers from harvesting or planting crops. A February 2016 U.N. Humanitarian Bulletin provides a bleak outlook, finding that 242 people, including 24 children, died from a lack of food and hunger-related illnesses in the last six months of 2015. The report also predicts more hunger-related deaths in 2016, as high levels of food insecurity will persist.
Although food insecurity is most evident in Sudan’s conflict areas, hunger is prevalent throughout the country. Displacement fueled by the recent military campaign in Jebel Marra has contributed to increased food insecurity in South Darfur away from the conflict, while the government’s economic policies have caused food shortages across Sudan that have had a disproportionately negative impact on the poor, including young children and students.
Last week, Sudan witnessed a different sort of hunger, as more than 30 journalists launched a hunger strike to protest the closure of El Tayar newspaper. Hundreds of supports greeted the protesters at the newspaper’s Khartoum office, where Khalid Fathi, the newspaper’s managing editor stated: “We want to draw attention to the difficulties faced by journalists and the restrictions on the freedom of press in the country in general.” This hunger strike was the first of its kind in Sudan, where the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Osman Marghani, faces the death penalty over spurious charges of “inciting an Arab Spring.”
Sudanese journalists endure one of the most oppressive reporting environments in the world, evidenced by Sudan ranking 174 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2015 World Press Freedom Index. As Sudanese journalist and human rights activist Faisal Mohammed Salih stated: “All over the world, the media shapes public opinion. Only in Sudan, when the newspapers disclose corruption or anything against the government, they get very angry.”
Although the causes of food insecurity and hunger are often complex, within Sudan, government policies drive these outcomes. The regime’s actions both directly cause hunger and suffering, such as through the denial of humanitarian assistance to civilians living in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, and indirectly contribute to food insecurity through misguided economic policies and a refusal to invest in the country’s healthcare or infrastructure.
The Bashir regime knows only personal enrichment and violence, relying on corruption, repression, and force to remain in power. Punishing civilians in the areas where armed opposition dared to resist this kleptocratic regime has long been a key element of its repressive strategy. Food insecurity and hunger is just a continuation of this strategy, as is stifling the efforts of journalists to expose official corruption and government wrongdoing.
Until the regime changes this strategy, the Sudanese people will remain hungry.
Photo credit: UN Photo/Hamid Abdulsalam