Civil War: Sudan (1983-2005)

Clayton Thyne. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 2, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


Civil wars have caused almost 20 million deaths over the past fifty years. On average, these wars have lasted over six years (Fearon and Laitin 2003). As many as 90 percent of casualities in civil wars are civilian (Cairns 1997). This is due in part to the heinous nature of civil conflict, in which both rebels and the government’s military have been known to use tactics that deliberately target civilians (Azam and Hoeffler 2002). Unfortunately, the most recent civil war in Sudan (1983-2005) stands out as one of the longest and most devastating wars in the world.

The purpose of this article is to provide an in-depth analysis of this conflict. It begins by providing a background of the country, including a focus on its history, cultures, and previous conflicts. It then moves into a more detailed analysis of the conflict, focusing on the insurgent groups, geographical factors, tactics used by both the government and rebels, and the role of external actors. The final section provides an analysis of the conflict’s outcome, including a discussion of future prospects for peace in Sudan. While this history of Sudan is one of severe suffering and turmoil, recent developments point toward a more peaceful future for the country.

Country Background

Sudan is a central African state that straddles the cultural and geographic divide of North and sub-Saharan Africa. It lies directly south of Egypt and borders eight other countries. With an estimated population of 40 million people covering nearly a million square miles (about a quarter of the size of the United States), Sudan is the largest country in Africa. Since gaining independence from Britain in 1956, Sudan has been enveloped in a costly civil war for all but ten years of its existence. The most recent struggle, begun in 1983, has cost more than 2 million lives and has displaced more than 4 million people (CIA 2005).

Sudan has two distinct major cultures, Arab and black African, which have different demographics, religions, historical backgrounds, and political preferences. The northern Sudanese states include the majority of the population (22 million), cover the majority of the country geographically, and include most of the major urban centers ( 2005). Historically, the north was deeply influenced by Egypt during the time of the pharaohs. Later, Islamic and Arabic traders left their mark on the northern Sudanese, who primarily speak Arabic and practice Islam (Althaus 1999).

Compared to northern Sudan, the southern region of the country has experienced far more difficulties in the country’s short history. The south, which has a population of around 6 million, has endured the brunt of the civil violence in the country ( 2005). Southern Sudan has a very heterogeneous population; with some 117 different languages and 50 ethnic groups, it resembles the traditional African heritage (Althaus 1999; Ministry of Guidance and National Information 1983). Due to decades of civil war and neglect by the northern government, southern Sudan has suffered from a severe lack of infrastructural development. The economy is predominantly a rural subsistence economy ( 2005). Christian missionaries in the early 1900s converted many southerners to Christianity (around 10 percent today). However, most practice some form of traditional African religion.

Since gaining independence from Britain, the Sudanese people have consistently endured both repression and poverty. Other than brief periods of democracy (1956-1957, 1965-1968, and 1986-1988), Sudan has suffered under repressive regimes. According to the Polity IV index, which is a measure of a state’s regime type, Sudan has been a solid nondemocracy for all but thirteen years from 1956 through 2002 (Marshall and Jaggers 2003). This includes the twelve years prior to the onset of the current civil war and all years during the conflict.

Poverty often walks hand in hand with repression, and Sudan is no exception. With a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of less than US $300 at the beginning of the war and a current GDP per capita of US $433, Sudan is among the top 10 percent of poorest countries in the world (CIA 2005). Although it is not the primary cause of internal conflict, poverty has worked to fuel the flames of rebellion while making civilians the major victims of the struggle.

Conflict Background

One must examine both the history of British colonialism and the role of Islamic fundamentalism to understand civil war in Sudan. In the early nineteenth century, Sudan was governed by Egypt, which was part of the Ottoman Empire. Early fault lines developed in the country between the Arab northerners and the black African southerners, who stood on opposing sides of the slave trade. In 1879, British general Charles Gordon was tasked by the Egyptians with pacifying Sudan and ending the slave trade. In 1885, Gordon was killed trying to quell a revolt led by Muhammad Ahmad al Mahdi, who sought to revive and purify Islam in the state. Al Mahdi, who was successful in the revolution, and his successor, Khalifa Abdallah, established Sudanese nationalism with close ties to the Islamic faith in their thirteen-year rule (Glickman 2000).

Khalifa Abdallah was defeated in 1898 by Lord Kitchener and a British force, which led to the establishment of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium (1898-1956). This Condominium generally capped internal violence. However, British policies worked to divide the country and can be blamed for much of the violence that followed their withdrawal from the state. These policies included the support of Islamic Sudanese nationalism in northern Sudan in order to prevent the spread of Egyptian influence and to protect British interest in the Suez Canal (Woodward 1990, 20-25). At the same time, the British worked to spread a distinctly African Sudanese identity in southern Sudan, which was safe from the spread of Islam under British occupation. Although the British cannot be blamed for initially establishing the ethnoreligious divide between the north and the south, the sixty years of their administration did little to quell the division and likely worked to further divide the country (Daly 1989, 22; Glickman 2000; Woodward 1990, 4-5, 77-78;). After the withdrawal of Britain in 1956, the south was immediately marginalized and repressed by the north-dominated national government (Daly 1989, 89; Woodward 1990, 107).

Although British policies likely widened the divide between the north and south, the root of the animosity in Sudan is Islamic fundamentalism in the north, which has consistently discriminated against non-Muslim southerners in its attempt to spread Islam throughout the country. The radical Islamist project attempted to establish a state governed under the Islamic laws of the shari’a and viewed jihad (holy war) as an acceptable strategy for pushing Islam throughout the state. Given the Islamic leadership’s view of the universal transcendence of Islamic fundamentalism, there has historically been no possibility of integrating Sudan’s diverse populations into a single pluralist state (Lowrie 1993). This view, of course, is unacceptable to non-Muslims in southern Sudan, whose struggle to resist religious repression led to the decades-long civil war in the country (Glickman 2000).

The most recent Sudanese civil war (1983-2005) was directly related to the first Sudanese civil war (1956-1972), which began in the first year of independence and lasted nearly sixteen years. The first conflict erupted when the Sudanese government attempted to enforce Arabic as the country’s official language and Islam as the official religion. The conflict ended in 1972, when the government granted the south extensive autonomy (, 2005). This peace was to be short-lived. In 1982, the central government reneged on many of its promises of self-rule and imposed Islamic law on the whole country, which led to renewed violence the following year. Additionally, the discovery of vast reserves of oil in southern Sudan intensified the causes of rebellion (Althaus 1999; Glickman 2000). During the first Sudanese civil war (1956-1972), Chevron discovered oil in the area between the northern and southern regions. Seeing that the oil revenue was disproportionately benefiting the north, and distressed by the government’s reneging on previous promises, southerners were anxious to start the rebellion anew. The rebel groups originally presented overthrowing the government as their fundamental goal. However, in later years of the conflict, southern goals diverged; some wanted complete secession, and others sought regional autonomy, religious freedom, and profits from natural resource extraction, specifically oil (Fisher 1999).

Since the second civil war began in 1983, more 2 million people have died as a result of fighting, disease, and hunger. Another 6 million civilians fled the area, moving mostly to Kenya and Uganda (Althaus 1999). Much of this devastation was due to irresponsible government tactics. According to U.S. government and international human rights officials, the Islamic state in Sudan committed “gross human rights violations” and worked to aggravate wide-scale famine throughout the country (Locante, 1993). Besides deaths, Christian and other religious minorities saw their civil rights continually restricted during the course of the war. Amnesty International reported “disturbing accounts of extrajudicial executions, disappearances and torture” carried out by the Islamic government in the north (Locante 1993). During the war, non-Muslims in government-controlled areas were subject to shari’a, or Islamic law. Under the 1991 penal code, for example, all non-Muslims were banned from most jobs in the government, including the military and judiciary, could not testify against Muslims in courts, and were required to memorize the Qur’an to learn Muslim-based curriculum in the schools (Locante 1993).

The size of both the government’s military and the rebel organizations grew over time owing to aid from outside forces. At the turn of the century, more than 50 percent of the government’s budget was spent on military supplies (Jok and Hutchinson 1999, 136). Aid from countries such as Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Libya also contributed to the growth of government forces (Glickman 2000). The exact size of the rebel organizations was difficult to measure, given that the insurgency was generally unorganized and heavily fractionalized, and alliances between rebel groups sometimes changed on a daily basis. The largest rebel organization in Sudan was the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army). Led by John Garang, the SPLA had great success in the early years of the war. After eight years of fighting, it was able to drive the national army out of most of the south (Jok and Hutchinson 1999, 126). In August 1991, the SPLA was split into two warring factions by the Dinka and the Nuer, two of the largest ethnic groups in the south (Johnson 1998; Nyaba 1997). Later, the SPLA broke into three main factions: (1) the SPLA Torit faction, led by John Garang; (2) the SPLA Bahr-al-Gazal faction, led by Carabino Kuany Bol, and (3) the SSIM (South Sudan Independence Movement), led by Riek Machar. In 1997, the last of these three groups (the SSIM) concluded a peace agreement with the government, forming the UDSF (United Democratic Salvation Front) (Fisher 1999; Foek 1998). After forming this alliance, Machar’s SSIM was able to plunder, steal, and destabilize the peace process while the government turned a blind eye due to the alliance (Foek 1998). Most reports considered the Garang-led SPLA faction the main rebel organization in Sudan; however, many other such organizations fell under the rebel group umbrella called the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), to which the SPLA belonged. These included the Sudan Alliance Forces, the Beja Congress Forces, and the New South Brigade (CSIS 2003).

The Cold War played an important role in the Sudanese civil wars, particularly the first war (1956-1978). Prior to the Six Days’ War in 1967, the United Kingdom supported the Sudanese government. Following this war, Sudan was distanced from the West, whereas Soviets moved in to support the government (Cooper 2003). During the height of the Cold War, the U.S. government considered the dictatorship in Khartoum a key African ally due to their staunchly anticommunist stance. Since the 1989 military coup put a fundamentalist Islamic movement in power, Sudan has been considered a supporter of terrorism (Althaus 1999).

Sources: CIA 2005; Marshall and Jaggers 2003; World Development Indicators.
War: SPLA and other factions vs. government
Dates: November 1983-January 2005
Casualties: 2 million (1983-2005)
Regime type prior to war: -7 (rangingfrom-10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
Regime type after war: -6 in 2002, when war was ongoing (score ranges from -10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
GDP per capita year war began: US $299.90 (constant 2000 dollars)
GDP per capita 5 years after war: US $289.60 (constant 2000 dollars)
Insurgents: SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army), several other factions
Issue: Religion-based struggle for control of central government and/or secession
Rebel funding: Funding from Ethiopia, Uganda, and Eritrea; indirect aid from the United States
Role of geography: Large country with few paved roads has retarded government efforts to control rebel groups while encouraging inter-rebel fighting.
Role of resources: Oil first exported in 1999 raised the stakes of the war.
Immediate outcome: Peace agreement signed in January 2005.
Outcome after 5 years: Tenuous peace; atrocities continue in Darfur region.
Role of UN: Long-term humanitarian aid, currently considering peacekeeping forces.
Role of regional organization: OAU active in 1990s working for peace; efforts led to 2005 agreement.
Refugees: 4 million since the start of fighting
Prospects for peace: Favorable but tenuous
Table 1: Civil War in Sudan

The most recent civil war has certainly not been confined to the Sudanese borders. Fleeing civilians in the south journeyed to the neighboring  countries of Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and Egypt in large numbers. In 1999, U.S. State Department officials estimated that some 350,000 people lived in refugee camps in Kenya and Uganda alone (Althaus 1999). Displacement of peoples resulted in what international humanitarian organizations call the “lost generation” of Sudan, because of the absence of educational opportunities and basic health care and the limited prospects for productive employment (, 2005).

The Insurgents

In response to persistent northern efforts to unify the country by forcing Islam and the Arabic culture upon it, southern political organization and guerrilla movements arose in the early 1960s. The most significant of these groups, the Anya Nya guerrilla movement, appeared in 1962 and eventually became the SLM (Southern Sudan Liberation Movement) in 1971. Pressure from the SLM was a leading factor in the creation of the Addis Ababa Agreement in 1972, which ended the first Sudanese civil war by granting considerable autonomy to the south.

Although this agreement led to eleven years of peace, the root of the problem—northern efforts to establish an Islamic state—remained. Numeiri, the Sudanese government leader during this time, yielded to political pressure from the opposition Umma Party in 1983 by renewing the enforcement of shari’a throughout the country with the passage of the “September laws” (Woodward 1990, 157). These laws led to thousands of public punishments, including floggings, amputations, and executions of non-Islamic southerners (Langewiesche 1994, 27). In his efforts to punish southern rebels, in 1983 Numeiri sent Lieutenant Colonel John Garang to quell a mutiny of government soldiers in the south. Instead of following these orders, Garang encouraged a mutiny, garnered the support of the troops around him, and formed the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which later led to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). The SPLM was the major force working to overthrow the Sudanese government during the second civil war.

Southern rebels in Sudan received political, military, and logistical support from neighboring countries such as Ethiopia, Uganda, and Eritrea during the civil war (Jok and Hutchinson 1999, 136). The United States also aided the rebels indirectly. In February 1998, for instance, the United States allocated $20 million in “non-lethal” military assistance to the governments that supported the SPLA rebel groups. Occasional CIA programs also aided the Sudanese rebels (Glickman 2000).


Sudan is the largest country in Africa, with a land area of nearly 1 million square miles. Bordering countries include Chad and the Central African Republic (west), Egypt and Libya (north), Ethiopia and Eritrea (east), and Kenya, Uganda, and Democratic Republic of the Congo (south). The Red Sea lies along nearly 500 miles of the northeastern border. The Nile River runs northward through the central part of the country, which includes nearly all of the Nile’s great tributaries.

Like its peoples, Sudan’s geography also falls along a north-south divide. Southern Sudan is a Texas-sized area of prairies, woodlands, shallow rivers, and marshes. The people residing in this area, who have more in common with people deep in Africa’s heartland than with those in the northern part of the country, live traditional subsistence lifestyles off the land (Althaus 1999). Southern Sudan has no more than twenty-five miles of paved roads, and the vast majority of the region is without electricity or gas (Foek 1998). In northern Sudan, the geography is extremely diverse, ranging from uninhabitable deserts in areas to the west and east of the Nile, to mountains, clay plains, plateaus, and rich grasslands (Country 2005).

Sudan’s diverse geography played a key role in the most recent civil war. Rebel fighting followed a seasonal pattern, with heavy fighting during the dry season followed by a reduction in fighting during the months of heavy rainfall. The oscillation in rebel commitments between soldiering and farming encouraged disorganization and insubordination among rebel groups. These problems were compounded by the geographic isolation of many rebel units, which led to many independent warlords fighting among themselves as they attempted to overthrow the government (Jok and Hutchinson 1999, 135-36). The recent cultivation of the oil industry in Sudan also placed higher stakes on the civil war. In the last quarter of 1999, Sudan began exporting large amounts of oil from the southern areas via a pipeline extending from the south-central region of the country to Port Sudan along the Red Sea (CIA 2005). The extraction of oil from the south fueled the flames of war as southerners complained that the revenues benefited only the northern areas (Lacey 2005).


Both rebel and government tactics acquired an increasing level of sophistication as the war progressed. Traditionally, SPLA forces practiced guerrilla tactics, including hit-and-run raids on government convoys, checkpoints, and towns in order to disrupt supply lines, destroy government equipment, and steal weapons, ammunition, cars, food, and medicines (Jok and Hutchinson 1999, 136; Vasagar 2004). Rebels were generally equipped with automatic weapons stolen from government forces (Foek 1998). In 1996 and 1997, rebel groups boosted their efforts by capturing a substantial number of tanks and armored cars from the Sudanese government (Human Rights Watch 1998). The rebellion also acquired such advanced weapons as Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, antitank missiles, and Belgian-made automatic rifles, which rebels claim were stolen from government forces (Vasagar 2004). The improvement of rebel equipment gave rebel organizations better mobility and more consistent resupply capabilities (World 2002).

The recent flow of oil from southern Sudan also gave the rebels a new target. For instance, rebels bombed the newly built oil pipeline in September 1999, exactly twenty days after the first shipment of Sudanese oil was exported to Asia (Fisher 1999). Oil installations were under continuous attack in the later years of the war, despite SPLA warnings to oil companies operating in southern regions that it considered their operations to be military zones (Agence France-Presse 2001).

In recent years, foreign governments have played a key role, aiding rebels with more advanced weapons. Ethiopia provided T-55 tanks in the 1980s, and Uganda provided similar arms via the international arms market during the 1990s. Israel was criticized by the Sudanese government for supplying weapons and training to the SPLA, including a supply of antitank missiles via the Israeli embassy in Nairobi, Kenya (World 2002). Other supplies of arms and military assistance came from Eritrea and Uganda, which were firmly behind the effort to overthrow the current government (Human Rights Watch 1998). In addition to providing supplies, Ugandan troops were directly involved in antigovernment fighting, engaging the government on Sudanese territory on a number of occasions. The United States also indirectly supported the rebels by providing military support to Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda (Human Rights Watch 1998).

The Sudanese government used a number of tactics to prevent its overthrow. One of its most successful tactics was to fan the flames of internal struggles within the rebel organization. The Sudanese government worked to frame the conflict as a struggle among southern tribes, while seeking peace with all groups individually (Jok and Hutchinson 1999, 128). In the later years of the war, the government worked through northern militia groups to fight the rebel organizations. The government-backed Janjaweed militia, for instance, continues to wreak havoc in the western region of Darfur (see sidebar, “Crisis in Darfur”).

Government weapons came from a variety of sources. Recent arms suppliers included China, Iran, Yemen, South Africa, and former Soviet bloc states such as Kazakhstan. Before it was invaded by the United States in 2003, Iraq provided technical assistance and military training. Malaysia also played an indirect role by providing funds for arms purchases. Until 1995, France supported government forces by sharing satellite intelligence of SPLA movements, providing military training and technical assistance, and aiding the Sudanese government in negotiating access to neighboring Francophone states in order to stage attacks (Human Rights Watch 1998). The recent export of oil also helped the government establish links with arms suppliers. For instance, an agreement signed with Russia in 2002 gave Sudan rights to manufacture Russian battle tanks in exchange for oil concessions (Human Rights Watch 2003, 457).

Like the rebels’ weaponry, government weapons, too, became more advanced over time. Recent acquisitions of large quantities of light and medium arms and ammunition, medium tanks, artillery, and air power drastically increased the government’s ability to fight rebels. These weapons included MiG fighter planes, Mi-24 helicopter gunships, a modified version of the classic Soviet T-54 tank, and SCUD missiles (Human Rights Watch 1998). Overall, advanced weaponry such as night vision systems and nighttime aerial bombing gave the government a strong edge in military capability over the rebel organizations (World 2002).

Unfortunately, the rebels and the government had in common an utter disregard for civilian casualties. Beginning with the SPLA split between Dinka and Duer fighters in 1991, divisions between southern factions led to vicious attacks on civilian targets. For instance, in 1992 the SPLA-United alliance razed twenty-five Dinka villages, stealing cattle and killing many civilians, including young children (Jok and Hutchinson 1999, 131). Other tactics included extortion, rape, torture, and murder (Foek 1998). A recent report from the international medical organization Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) blamed warring parties on both sides for “appalling civilian mortality from infectious disease and violence” (MSF 2002). Such tactics included rape, murder, assault and the denial of access to humanitarian aid. Government forces were equally culpable in harming civilians. In 2003, for example, human rights groups accused the government of engaging in a scorched-earth policy in the Western Upper Nile of the South, killing or driving out civilians to make room for oil companies, whose revenues were used in part to fund the government forces (Cobb 2003). Unfortunately, disregard for civilian life made the innocent the biggest victims of the Sudanese civil war (Althaus 1999).

Causes of the War

Most sources report that the conflict in Sudan was simply a fight between Sudan’s Arab north and its black African south, or between northern Islam and southern Christian and animist faiths; however, scholars have recently begun to explain that the war was actually far more complicated (Althaus 1999). Scholars such as Douglas Johnson (2003, 5) have recently argued that the root cause of the Sudanese conflict was its traditions of governance rather than a conflict between Arabs and Africans. Beginning with Turkish conquerors in 1821, the governments of Sudan exploited the impoverished Muslim subjects in the north, who “passed on their losses to non-Muslims on the periphery.” This tradition of exploitative governance resulted in what Johnson calls the “Sudanic state,” which exploits all civilians, with the south bearing the brunt of this exploitation.

One of the most direct causes of the current divisions in Sudan can be traced to British decisions in the transitional period from colonialism to independent statehood. During this period, the British failed to consider southern needs in preparation for independence. Southern Sudanese leaders were not even invited to participate in the negotiations during the transitional period in the early 1950s. In the postcolonial government constructed in 1953, the Sudanization Committee included only six southern leaders from some 800 available senior administrative positions (Kasfir 1979, 369). This allowed the northern-dominated administration to use the political machinery to force their Islamic agenda upon the entire state. Although southern opposition groups initially tried to redress their grievances within the framework of a unified Sudanese state, religious persecution left non-Muslims with few peaceful options for countering these policies (Bartkus 1999, 136; Wai 1981, 117).

In the early years of the Sudanese state, the northern government passed many measures to repress the non-Muslim population. For instance, in February 1962 the government expelled all Christian missionaries from the country and closed Christian schools (Gurdon 1989, 68). These measures, along with indiscriminate attacks on protesters in southern villages in late 1962, caused sporadic fighting and army mutinies in the south, which transitioned into a full-scale civil war (Hannum 1990, 311). Though the southern Sudanese had little chance of successfully overthrowing the government, the repressive policies of the government left them to choose between the lesser of two evils: Either endure escalating religious and cultural persecution, or fight (Bartkus 1999, 137).

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, three key events led to peace. First, the 1969 coup placed Colonel laafar Numeiri in power, who then proposed that Sudan become a secular, socialist state. Second, bloody confrontations in 1971 between the Umma Party and the Ansar Brotherhood, two organizations consistently opposed to compromise with the south, reduced the power of Islamic fundamentalism in the government. Third, strong leadership by rebel leader Joseph Lagu overcame ethnic divisions and personal rivalries among the disparate rebel groups, bringing them together into the stronger Southern Sudanese Liberation Movement (Bartkus 1999, 137). These events led to the Addis Ababa Agreement of 1972, which provided for the demobilization of guerrillas and their reintegration into Sudanese society. More important, the agreement granted a great deal of religious and cultural autonomy to the south (see Bartkus 1999, 137-38, for more specific details of the agreement). Due to the enhanced political autonomy, southern factions were able to live in harmony during the eleven years following the agreement, expressing their disagreements through peaceful, political means (Johnson 1988, 6).

The autonomy and freedom delivered to the south by the northern government was shortlived, however. As Islamic fundamentalists, who opposed the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement from the start, grew in political power, President Numeiri was forced to announce in late summer of 1983 that Sudan would once again become an Islamic state (Ottaway 1987, 891, 893). This announcement was followed by a series of decrees that came to be known as the September laws. These decrees severely restricted the rights of non-Muslims (Ottaway 1987; Woodward 1990, 111). During the first two years after the passage of these laws, thousands of public punishments, including floggings, amputations, and executions, were handed out after extrajudicial trials (Lange-wiesche 1994, 27). Once again, in 1983 Sudan plunged deep into a second civil war pitting non-Islamic southerners against the religious and cultural intolerance of Islamic fundamentalist leaders in Khartoum (Bartkus 1999, 141).


Conflict Status

In the early years of the 1990s, the international community, led by Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya, led an effort to bring peace to Sudan. Under the auspices of the IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority for Development), these countries began their mission in 1993. Since then, results have been mixed. In 1994, the IGAD initiative pushed the 1994 DOP (Declaration of Principles) plan, which aimed to identify the elements necessary for a successful peace settlement. This agreement was not signed by the Sudanese government until 1997, after it had lost several major battles to SPLA forces. Also pushing the government toward peace was the National Democratic Alliance, an umbrella coalition of opposition parties in the north and the south created in 1995. The NDA included opposition groups such as the SPLA, DUP (Democratic Unionist Party), and Umma parties. By uniting rebel and opposition groups into one organization, the Sudanese civil war became more than ever a center-periphery fight rather than a north-south conflict ( 2005).

In addition to signing the DOP plan in 1997, the Sudanese government signed a series of agreements with rebel organizations led by former Garang lieutenant Riek Machar. These included the Khartoum, Nuba Mountains, and Fashoda agreements. Like the IGAD initiative, these agreements called for a measure of autonomy for the south and the right of self-determination ( 2005). Despite the agreements of the early and mid-1990s, the struggle in Sudan continued largely unabated in large areas of the country past the turn of the century.

Great humanitarian crises brought on by war and a drought in 2000-2001 caught the attention of the international community, which provided—and continues to provide—large amounts of humanitarian aid to Sudan to ward off mass starvation ( 2005). Beyond natural disasters, the victimization of civilians by both the government and the rebels came to the attention of the international community in the last decade.

Beginning in early 2002, Sudan saw a series of important agreements that led to a more peaceful country. In June 2002, a round of peace talks began under the previous IGAD initiative. Led by international observer countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Norway, and Italy, these talks ended on July 20 with the signing of the Machakos Protocol. This agreement provided for a six-year interim period after which a referendum on self-determination would be held in the south, giving the region a clear choice between a united Sudan and separated states. The agreement also states that the Islamic shari’a law would continue only in the northern regions ( 2005).

Later that summer (August 2002), a second round of talks began between the warring factions to discuss the sharing of power and wealth. This round brought together President Beshir and SPLA-leader John Garang in a historic meeting in Kampala. More important, the talks resulted in the signing of an MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) on October 15, 2002, which called for a complete cessation of fighting for three months. A third agreement in February 2003 strengthened the two sides’ stand on the cessation of hostilities ( 2005). This agreement called for the creation of a new international team to verify and monitor compliance with the agreement. These agreements were extremely important to Sudan’s long-term stability, given previous studies finding that the inclusion of the international community in the peace negotiation process is crucial to its success (Walter 2002).

The last two years of the civil war brought a series of important agreements, which resulted in peace in much of the country. In January 2004, the government and rebels signed an accord on wealth sharing, which had become a major issue in later years of the fighting (especially since the export of oil in 1999). Later that year, on May 24, 2004, the warring parties signed three key protocols, which provided for six years of autonomy for southern Sudan, to be followed by a referendum on the political future of the region. Finally, in January 2005, a peace agreement signed by southern rebels and the government of Sudan marked the end of the twenty-one-year-long struggle (Crilly 2005). Signed by Sudan’s Vice President Ali Osman Taha and SPLA leader John Garang, this agreement called for a permanent cease-fire between the two sides. Additionally, it placed Garang in the post of first vice-president in an important power-sharing deal.

Learning from the previous mistakes of the Rwandan civil war, neither side disbanded its armies under the agreement. This provides a deterrence against possible genocide and at the same time leaves the country in a state of tension, given that either side could quickly resume the conflict if the peace process hits a snag (Lacey 2005; Njorge and Makgabo 2005; Walter 2002). Despite government reports of repeated violations of the cease-fire by rebel factions, today the majority of Sudan rests in tenuous peace ( 2005).

Duration Tactics

Two key features of the second Sudanese civil war make it stand out among all civil wars. The first is the widespread atrocities against the civilian population perpetrated by both the government and rebel factions. The second is the duration of the war: twenty-one years. Several factors led to both the intensity and the long duration. One factor was the government’s ability to keep southern rebels fighting among themselves. Jok and Hutchinson (1999, 135-36) explain that the Khartoum government skillfully played rebel forces against each other by allying with southern factions as they attempted to gain control of the rebel movement. This led to roughly balanced forces between the warring rebels, which further prolonged the conflict.

A second factor contributing to the duration of the war was the government’s inability to handle the guerrilla tactics practiced by Garang’s SPLA forces. Moreover, local support for rebel organizations helped them maintain supplies to continue fighting. A third factor was the government’s unwillingness to bend in its efforts to extend Islamic law to the entire country. According to SPLA leader John Garang (1987), given the options between peace under Islamic law versus a prolonged and deadly struggle, most southern Sudanese felt that war was better than peace. Further, the government’s history of reneging on promises led to an extremely low level of trust between the warring parties. This highlights the need for an international presence if peace in Sudan is to continue after the January 2005 agreement (Lacey 2005).

Finally, one can look at resources as a factor that contributed to the long duration of the civil war. After beginning exports of oil in June 1999, the Sudanese government initially claimed that the oil profits would be shared throughout the country and used to build roads, schools, and irrigation projects. The failure of the government to spread the oil wealth to the southern regions, however, strengthened the resolve of the rebel organizations (Fisher 1999). The discovery of oil also raised the stakes—that is, the victor would have control over a large supply of oil reserves; this made both sides more resolved in their struggle (Glickman 2000; Fearon and Laitin 2003).

External Intervention and Conflict Management Efforts

Until recently, the international community overall was neglectful of efforts to end the Sudanese civil war (Althaus 1999). Efforts in both the 1990s and the 2000s were almost exclusively diplomatic, with earlier efforts to promote peace coming exclusively from Sudan’s African neighbors. Fortunately, recent efforts by the international community have made significant progress in promoting peace in the region. One of the most significant developments in the peace process in Sudan was a result of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Following these attacks, the Bush administration placed Sudan on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, making them susceptible to the same U.S. military intervention experienced by other states, including Afghanistan and Iraq (Matheson 2005). Under pressure from both African-American leaders and Christian activists in the United States, who noted the Islamic government’s repression of religious rights, the Bush administration worked for peace in the country (Raghavan 2005). The main result of this pressure was to signal to the government of Sudan that military intervention on the side of the rebels was likely, making the government more apt to make concessions to the rebel organization. Ultimately, this pressure led to the agreement in early 2005.

In addition to pressure from the United States, which seemed to be the most significant conflict management force, other actors in the international community played roles in promoting peace in the country. For instance, the United Nations is currently looking into the logistics of providing a peacekeeping force in Sudan to help make the January 2005 agreement a success. Other countries and organizations, such as South Africa and the African Union (AU), have committed to helping enforce this agreement (Lacey 2005). The vast majority of external efforts, however, have come in the form of humanitarian assistance. Responding to humanitarian crises such as famine in the 1980s, for instance, the UN and several dozen private relief agencies set up Operation Lifeline Sudan to channel food and other aid to the south. This operation, which was originally meant to be a short-term humanitarian fix, was in operation for nearly the entirety of the Sudanese civil war (Althaus 1999). More recent efforts, such as a donors’ conference held by Norway in April 2005, are important international efforts to aid the peace process in Sudan.


After twenty-one continuous years of war, prospects for future peace in Sudan may finally be looking up. Although atrocities still continue in the Darfur region, the agreements signed recently bode well for a peaceful future. The root causes of the civil war, including religious repression, unequal distribution of wealth and power, and ethnic discrimination, which have been addressed in recent agreements, must continue to be at the forefront of Sudanese politics if peace is to continue in the country. Fortunately, the recently signed agreement follows policy advice from civil war scholars such as Walter (2002) by establishing a transition period (six years), merging the fighting forces, sharing the oil wealth, and dividing political offices. Specifically, the inclusion of SPLA leader John Garang as one of Mr. Bashir’s vice presidents will provide previously the ignored southern groups with a strong voice in government, which should go a long way to reduce rebel grievances. A second positive sign for the future of peace in Sudan is the increased interest of the international community in establishing and sustaining peace in the country. Kenyan General Lazaro Sumbeiywo, for example, acted as chief mediator during the negotiations leading to the 2005 peace agreement. The efforts of Norway, which held a donors’ conference in 2005 to bring significant developmental aid to Sudan during the transitional period, should also help in future efforts to sustain peace (Lacey 2005).

Although general optimism seems warranted regarding the prospects for future peace in Sudan, one might easily have reached the same conclusions at the end of the first Sudanese civil war in 1972. Currently, the most pressing issue in the country is the crisis in Darfur, which must come to a quick and peaceful end before the conflict spreads again throughout the country. If the political leaders have truly learned from the mistakes made during the tenure of peace following the first civil war, we should expect the country to become more peaceful and prosperous as time progresses. However, if strict Islamic fundamentalists are allowed to force their views upon the non-Islamic population in the south, once again we will likely see the country plunged into a long and devastating civil conflict.