Khartoum’s lockdown

In Sudan's capital, security forces arbitrarily enforce a haphazard lockdown.

Central Khartoum. Image credit Hans Birger Nilsen via Flickr CC.

The global dilemma of COVID-19—saving lives or saving the economy—has even more layers in the crisis-stricken Sudanese capital. The power-sharing agreement signed after the December 2018 uprising between the “civilians,” comprised of opposition parties and backed by the revolutionary masses, and the “military” generals, who deserted the sinking ship of the former regime, is becoming an endless scene of rivalry and finger-pointing. The two parties of the transitional government not only possess divergent interests but also conflicting ones. Simply put, the success of this transitional phase toward civilian and democratic rule is a major threat to the decades-long military control over the country.

Although it is not clear if an Egypt-like coup scenario is on the generals’ minds, they have worked tirelessly to discredit their civilian partners. Khartoum, the pandemic’s hotspot, has been the stage for this standoff. In the capital, there are the officially declared lockdown measures: the ones enforced by the security forces and the ones followed by “formal” citizens. Then there are the ones navigated by the “informal” urbanites, as well as the numerous combinations of all these versions.

The civilian-led executive body, aware of the country’s collapsing health system, has pushed for the replacement of the partial curfew by a complete shutdown of the city one month after the detection of the first COVID-19 case in mid-March. At the time of writing, the number of detected cases has exceeded 11,400. However, the low case detection rate of 22.7% implies that more cases remain undetected. Officially, moving around the city for grocery and basics is allowed until 1 pm, but shops and small markets in our peripheral neighborhood in Al Haj Yousif stay open until midnight. You cannot cross bridges from one part of the tripartite city to the other unless you or your vehicle have a permit, but it does not matter who or how many people are in the vehicle, and official channels to obtain permits are not the only ones. Only essential businesses were exempted from the lockdown, yet JTI, the biggest tobacco factory in the country, has managed not only to secure operation permits, but also to increase its labor force per shift. Big markets are not allowed to open, yet in the early days of the lockdown, vendors were allowed in Al Souq Al Markazi (the Central Market) until 1 pm, then they were chased and beaten for not disappearing from the streets immediately despite the ban on public transport.

For the city dwellers, the COVID-19 preventive measures sounded like a cruel joke. Slogans urging Khartoum dwellers to “stay at home” were nothing but a reminder of the worsening status of the already poor urban infrastructure. The slack control that security forces are exercising over the smuggling of subsidized LP Gas, fuel, and bread flour to neighboring countries, or to the black market, have created snaking queues in front of petrol stations, bakeries, gas shops, and at designated delivery points. “Social distancing” is the last thing Khartoum is prepared for, with more than 50% of the city’s eight million residents concentrated in crowded informal settlements. In what seems almost surreal, police forces targeted these makeshift arrangements to “stay at home” in one of its forced evictions of informal residents to the south of Khartoum.

Even the remarkable efforts put forward by the Ministry of Labor and Social Development, to provide both in-kind and financial support for the “unstructured sector and for low-income families,” were significantly undermined by the poor governance of its distribution through neighborhood committees. In general, the heavy reliance of the executive government on under-resourced and nascent neighborhood committees—“the gift of Sudan’s contemporary revolutionary experience”—is clearly becoming a double-edged sword. Committee members have been selflessly supporting the civilian-led executive body in the control and distribution of many basic supplies, compensating for the deliberate failure by security forces to carry out these tasks. However, democratic processes and channels of accountability in these committees remain fluid; they vary from one area to another, and are tainted by political rivalries, making way for corruption.

Broadly, the stakes of the lockdown for the civilian population ranged from being a plausible measure to contain the pandemic, a temporary relief with the weakening demand on petrol fuels amounting to almost $200 million per month of subsidies, but also a threat due to the rising discontent amongst the daily earners. The military, on the other hand, in its passion for “states of emergency,” received the lockdown news as a godsend. Where and when possible, security forces arbitrarily enforce it, to the extent of shooting two civilians dead, boldly blackmailing the non-compliant, or ignoring pandemic protocol by joining the gatherings at tea sellers next to check points—reminding their civilian partners of who is really in control of this country.

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