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Last Updated: 09/29/2003
Sudan's 50 Year War
Ferdinand Katendeko

Ferdinand Katendeko looks at the underpinnings of the conflict in Sudan, which has taken over four and half million lives, and asks what changes of attitude amongst the combatants are necessary for peace to take root in this conflict.

        In a continent of grand dimensions, Sudan is notable for a number of reasons. It is the biggest country in Africa and has endured its longest conflict. it is a wealthy country in terms of available resources. It is endowed with minerals like petroleum, mica, chromites, gypsum, marble, mica, gold and diamonds: these are mostly found in its southern states and western equatorial areas. Sudan’s varied climate, which ranges from the wet equatorial south-west to hot and dry in the north can support an array of agriculture like sugar cane, cotton, timber, gum, livestock, peanuts and wheat. Sudan’s population of 38’000’000 (as in July 2003) is made up of a number of ethnic groupings like the Bantu, Nilotics and Arabs. These are all positive attributes to Sudan’s development. But, over the last 50 years the Sudan conflict has left almost 4.5 million people either dead, exiled or displaced.


What has gone wrong with this country in spite of its diversity and abundance of natural resources? Why has it suffered for so long? What have been the repercussions of this conflict and how can it be brought to an end? These are some of the questions, which this paper will address.


The causes of Sudan conflict are numerous and are rooted in tribal, economic, religious, social and political factors. It is important to point out that these divergent political and socio-economic factors are both vital to, and yet have been detrimental for, Sudan’s economic development and political emancipation. Successive Sudanese governments have abused and exploited these factors, turning them from a well-spring of strength into a menace and source of diversion and violence. Given Sudan’s diverse ethnic makeup, unless there is clear leadership, determined political will, democratic governance and respect for human rights, there is always bound to be a problem of quarrels and discomfort within the country. How such quarrels have developed into a savage civil war and spilled over into neighboring countries is a sad history of misunderstandings and lethal parochialism.  




Sudan is inhabited by two distinctive groups of people; the Arabs and Arabinised Sudanese predominantly inhabiting the northern part of the country while the southern part is occupied by the black Africans, who are mainly Christian.  Like many conflicts in Africa, much of the cause of Sudan’s conflict can be traced back to its colonial past. At the advent of the British colonialists, the Arabs were the main political leaders of northern Sudan while the black Africans had their own leaderships in their distinct kingdoms in the south although the northern Arabs were venturing to arabinise and islamise the south.  Key to Britain’s policy for governing Sudan was based on polarizing the Sudanese people, favoring the northern Arabs, giving them positions of authority in the administration. This focused economic and political power in the north. They ignored the southern part and even isolated it in terms of economic and social development.  The vast majority of infrastructure developments, which stem from colonial times, such as the ‘Gezira’ irrigation scheme, the cotton industry and most of the modern railways were all built in the North. Consequently, the preponderance of commercial activity and hence administrative centers, like Khartoum, with their roads, hospitals, schools were concentrated in northern region. In stark contrast the south remained in total poverty. Given the usual pattern of British colonial rulers meshing Anglo culture over a subjugated majority, such as in India, it is a historical curiosity that this norm was somewhat inversed in Sudan. The south was instead left to Christian missionaries who were supposed to keep these southern people meek and obedient to the northern Arab leaders.  This isolated the south not only from the north but also from the rest of the world. Because of this split the Arabic language became the medium of leadership in the north while English and other African indigenous languages were not allowed for communication with the Northern leadership. The south was to be the producers of raw materials. They became the labourers and even slaves for the northerners. Therefore, in terms of development and leadership, the southern remained isolated and neglected and so remained a plunder zone for raw materials and slaves for the north.  This polarization was reflected in leadership distribution that even at the time when Sudan gained independence in 1956, the southern Sudanese had a meagre share in administrative positions. Deng Ruay (1994) writes, “out of eight hundred posts, only four junior posts of Assistant District Commissioners and two Mamur were given to the southern people.” Further more M. Cranna (1994) says that “it is unequal development, with southern Sudan, the neglected region experienced economic marginalisation and social injustice that contributed to the unrest that erupted between the north and the south of Sudan in 1955.” More so, the north even tried to Islamise and Arabinise the south and it was due to this fact, that first sparked conflict, which continues today. The northern leaders in Khartoum have never tried to address this imbalance between regions, and this is indeed the main cause of this conflict.


The resources in southern Sudan have always been a magnet for the leadership in northern Sudan, to which the southern people have resisted for years. For instance, the first resistance occurred in 1955 when the Anyanya (southern tribe) resisted a Northern raiding party, which had come in search of slaves. The war subsided in1972 when the then President Nimieri came to an agreement with Anyanya leaders, such as Joseph Lagu, in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, to grant autonomy to the southern region. But it did not take long before the discovery of oil at Bentiu in southern Sudan destroyed this peace. President Nimeri rescinded the Addis Ababa agreement because he wanted to exploit oil fields from the Bentiu in southern region to assist him pay an accumulated debt of US $ 8 billion, which he had incurred on developmental projects in Northern Sudan. The other factor fanning conflict was religion, specifically Northern Sudan’s attempts to impose Sharia law and other aspects of Arabinization on the mainly Christian and traditional religious South. Further exacerbating the conflict were moves initiated by the North to grab land from the southerners. This proved highly unpalatable to the Southerners who regarded the mechanized farms that were to be introduced into the South by the northern leaders as colonization by the north. This was again resisted in 1983 and a movement, the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement/Army led by Col. John Garang, was born. Its stated goal was self-determination for Southern Sudan. This movement had a lot of objectives. The resistance focused not only on the leadership but also on projects like the Jonglei canal, mechanized farms and oil installations, which were regarded as an encroachment on the land, by the southern faction.


 The sense of grievance felt in the South over the persistent attempts to impose Islamic law (Sharia law) escalated when the religious hard-line National Islamic Front took over power from the moderate government of Sadiq in 1989.  Gen. Omar El Bashir was installed as leader and assisted by the extremist Islamic leader El Tourabi. The regime wanted to continue with the policy of imposing the sharia law, which had become the main cause of conflict. The new regime assumed that coercion would bring the southern people to their knees, which is yet to be the case. To date, this has been the problem; northern leaders have not comprehended strongly how the South feels against the imposition of sharia law.





Since 1983, there have been attempts to address this problem through the mediations of Uganda, Kenya, Libya, and the United States of America. Unfortunately a lasting solution has proved elusive. Interstate organizations like the Inter Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), composed of East African states and the Jimmy Carter Foundation have also mediated between the warring parties (the northern Khartoum government and the southern people led by the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement/Army).  The warring parties attempts to construct peace show an optimistic regard for the long suffering Sudanese people and an awareness of their international obligations under article 33 of the UN charter. This demands that parties to a dispute likely to endanger peace shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement or resort to regional settlements or any other peaceful means of their choice.  Therefore, the Government’s and the SPLM/A resorts to peaceful settlement is the only credible course of action.


In July –August 2003, the Sudan Government officials and Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement have been holding meetings under the mediation auspices of the Kenyan government on power sharing, resource distribution and restructuring the army. But, progress has been frustratingly sporadic, Khartoum seems to holding on to power and the Southern rebels seem to be holding onto their wealth, and the war rages on despite the ceasefire agreement. But what does this mean? Why should mediations and peace talks fail between the two parties- Khartoum and SPLA? It indicates a lack of good faith in their negotiations. International law and common sense dictate that for successful mediation to occur, there is a need for genuine good faith, trust and consent between warring factions. The principle of good faith should be invoked for the conflicting parties to reach amicable settlement. Trust and confidence should be built between the two parties to settle their differences. But, in the case of Khartoum-SPLA peace talks, there seems to be no good faith and trust, and that is why peace settlement of the problem is eluding them.


Another aspect that one has to look at is how credible are the mediators? First of all, international law requires that the conflicting parties have to agree on the mediators and they should have trust in them. But if there is no trust, then the negotiations and mediations are bound to fail. In case of the Sudanese conflict, the Inter Government Authority of East Africa has been mediating between the conflicting parties. Unfortunately, the Khartoum regime particularly distrusts two of the states – Uganda and Ethiopia, which it alleges to be supporting the SPLM/A. Given this clear lack of trust, and that most of the East African members have been accused in one way or another to be supporting SPLM/A, some commentators have suggested that mediators outside the region may be best qualified to facilitate a settlement.


However, though regional mediation efforts have not yielded tangible results, they have at least achieved numerous cease-fires, which usually give breathing space for the southern Sudanese. It is noted that during these ceasefires, crops can be cultivated, NGOs can operate and even some degree of normalcy can prevail; but these are only small spells of sanity, which cannot sustain lasting economic development for the south.



 Legal Implication:


 Meanwhile the mediation efforts still lie in balance and the conflict is continuing, let’s have a look at what is happening in and outside Sudan. The Sudan conflict has had some impact on the socio-economic and political set up in the Sudan and the neighbouring countries. May be, in order to understand the impact of this conflict, one has to look at the international laws and international human rights law concerning the use of force employed by the Sudan government in bid to suppress the SPLM/A in southern Sudan. One has to ask as to whether Sudan government needs to use the massive force to quell the SPLM/A rebellion or not. Indeed, one has to look at what is happening on the ground, at the front line and what is entailed in this conflict, and some of the international laws will assist.


Both international laws and International humanitarian law provides for the rules that govern the conduct of hostilities and those that deal with the protection of armed conflict.   Protocol 1 of the 1977 Geneva Convention, article 51 prohibits direct attacks on civilians and reprisals against the civilian population. The same protocol provides for what weapons are legitimate in armed conflict and prohibition of weapons which cause unnecessary suffering and superfluous injury to combatants. Article 51 (5) provides examples of attacks that are to be considered as indiscriminate and includes the first conventional articulation of the rule of proportionality, that is it prohibits to launch an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. Therefore, an attack, which may be expected to cause excessive civilian casualties, is prohibited.  The use of children soldiers in war as it is case with SPLM/A, is prohibited by international laws like the Convention of International Labour Organisation (CILO) and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Children (CRC). But, what is happening in the case of the Sudan conflict? Has the conflict taken into consideration of the Geneva Convention and other laws? Is the force used by the Khartoum government proportionate to the resistance posed by the SPLM/A? If it is not proportionate, then what has been the result of this force?  Are the civilians secure from attacks? If there are not, where are they? Are they being looked after? Who is looking after them? The answers to these questions, will mostly likely lead us to the consequences/repercussions of the Sudan conflict. 




That Sudan’s government has used excessive force killed the civilians who are not a party to the conflict and caused the displacement of large groups of people is beyond dispute. People have been running away for their lives. Many southern Sudanese are either displaced or exiled in other countries like Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo, USA and other European countries.  Indeed, it is the breach of international laws regulating armed conflicts that has caused the problems of refugees, displaced persons, famine and destruction of property that now afflicts the Sudan and the surrounding region.   The flight of people from the conflict has flooded the neighbouring countries with refugees. In such countries, there is now a struggle for the scarce available resources to provide for the homeless arrivals. J.B.Kabera (1987) writes, “Uganda has been facing its own internal population and economic pressures so that the assimilation of thousands of refugees is given low priority.” This influx of refugees is more of a burden to Uganda, given her meager Gross Domestic Product (GDP) but the refugee numbers in Uganda has continued to swell as the war rages on in the Sudan. In 1991, there was an estimated figure of 60,000 refuges in northwestern Uganda, and by 1995 there was a figure of 307,090 refugees from Sudan (Source: UNCHR Branch office, Kampala Uganda, 1995).


The indiscriminate bombing, killing of civilians, and destruction of home and culture encompasses a mryaid Human Rights issues affecting both the young and the old in terms of displacement, nutrition and welfare. In her report to the 1996 United Nations General Assembly, Mrs.Machel Gracal reported that “warfare also takes its toll on livestock. This creates particular problems for the young children who rely on milk as part of their basic diet. In Kongor area of Sudan, the massacre of cattle reduced livestock from around 1.5 million to 50,000”. The conflict has reduced the number of livestock, crops and disrupted communication due to ‘wrong targeting’ of the Sudan government forces, all in contravention of Geneva conventions.


 The problem of internal displacement of people from their homes and the associated abuse of their rights cannot be overlooked. The social amenities are unavailable, children are sick due to lack of care and poor hygiene. Schools, hospitals and commercial centres have been destroyed by the war.  The displaced people have settled in deforested areas and this has had serious consequences for soil erosion and hence famine is rife through out the year. As a result, the war-affected areas, which are almost entirely in southern Sudan, have continued to lag behind the northern region of Sudan both socially and economically, much of this is due to unwarranted and continued bombing. The status quo of undeveloped south versus developed north remains unchallenged and unchanged.


The Sudan conflict has spilled over to Uganda. The Khartoum Governments’ accusations that Uganda was helping the SPLM/A culminated in Sudan bombing Uganda towns and villages along Uganda/Sudan border. Bombing attacks on towns such as Oraba  (29/12/1989), Moyo (20/5/1990) and the Ojabi primary school (21/5/1991) are all well documented. When Uganda complained about these bombings, Sudan replied that it was ‘a mistake by her (Sudanese) local commanders.’  This ‘mistaken’ bombing terrified the Uganda people. This could have escalated into a high-scaled war between the two countries if the IGAD states and Libya had not constantly intervened.

Another effect on the neighbouring countries is the disruption of trade between the Sudan and her neighbours. Due to the war, border crossing is almost impossible. International trade and interactions are all affected by the on going conflict.  Businessmen fear going across the border due to the war. Some who have ventured into crossing have had their merchandise looted.  Some of the transport vehicles are either bombed or grabbed at gunpoint by the belligerents in the war.


 Possible Solutions:


Having looked at the intricacies and repercussions of this conflict, I would like to cite some possible solutions to this conflict.  At the beginning of this article, I noted that an country like Sudan, with its endowments of natural resources needs a clear policy to manage its resources, otherwise those resources become a source of conflict and menace.  A country whose leadership still carries out policies designed to suppress an entire region, leading to its impoverishment and marginalization will always face the problems of backwardness and continued conflict. The principle of good faith should be adhered to so that amicable settlement can be reached by the warring parties. In the Sudan conflict, both sides mistrust each other. In August 1991, a Sudanese Cultural Attaché at the Sudan Embassy while addressing the Uppsala Forum said “The trade Unions, sectarian lords, big merchants, tribal leaders have all grown very powerful in the absence of effective state power…… The winner in the long struggle for supremacy is as often as not determined by single-minded ruthlessness and efficacy rather than by other qualities. The primary obstacle to establishment of a proper state in the Sudan had been the refusal of the south to cooperate……their resistance has weakened the state and deprived it of its legitimacy”. As long as there is an element of mistrust and suppression in either party, peace will always be a unrequited dream.


 There have been calls of self-determination from the southern people and proposals to form their own government.  True, this could be a solution, which would be temporary because in the future some elements would probably agitate to go back to the former and bigger state of Sudan. Important questions remain to be confronted. Have the southern people failed to agree to live with the northern people?  Can’t people live in diversity? Have they exhausted all domestic, regional and international options to resolve their problem? Has the principle of co-existence of people totally failed? Once these questions have been addressed, the problems of Sudan will begin to be over. I believe the Sudan people, whether in south or north sincerely need one another. There is therefore need for the two peoples to learn to respect the cultures of their countrymen. Oppressing the views of different people will not bring unity or justice to the country like Sudan. I therefore firmly believe that removing the obstacles of oppression will solve the problems of Sudan.


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Ferdinand Katendeko a former investigations officer for the Uganda Human Rights Commission is currently studying for a MA in International Law and the Settlement of Disputes at the University for Peace. He can be contacted at