The electricity crisis in Sudan
Between quick-fixes and opportunities for a sustainable energy transition
Razaz H. Basheir and Mohamed Salah Abdelrahman
14 October 2022
Over the last few years, the electricity sector in Sudan has been in a state of crisis: 60 per cent of the Sudanese population have been living without electricity, while millions of Sudanese people currently suffer from hours of continuous power cuts, as the available electricity capacity covers a mere 60 per cent of the demand.1 Frequent tariff increases, reaching 13,000 per cent for some social groups, have also exacerbated the crisis.
Several factors – linked to questions of supply and consumption – have caused this deteriorating situation. Investigating this context requires identifying the key political transformations, involving both civilian and military governments, that have occurred throughout Sudan’s modern history, as well as reviewing the energy policies of the colonial era and discussing subsequent long-term changes in the energy sector. In this paper, we also uncover the extent of the environmental vulnerability of energy production and consumption in Sudan, in addition to its link to a sustainable energy transition. Finally, this paper seeks to interrogate the role the energy sector might play in meeting the political demands of the glorious December 2018 Sudanese revolution: freedom, peace and justice.
Sudan’s two main sources of energy are hydro-energy and thermal generation, with the current capacity of 3.5 gigawatts divided by rates of approximately 50 per cent for each category.2 According to 2018 estimates, only 32 per cent of the Sudanese people enjoy an electricity supply from the national grid, the majority of which is concentrated in urban spaces. This uneven geographical distribution excludes the five federal states of Darfur and the region of South Kordofan, whose metropolitan areas are supplied by local networks that operate for an average of six hours per day.3 These are the same sites that experience frequent conflict – a situation that has largely been shaped by historical developmental inequality.
a) Colonialism and developmental inequality
Sudan is marked by severe developmental disparity, connected to the country’s significant cultural diversity, which has been present since the colonial era. That diversity gave rise to the separation of northern Sudan and the country’s southern regions, including some areas of Darfur, Kordofan, and Blue Nile,4 under the law of ‘closed districts’, which cut off large areas and diverse population groups from the socio-economic development of the rest of the country until 1946, after the end of World War II. In 1955, just prior to the declaration of independence, war erupted between northern and southern Sudan. Country-wide developmental disparity and the northern monopoly of power were some of the most important factors behind this conflict.
The colonial policies did not stop after independence: conflict continued and evolved from limiting government participation towards taking on an explicitly religious character following the first military coup in 1958.5 Indeed, this colonial policy continued, reaching its pinnacle under the military government that ruled from 1989 to 2010 (which called itself the ‘salvation government’). During this period, the country’s military rulers made what is locally known as the ‘Hamdi Triangle’, comprising areas within Dunqulah, al-Abyad and Sennar, the core of its developmental policy. These policies resulted in the concentration of development in a geographically limited area that, on the one hand, is culturally homogenous, and, on the other hand, facilitates the formation of an Arab/Islamic alliance that was intended to provide the core of a homogeneous state capable of operating effectively even after geographical divisions. Thus, these policies provided an overt ideological cover for the state on the basis of developmental marginalization, while cultural and religious exclusion divided Sudan.6 During this period, energy was one of the most important central services provided by the state, and was thus inherently political: it served to perpetuate the power of the country’s military rulers.
This brief historical context is key to investigating Sudan’s electricity supply, as demonstrated in Figure 1.
Sudan’s hydrological dam projects are another colonial legacy that continues to heavily impact the energy sector. A quick glance at the history of dam construction shows that it was linked to British-Egyptian colonialism in Sudan. For example, studies of the Second Cataract of the Nile began in 1897: that is, before British colonists entered Khartoum. This demonstrates the central position of control over the Nile waters in the colonial power’s strategy. From the initial phase of colonialism preparatory studies of the waterfall were undertaken, and in 1904 a detailed strategy was developed. These studies were carried out in accordance with the colonial priorities at the time, which focused on storing water for the benefit of expanding agriculture in Egypt and then in Sudan, in order to provide agricultural products for the colonizer at a low cost.
Sir William Garstin, a renowned scientist who studied the hydrology of the Nile and who had a long history of working in India and Egypt, was commissioned to research water storage options on the Nile. Garstin was the first person to conceptualize the construction of dams on Lake Albert (located in Uganda and extending into the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and the Jonglei Canal in South Sudan. Garstin pointed to the need to build a dam on Lake Tana in Ethiopia, as well as a dam on the Atbarah River in Sudan, to regulate the flow of the Nile’s water. He also highlighted the possibility of benefiting from the lands between the Blue and White Nile through the Gezira Scheme in Sudan. In order to achieve this, Garstin proposed building the Sennar Reservoir in Sudan. 1904 saw the publication of Garstin’s report which contained various proposals, including initiating projects in Egypt.7 It is thus clear that storing water for the benefit of Egypt was one of the motives of the British colonial project in Sudan.
The colonial project of agricultural expansion in Egypt relied on preserving water and protecting Egypt from floods, particularly following the floods of 1945–1946.8 This was exemplified in the 1946 report on the future maintenance of the Nile, which contained a detailed discussion of the question of the storage of the Nile waters through reservoirs. Moreover, a 1953 report entitled ‘Control of the Nile Waters’, and the 1954 report by H. A. Morris, who was the Sudanese government’s adviser on irrigation,9 briefly alluded to potential and expected energy production from the Nile. Similarly, the official documents of the Sudanese Dams Implementation Unit make clear that the colonial enterprise had, since the 1940s, drawn up plans to preserve water for the benefit of Egypt, and that the strategy had changed from building the Merowe Dam in Sudan to establishing the High Dam as a means of securing its presence within Egyptian territory.10 The shift in the aim behind constructing dams away from preserving water for the benefit of Egypt to only energy production began to clearly crystallize after the World Bank report of 1983, which detailed the possibilities of utilizing the proposed dams for energy production.11 This is what the ‘salvation government’12 (1989–2019) relied on in its studies thereafter, when it shifted all of its projects towards a sole focus on energy production.
The overall vision for maximum exploitation of the Nile’s waters was developed according to the colonizer’s priorities at the time, which were to store water in order to ensure agricultural expansion in Egypt, after the failure of all previously adopted measures.13 Nevertheless, the projects that have more recently been proposed by different national governments, and specifically those related to dams under al-Bashir’s rule (1989–2019), do not greatly differ from the colonial vision that was put forward in Garstin’s report.
The main transformation in these plans that took place in the second half of the twentieth century was a change in the declared primary aim of exploitation of the Nile’s waters from water storage for the purposes of agricultural expansion (to benefit Egypt) to dam construction to produce energy, and thereby achieve development objectives. This camouflages old colonial projects under a mask of development which carries promises of energy production. However, these promises were to remain unfulfilled, both in theory and in the face of reality and practical experience.
In its first stage, the period of al-Bashir’s rule (1989–2019) was associated with isolationism and economic blockade, which drastically reduced the possibilities for expanding services. Soon after, in the early 2000s, oil was discovered in Sudan and, at the same time, a political settlement was signed with the largest movements and political parties. Together, these developments provided an economic surplus which was reflected in the provision of various services, notably in the energy sector. Nevertheless, this period was not without political challenges, including in regard to managing the post-settlement transitional phase. At the time, the government’s priority was the survival of al-Bashir’s rule, and by extension, the system of political Islam in Sudan. This was reflected in the government’s energy-related policies, which played a political role.
This governmental strategy of survival was evident in al-Bashir’s government’s attempt to mobilize community networks for political purposes at the beginning of the twenty-first century. This initiative, which was one of the biggest political projects ever seen in Sudan, sought to transform energy production and distribution operations in the center of the country, i.e., the Hamdi Triangle. By expanding the electricity supply network serving the residential sector in this area, the government aimed to garner political support. As part of this initiative, the Merowe Dam was marketed as a saviour that would guide Sudan away from darkness towards light and development. Al-Bashir illustrated this in his speech inaugurating the dam: ‘The Merowe Dam is the project of the century, the project of the beginning of the end of poverty, and the project of the great launch of the Greater Sudanese state.’14
Al-Bashir’s government presented the Merowe Dam as a major development project. Indeed, al-Bashir himself attempted to market the project at the opening ceremony as a response to the 2009 International Criminal Court’s memorandum. He declared in the same dam inauguration speech: ‘They will issue their decision tomorrow, and after that they will issue a second and third decision, and people will not pay attention to them; they will be preoccupied with decisions and we will continue to develop.’15 At the time, the slogan of al-Bashir’s supporters was ‘the dam is the response’.16 However, the fog of developmental discourse was soon cleared away as the reality of increasing electricity cuts and the rising costs of electricity itself became clear.
As the Sudanese government focused its construction and marketing operations on pro-government companies, construction costs rose, a result of increasing corruption and nepotism, and a lack of oversight. This resulted in an exorbitant debt – approximately $3 billion – related to the construction of the Merowe Dam, even as the dam’s ability to produce electrical energy actually decreased compared to the initial promises: during its opening, it was proclaimed that the dam would produce 1,250 megawatts; however, its actual capacity dropped to less than 600 megawatts.17
The lack of transparency surrounding the dam project was a crucial factor in increasing its environmental costs. The government assigned the engineering aspects of the work to Lahmeyer International, a German company which had been convicted in corruption cases related to water projects in the Lesotho Highlands in southern Africa,18 as a consequence of which the World Bank had discontinued dealings with Lahmeyer for seven years. In Sudan Lahmeyer received funds from parties that had rarely considered transparency a priority. Lahmeyer continued operating as an engineering consultant for other dam projects, even expanding its work under the period of ‘salvation rule’.19 The construction of the Merowe Dam, under Lahmeyer’s guidance, involved violations related to environmental studies – such studies were not approved for the dam until 2007. A report on the environmental situation in Sudan, which was issued after the protracted armed conflict between 1983 and 2005, made clear that the government did not adhere to its own legal standards when approving studies of environmental impact.20 This report described how studies that were presented to Sudan’s competent authorities were not approved as they lacked basic components relating to integrity. This placed pressure on the financiers to stop the flow of funding to the related projects. As a result, the government announced a ministerial change that removed the minister and all departments involved in approving environmental impact reports. These reports were only approved almost a week after the appointment of new departments replacing those that were removed. This demonstrates that the Merowe Dam was considered to be of extreme importance. Furthermore, it demonstrates the lack of attention to the environmental and social costs of building dams, such as increased evaporation rates. Indeed, Merowe Dam’s21 evaporation rates are as high as approximately 1.5 billion cubic metres of water. This is in addition to the general increase in the number of artificial lakes in Sudan, which clearly impacts the production rates of staple crops and orchards in areas north of the Merowe Dam. This has also contributed to the displacement of tens of thousands of affected people, and the loss of their means of livelihood.22
A few years later, in 2013, it was announced that an operation to increase the height of the Roseires Dam had been completed. This dam is located in Blue Nile state, approximately 550 km southeast of Khartoum. After that, in 2017, the Upper Atbara and Setit Dams, in the states of Kassala and El-Gadarif, about 460 km east of Khartoum, were completed. Theoretically, these two dams produce 280 and 320 megawatts, respectively. Various projects in Sudan have been built using loans from Gulf and Chinese state funds. However, many specialists have questioned the usefulness of Chinese and Gulf financing for hydro-energy projects. In regard to China, it is argued that it provides Sudan with loans in return for its government-owned companies being commissioned to construct dams in the country. In regard to the Gulf countries, on the other hand, it is argued that they provide loans in exchange for fertile land, as a means of addressing their own food security issues.23
Loan-based financing is one of the major problems facing energy production projects, especially dams. Instead of mobilizing countries’ own resources by taking advantage of financing through progressive taxation, the creation of public shareholder companies, and the provision of opportunities for the affected population in general to contribute to projects and solutions that guarantee broad participation and benefits, these projects are financed by loans that not only reduce national sovereignty in relation to strategic projects, but also increase the debt burden.
Projects such as the Merowe Dam, the heightening of the Roseires Reservoir, and the construction of the Upper Atbara and Setit Dams, offer clear examples of these dynamics related to loans. Chinese companies obtained construction contracts relating to these projects, while Saudi Arabia acquired more than 1 million acres (404,700 hectares) of Sudanese land for a period of 99 years. Saudi Arabia’s land acquisition equals the total area of the new Upper Atbara project, which is located on fertile lands that Saudi Arabia wishes to exploit as part of a project to provide food security for itself.24 The residents of this area were forcibly displaced from their lands, receiving inequitable compensation: those who owned less than 10 agricultural acres (approximately 40,468 square metres) were compensated with a residential plot of 300 square metres, and those who owned more than 10 acres were compensated with two residential plots with a total area of 600 square metres.25 Thus, in addition to approximately 700,000 citizens being forcibly displaced from their homes, the population in this area lost their agricultural lands, and shepherds lost the natural grazing paths utilized by more than 7 million head of livestock.26
The energy return from these hydro projects is low in comparison to their exorbitant economic, social and environmental costs. These projects have exacerbated development inequality as they have involved a large section of the population losing its traditional means of livelihood. At the same time, the areas closest to these dams, such as the localities of El Buhaira and El ‘Azaza near the Roseires Reservoir, and most of the villages in the banks of the Atbara River, have neither electricity nor regular access to water. These hydro-energy projects thus create spaces of sacrifice for the benefit of ‘development’ and capitalist accumulation in other spaces. This helps reproduce developmental disparity, deepens historical inequality and further increases conflict in various degrees and forms.
b) Hasty solutions
In addition to denying more than 60 per cent of the Sudanese people access to the national grid, the relatively large annual consumption rates (averaging 10 per cent) worsened the national supply gap. As a result, the energy sector was under pressure to provide more electrical capacity. These pressures were addressed through the construction of new thermal power plants, which are heavily reliant on imported fuels: more than 1,500 thermal megawatts were added between 2008 and 2019. In 2017, the cost spent on fuel was estimated at $1.3 billion, with the government’s support for the sector thus reaching 15 per cent of state expenditure.27 These plants cause significant emissions, equalling about 6.25 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.
The speed and relatively low initial cost with which these new thermal plants added to national electricity capacity has tended to obscure the significant operational challenges facing the country, which lost more than 75 per cent of its oil reserves and their associated profits following the secession of South Sudan in 2011. This event rendered Sudan largely dependent on imported fuel, as well as being exposed to unstable exchange rates and accelerating inflation rates. In addition to increasing electricity prices, the expansion of thermal production does not take into consideration the negative impact of this form of production, which causes a significant increase in the emission of greenhouse gases.
Despite the presence of these thermal projects, hydro-generation options have remained at the heart of future plans for electricity supply in Sudan. The salvation regime28 has repeatedly expressed its intention to construct a group of large dams on the Nile River north of Khartoum, in the areas of Dal, Kajbar, and Al Sheraik, located on the second, third and fifth cataracts in the north of Sudan. They would have a total combined operating capacity of 990 megawatts. These dams would be in addition to various other projects in Daqash, Mukrat, Sheri, and Sablouka.29 However, as a result of the widespread rejection of the local populations in these areas, these projects face challenges. In the view of these populations, these projects will not be useful and will flood most of the residential, agricultural, and archaeological spaces from north Khartoum to Old Halfa. The local populations are also challenging these projects on the basis that they require high costs but will provide small returns. The endeavour of marketing hydro-energy projects as a solution collides with the reality of the construction of the Renaissance Dam, which will change the nature of the Nile and help stabilize water flow throughout the year. Such a development will not only render these projects technically useless; they also impose implementation challenges that make their implementation unrealistic.
In sum, all of these factors render the electricity sector plan, which aims to achieve 80 per cent electricity supply by 2031, a very ambitious goal.30 In addition to the gap in the available capacity, the significant cost of extending transmission and distribution networks means that a large segment of the population are currently left in the dark. As noted in Figure 1, electricity supply lines are concentrated in the centre and north of the country, which is the historical centre of economic and political power in Sudan.
There are some common features between Sudan and some sub-Saharan African countries in terms of a decline in electrification rates and population density, and the fact that these countries have not succeeded in creating thriving markets and industries from energy alternatives. However, unlike those countries, Sudan’s situation is in part the result of the international isolation imposed on the previous regime due to US sanctions. For example, compared to Tanzania,31 which has 109 insulated solar plants, with a total capacity of 158 megawatts, Sudan only has one plant, with a capacity of no more than 5 megawatts. The first solar initiative was launched in Sudan in 2014, involving piloting of the solar home systems model whereby individual homes are provided with solar systems in instalments, in cooperation with local banks. The initiative first targeted 100 users with a capacity of 100 watts per user (the aim is to reach a total capacity of 110 megawatts by 2031).32 According to the latest report on this initiative, the number of homes benefiting from the service reached 1,500 in 2018.33
It was only in 2020 that Sudan’s first solar plant was established, in El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur State and one of the most important cities in the Darfur region.34 This plant has a capacity of 5 megawatts. A twin plant in the city of El Daein in Darfur encountered various obstacles that have so far prevented its completion, including issues related to funding, delays in receiving materials and equipment, and some cases of equipment theft. The two plants were financed by the Sudanese Hydro Generation and Renewable Energy Company (SHG&REC) and are implemented by a local private company called Top Gear.35
While the crisis currently affecting the electricity sector can be traced back to the al-Bashir era, and its corruption, the post-revolution transitional government of 2018 directly and indirectly aggravated it. The neoliberal doctrine of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) dictated all macro-economic reforms implemented by the transitional government. Abdalla Hamdok, the Prime Minister who has previously worked in the United Nations, did not attempt to resist this neoliberal tide, even arguing that these reforms were prerequisites for debt relief and for obtaining new loans and subsidies.36 Furthermore, floating the Sudanese pound and lifting subsidies on basic commodities led to the value of the pound plummeting against the official dollar: today, it stands at 570 pounds to the dollar, in comparison to 55 pounds to the dollar in January 2021. The floating of the pound also led to a massive increase in fuel prices, from 100 pounds per gallon to 2,500 pounds per gallon.37
The direct ways in which the transitional government destabilized the electricity supply are also rooted in these neoliberal economic reforms, which directly targeted the energy sector. The implementation of these reforms, which came at a critical time, was subject to a great degree of coordination and planning. The sector’s failure in this matter rendered users the victims of unjust reform recommendations and their poor implementation. The situation then worsened after the coup d’état of 25 October 2021, in response to which all foreign aid was suspended. As a result, the state treasury is now under increasing pressure and has accelerated the implementation of the package of flawed reforms.
One of the most important features of the oil years in Sudan (1999–2011) was the change in the lifestyle of the country’s urban middle class. Greater Khartoum, the capital, which houses 20 per cent of the Sudanese population (approximately 9 million people),38 as well as being home to the country’s most important industries, services, and business transactions, consumes 60 per cent of the country’s electricity supply. Further, 60 per cent of this consumption is in the residential sector. Here, the architecture of residential buildings is relevant. Traditional architecture based on earth materials and incorporating spacious, well-ventilated courtyards which are suitable for the desert climate of Sudan have frequently been replaced by concrete jungles of poorly ventilated vertical buildings inspired by the architecture of Dubai and other major cities in the Gulf region. These architectural transformations in the city have led a large proportion of citizens to rely entirely on air-conditioning units, with the attendant high rate of electricity consumption. As a result, electricity demand rates in the summer are twice as high as in the winter. However, unlike Dubai, strict laws and institutions regulating buildings and the manufacture and importation of electrical appliances are completely absent. Average household electricity consumption in Greater Khartoum is 308 kWh per month, which is almost six times the average for sub-Saharan Africa.39 It is considered that this offers a possibility for improving the state of the energy sector.
On the one hand, these high rates of urban electricity consumption put pressure on the electricity sector. On the other, they exert political pressure on the government to secure a more stable supply. Indeed, it is this pressure that has pushed the sector towards seeking quick-fix emergency solutions, such as the significant increase in thermal capacity, which the five-year plan drawn up in 2018 under al-Bashir intends to produce. The 2018 plan proposed increasing the available capacity by an additional 8.7 gigawatts, 60 per cent of which would be from thermal plants. In its report issued in mid-2019, the World Bank reviewed this plan, while simultaneously evaluating the current situation of the electricity sector and presenting recommendations for its recovery. This report now acts as a reference point for reforming the electricity sector. As a result, we discuss the most important arguments and axes presented in the report below.
The World Bank report
The main reforms proposed in the World Bank report can be divided into three elements: first, the lifting of tariff subsidies; second, the energy mix to ensure future capacity; and third, the private sector’s involvement.
a) The lifting of subsidies on electricity tariffs
According to the World Bank report, electricity tariffs in Sudan are the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa, regardless of the income rates of the comparator countries. The report shows that electricity tariffs represent between 1 per cent and 3 per cent of families’ average monthly income – compatible with the recommendation that electricity tariffs should not exceed 5 per cent of families’ average monthly income.40 However, this recommendation does not take into account the fact, in a country in which more 65 per cent of the population is employed in the informal sector, many families do not have a fixed monthly income. The World Bank report also adds that the bulk of the electricity tariff subsidy provided by the government is directed to the wrong social classes, as a greater percentage of electricity is consumed by classes higher up the income pyramid. In other words, the largest proportion of government subsidies actually goes to the rich. The report concludes that these subsidy rates are very ‘generous’ and it recommends gradually reducing them over five years to reduce the country’s fiscal deficit.
Between January 2021 and January 2022, electricity tariffs were adjusted three different times, at exponential rates. For instance, compared to the pre-2021 tariff, the Lifeline Tariff, which is the least expensive type and which targets the weakest social classes, has been reduced from 200 kilowatt hours (kWh) to 100 kWh. At the same time, the kWh cost has increased at a rate exceeding 3,000 per cent: from 0.15 pounds to 5 pounds.41 In addition, the commercial and agricultural tariffs have increased by 13,000 per cent and 5,000 per cent per cent, respectively, among other increases.42 The outcomes of these severe increases have been reflected in increases in the prices of all manufactured products and commodities – a context which has only increased the suffering of a population whose resources are consumed by inflation.
While we can agree on the necessity for electricity tariff reforms in light of the current conditions of the energy sector, as well as the overall economic situation that Sudan has inherited from al-Bashir’s corrupt regime, the details of these reforms remain a matter of debate. It is unfair to assume that different social classes have the same ability to absorb great increases in electricity tariffs, and the prices of goods and services accompanying them. It would have been possible to achieve a better reform formula by balancing the rates of increase for the different groups that make up the class pyramid. Examples of such nuanced measures include maintaining the same tariff for the social groups that consume the least electricity (an average of 177 kWh per month), and setting the tariff for higher consumption groups (about 600 kWh per month, for example) at its real cost. Not only would this increase the sector’s revenues, it would also stimulate the 1 per cent that consumes more than a quarter of the residential sector’s supply to rationalize their electricity use.43
Despite the significant increases in tariffs, so far the lifting of subsidies has been only partial, which means that there are more increases on the way to reach the World Bank’s full recommended hike. Such increases may exacerbate the popular anger that has engulfed citizens following the recent coup measures, especially in light of the current situation, in which tariff increases do not translate into supply stability. Additionally, the latest wave of increases in 2022 sparked strong opposition within the ranks of small-holders, who saw the tariffs they pay increase by 2,000 per cent.44
In early 2022, small-holders in northern Sudan, with the support of other civil forces, protested against the increase in agricultural tariffs and demanded a reduction. They expressed these demands by constructing barricades on the national road that links northern Sudan with Egypt and that facilitates the movement of significant quantities of goods and people. This protest culminated in what was later known as the ‘North Barricades’. This action was successful: the protestors seized suspicious commercial goods (gold and raw materials) smuggled by regular forces and their collaborators into Egypt; they also expanded their protest from one point along the route to 14 further points along the route. In addition to the demand to reduce electricity tariffs, the region’s residents added a set of historical demands, related to the suffering they have endured as a result of hydro-generation projects since independence. The North Barricades continued for more than four months and succeeded in reducing the electricity tariffs for local small-holders from 21 to 9 pounds.45
In sum, without controlling Sudan’s macro-economic indicators, inflation will devour all additional profits gained from reducing subsidies, leaving the electricity sector with a double bill for fuel from thermal stations, current and future. Also, in light of inflation rates, which exceeded 260 per cent in March 2022,46 and the very low purchasing power of the population (more than half of whom are below the poverty line),47 the liberalization of prices in this context can only lead to further deviation from the sector’s goals for electrification by 2031. Indeed, successful electrification experiences in countries such as Ghana and South Korea48 have only come as a result of government efforts to design a fee and tariff package that is appropriate for citizens with limited and irregular incomes.
b) The energy mix for future capacity
The energy mix for future capacity
Figure 2: A comparison between the five-year plan of the Government of Sudan and that proposed by the World Bank
As a result of the lack of full coordination between the various competent authorities during al-Bashir’s era, it is difficult to compare the plan developed in 2018 for Sudan’s future energy capacity and the country’s Nationally Determined Contributions that were agreed upon at the Conference of the Parties in Paris (COP21) and updated in 2021.49 The 2018 plan aims to construct new plants with a capacity of 3,000 megawatts before 2031, with a mixture of wind and solar energy, both on and off the grid. Meanwhile, the government plan recommends additional 60 per cent capacity from thermal plants, a proposition which the World Bank report slightly revised, reducing the thermal generation rate to 50 per cent and increasing renewable energies (excluding hydro-power generation) to 800 megawatts for both wind and solar energy. This equates to 10 per cent of the future additional capacity of each of the two sources, as demonstrated in Figure 2. Also, the report adopts criteria of the least-cost plan in order to reach the energy mixture for future capacity. This approach only takes into account the financial costs of projects, ignoring their social and environmental costs.
In light of this discussion, one question cannot be overlooked: why do future capacity plans not include renewable energies? This question is particularly important for two reasons. First, daily solar radiation rates are extremely high in Sudan, and wind speeds exceed 7 m/s in several locations,50 which makes it an ideal environment for producing wind energy. Second, there has been a discernible decline in the prices of renewable energies over the last few years, with prices reaching a level of competitiveness comparable with those of conventional energy sources.
Hyper-centralization is another feature that remains dominant in the planning mindset in Sudan. The experiences of countries in the region and other countries of the Global South offer many examples of alternative and decentralized models being successfully utilized as appropriate solutions for electrification problems, challenges with attempts to transition to clean energies, and the huge financing obstacles that hinder centralized projects. For example, Kenya successfully increased its electrification rates from 32 per cent in 2013 to 75 per cent in 2018. It achieved this by resorting to a mixture of technical and institutional solutions including conventional on-grid, solar home systems, and mini/micro-grids.51 Moreover, the cost of micro-grids is steadily decreasing, and the capacities of what is currently known as the technologically flexible ‘third generation’ micro-grids offer real prospects, such as the possibility of connecting groups of micro-grids together, or connecting them to the national grid in the future.52
Although the parameters of the future energy capacity plan emphasize the crucial role of micro-grids in the project of universal electrification in sparsely populated areas of Sudan, there are in fact no details about their role in the short term. Further, the report follows the model of government policies, which are characterized by directing limited financial resources to strengthen consumer supply within the grid. This strategy came about as an urgent response to the urban supply crisis but it was at the expense of electrification projects for off-grid users, despite the high social costs of depriving more than 60 per cent of the population of their right to access electricity, which should be seen as a basic service.
c) Involvement of the private sector
In the concoction of liberalisation that has been described over and over again globally, the magic ingredient is the opportunity for the private sector to participate in order to attract funding and expertise. In 2010, the National Electricity Authority, which monopolizes all electricity supply operations, was divided into five companies, as per their technical functions, such as thermal and hydro generation, transmission and distribution, and so on. This reform provided the private sector with the opportunity to enter the generation sector, as independent power producers (IPPs). However, with the exception of isolated plants whose construction and operation were privatized, accounting for no more than 3 per cent of the total capacity – the private sector did not engage in any way in subsequent generation projects. The World Bank report attributes this lack of involvement to the absence of a comprehensive framework detailing the partnership process and its regulations, in addition to the low (subsidized) electricity tariffs, which are deemed unattractive to investors.
The framework that the World Bank report proposes pushes the current sector reforms towards becoming more attractive to investors, rather than increasing electric capacity and restructure public companies so they can efficiently lead future projects. Not only does the profitability (un)logic at the core of the electricity sector reforms threaten the latter’s durability, these reforms may be difficult to attain in the first place, which will render the sector prey, once again, to quick-fix emergency solutions.
The guidelines and best practices in the power generation industry,53 which guide the world’s energy investors, contrast sharply with the current state of the sector in Sudan. Among guidelines and best practices are a range of determinants considered important for a successful energy sector, such as environments that are conducive to investment, clear and consistent policy frameworks, competitive practices of competitive bidding, stable fuel supplies, and so on. Such conditions are difficult to imagine in the near future in Sudan, especially in light of the political and economic instability currently affecting the country. For instance, Turkish independent powers producers, which own some isolated plants in Sudan, currently suffer difficulties in securing fuel supplies, as well as experiencing delays in receiving government payments. In response to these problems, they have cut off supplies to some Sudanese cities for days at a time.54
Perhaps the most reasonable and just scenario, especially for the poorer classes, lies in extricating the private sector from attempts to solve the electricity crisis in Sudan. Indeed, this scenario would involve directing those very development loans to public companies directly to the sector itself, as well as departing from free market conditions and determinants. Most of these free market conditions terms have been shown to be in stark contrast to electrification projects that incorporate a social dimension, such as the Lifeline Tariff, cross-subsidy,55 fair import taxes, and localization requirements for industries and labour. In a general sense, the provision of financing – which the private sector has sought to rationalize – has become a means of ‘privatizing aid’. In turn, this serves as a neo-colonial tool that increases the dependence of the Global South. Furthermore, it does not help achieve sustainable solutions to distinctive problems facing societies in the Global South. Rather, privatized aid becomes a channel through which the budgets of development support for private companies are spent. Power Africa, for instance, is the largest energy project initiative in sub-Saharan Africa, with total funding commitments of $54 billion. This project is being used by the US government to increase the profits accrued by the private sector in the US. In 2016, it directed nearly 90 per cent of its funds – amounting to $7 billion – to private US banks and financial institutions in order to implement or finance energy projects in sub-Saharan Africa.56
Therefore, the argument that local energy companies lack the operational competence required to lead such projects is refutable. During the oil years in Sudan (1999–2011), the economic recovery associated with this era provided the state treasury with significant surplus. Despite the corruption and nepotism present at this time, the National Electricity Authority did not lack technical and administrative expertise to carry out successful and large-scale reforms. These included the shift to a pre-payment system,57 which raised collection rates to 93 per cent (among the highest in the region).58 Also, generous amounts were spent on rehabilitating and training cadres within and outside Sudan, which put the country in a good position: high financial benefits preserved the electricity sector from the phenomenon of brain drain that characterizes most other sectors in the country. In the last few years, projects have also been undertaken to localize the manufacture of equipment, such as transformer assembly plants, and the manufacture and programming of pre-payment meters.
It can be argued that it would be better to take even the smallest of steps in the right direction, one which is sustainable and socially just, rather than attempting to take big leaps to solve the problems of limited social groups (the rich and the upper classes), including through taking choices that have significant environmental and social ramifications, often for the poor and marginalized classes. In addition to the problem of access to the grid, from which the rural population, nomads, and the precarious urban classes in Sudan have continuously suffered, the extent of frequent power outages in urban areas has only worsened in recent years. While this crisis situation motivates the search for emergency and less costly solutions, it can also be an opportunity to rethink conventional ways of generating and managing the electrical supply.
From independence until now, the complete disregard for the livelihoods of local communities and their problems has been a steady feature of large energy projects in Sudan, such as hydropower dams. This neglect has been manifested in forced displacement and the destruction of traditional livelihoods. Additionally, this trajectory of increasing thermal plants in the country, driven by their low initial cost and the relative ease of their construction operations, severely harms the environment. Furthermore, the dependence on imported fuels has been proven to inflate the operating costs of these plants, especially in light of the continuous deterioration of the local currency and the recent rise in global fuel prices.
The current roadmap for resolving the electricity crisis relies on the full and unconditional adoption of neoliberal reforms dictated by international financial institutions. The latter claim to support the Sudanese people in their aspirations for a democratic transition. Nevertheless, the outline of these future reforms is no different from the sector’s previous strategies, or even from the hydro-energy projects implemented in the colonial era. Among the key features of these reforms is the gradual lifting of subsidies on electricity tariffs, attracting private investors, and estimating future capacities using the criteria of the least-cost plan. These three themes have been discussed throughout this paper, as well as their social, economic, and environmental consequences, especially for the most vulnerable social groups in Sudanese society.
It is important to note that this paper does not claim to provide a comprehensive answer to the thorny questions which the current electricity crisis in Sudan poses. Rather, it has attempted to point out basic criteria and priorities which must be taken into account when considering solutions to this crisis, and the reason why current approaches to the crisis are flawed. When it comes to the question of supply, there is the problem of prioritizing the private sector and centralized generation plants with energy sources that are not environmentally friendly, for purely financial reasons. When it comes to consumption, citizens outside the grid’s range and in marginalized areas are given secondary importance, while the high tariffs are disproportionate to the conditions of the poorest groups.
Moreover, it is worth emphasizing that there is no single solution that can meet the needs of all of Sudan’s social groups. The current complex situation calls for studying and understanding the needs and contexts of different social groups, which will dictate different technical solutions and institutional structures. In turn, such a process will require different forms of financing that can enable the mobilization of financial resources, ranging from self-financing and public and private capital to low- or zero-interest rate development aid. Sudan can also join other countries in pushing the climate reparation agenda,59 in order to obtain financial resources that do not carry the burden of additional debt. Indeed, this would enable Sudan to adopt energy generation technologies which can help reduce emissions and reduce dependence on plant sources of fuel, which threaten forests and vegetation. This move will also enable access to an appropriate mix of solutions based on centralized, decentralized, or stand-alone supply systems and a more socially just budget allocation.
As with many problems in countries in the Global South, the current electricity supply crisis in Sudan requires an urgent, sustainable, and feasible solution. Such a solution will need to involve a great degree of integrated planning between various state apparatuses, as well as rearranging priorities on basis of the requirements of a socio-economic development which is just, sustainable and suitable for local contexts. A green and just energy transition in Sudan must take into consideration the importance of formulating policies independent of the imaginaries of the old colonial legacy – a legacy which is based on huge infrastructure and political symbols and icons that serve the elites. A just transition will also need to eschew the neo-colonial facades and their promises of financing, whose effects are only reflected in the stock prices of transnational corporations.