Political Unrest Puts Sea and Road Freight Operations in Sudan at Risk

Political Unrest Puts Sea and Road Freight Operations in Sudan at Risk

On October 14, some protesters began to block access to the container terminals at Sudan’s main seaport in Port Sudan for the second time within two weeks, while others blocked several major roads across the city as well as the main highway connecting it to Sudan’s capital Khartoum. The unrest erupted in parts of Eastern Sudan after the country’s Prime Minister sacked the Governor of the Eastern province Kassala following weeks of protests in the region that explicitly targeted the country’s main seaport and several smaller facilities along the coast as well as its road network.

Although protesters have since lifted their blockades, the situation in Port Sudan and beyond remains unstable after violent clashes continued in the East and civil unrest spread to other parts of the country. Much of the recent protests in Eastern Sudan is rooted in months of tribal tensions and violent conflict in the region that are unlikely to be solved in the short term. Amid this volatile climate, further spontaneous disruptions to port operations in Port Sudan as well as business operations in the area and road freight movement in and out of the city are to be expected in the medium and long term.

Protesters target Sudan’s main seaport 

The limited number of sea and road transport corridors across Sudan have been susceptible targets during the ongoing political and social unrest in the eastern part of the country, having been blocked multiple times throughout October. Violent clashes broke out at the beginning of the month after the transitional government signed a peace deal with several rebel groups that angered tribes in the East. A second protest wave occurred in the region when the federal government sacked a local governor for his handling of the first protests and broader regional tensions.

Located on the western coast of the Red Sea, halfway between the Suez Channel and the Bab al-Mandab Strait, Port Sudan is the main entry and exit point into Sudan, handling roughly 80 percent of the country’s import and export activities. It also represents a critical link along its main trade route, connecting the coastal area to Sudan’s economic hub Khartoum. Only a limited number of road transport corridors exists across Sudan, with the road network centered on Khartoum as the central hub. A single paved highway connects the coastal gateway Port Sudan with the capital, and just a handful more lead from Khartoum to the neighboring countries of Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Chad, and the Central African Republic.

From October 4, protesters forced the container terminals at Port Sudan to close for several days. Although operations fully resumed by October 7, the port area was blocked again for another day on October 14 after a second round of protests broke out. Smaller ports along the coast, including facilities in Suakin, Heidob, and Demadema were also shut down during the protests. Furthermore, protesters threatened to seize oil pipelines and the Port of Bashayer, which is used to export oil from neighboring landlocked South Sudan, but ultimately did not succeed in blocking oil transfers, according to the government.

Road travel and freight movement also came to a complete standstill between October 4 and October 6 due to road blockages along several points of the highway connecting Port Sudan with Khartoum and the wider region, including in Hosheiri, Sinkat, Suakin, and Haya. Road transport activities in the region ceased again during the second wave of protests when protesters also blocked major roads across Port Sudan, in addition to another temporary blockage of the only paved regional highway.

Figure 01: Overview of Sudan’s road network. Source: UN Logistics Cluster, 2019.

Further mass protests broke out in Khartoum, Omdurman and other cities across the country on October 21 in response to a perceived poor overall performance by the transitional government. The unrest resulted in a citywide 24-hour lockdown that severely disrupted business and transport operations in Khartoum. Protests and road blockades continued for several days after security forces killed at least one protester. In the latest wave of anti-government protests, demonstrators took to the streets on October 29 in several Sudanese cities after the government doubled fuel prices, which again disrupted the country’s road network. The waves of demonstrations underline a growing countrywide dissatisfaction with the transitional government that have the potential to disrupt supply chains across Sudan beyond the country’s coastal gateway Port Sudan in the weeks to come.

Rising dissatisfaction likely to cause further supply chain disruptions

Sudanese authorities have repeatedly called on protesters not to block the country’s economic lifelines such as national roads and seaports due to its devastating effect on the national economy. Although new emergency measures meant to quell the unrest have been announced since the first protests broke out, further disruptions to road and sea freight in the east should be expected in the medium term given that protesters have repeatedly shown willingness to defy political orders as tensions continue to simmer in the region. Additional disruptions to road freight movement should also be expected in other parts of the country as dissatisfaction with the overall government performance continues to spread across Sudan.

Additional security measures announced by the government to curb the protests could also have knock-on effects to cross-border road freight movement that had not been directly affected by the protests so far. The federal government reportedly plans to deploy more government forces to the three eastern states Read Sea, Kassala, and El Gedaref to restore peace in the area, and secure the borders with neighboring Eritrea and Ethiopia. While the extent of the mandate was not immediately disclosed, additional security check points and controls could delay cross-border road transport to and from these countries in the weeks to come.

Spotting early warning signs of impending protests using risk monitoring tools can help companies reduce their response times, avoid costly supply delays, and implement mitigation measures earlier. Supply chain managers should keep abreast of the latest developments in the country’s economic hubs and are encouraged to get in touch with suppliers and carriers on the ground to assess the risks to their facilities and trade routes in order to be able to adjust shipment schedules accordingly in the near future.

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