The Economics of Civil War – Addressing the Sudanese Stalemate

Economics student David Bowman asks Dr Anirban Mitra about the economic status-quo of Sudan and some potential solutions.

Photo by Abdulaziz Mohammed

‘As an undergraduate student here at Kent, we are lucky enough to be part of a community of global economists from far reaches of the globe. This includes Dr Anirban Mitra, Senior Lecturer of Political Economy and Development Economics, who I approached about how the current conflict in Sudan, viewed through the eyes of economics.

Two rival generals both vying for power in the country has meant that civilians have been caught in the crossfire. The country has been plagued by a series of military coups and political upheavals, with the latest coup in October 2021 leading to a violent power struggle that has left the country deeply divided. Recent attempts at peace talks between the two sides have broken down, leading to a month of rough, urban fighting with the humanitarian situation having rapidly deteriorated. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced, with many fleeing to neighbouring countries as violence continues to escalate. Tribal, ethnic, and religious tensions are at the heart of the violence along with competition over land and water resources. 

This is the latest in a long line of conflicts, with the country being in civil war for the majority of the latter 20th century. Characterized by widespread human rights abuses, displacement of populations, destruction of infrastructure and exacerbated existing ethnic & religious tensions, the protracted infighting was ended in 2005 by the signing of Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Although this halted over 30 years of conflict, the issues that led to the dissention remain unresolved.   

Dr Mitra pointed out that this chaotic instability has had dire effects on Sudan’s economy. “Any economy in the midst of conflict is clearly unhealthy. It has adverse long-term costs, such as through the loss of infrastructure, decreased productivity, and additionally dissuades investment.” Furthermore, there is clear evidence supporting the fact that it is those marginalised, vulnerable groups (such as women and children) who are most affected by conflict, often experiencing displacement, violence, and limited access to essential resources such as food, water, and healthcare. The conflict has also led to a loss of confidence in the country’s political institutions, making whatever investment opportunities remained even more difficult to obtain.” 

He suggested that a change in Sudan’s political or institutional structure could begin to help. Sudan is a geographically advantaged and resource rich country, exporting raw petroleum, gold, and agricultural products like nuts, seeds, and livestock to its wealthy neighbors and partners, thus institutional reform could help to further improve its global bargaining power. It can be argued though, that this same resource advantage is perhaps also one of the reasons for its instability, if we are to consider the theory of the Paradox of Plenty – which states that resource-rich countries tend to fare worse in political and economic terms than those which lack such resources.  

However, when comparing wealthy resource-rich countries to poor resource-rich countries, we notice that wealthier ones are more production-friendly, and less corrupt as they lack institutional rent-seeking behaviour (when a person or group attempts to gain wealth without a productive contribution). “Compare Sudan to Australia or Norway – what’s the difference? Quality of institutions. If a country has strong economic institutions, is sufficiently production friendly and less corrupt, then here, resources become an advantage. If not, it leads to rent seeking and criminal elements using and exploiting the resources for their own private gains rather than for gains percolating to everyone. Sudan is a textbook example, it has natural resources, but clearly these are mismanaged due to rampant corruption which are now fueling further conflict [As General Dagalo has control of Gold Mines which he is using to fund his campaign and troops]. One could imagine that if Sudan were less resource rich, this [conflict] would have died out earlier.”   

Economic factors like allocation of resources like land and water were something Dr Mitra emphasised as needing to be addressed. “Logistically, if these resources could be used as a bargaining chip, it could help to ease the conflict. Rents should then be divided equally as well. Public economic programs may also help to resolve the conflict, by providing unemployed youth with the resources required to allow them to reject the call to arms.” Though this is not possible until a ceasefire is made more permanent, it nevertheless raises the very important and crucial point that youth are incentivised to enter this conflict, thereby exacerbating it. With little opportunity to provide for themselves and/or their families, military enrollment becomes attractive to desperate young men. 

Dr Mitra then gave a great example of the conflict between different groups in Columbia during the 1990s. “When international prices for coffee rose, there was evidence for the conflict itself subsiding. This argument fits simple economic models, which argue that since youth could get gainful employment in the coffee industry, the need for resorting to violence is reduced. This illustrates the importance of economic opportunities and incentives in preventing and resolving conflicts, particularly among disenfranchised and marginalized youth populations. Therefore, addressing the root economic causes of conflict should be an integral part of any comprehensive strategy for promoting peace and stability.” 

He also argued that this is one major reason as to why General Al-Burhan and General Dagalo are in power due to the lack in institutional support for the easily exploited democratic institutions. Prior to the 2021 coup, a joint council of over 80 parties ruled alongside the military. However, divisions amongst these ruling democratic forces gave rise to the coup, despite protests of over 2,000,000 people in Khartoum.   

The international community also has a role to play in resolving the conflict. Although intervention must be limited and must carefully consider its actions to avoid making the situation worse. Dr Mitra suggested it should look at the options of regulating the funds from the gold mines and imposing trade sanctions on the nation. Meanwhile, internationally non-affiliated organizations, especially those from the G8 nations, can step in to act as impartial mediators.  

Dr Mitra concluded by calling for all parties involved to come together and work towards a peaceful and lasting solution. Only then can Sudan hope to build a stable and prosperous nation that benefits all its citizens. 

David Bowman is studying for a BSc (Hons) in Economics with a Year Abroad