See all the ICE Cases
Deploy the ICE Search and Sort Tool (SST)
Go To ICE Expert Site

ICE Case Studies

Case Number: 3

Case Identifier: SUDAN

Case Name: Civil War in the Sudan: Resources or Religion?

By: D. Michelle Domke



1. Abstract

The civil war in the Sudan is routinely characterized as a conflict between Muslims and Christians, Arabs and Africans, or North and South. Religion, ethnicity, and regional issues were the key factors which shaped the two sides in the early days of the conflict, but in the latest bout of fighting which has raged since 1983, the lines are drawn as much along economic lines as ethno- religious ones. Worsening ecological problems in the region, scarcity of resources, and the drought of the 1980s exacerbated the conflict, and has become one of the central issues preventing resolution of it.

2. Description

Sudan, the largest country in Africa, was one of the first countries on the continent to gain its independence from colonial rule in 1956, but has never developed a clear identity of its own. Clear divisions exist between the people of the North, primarily Muslims of Arab descent, and the South, mostly black Africans of Christian or traditional African religions, and it is this division which historically has formed the battle lines in the civil war that has raged off and on since the 1950's.

Many factors led to and continue to be important aspects of the conflict, including religious and cultural persecution, poor economic conditions, historical differences between North and South, and misguided social and economic programs. Ecological and environmental factors, however, have exacerbated the problems and, for the time being, make settlement of this war impossible.

Historical Background

Prior to its independence, Sudan did not have a true history as a nation-state. The northern and western regions had been ruled since the 17th century by Arab sultanates, and in 1821, this area was invaded by the Turkish ruler of Egypt, Mohamed Ali. From then on the North developed an even more Arab culture and came to be controlled by a class of Arab merchant traders called the Jellaba, whose activities in the South consisted of raids to kidnap "natives" for the international trade in African slaves. Turco- Egyptian rule continued until 1885, and during this time, the North made efforts to control the southern regions, primarily because it was from this region that the Nile flowed. During this period, the Arabs at times had control of various regions of the South, and considered it virtually a satellite, but it was never actually one state, and particularly was not regarded as so by the South. (1)

By the late 1800's, Great Britain began taking great interest in Arab states, and this included Egypt and the Sudan. In the 1870's Britain tried to stem the slave trade out of Sudan. This was one of the primary sources of wealth in Northern Sudan and consisted of northerners travelling to the South and capturing "natives" who were then "exported" from Sudan. The termination of this system by Britain caused an economic crisis in the North and resulted in the Mahdist uprising. The Mahdists ruled from 1886 to 1898, at which time British and Egyptian forces regained control and created their so-called "condominium rule." It took 25 years for the condominium government to subdue all of Sudan, and this was particularly difficult and bloody in the South. One of the ways that the British/Egyptian forces gained control in the North was by giving political and administrative power to the leaders of various Arab Muslim sects in the North and providing development assistance.

Little of these efforts were made in the South, which maintained a tribal structure and received very little assistance with development of infrastructure or an educational system. In addition, the British encouraged missionaries to go into the South to convert the native tribes that followed traditional African religions. As a result, many Southerners are Christian and the rest mostly still follow traditional animist religions. The almost entirely Arab Muslim North was left alone and remains Muslim today. The result was to emphasize the differences between northerners and southerners and emphasize the line between the two. The condominium government also created in the South an entirely separate system of administration from the North, leaving the administration of the South almost entirely to the chiefs and sheikhs of small villages and ethnic African tribes. This should have been a positive move, but in fact caused an even greater sense of separateness of the North and South.

During the 1930's and 40's, nationalist sentiments grew in the North, and in 1948, the southern chiefs agreed at the Juba Conference to cooperate with the northern nationalists to pursue independence from British/Egyptian rule. The withdrawal of the colonial powers was accomplished peacefully, but as the British withdrew and administrative control was "Sudanized," the administrative posts vacated by the British were taken almost entirely by northerners, partly because the education system in the South was so poor that there were few from the South with the training to take on these posts. To the South, however, it appeared that "'Sudanisation' was tantamount to 'Northernisation'" (2) In addition to this problem, many southerners harbored resentment and fear of excessive northern control because of the long history of slave raids by northerners into the South, and the continuing problem with enslavement of black Africans by Arab Muslims in the Sudan.

The civil war began before the Sudan was even officially independent. In 1955, as the transfer of power from the British to the mostly northern administrators was in progress, a mutiny broke out at a garrison in the South as it was being transferred to Northern control, and this sparked off the Anyanya separatist movement. The civil war continued until 1972 when the Addis Ababa Accord which gave regional autonomy to the South, created an uneasy peace which lasted until 1983. Over the next decade, however, the military government of President Jaafar al Nimeiri slowly chipped away at the terms of that agreement. In the early 1980's, Nimeiri carried out a "redivision" of the South, abolished the regional government and redrew the North/South border to incorporate the Bentiu region, where oil had been discovered in 1981, into the North. These actions led to increasing local conflicts and finally exploded into war later that same year which has continued until the present.

This new conflict is generally characterized simply as a continuation of the North/South ethno-religious conflict of the previous civil war, but it is actually quite different, in terms of who is leading the fight and what their goals are. This rebellion is not led by Anyanya separatists, but rather by a group called the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA, sometimes also called the Sudan People's Liberation Movement or SPLM), led by Colonel John Garang. SPLA's official goal is not an independent South, but a democratic, secular unified Sudan, but it should be noted that there is significant internal dissent within the SPLA over the separation issue. In 1991, a large group arguing for independence for the South broke away from the ranks of SPLA because they did not believe that religious differences with the North could ever be resolved. Although the war has been largely confined to the southern regions, much of SPLA's support has come from northerners whose farmland and/or livelihoods were destroyed by policies of the northern government. Thus, although this war continues to involve all of the issues that started the first civil war, it has continued because of issues of environment and resources which make settlement in the near future highly unlikely.

Causes of the Renewed Civil War

The Sudanese economy historically has been based on agro- pastoral subsistence farming. Since the mid-1970's, the government has attempted to speed the country's development through shifting to crops suitable for export and by implementing modern farming techniques and shifting toward large-scale farming concerns. Unfortunately, they have done this by nationalizing most of the country's land and licensing large-scale mechanized farms to the elites in the society.

The mechanized farms were initially established in the North, but have moved southward as a result of degradation of the land, increasing the number of Sudanese who are affected by this policy. These large-scale mechanized farms have pushed for higher yields from their land, without regard to preserving the land itself. "In some areas, the land is depleted within 3-4 years by this large- scale version of shifting cultivation, which rolls like a fire-ball across the land, deforesting and destroying the soil before moving on."(3) The government officially does not allow this, and nominally has restricted the land that may be used for mechanized farming. It has not, however, enforced this law against the many illegal farms which now outnumber the licensed farms, and even provides these unlicensed farms with fuel quotas. As these farms have moved southward, they pushed out first the Nuba in Southern Kardofan, who began in the mid 1980's to support the SPLA in large numbers, and later the Nilotic tribes, which survived primarily by raising cattle. (4)

This created a tremendous number of dispossessed people who now had no choice but to migrate to cities. (5) The result is thousands of Shamasa or "those who have no roof but the sun." (6) The increased crime arising out of this explosion of Shamasa led to the introduction in 1983 of the Sharia (Islamic Law), which includes harsh penalties such as amputation for theft. The resentment caused by this action among those already unhappy with government policies led to an increase in support for the SPLA when the first rebellions began in 1983.

The problem has been further exacerbated by the Sahel drought which has affected much of the rainlands in the central and western parts of the country. Since 1967, rainfall in the Sudan has been significantly and consistently below average by as much as 40 - 50%.(7) This was originally thought to be the result of a lack of vegetation caused by overgrazing and deforestation, but is now thought to be a result of changed temperatures in Earth's oceans caused by global warming.(8) The implication of this explanation is that this is not really a drought but a permanent climatic change, and thus a symptom of this conflict that will never go away.

The worst result of the drought, of course, has been reduced food production and difficulty maintaining livestock which have been exacerbated by government policies. (9) Since the mid-1970's, the Sudan has been receiving significant foreign assistance to stave off famine, including Operation Lifeline Sudan, the largest humanitarian effort ever operated, launched by the United Nations at a cost of $120 million per year. (10) It should be noted that the UN is considering imposing sanctions against Sudan for its alleged involvement with the June 1995 assassination of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.(11) This situation has created further support for the SPLA among even those in the North.

Another significant cause of the renewed outbreak of civil war in 1983 was the Jonglei Canal development. One of the primary reasons that the North is unwilling to sever the union with the South is that the Nile River flows through Sudan from south to north, and the North wants to maintain its control over this resource. Since the turn of the century, there has been talk by those who have controlled the Sudan about building a canal to redirect the waters of the White Nile, and in the late 1970's, this became a reality. The project to drain the Sudd marshes at Jonglei was pushed by both the North Sudanese and the Egyptians. The argument in favor of the canal was that water would be saved from evaporation if it were concentrated, but the canal would also route this water up north away from the southern tribal peoples who live in the Sudd region. The 450,000 Dinka, Shilluk and Nuer who migrate annually between the marshes and the drylands feared that the project would irrevocably alter their lifestyle. They also feared that this would open up the entire Sudd region for mechanized farming, which would inevitably push the locals out in favor of large schemes. This project was one of the sparks that set off the renewed civil war in 1983, and the project's earth- excavating machinery was an early target of the SPLA when fighting broke out. (12)

Development efforts in general have exacerbated both the conflict and the environmental degradation that has resulted from it. Sudan's debt load is extremely high, which requires them to constantly seek more credit and increase exports in order to obtain foreign currency to pay interest. The situation is worsened because the IMF has required Sudan to adopt "austerity measures" such as economic liberalization, devaluation, abolition of consumer subsidies, and increased taxes, which hurt the poorest in society the hardest. The government then uses loan money for development in the North, which angers southerners even more. This is a circular problem that most likely will continue to get worse until it results either in a mass famine or a complete collapse of the government of Sudan.

It has been suggested that a possible way to alleviate the pressure on Sudan and other nations facing this problem would be for the IMF and other international lending institutions to allow repayment of foreign debt in local currency. This would stop governments from stressing production for export at the expense of the people as well as the local economy and environment. So far, the United States government has begun accepting repayment this way, but the IMF has not.(13)p>

Without doubt, there are other issues which have added to the civil war and which make settlement difficult. One cannot discount the importance that religion, race and culture continue to play in the conflict. Even if the battle is not actually over religion or race, this is historically the easiest and most abused rhetorical device for stirring up support for a war effort. Religion also may make settlement of the war in Sudan more difficult because the Islamic government has received over $180 million in aid and weapons from the fundamentalist government in Iran. This money not only allows it to continue to resist the Southern rebellion, but gives it incentive to make religion more of an issue.

Religion has also been used as a weapon against outsiders who have migrated because of the drought or the war. In recent years, non-Muslims have faced significant religious persecution.(14) Catholic priests and leaders have been arrested and mistreated, churches closed, and non-Muslims excluded from schools or jobs. For some, discrimination takes the form of simply requiring even non-Muslims to conform to Muslim codes of behavior, such as requiring that all women wear the Chador. Government workers may be fired for failing to wear the veil, and women seen on the street have been flogged. Some have been denied community- funded medical care because they are not Muslim. Criticism of this problem by human rights groups has resulted in some improvement, at least in the capital city of Khartoum, but this is still a significant problem in outlying areas of the North.

Present Situation

This country has struggled under the weight of this war for fourteen years, with over a million people killed and 3.5 million refugees displaced. (15) This conflict has many causes and many consequences. Unfortunately, the consequences exacerbate the underlying causes and make settlement even more difficult. The flow of the displaced into the cities continues, though now this flow consists of refugees from the south rather than displaced farmers and nomads. The drought continues and in order to survive, Sudanese farmers continue their harsh treatment of the land and southward progression in search of arable land, a practice that can only make a bad situation much worse.

3. Duration: 1983 to now

4. Location

Continent: Mideast

Region: Mideast Africa

Country: Sudan

5. Actors: Sudan, SPLA

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem: HABITAT

Extreme land degradation and deforestation have occurred because of the policies of the Sudanese government and the World Bank which promote development even at the expense of the long-term survival of the ecosystems of the area. This problem has been exacerbated by a drought which has been ongoing since 1967 which has forced farmers to move further south in search of arable land.

7. Type of Habitat

8. Act and Harm Sites:

Act Site       Harm Site           Example

Sudan          Sudan               Habitat and Sudan civil war

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict: CIVIL

10. Level of Conflict: HIGH

11. Fatality Level of Dispute: no data

III. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics: INDIRECT

The current outbreak of the conflict since 1983 has focused more on lack of resources than on the original causes of division between North and South such as religion. Although that is still relevant, much of the support for the rebellion now comes from disaffected Northerners such as tribal nomads who were run off their traditional grazing land by the farmers licensed by the government as part of its quick development plan.

Causal Diagram--under construction

13. Level of Strategic Interest

14. Outcome of Dispute: ?

IV. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE and TED Cases

TED Cases ICE Cases