How to Read about Sudan

photos by Benjamin Lowy

The civil wars in Sudan have gone on for so long, with so much brutality on both sides, that one can get numb. Sometimes it seems that there are no white hats and no black hats — until you think of the women and children, the innocent non-participants who are bearing the brunt of the conflicts.

And then something happens. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir shows up for a meeting of the African Union in South Africa, and the high court in Pretoria orders him detained on an warrant from the International Criminal Court, for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Al-Bashir slips out, with the blessing of the African Union, and goes home. But it happened. Justice moved a little closer. We wake up again.

Like many conflicts, it is very hard not to oversimplify or try to put Sudan, and Darfur, into a “pencil sketch.” But as you are are following news on the conflict, it is useful to take the time to at least know who is who.


Two Countries Ruled as One.

Ethnically and culturally, Sudan probably should have always been two countries. Southern Sudan is primarily Christian and animist; its ethnic groups are primarily sub-Saharan African. The north is Muslim and Arabic and culturally more closely related to its neighbors Egypt and Libya. The north is so closely linked to its neighbors that when Sudan was colonized by the British, rule of the country was shared with Egypt.

Tensions existed between the North and South well before colonization, when Northern tribes were contracted to conduct raids in the South. As in other colonies in Africa and Asia, the colonizers used the tensions to “divide and rule”. If you can keep them fighting each other, they won’t fight you. The North was educated, modernized through investment. The Southern provinces were separated, their economic and social development slowed.

British colonization ended in January, 1956, when Sudan was granted independence from both Britain and Egypt.

Civil War

By independence, conflict between the South and the North had already erupted, with Southern Sudan demanding more representation and autonomy in the new government. Two civil wars ensued, so close together that you can safely say that Sudan has had a civil war for 50 years.

Sudan’s first civil war would go from 1955 to 1972 and claim more than 500,000 lives, more than 80% of them unarmed civilians. Hundreds of thousands were driven from their homes. The First Civil War ended in 1972 with a peace agreement establishing the Southern Sudan Autonomous Region and giving the South a greater degree of autonomy.

By the mid-1970s peace was falling apart, with continued infringements of the agreement by the North. In 1983 a faction of the army in the South mutinied, breaking away and forming the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Fighting for a secular state, and abolishment of Sharia law, they advanced against government backed militia in the South.

Adding fuel to the fire, the Ethiopian government provided support to the Southern SPLA against the North, in retaliation for the Sudanese government having supported the Eritrean rebels against the Ethiopians.

Both sides of the conflict have been accused of numerous atrocities against civilian populations. Human rights groups have estimated that the SPLA used between 2500 and 5000 child soldiers.

By the mid 1990s the SPLA controlled most of Southern Sudan. On 9 January 2005, a peace agreement was signed between the SPLA and the government, with the objective of ending the Second Sudanese Civil War. A UN Mission (UNMIS) was established under the UN Security Council to implement the agreement. The peace agreement led to a 2011 referendum resulting in the secession of South Sudan and the creation of a new democratic nation.



Tensions between Sudan and South Sudan were not eliminated by South Sudan’s independence in 2011. There have been continued clashes along the shared border.

Disputes over oil resources, territory and citizenship rights brought the two countries back to the brink of all-out war in April 2012.

In 2012 a roadmap issued by the African Union roadmap and endorsed by the UN Security Council set forth a united international position representing a path forward for the two countries.

On December 15, 2013, fierce fighting broke out in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, after escalating tensions between South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, and his former vice-president, Riek Machar. Violence swept the country, killing tens of thousands and displacing over one million.

On February 1, 2015, Kiir and Marchar signed a ceasefire agreement in talks in Ethiopia.

Darfur: Take the North-South conflict, and add hoards of merciless killers.

Darfur, in the western part of Sudan, has been particularly wracked by ongoing conflicts between the nomadic “Arab” tribes of the north and the sedentary “African” farmers of the south. As with the rest of Sudan, the terms are an oversimplification of the ethnic complexities of the region. Darfur is about the size of France, home to approximately 6 million people and 100 tribes.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, the conflicts were largely over scarce land and water resources, early warning signs of the consequences of climate change, as the encroaching Sahara desert expanded into herding territories, forcing the herders into the farmlands for water.Darfur_map1-261x300


In the early 2000s, increasing political control of the region by the government of the North and marginalization of the ethnic African Sudanese led to the formation of the Sudan Liberation Army, the SLA (a different organization from the SPLA, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in South Sudan) and the Justice and Equality Movement, the JEM.

In early 2003 the SLA and JEM attacked an outpost of the Sudanese government. In response the Sudan government armed, funded, and mobilized “self-defense militias,” the Janjaweed, Sudanese Arabs recruited from camel and cattle herding tribes in the region. Loosely translated the term means a man on a horse with a gun.

With backing from Khartoum, the Janjaweed have carried out a massive campaign of ethnic cleansing in Darful, including massive and systematic atrocities: raping women, eradicating villages, destroying food stocks and other supplies essential to the civilian population.

The Sudanese government has strongly denied offering any support to the Janjaweed. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June 2004, however, a field researcher with Human Rights Watch stated that the Sudanese army was openly recruiting horse-owning Arab men, promising them a gun and a monthly salary of $116 in exchange for joining the Janjaweed.

The International Crisis Group says that money that gets paid to the Janjaweed “comes directly from booty captured in raids on villages,” giving them an additional incentive to act with extreme brutality.

There are numerous reports from international aid workers maintaining that Janjaweed raids are preceded by aerial bombardments by the Sudanese air force. Children are by far the largest number of casualties of the bombardments, which also destroy homes, schools, hospitals and businesses in the communities.

Millions of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) fled the abuses of the Janjaweed militias into neighboring Chad, turning tribal grazing fields into massive refugee camps, overflowing with the injured and hungry.

Non-government aid organizations and the UN worked ceaselessly to control and assist the influx of the refugees, running buses between the conflict-ridden border and numerous tent cities and erecting small cities of plastic tents and impromptu mud huts built around hastily installed water pumps.

Over 2.8 million civilians have been displaced by the Darfur conflict and over 300,000 killed. The U.S. State Department’s human-rights report of March 2007 claims that “[a]ll parties to the conflagration committed serious abuses, including widespread killing of civilians, rape as a tool of war, systematic torture, robbery and recruitment of child soldiers.”

Omar Al-Bashir

Omar Al-Bashir came to power through a bloodless military coup in 1989, triggered when the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi entered into peace negotiations with the rebels in South Sudan. He has been elected three times as President of Sudan though the elections are widely accused of corruption.

He has been accused of being the mastermind behind the widespread attacks on civilian populations in Sudan.

Al-Bashir is the first sitting president to be indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Luis Moreno Ocampo, prosecutor for the ICC, accused him of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Darfur. The court issued an arrest warrant for al-Bashir on 4 March 2009 on counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. On July 12, 2010, the Court issued a second warrant containing three separate counts.

The court’s decision is opposed by the African Union, League of Arab States and the governments of Russia and China.

Sudan’s legal system under al-Bashir is based on Sharia law. Stoning remains a judicial punishment, as is flogging and crucifixion.  According to Amnesty International, throughout Sudan, the government routinely represses human rights defenders, political opponents and ordinary civilians, subjecting many to torture and other forms of ill-treatment.


The Nuba Mountains

As Darfur rages on, conflict and a new government-backed campaign of ethnic cleansing was begun in the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan, next to Dafur, in 2011. Both BBS and the International Crisis Group have suggest that the area could become the next Darfur. Despite its affiliation with the Southern rebels during the civil war, and although it was one of the hardest hit regions of the North-South civil war, the region was essentially left out of the peace process that afforded South Sudan its independence. South Kordofan was granted a “popular consultation” to make their own choices, a promise that was then broken.

On 19 May 2011, militants reportedly affiliated with the SPLA-N, the Northern arm of South Sudan’s SPLA, attacking a convoy of Sudanese Army and UN personnel in Abyei. The next day 20 Sudanese tanks entered Abyei and seized control of the town.  And off it went. As with the other Sudan conflicts, the civilians are the ones who suffer most, and seem to be deliberately targetted. Unexploded weapons have been found on the grounds of three schools. Land mines are hindering attempts to deliver life-saving aid. Aerial bombings have destroyed entire civilian communities, shooting and shelling continue, apparently aimed chiefly at the Nuba people in the mountains. Some 140,000 people have fled the fighting.

And then there’s the oil…

You knew it was there. It’s always there, though it’s usually heading out to one of the multinationals based in the West.

In the mid-1990s, China began looking for external sources of crude oil, to power its economy and ensure its future. Among other locations in Africa, their eyes fell on the oil rich South Sudan, and Kordofan.

In 1996, China National Petroleum Corporation paid $441 million to acquire a 40 percent majority share in Sudan’s Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company. (Malaysia and India are also partners.) In May 1997, it won a large-scale, 20-year project for the production and transportation of oil in western Kordofan. China also played a major role in the construction of a US $1 billion, 900 mile export pipeline by providing engineering, equipment, construction and 70 percent of the line supplies. China provided half of the total investment of $540 million for a new refinery in Khartoum, and built and presently operates the refinery.

In the process, China also became the largest arms supplier to Sudan.

Oil was discovered in Darfur in 2005, when Sudan’s Advanced Petroleum Company began drilling.