KHARTOUM (Reuters) - When Sudanese school teacher Abdelaziz Ibrahim enters a market in Khartoum to buy food for his family to break the fast in the Muslim month of Ramadan he doesn’t even bother checking meat prices. There’s no point - it’s far too expensive.
“Food prices have gone up like crazy. We can rarely afford meat anymore so we’ll have to eat more vegetables,” said Ibrahim, who bought tomatoes and beans after checking prices at several makeshift stands for a long time.
“This is the worst Ramadan we’ve ever had,” said the teacher, who needs to feed six children, his wife and his mother at his home in north Khartoum.
Food prices always go up across Muslim countries during Ramadan when people like to enjoy long evening meals, or iftars. But in Sudan, an economic crisis exacerbated by the loss of three-quarters of its oil wealth after arch-foe South Sudan became independent a year ago has made things even worse.
Faced with a gaping budget deficit due to the loss, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has unveiled austerity measures that have sparked small demonstrations.
In Khartoum and other large cities the protests have petered out after a security crackdown and the start of Ramadan when most people stay indoors all day. Sudanese activists estimate more than 1,000 people were detained before that since June, though the figures are impossible to verify.
Protests have so far been much smaller than those seen in Egypt, Tunisia or Yemen with mainly students, lawyers and intellectuals demanding an end to Bashir’s 23-year rule.
Bashir has dismissed the protests as insignificant. But rising food prices risk upsetting a larger number of people at a time when people like to socialize all night after fasting.
“We’re cutting and cutting on food and drinks. Every iftar costs at least 40 pounds because we are seven at home,” said Ibrahim Ali, a 70-year old retired civil servant.
His family’s iftar now mainly consists of ful, a poor man’s diet consisting of beans, and they can only afford to drink tamarind juice sometimes.
The loss of oil deprived Sudan of its main source of dollars needed to fund its food imports. Annual inflation hit 41.6 percent in July, almost triple the figure of 15 percent registered just over a year earlier before South Sudan became independent.
Even prices for locally produced food such as lamb are soaring because the government is scaling back fuel subsidies, pushing up transport costs in the vast country.
A kilo of lamb meat costs 50 pounds ($9), compared to 35 pounds a year ago. A kilo of tomatoes costs up to 30 pounds, double the price last year.
While many Arab capitals bustle with life after iftar most of Khartoum’s dusty streets are deserted. The last cafe in the biggest hotel on the Blue Nile banks closes at midnight, a time when Ramadan nightlife is just starting in earnest in Cairo.
“We cannot afford eating out at restaurants. No way,” said Ibrahim, the high-school teacher.
The government is pinning its hopes on an interim oil deal it reached with South Sudan last week, ending a row that led the south to shut down its entire southern oil production in January.
Under the agreement, South Sudan will resume oil exports through northern pipelines and pay a transit fee of around $10 a barrel. Juba will also transfer $3 billion over three years to compensate Sudan for the loss of its oil reserves.
“The oil agreement will stabilize the economic situation,” Abdelrahman Dharar, state finance minister, told reporters on Thursday. “The dollar will decline against the pound.”
Yet oil exports will only resume if both sides can reach a border security deal, one of several disputes left unresolved after South Sudan became independent.
Even if there is a breakthrough, Sudan is unlikely to see any oil fees until early next year because the oil firms need time to prepare oil production after the shutdown, diplomats say.
Buoyed by the deal, the Sudanese pound has edged up against the dollar on the black market. But dealers say it will fall again unless oil money arrives soon.
“We are suffering so much. We are just trying to cope,” said El-Tayeb Ali, a construction worker with no permanent job.
Reporting by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Andrew Osborn