Sudanese Civil Wars

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Two wars fought since the independence of Sudan in 1956.

There have been two prolonged civil wars in Sudan since independence in 1956. The first lasted from August 1955 to March 1972, and the second began in May 1983. Although both wars have been fought largely in the southern third of the country, their aims have diverged. The first aimed at independence, or at least autonomy for the south, whereas the second primarily aimed at restructuring the central political institutions and devolving power on marginalized areas. Secession is the fallback position should restructuring fail.

The background for the wars lay in the tension between north and south Sudan, the former largely Arabic speaking and Muslim and the latter home to diverse African peoples who adhered to traditional religions or converted to Christianity. Southern peoples had resisted Turco-Egyptian and Mahdist slave raids in the nineteenth century; the British did not manage to subdue them until the 1920s. Britain then imposed the Closed Districts Act (1925) and other measures that banned northern traders and Muslim preachers from the south and even banned Arab-style dress and the use of the Arabic language in government offices and schools. Britain failed to promote education and economic development in the south, leaving it far behind the north when the two parts were merged at independence under a centralized system that placed power in the hands of northerners. Many southerners felt that they had not gained independence but had, instead, exchanged one foreign ruler for another.

First Civil War, 19551972

The first civil war was triggered by the Torit mutiny (August 1955) of the Southern Defence Force and was heightened by the northern politicians' rejection of federalism. Under the parliamentary system (19561958), the south was marginalized politically. Under the military rule of General Ibrahim Abbud (19581964), the religious and ethnic norms that predominate in the north were imposed on the south: Arabic became the language of government and education, Islam was promoted and Christianity repressed, and increasingly harsh military means were used to quell the revolt. The return to civilian rule in late 1964 did not, in itself, end the conflict. Although the Roundtable Conference of March 1965 examined southern grievances, the ruling northern political parties still sought to establish an Islamic state, which was anathema to southerners and northern secularists. Only after Muhammad Jaʿfar Numeiri seized power in May 1969 was an effort made to recognize the inherent ethnic and religious diversity in Sudan and negotiate with the Anya-Nya rebels. The Addis Ababa Accord of 27 February 1972, which ended the first war, was implemented through the Regional Self-Government Act for the Southern Provinces (promulgated on 3 March 1972) and incorporated into the permanent constitution of 1973. The three southern provinces became one large region with its own regional assembly and High Executive Council (HEC). The south gained considerable autonomy in the social and economic fields. Religious discrimination was prohibited, and English was recognized as the principal language in the south because it had been the common language used in schools. Efforts were made to reintegrate the refugees who had fled the country during the seventeen years of fighting and to absorb the Anya-Nya into the regular armed forces.

Despite constitutional safeguards against altering provisions of the Addis Ababa Accord, Numeiri interfered continually in the implementation of the accord. At times, he dissolved the regional assembly, dismissed the HEC, and tried to prevent potential oil revenue from accruing to the south. Finally, he decreed on 5 June 1983 the redivision of the south into its three original provinces. That illegal action completed the dismemberment of the accord. By then, members of the absorbed AnyaNya forces had engaged in sporadic mutinies, culminating in mutinies in Bor and Pibor in spring 1983. When Numeiri sent troops to crush the mutineers, they fled to the bush, where they were joined by Colonel John Garang de Mabior, head of the army research center in Khartoum.

Second Civil War, 1983

By midsummer 1983 Garang had molded the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and its political wing, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) into a militant force that supported the continued unity of Sudan, but on a new basis, requiring proportional sharing of power among the various peoples and regions; special attention to the socioeconomic needs of the deprived east, west, and south; and nondomination by any one religious or racial group over the others. The SPLM gained support as Numeiri's policies led to economic ruin and his institution of Islamic law in September 1983 alienated a wide array of citizens. Numeiri's overthrow in April 1985 did not, however, end the rebellion. The transitional government (April 1985 to April 1986) and the elected government under Prime Minister al-Sadiq al-Mahdi (May 1986 through June 1989) failed to respond to the underlying demands of the SPLM and SPLA. The governments sought to modify, rather than annul, Islamic laws, and they treated the SPLM merely as a southern movement. Nonetheless, in spring 1989 the high command of the armed forces compelled the politicians to negotiate an accord with the SPLM that involved canceling Islamic laws until a constitutional conference could resolve the issue of the legal basis of rule. By then, the SPLA controlled nearly 90 percent of the countryside in the south and had made inroads into areas in the north. Fighting had spread into the Nuba Mountains and the southern Blue Nile Province, where the Inges-sana people held economic and political grievances against their Arab overlords.

That effort to negotiate a solution was undermined abruptly by the coup d'état on 30 June 1989the coup's leaders rejected the agreement to hold the constitutional conference and insisted that Islamic laws be retained. A comprehensive Islamic legal system was instituted in the north and the south was fragmented into ten provinces. After the coup, the SPLM aligned with the exiled opposition National Democratic Alliance in March 1990 and gained the support of the ousted high command of the armed forces in September 1990. The SPLM became the most militarily active element in the nationalist opposition to the Islamist military government. By 1991 the SPLA controlled nearly all the south. However, the fall of Mengistu's government in Ethiopia, which had provided essential support for the SPLA, deepened internal tensions inside the SPLA. Commanders in Upper Nile defected in August 1991, thereby enabling the armed forces to recapture many garrisons and to put the SPLA on the defensive.

Prospects for a negotiated solution seemed to vanish. At negotiations in Abuja, Nigeria, in 1992 and 1993, the SPLM proposed establishing a confederal system, just short of secession, but the government responded that "secession will come at the barrel of the gun" (Wondu and Lesch, p. 51). The Organization of African Unity's East African Inter-governmental Authority on Drought and Desertification (IGADD) initiated negotiations in 1994. IGADD called for the formation of a secular state in Sudan; absent a secular, democratic system, the south should have the right to secede. This position pleased the SPLM but infuriated the government in Khartoum. Only in 1997 did the government allow the issue of self-determination to be an agenda item in the negotiations. Soon after, Khartoum's incentive to negotiate diminished: The export of oil from Upper Nile, which began in August 1999, enabled the government to double its arms purchases within two years and establish military industries. The expulsion of the indigenous (largely Nuer) population from the oil fields area accelerated in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This deepened the already severe humanitarian crisis on the south.

After 11 September 2001, the government began to respond to U.S. pressure to negotiate. It reengaged in negotiations (the African body having been renamed the Intergovernmental Authority on DevelopmentIGAD) and signed a potentially breakthrough accord with the SPLM at Machakos (Kenya) in July 2002. This accord called for the formation of a confederation between the north and south that would last for a transitional six years. Negotiations during the winter of 2002 to 2003 over the specifics of power and resource sharing and the relation of religion to the state remained acrimonious and it remained uncertain whether a fundamental accord was possible. The future status of the other marginalized areas also remained uncertain.

The two civil wars sought to deal with the underlying problem of Sudanhow to build unity in a multiethnic and multireligious country. The first war proposed regionalism as the means to give each community a degree of autonomy; the second war proposed restructuring power in the center so that regional autonomy could be secure. Sudanese politicians still grapple with that fundamental problem.

see also abbud, ibrahim; garang, john; numeiri, muhammad jaʿfar;sudan.


Alier, Abel. Southern Sudan: Too Many Agreements Dishonoured. Exeter, U.K.: Ithaca Press, 1990.

Beshir, Mohammed Omer. The Southern Sudan: Background to Conflict. London: Hurst, 1968.

Deng, Francis. War of Visions: Conflict of Identities in the Sudan. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1995.

Garang, John. John Garang Speaks, edited by Mansour Khalid. London: Kegan Paul, 1987.

Jok, Jok Madut. War and Slavery in Sudan. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Lesch, Ann M. The Sudan: Contested National Identities. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Wondu, Steven, and Lesch, Ann. Battle for Peace in Sudan: An Analysis of the Abuja Conferences, 19921993. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000.

ann m. lesch