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The Politics of War and Peace in Sudan


A boy raises his hand during class in a school in the Southern Sudanese village of Kenyi. The school was constructed by the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). Families here are rebuilding their lives after returning from refuge in Uganda in 2006 following the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the north and south. Photo by Paul Jeffrey.

Fast Facts
• 1956: Sudan declared its independence from Britain and Egypt
• 1983: Southern Sudan and the North-controlled government engage in a 21-year civil war. 1.9 million civilians killed
• 2003: Darfur conflict came to Western attention. 200,000 deaths, 2 million displaced
• 2005: Peace agreement signed between North and South

In its 5,000 year written record Sudan has been at peace for only about 600 years. There are two recent wars to report on in Sudan. When independence from British-Egyptian rule was achieved in 1956, the southern provinces, with claims of political and economic marginalization, declared war against the new government in the First Sudanese Civil War from 1955-1972. Tens of thousands were killed or displaced over the 16 years of conflict. Brokering the 1972 peace talks at Addis Ababa were officials of the World Council of Churches and the All African Conference of Churches.

The Second Sudanese Civil war beginning in 1983 pitted the South against the North-controlled government for over twenty years. Fought largely off camera, this war killed some 1.9 million civilians.

War brewed in Darfur for some years and then broke out in Western media in 2003. This conflict has displaced some 4.9 million people according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) and caused some 300,000 deaths, according to the United Nations. The problem with splitting one war from the other is this: It distorts the interdependency of the whole of Sudan.

Though accords granting more autonomy to the South ended the war for a time, the government did not follow through with its promises. A declaration of Islamic law (often translated as sharia) by the centralized government in Khartoum recharged the Southern guerrilla movement, kindling anew the quest for political autonomy and religious freedom for all ethnic groups and regions both North and South in a “New Sudan.”

Twenty more years of exceptionally cruel war—fought in Southern Sudan largely off camera and outside the attention span of most Westerners—caused the death of nearly two million people, and displaced three million. The displaced fled in all directions—toward Uganda, the Central African Republic, Kenya, Egypt and Ethiopia; internally toward Darfur and north to Khartoum; and some to Australia, Canada, and the United States.

Withholding power, religious freedoms, and economic advantages from the South by the Northern government continued through two coups. The current president of Sudan, Omar Hassan Al-Bashir, attained power in 1989 through one of the coups, dissolving political parties and violently dispatching opponents. Since 1989, as for so many years before, Sudan’s people have suffered from the cruelties of war in some way or another.

The war is not about religion. Washington Post reporter Emily Wax wrote that the long-running war between North and South had religious undertones mixed with the desire of the South to share in governance of Sudan. In Darfur the war is about the grab of resources by the most powerful from the least.

The war may be in part about a long-running political battle between Sudanese president Al-Bashir and one of his chief rivals, Hassan al-Turabi. This suggestion of Emily Wax points to the complicated braid of Sudan’s politics. A former speaker of parliament and college professor, Turabi headed—and continues to influence—an Islamist approach to reform and transformation in Sudan, according to Alex de Waal.

The war is regional and international, not simply local rebel groups fighting an autocratic government. Arming the government-backed militias are Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, and the Central Republic of Africa. Located both in South Sudan and in South Darfur are large reserves of oil. Oil is a key resource that the North does not have and the South does. Farther afield, China is a huge buyer of Sudanese oil, controlling between 60% and 80% of Sudan’s total oil production. US oil companies pulled out of Sudan when Omar Al-Bashir took power in 1989.

Summary of Key Issues
• High intensity conflict. The comprehensive peace agreements of 2005 and 2008 have not stabilized Northern and Southern Sudan. Conflicts continue among many groups.
• Widespread displacement. As of April 2009 all of Sudan’s neighbors—Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Uganda—were providing shelter for almost five million Sudanese refugees.
• Destruction of livelihood. Displacement not only destabilizes a region. It also results in the destruction of livelihoods. As a result, the lack of access to basic necessities such as food staples, soap, firewood, and water has soared.
• Chronic drought and climate change. In 2008 world food prices hit highs that had not been seen since the late 1970s. This, coupled with poor rainy seasons caused by the changes in global climate in many areas of Sudan, created water and food shortages, according to Gerard Prunier in A 21st Century Genocide, a history of the conflict in Darfur.
• Additional strains on resources. In early- to mid-2005 some 285,000 people were displaced by the 21-year civil war began returning to their Southern Sudan homes. These migrations placed considerable strain on resource-deficient communities of the South.
• Difficulty of consensus. Gaining consensus on how to solve the many issues of land use, power sharing, and conflict resolution has been difficult to the point of catastrophe.
• Crippling poverty. Poverty has crippled all Sudanese, perhaps especially those who lost animals to the droughts.

Quick Links
CIA Factbook. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/su.html


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