Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Civil Wars in Sudan

Members of the southern-based rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), (Photo by JULIE FLINT / AFP)

Civil War in the South

The Egyptians established the province of Equatoria in 1874, where Arab slave traders intensified their activity, targeting local and foreign markets. The local communities were seriously harmed; the memory of that exploitation would be long lasting.

From 1922 to 1947 (when the policy was abandoned), the British operated a separate administration in southern Sudan. The social and economic development of the region was ignored, except for some social services provided by Christian missionaries.

The Southerners opposed the new policy, fearing it would bring northern domination and the return of slavery, and that it would put their cultural and political rights at risk. The Juba Conference of 1947 gave voice to these fears, but it issued no decision on unity, despite later false assertions to the contrary.

Southern fears of northern domination proved well founded at the negotiations on self-determination of Sudan in the early 1950s. The Northern nationalists excluded the Southerners from those negotiations and breached pre-independence promises to create a federal system. After the February 1953 self-rule agreement, it appeared that Northern leaders retreated from their commitments to federalism. This soon led to development of the secessionist armed struggle. The movement began in 1955, a few months before independence, when the Equatoria Corps in Torit mutinied.

The guerilla war in the south continued from 1955 to 1963, but was not well organized. The insurgents did, however, gradually develop into a secessionist movement and formed the Anyanya guerrilla army. Beginning in Equatoria, Anyanya spread to the other parts of the region between 1963 and 1969, but the movement was exhausted by internal tribal conflicts.

Nothing was done under the first independent government of Sudan, which was overthrown by the 1958 coup d’état of the chief of staff, Lieutenant General Ibrahim Aboud. The military council of the coup believed that the rebels could be defeated and peace restored, but six years of repression proved the contrary. Resentment of the military government led to a wave of popular protests that led to the creation of an interim democratic government in October 1964. A roundtable conference in Khartoum, which included some rebel representatives, failed to resolve the problem.

After a second military coup, on 25 May 1969, the new government proposed regional autonomy and an end to hostilities. After July 1971, in the wake of the failed communist coup, the atmosphere became favourable for peace initiatives.

In 1971 Lieutenant Joseph Lagu, the new leader of the insurgents, gathered all the guerilla factions into the Southern Sudan Liberation Movement, the first body that could claim to represent the entire South. Mediation between the parties to the conflict was led by the World Council of Churches and the All Africa Conference of Churches. This led eventually to the Addis Ababa Agreement of March 1972, ending the 17-year conflict between the Anyanya and the Sudanese army—between north and south. The agreement provided for a single Southern administrative region with certain defined powers. The region would be ruled by a separate legislature and executive body, and the soldiers of the Anyanya would be integrated into the Sudanese army and police.
Unfortunately, Numeiri, the hero of peace, during a single decade became inciter of war by undermining the agreement; he issued a decree to divide the south into three regions, in violation of the 1972 agreement.

The second southern war began in May 1983, when an army battalion stationed at Bor rebelled under the leadership of Colonel John Garang de Mabior and took refuge in Ethiopia. The battalion attracted discontented Southerners determined to resolve their grievances by military means under the flag of the recently announced Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SSLM) and its military wing, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).

The civil war continued for 22 years. Numerous ceasefires, agreements, and peace discussions occurred during the 1990s but bore little fruit. The government of Sudan and rebels, prodded by Western powers led by the United States, eventually signed an agreement in January 2005, known as the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), ending the country’s long civil war. The CPA provided for a new constitution and outlined new measures for sharing power, distributing wealth, and providing security. It also allowed for a separate administration in southern Sudan and stipulated that a referendum on independence for that region be held in six years.

On 9-15 January 2011, Southern Sudanese citizens voted in a referendum on southern independence. Almost 99 per cent of the voters opted to secede from the north. The independence of South Sudan was declared on 9 July 2011.

Civil War in Darfur

The Darfur region lies in western Sudan, near its borders with Libya, Chad, and the Central African Republic. The bloody conflict in the region has led to the deaths of thousands of people and the displacement of more than two million. This has been described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and has been called genocide, often being compared to the genocide in Rwanda. An estimated 300,000 people have been killed in this conflict since 2003. Since then, people have repeatedly come under attack by government troops, pro-government militia, the Janjaweed, and rebel groups. There are also frequent fights between tribes.

The origin of the conflict goes back to the complicated situation in Darfur, where respected local councils settled conflicts peacefully. In past conflicts, the central government did not take sides in the disputes but tried to reconcile the parties. The Islamist government that took power in 1989 opened the door to doing away with traditional mechanisms for the peaceful resolution of disputes.

The conflict began in 2003, when rebels in Darfur took up arms, accusing the government of neglecting the region, which suffers from political and socio-economic inequality. The government responded violently.

The rebels resorted to armed revolt after giving up hope that the government would deal positively with the attacks of the Janjaweed, and come to defend peaceful villagers at the foot of Marra Mountain, but the Khartoum government allied itself with the aggressors. All this happened on the eve of the signing of the CPA with the south. This encouraged Darfur rebels, hoping for the same outcome after stressing the marginality of their region.

The International Crisis Group says that the removal of so many people from their homes has been part of a government policy of ethnic cleansing. This agrees with rebel claims of organized attacks on African groups such as the Fur, Zaghawa, and Massaleit, before the outbreak of the conflict in 2003.

More than 18,000 troops and police of the hybrid United Nations–African Union force (UNAMID) were charged with protecting civilians and aid operations. UNAMID took over from a 7,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force in 2007, but has so far been unable to curb violence and protect civilians. In fact, rebel groups have targeted the UN peacekeeping force itself on various occasions, whose mandate is set to end in June 2016. The level of violence fell after 2005 but rose again in 2013, and more than 450,000 people were displaced during 2014 alone. Over 100,000 more persons were displaced during 2015.

Some of the Janjaweed have now been integrated into the Sudanese military, have changed sides and joined the rebels, or are fighting each other. One of these militia groups, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), was deployed in Darfur, where it attacked communities accused of supporting the rebels. The RSF raped, looted, burned houses, and displaced tens of thousands of people, according to international organisations.

In March 2009, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for the Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, describing the Janjaweed as allies of the Sudanese armed forces. Bashir has dismissed the charges.

Peace efforts continued, and the Darfur Peace Agreement was signed in 2006, a turning point in the long conflict. It was signed by the government and a faction of the Sudan Liberation Army, SLA which later abrogated it. It was rejected by other factions.

In May 2008, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) attacked the city of Omdurman, near the capital Khartoum. This traversed peace efforts until July 2011, when the government signed a new peace deal, the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur, with the Liberation and Justice Movement, an umbrella organisation of small rebel groups.

These conflicts can be attributed to the deeply rooted regional, political, and economic inequalities that have persisted throughout Sudan’s colonial and post-colonial history. An Arabic-speaking elite who have held power at the centre systematically marginalised the inhabitants of many rural parts of the country.

Sudan Darfur civil wars
The map shows the regions of Darfur and the area affected by violence. ©Fanack

A sprawl of tents at Zam Zam Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camp, in El Fasher as tens of thousands sought protection following fresh clashes between the Government of Sudan and rebel forces. Photo Andrew Carter