On the 9th of July 2011, Southern Sudan will declare its independence from the rest of Sudan and become the world’s newest country. It’s a moment that the Southern Sudanese and their supporters have been anticipating for many years, and comes off the back of more than five decades of warfare, punctuated by only brief breaths of peace.
Yet the news now is full of concern rather than celebration. A fresh outbreak of war seems pending, as analysts scramble to work out what’s going to happen next. Some of that analysis is far from rosy.
But what’s actually going on in Sudan? If you’re new to the Sudanese context it can be pretty confusing. What’s the fighting about and who is involved? How does the civil war that keeps getting talked about relate to the ‘genocide’ in Darfur? How did this all come about? If you’re a bit bamboozled by the bylines, this post should give you a high-level picture of how we got this far.
Map: Detailed map of Sudan’s states
Sudan’s a big place. The largest in Africa, the tenth largest in the world. It’s got about 40 million people, spread over nearly 600 ethnic groups- making it one of the most ethnically diverse nations in the world. Over the last couple of millennium, it’s variously consisted of some 50 states.
Colonialism, in all its glory, whacked this mob together within one solid black line and called it Sudan. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Britain and Egypt (with some customary flip-flopping) shared governance of the realm. Egypt (as a proxy caretaker on behalf of the British) governed northern Sudan from the new capital of Khartoum, while Britain administered southern Sudan at arm’s length.
The divide was more than administrative. Islam had been diffusing across northern Sudan for many centuries, while the south was largely animistic in religion and culture. The north was predominately desert and scrubland, while further south the ground grew wetter, with mixed woodland and, eventually in the far south, tropical rainforest.
The colonial division of Sudan meant that the north was effectively run as an Arab-Muslim kingdom, while the south was administered as a British colony in the order of other East African states (Kenya, Buganda, Tanganyika…), with Christian missionaries running many of the services in an otherwise sparsely-explored, -developed or even -penetrated land.
Thus, pre-existing differences in geography and resource-allocation were further entrenched through very different styles of political governance, through the adoption of opposed religious practices, and through an increased sense of Arabicization in the north versus more prominent sub-Saharan African ethnic groupings in the south.
Map: Northern Sudan in light yellow, Southern Sudan in light purple
North-South Civil War
In 1956, Sudan was granted independence as a single nation, to be governed from Khartoum and the old Arab-dominated administration left by the Egyptians. The south, resentful and distrustful of the north and its policies, had already laid the seeds for civil war with a military uprising in 1955 that led to all-out civil war. This war between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) lasted, with a brief interlude from ‘72-’83 and with various surges and lulls, until 2005, when a comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) was signed, brokered largely by the Americans.
As well as the underlying divide, the conflict also played out as part of Cold War politics. The Soviets poured weapons and funding into Khartoum in order to maintain control of Sudan’s rich oil reserves, situated largely in territory allocated to the South. (While the Cold War has ended, this continues to play a major component in the politics of war and peace in Sudan, with the Chinese blindly investing in the North in order to access rights to its resources, and the West taking an unusually intense interest in the outcome of Southern independence as well.)
The war was Africa’s longest-lasting civil conflict and claimed over 2 million lives, with 2 to 4 million people displaced as refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Decisions by the north to impose Islamic laws on the south and push for the spread of Islam (such as putting money into building mosques over other service provision) provided further incentives for the south to keep fighting. In 1989 a coup by military officers put now-President Omar al Bashir in control of the Khartoum government, and he maintained a hard stance in the conflict and in terms of pushing for the Islamicization of Sudan. (Bashir is now wanted by the International Criminal Court for war-crimes in Darfur).
The war was an uncommonly brutal one. The North made use of extensive bombing campaigns using Soviet aircraft that targeted civilians, not just military targets. Very little infrastructure was left standing in the South as a result (and at the time of the signing of the CPA in 2005, the country effectively had to start building itself from the ground up). Mass displacement led to widespread famine and disease- responsible for a large portion of the two million fatalities. As the SAF seized control of major towns and roads, the SPLA withdrew into the countryside, fighting a vicious guerrilla campaign which brought more suspicion and suffering on civilian populations. Mines were laid extensively. Human rights violations abounded.
A particular (and particularly important) facet of the war was the use of proxy militias. The political and ethnic fragmentation of the Southern portion of the country leant itself to domination by warlords, whose forces would then ally with one or other of the major warring parties. For the most part, the SPLA provided a rallying point for most of the southern militias. However at times, internal politics or external greed prompted various groups to switch sides, sometimes returning at a later point when allegiance suited. These militias often operated with a large degree of impunity and used the context of the larger war to settle local scores with neighbouring groups, resulting in more civilian casualties and atrocities. Skirmishes with these warlords and their militias have continued since the signing of the CPA.
In the midst of this, the international community launched what was at the time the largest humanitarian operation in history, Operation Lifeline Sudan. OLS was run out of Kenya, with its Forward Operating Base, Lokichoggio, a vast relief city in the desert of Turkana. Food, aid and expatriates were flown into Sudan on a daily basis in support of the southern population- arousing suspicion in Khartoum which remains to this day. At its peak, Loki was the third busiest airport on the African continent, the town thrumming each dawn with the roar of WFP cargo planes taking off for their routine food-drops. The sheer volume of aid added a new dimension to the war, with both sides attempting to manipulate this supposedly ‘impartial’ aid delivery to its own ends, forcing civilian populations this way and that to suit their resource needs.
As hostilities between North and South were drawing down to a tacit ceasefire, simmering unrest in other parts of the nation were starting to bubble over. Khartoum’s policies of centralization, Arabicization and Islamicization had marginalized other groups. Most notable among these were a couple of prominent factions in the remote West of Sudan in a region known as Darfur: the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).
From 2003, triggered by Khartoum’s exploitation of new oil reserves and seeing the level of international recognition the SPLM/A had received as a result of their push for freedom from Khartoum, the SLA and the JEM took up arms against Khartoum. Bashir’s response, as well as mobilizing regular armed forces, was to arm a militia, ostensibly made up at least partially of released prisoners, known as the Janjawid. The Janjawid, a highly mobile and often horse-backed group of vicious fighters, became synonymous with the burning of villages, the rape and murder of civilians, and implementing an unspoken policy of ethnic cleansing.
The resulting conflict became very messy, very fast. Between two and four million people fled their homes (out of a starting population of 6 million), settling in a series of IDP camps across a desolate and arid area the size of France, largely lacking roads or other infrastructure. Chad, resentful of the support that Khartoum had given to opposition rebel groups during its own civil war years earlier, poured support into the Darfur rebels which resulted in a tense and lawless cross-border situation. The humanitarian operation was stymied by a Khartoum government which was both belligerent and distrustful of the incoming aid agencies, and also had no vested interest in seeing the population supported. Red tape was thrown up at any opportunity, while aid agencies were frequently punished with expulsion and the revocation of permits.
The fighting continued. The war was characterized as being one between Arabs and ‘Africans’, although on ethnic terms the differentiation was hazy at best. However at day’s end, as well as the macro-level context of an uprising by a marginalized people against a non-representative and distant government, this was really a resource conflict. The players polarized themselves largely along the lines of groups that traditionally practiced sedentary agriculture versus those that traditionally practiced more nomadic livestock rearing. The conflict, at its most basic, was about who controlled wells, grazing land and firewood and, from a government perspective, the small but significant new finds of oil.
Over the next few years, the conflict fragmented. The government lost control of the Janjawid, while the rebel groups split into around 30 different forces, with alliances shifting so rapidly they were almost impossible to track, let alone resolve. Banditry- partly to resource fighting, partly for profit for its own sake- blossomed, and aid workers with their shiny Land Cruisers, disposable cash and walkie-talkies were prime targets. Anarchy reigned.
At the same time the SLA and JEM were consolidating their struggle for recognition, groups in the far east of the country, in Kassala and Red Sea States, were instigating their own rebellion. With support from the SLA and JEM, militias like the Beja Congress under the flag of the Eastern Front also started a low-key insurgency, and while it didn’t get far, it remains a tense point to this day.
In Kordofan, like Darfur consisting of three states- West, South and North- the conflict from Darfur was spilling over. For a while analysts were concerned that it was going to explode in the same way as Darfur, but while there were a number of reports of village massacres, the focus remained on Darfur.
Several areas remained, however, flashpoints for violence. Kordofan had been deeply divided during the North-South wars, with militias (most notably the Nuba) aligning with the South while the state remained occupied by the North. Likewise portions of Blue Nile (belonging to the North) and Upper Nile (belonging to the South) were made up of a patchwork of proxy militias and their complex alliances, which continue to simmer to this day.
There is, of course, the contentious Unity State. Unity- never a more inappropriately named location- is apparently sopping with oil, and is subsequently claimed by both the North and the South. Under the 2005 CPA, Unity’s future was supposed to be determined by a state referendum, but neither the North nor the South could agree on a structure to the referendum, particularly because the North wanted Arab nomads who crossed the territory to be given a vote (as they would vote to join the North) while the South did not.
One of the biggest threats to the stability of Southern Sudan as a nation is its very ethnic diversity. Conflict between ethnic groups, clans and even families at a very local level has strong currency in the micro-politics of the area. Disagreements, usually over cattle or women, used to be settled with spears, bows and knives. Today they are settled with 7.62mm rounds on fully-automatic. Interclan tussles used to score their casualties in ones and twos. Now they’re counted in twenties and forties. While the North-South war kept a lid on much of this and provided a common enemy to unite otherwise-belligerent factions, since the signing of the CPA there has been a marked increase in ethnic tension in Southern Sudan. If war with the North does not eventuate, the SPLM will still need to contend with this very real threat to remain viable.
In the last few years, the despicable Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), pushed ever northwards by the Ugandan army, has established itself in the forests of Western Equatoria, in the far south of the country. Known for its brutal campaigns against villages- seizing children as soldiers, porters and sex slaves- it has continued its trademark attacks against Sudanese villages and continues to create tension in that area.
Map: Zones of tension in Sudan
Orange: Northern Sudan
Blue: Southern Sudan
Pink: Kordofan, Blue Nile
Purple: Eastern Front
Spiralling Towards Independence
In many ways, Sudan and its constituents are holding their breath. This year’s referendum, timetabled by the CPA and independently monitored, clearly stated that the South (as voted on by Southerners) would cecede- a vote of 99%. This is clearly not in the interests of the North, but for now, the North has little power to stop this from happening without angering the entire International Community. This doesn’t stop it playing games. Like cutting off the South’s access to its oil pipeline for export.
From there, SAF incursions into Unity State (Abyei) late in May made international headlines as the potential signal for an impending civil war post-independence. Whether designed to test international waters and the Southern reaction, whether planned as a pre-positioning of forces, whether a statement of ownership, or whether to drive out pro-South populations, the move demonstrated the weakness of the UN resolve to step in and intervene.
It also demonstrated the unwillingness- for now- of the SPLA to respond with significant force. This can be chalked up to the SPLM’s concern that nothing should jeopardize the handover of independence in 2 weeks’ time. After the July 9 transition, their restraint may be weaker.
The United Nations has been instructed by Khartoum to end its mandate in Sudan once the South has its independence. That means from July 9, the UN will need to withdraw its peacekeepers from any territory controlled by the north, including South Kordofan.
(Rumours that the UN in the South may also be asked to leave- possibly an internal political manoeuvre relating to dissatisfaction with bilateral donor support for the SPLM- are currently unsubstantiated, but this also would create a significant concern in the light of increasing tensions.)
A tentative agreement has been reached by both the North and the South that a contingent of Ethiopian peacekeepers will take control of Abyei while a long-term solution is agreed. Of course, it’s been 6 years that a long-term solution has been discussed and still hasn’t been reached. But it’s better than slinging it out.
Meanwhile, Khartoum has refocused its efforts on Kordofan, with evidence of troop buildup, ethnic cleansing, arbitrary execution of political dissidents, and 60- to 100,000 people displaced from their homes (claims of up to half a million by local leaders). Strategically close to Abyei and Unity State, Khartoum may well be prepositioning itself for a much larger incursion.
Rumours of instability in Blue Nile are growing, with concerns about militia groups there and across the border in Upper Nile. Should conflict between North and South erupt, this will almost certainly become a major area of concern- and probably a highly complex one.
Although the war in Darfur is ‘different’ to the North-South conflict, many of the drivers- fear of Islamicization, Arabicization, marginalization, resource exploitation- are the same. The SLA and JEM (as still the major rebel figureheads negotiating with Khartoum) very much take their lead from what happens in the South, which they see as setting a precedent for their own struggle. What impact Southern independence, or a possible return to war with the South, triggers in Darfur remains to be seen. However with anarchy and banditry continuing to dominate, with the ongoing belligerent attitude of Khartoum towards NGOs, and with the UN having to close its mandate in the North, some impact is certain.
Sudan has it all. Beligerent governments. Long-standing ethnic grievences. Oil and resource conflict. Warlords with wavering loyalties. A harsh, unsupportive and disease-prone environment. Poor infrastructure. High aid dependency coupled with suspicion towards the international community. A contested border. High levels of international ‘interest’ in the outcome. And a lot of guns. And I mean, a lot.
Many observers agree that the Southern government is unlikely to embrace any large-scale response to hostilities this side of July 9. The government is occupied with managing transition- and ensuring it goes ahead. Even beyond that time, the SPLA does not have the training or equipment that the SAF possesses (not to say that certain western governments aren’t doing their damnedest to correct that imbalance). Whether we see a return to all-out war between North and South in the near future isn’t clear; it may not swing that way. However with the build-up of tension and troops in flashpoint areas such as Southern Kordofan and mutterings along the Nile, the chances of low-level conflict remain very high.
A likely campaign from the North, based on past performance, would involve the use of proxy militias in sensitive areas. These would be used to drive out pro-South populations and secure- de facto if not de jure– the areas it wants to control. The South may respond with similar tactics, or pour in more regular troops which could considerably escalate the conflict. Whichever path results, the outcome for civilian populations caught in the middle is grim.
That said, there’s no war yet. Negotiations over Abyei and Unity continue. While the North doesn’t want to lose its oil, if it declares war on the South it will exacerbate its international pariah status and find that China really does become its one and only ally- something which Bashir may be okay with, but will not do Sudan as a nation any favours over time. Likewise Southern Sudan’s President Salva Kiir, despite his cowboy appearance, has no wish for his fledgling nation to be embroiled in conflict while trying to consolidate a functioning state infrastructure. The South’s struggle to lift itself from what is undoubtedly one of the lowest rungs of the Human Development ladder will be hard enough without a war.
Note: I realise that many of my readers are going to be Sudan ‘experts’ with knowledge and information beyond what I have expressed here. Please do feel free to add commentary, facts or analysis I may have missed in the comments section- and yes, I know I have oversimplified some of what is a crazy complex context in this post!
Images: All photos (c) MoreAltitude 2011
1. Orange Palm: Sunset in Yambio, Equatorial Guinea, 2004
2. Forest Landing: Yambio airfield, Equatorial Guinea, 2004
3. Welcome to Rumbek: Rumbek Airport, Lakes State, 2004
4. Purple Palm: Sunset in Yambio, Equatorial Guinea, 2004
Map Credits: Image sources linked within images