Revolutionary squads guard Sudan's bakeries to battle smuggling

Bread was a symbol of the revolution -- an attempt to raise its prices was a trigger for the first major protests in Atbara.
Thursday 20/02/2020
Workers prepare bread dough before baking in a traditional oven at a bakery in Khartoum, Sudan February 16, 2020. (Reuters)
Workers prepare bread dough before baking in a traditional oven at a bakery in Khartoum, Sudan February 16, 2020. (Reuters)

As bakers in flour-stained clothes knead dough and slide trays of loaves into ovens in Khartoum, a cluster of yellow-vested volunteers keeps watch.

The goal of the self-styled guardians of the uprising that toppled Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is to stem smuggling of heavily subsidised flour and bread destined for citizens struggling through a long-running economic crisis.

Bread was a symbol of the revolution -- an attempt to raise its prices was a trigger for the first major protests in Atbara.

Flour and fuel are being siphoned off onto the black market, contributing to shortages that dampened spirits six months into a 39-month transition and left a weak civilian government struggling to respond.

"We are monitoring what enters and leaves the bakery -- the flour before it is made into bread, the bread that comes out, who it goes to, at what time and why," said 20-year-old student Mohaned Babeker, standing watch at the bakery in the Khartoum neighbourhood of Arkawit.

The volunteers have caught wheat or bread being smuggled out of bakeries in Arkawit. In one case, 2,000 loaves were being sold at triple the price outside Khartoum, Babeker said. The culprits received a police warning.

Bread is sometimes sold to restaurants at a 20% markup, a second volunteer said.

Volunteers have entered data on flour deliveries, bakery closures and smuggling into a mobile app piloted in Arkawit. They hope to expand their activities to flour mills and distribution networks and that the app would help reveal where smuggling and diversion of supplies occur.

"I think the fuel supply and the bread crises will be solved by collecting the right data," said Mohamed Nimir, a 31-year-old software engineer who developed the app.

The volunteers are drawn from "resistance committees" connected to the movement that mobilised months of street protests before and after al-Bashir was forced from power last April.

As the supply crisis led to lengthy fuel and bread queues in recent weeks, they deployed to bakeries across Khartoum and beyond.

Sudanese Trade and Industry Minister Madani Abbas Madani, who is responsible for bread policy and was a prominent figure in the anti-al-Bashir movement, publicly thanked the committees for their work, tweeting pictures of volunteers, including one who was asleep on sacks of flour. The ministry and the committees said they will try to pool their efforts.

The government retreated from raising the price of bread but Madani announced in mid-February that commercial bakeries where bread can be sold at a higher price would be expanded from April and that the size of fully subsidised loaves sold at 1 Sudanese pound (2 US cents at the official rate or 1 cent on the parallel market) would be reduced from 70 grams to 42-48 grams.

At a bakery in Khartoum's Al-Riyadh district, some customers waved the smaller loaves, lamenting their reduced size. Owner Hisham Sharfi said bakers had faced rising costs and dwindling supplies of flour and that the ministry should have set the size a little larger.

"The citizen queuing who sees this loaf says this is small. It's better he pays 1.5 pounds for a big loaf. It's more credible," he said.

Suggestions that subsidies could be lifted have angered some but opinions are split.

"My personal view is if the government removed the subsidy, it would (still) be better than the old regime coming back," said 55-year-old Salah Ibrahim, as he bought bread in Arkawit.

(Reuters)