Civil Unrest in Sudan Disrupts Road, Sea, and Air Freight Operations Across the Country

Civil Unrest in Sudan Disrupts Road, Sea, and Air Freight Operations Across the Country

November 5, 2021

On October 25, members of the Sudanese military under the command of General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan staged a coup d’état and arrested several senior government figures, including Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. The military then dissolved the country’s transitional government and declared a state of emergency. According to the general, the military chose to intervene to put an end to infighting among the country’s political factions and to avoid further escalation into open conflict.

The coup came after weeks of rising social and political tensions, particularly in the country’s capital Khartoum as well as in Eastern Sudan, where tribal members had blocked key road links and the country’s main seaport for several weeks to demand changes to the government and a peace agreement signed in October 2020. Although elections and a transition to an elected civilian government have been promised by July 2023, mass protests have broken out across the country in defiance of the military takeover. As a result of the escalating political tensions, Sudan’s main seaport, several airports, and its road network have all experienced intermittent operational disruptions over the last six weeks.

As the protests continue into their second week, with new mass demonstrations expected to take place in Khartoum and other major cities on November 5, the situation is unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future. Consequently, further disruptions to the movement of goods via the country’s road, sea, and air routes should be expected as supporters of the military coup and those supporting the deposed civilian government struggle for control in Sudan.   

Road network, flight, and customs operations in Khartoum face disruptions amid protests

Although road freight remains the most widely used way to move goods across Africa, only a limited number of road transport corridors exists across Sudan, with the network centered on Khartoum as its hub. Following the military takeover, the country’s main pro-democracy group, two political parties, and members of the civilian government called on the population to take to the streets in support of the democratic transition that had been underway since the country’s former president, Omar al-Bashir, was toppled in 2019. Thousands of protesters have since flooded the streets in some of Sudan’s biggest cities, including Khartoum and  Omdurman, erecting blockades with burning tires and blocking streets across the country to demand civilian rule be reinstated. The Sudanese Professionals’ Association (SPA), a group of unions previously involved in the street protests against al-Bashir, also called for nationwide strikes and civil disobedience against the military. By November 1, a number of industries followed the strike call, including Sudapet, Sudan’s national petroleum company, as well as the country’s railway workers.

Just hours after the coup, operations at Khartoum International Airport, Sudan’s biggest airport, came to a halt, and all in- and outbound flights were canceled by the civil aviation authority a day later. Customs offices at the airport were reportedly forced to close as well, with pick-up and delivery services to and from Khartoum suspended as of October 27. Although flight operations were allowed to resume from 16:00 local time on October 27, customs operations remained disrupted as of November 5 amid the ongoing unrest and restrictions on internet services.

Even before the coup took place, flight operations in and out of the country had been disrupted after anti-government protesters blocked access roads to Kassala Airport and Port Sudan International Airport in Eastern Sudan in September. Competing street protests by pro- and anti-government supporters also impacted the movement of goods in and out of the airport in Khartoum in the week leading up to the military coup.

Location Status
Khartoum International Airport Open (with limited services)
Port Sudan International Airport Open
Kassala Airport Open
Port Sudan Open

Situation in Eastern Sudan remains tense after six weeks of protests

The limited number of sea and road transport corridors in Eastern Sudan have also been susceptible targets for anti-government protesters in the region since mid-September. Located on the western coast of the Red Sea, halfway between the Suez Canal and the Bab al-Mandab Strait, the seaport in Port Sudan serves as the country’s main entry and exit point and handles approximately 80 percent of its import and export activities. The port is also situated along Sudan’s main road freight route, with a single paved highway connecting it to the economic center Khartoum, from where a handful of other roads lead to neighboring countries such as Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Chad, and the Central African Republic.

In mid-September members of the Beja tribe began to block the main road connecting Port Sudan to the rest of the country, disrupting the movement of containers and oil shipments in and out of the port. Although some fuel shipments were diverted to other regional ports, particularly in Egypt, from where they could be trucked to Sudan’s only refinery in Khartoum, nationwide shortages of fuel, medicine, and wheat were reported around two weeks into the blockades. By October 20, terminals at Port Sudan had completely ceased operations, forcing carriers including the Mediterranean Shipping Company S.A. (MSC) to drop off cargo destined for Sudan at other nearby ports such as the King Abdullah Port in Saudi Arabia.

Following the military takeover, Port Sudan initially remained closed, with no vessels calling, loading or discharging cargo; however, tribal leaders have since agreed to lift the blockade for one month from November 1 to support the formation of a new government. Nevertheless, the situation will remain tense as tribal members have threatened to re-impose the blockade in December if their initial demands, including the renegotiation of the October 2020 peace agreement and the replacement of the civilian government, are not addressed.

Further operational disruptions should be expected as protests continue across Sudan

As of November 5, protests against the military takeover continue in many parts of Sudan. Taking into consideration that the country’s road, sea, and air networks were targeted by both sides of the protest movement in recent weeks, further disruptions should be expected at key transport hubs.

Beyond short-term disruptions to its transport network, the internal conflict could also damage Sudan’s economic development – the United States halted USD 700 million worth of aid following the coup – and disrupt important economic corridors with neighboring countries such as South Sudan. A pipeline carrying crude oil from South Sudan to terminals at Port Sudan was already temporarily blocked during the tribal protests in the weeks leading up to the coup, and could quickly become a bargaining chip as negotiations about the future direction of the country continue.  

With its strategic position bordering seven countries, the unrest in Sudan could also further destabilize a region that has already experienced a handful of other successful and attempted coups in little over a year, while Ethiopia, the region’s former pillar of stability is rapidly descending into an all-out war as rebel groups advance on the country’s capital Addis Ababa. 

Much of the recent unrest is rooted in years-long political and tribal tensions, which are unlikely to be solved in the short term. Amid this volatile climate, those with business operations in the country or dependent on transport networks crossing it, are advised to take the time to prepare for future disruptions to business and transport activities in the region.  

Spotting early warning signs of impending protests using Everstream Analytics’ Intelligence Monitoring capabilities can help organizations understand the scope and impacts of such unrest, reduce response times, and implement mitigation measures as early as possible. Supply chain managers are advised to keep abreast of the latest political developments in Sudan’s economic centers, particularly Khartoum and Port Sudan, and are encouraged to reach out to carriers and suppliers in affected areas to assess possible risks to facilities and transport corridors, and adjust shipment schedules, where necessary.  

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