Sudan: Conflict Profile

On 9 July 2011 Sudan split in two, creating the world’s youngest nation: the Republic of South Sudan. South Sudan’s independence was the final stage of a 6 year peace agreement ending decades of civil war. But peace is not yet guaranteed. As the South gains statehood, crucial issues such as border demarcation, sharing of debt and oil revenues, and the use of the North’s pipeline remain unresolved. Fighting in South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and Abyei threatens the stability of the peace, and there is ongoing tensions and violence on both sides of the border.

Suda’s problems are not just confined to tensions along the border. Less dramatic, but arguably more damaging, are the serious rise in food and water prices, the lack of medical care and infrastructure, significant IDP flows, and a poorly functioning economy. These developments are endangering lives daily and encourages reckless and desperate behaviour that can lead to violence. Decades of violence during the North-South civil war, followed by a fragile peace agreement, mean that legacies of violence remain and numerous localised conflicts continue.

Anglo-Egyptian rule and the origins of conflict

For the first half of the 20th century, Sudan existed under joint Anglo-Egyptian rule. Significantly, throughout this period the colonial administration chose to rule the vast country as though it were two distinct entities, an Arab Muslim North and a Black Christian South. Although the demographic reality of Sudan was in fact far more mixed, the colonial administration ruled according to this strict, and somewhat false, dichotomy.

Soldiers of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) redeploy to form a new Joint Integrated Unit (JIU) battalion with the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), under the terms of the agreement of the Abyei road map.

Photo credit: United Nations

From the beginning of the Anglo-Egyptian rule, the British sought to modernise northern (Arab) Sudan by applying European technology to its underdeveloped economy and by replacing its authoritarian institutions with ones that were more in line with Western liberalism. Indirect rule was also used as a means of colonial administration. This relied upon the authority of local Muslim sheikhs, and thus in the Northern region a strong sense of Arab-Muslim nationalism was promulgated.

Meanwhile, Southern Sudan’s remote and undeveloped provinces received comparatively little official attention, except for sporadic attempts to suppress tribal warfare and the slave trade. The administration of the region occurred primarily through indirect rule, utilising indigenous tribal chiefs whilst at the same time virtually sealing the region off to the outside world by preventing trade with outsiders. At the same time, Christian missionaries operated a few schools and medical clinics and provided limited social services in Southern Sudan, whilst encouraging Christianity among the region’s indigenous tribes.

Independence and the First Civil War

In 1946, a decade before Sudan gained its independence, the British decided to abandon the its dual ruling policies in favour of a single unified administration. However, this was done without consultation with southern leaders, who by this stage had come to view their region as culturally, religiously, socially and economically distinct from the North.

Independence in 1956 was therefore heavily overshadowed by unresolved tensions with the South, which flared up into a full-scale civil war led by Anyanya, a rebel militia based in the South. Thus followed a twenty year period of civil war, during which the Khartoum government experienced successive coups and regime changes. In 1972 the Addis Ababa agreement was reached, in which the military-led government of President Nimeiri agreed to political autonomy, though not full independence, for the South. With this agreement the Anyanya rebellion died down.

Refugees from Sudan holding up a banner during the visit of Secretary- General Kofi Annan at Iridimi Camp in Chad.

Photo credit: United Nations

The Second Civil War

In September 1983, President Nimieri introduced legislation to roll out the jurisdiction of Islamic sharia law throughout the entire of Sudan. A young tribesman from the South named John Garang reacted by forming the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) that same year, to fight for secular reform and preserve the unity of Sudan. Beyond this stated goal, however, it is widely held that a key motivating factor behind the SPLA’s rebellion was the discovery of oil in Sudan – the first oil field was discovered in Bentui, Southern Sudan in 1978.

In 1985, after widespread popular unrest, Nimieri was removed from power by a group of officers, and a Transitional Military Council was established to rule the country. A year later a coalition government was formed after general elections, with Sadiq al-Mahdi as Prime Minister. Meanwhile, fighting with the SPLA continued despite numerous attempts to quell the conflict using both military and political means. Throughout these years clashes between the SPLA and Khartoum, as well as internal conflicts within the SPLA, precipitated enormous civilian casualties, numbering an estimated 2 million dead and another 4 million displaced from their homes.

Sudanese partake in “Citizen Hearings” in Musfa, Blue Nile State, on the border between northern and southern Sudan. The hearings are part of a 21-day process of popular consultations where residents can express whether the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) has met their expectations.

Image by United Nations Photo published under a creative commons license

In 1989 Omar al-Bashir assumed the presidency. Whilst war was still being waged against the SPLA in the South, in the Darfur region inwestern Sudan a parallel conflict broke out in February 2003 when the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebel groups took up arms against al-Bashir’s government, which they accused of marginalising Darfur’s non-Arab population. The government responded to attacks by arming Janjiweed militias composed of certain nomadic Arab tribes and carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against non-Arabs in Darfur, resulting in the deaths of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of civilians. Many commentators have argued that the war in Darfur is linked to oil reserves in the region, but this has been largely refuted.

In November 1997, the US government imposed a trade embargo, mainly on oil, against Sudan and a total asset freeze against the government. The US believed the government of Sudan gave support to international terrorism, destabilised neighbouring governments and permitted human rights violations.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement

In 2005 the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed by the political wing of the SPLA, the SPLM (Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement), and Omar al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) in Khartoum, bringing an official end to the war. In accordance with the CPA, a referendum was to be held on 9 January 2011 to determine whether the South should remain part of Sudan or become independent, whilst in the six intervening years the South was given the opportunity to begin building the foundations of its own government. A similar referendum was to be held in the disputed border region of Abyei to decide whether it joined the North or South, but this has been postponed due to a failure to reach an agreement on the terms of the referendum. The result of the 9 January referendum was almost unanimous. Over 99% opted for independence in a ballot which was widely accepted as free and fair. On 9 July 2011, South Sudan therefore gained independence from the north, taking with it around one-third of Sudan’s territory.

As the South gained statehood, crucial issues such as border demarcation, the sharing of debt and oil revenues, and the use of the North’s pipeline remained unresolved. Fighting in South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and Abyei threatened the stability of the peace from the outset. Abyei is an oil-producing region claimed by both the North and South. South Kordofan and Blue Nile were on the front line during the civil war, being Muslim majority states with many who fought alongside the SPLM that lie on the northern side of the 1956 border. The CPA included provisions for determining the future of Abyei, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile.


Meanwhile in Darfur, a ceasefire was signed between the government and a faction of the SLA in 2006, but this agreement was rejected by both the JEM and Al-Nur (another faction of the SLA). This development fractured rebel alliances and changed the dynamics of the conflict. In 2008 a combined United Nations and African Union peacekeeping force was deployed in the region (UNAMID).

The previously underreported conflict came to the world’s attention with the US activist-led Save Darfur movement, and when the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for President Bashir in 2009, citing his government’s links with the Janjiweed militia. The UN estimates that 300,000 may have died as a result of the conflict, although the Sudanese government puts this figure closer to 10,000. Up to 2.7 million have also been driven from their homes and are now living in IDP camps in Darfur and refugee camps in neighbouring Chad and the Central African Republic.

In June 2011, a new Darfur Peace Agreement was proposed by the Joint Mediators at the Doha Peace Forum. The agreement was signed by the Sudanese government and the Liberation and Justice Movement on 14 July 2011. However, sporadic violence in Darfur, particularly of an inter-tribal nature, persists today.

In this photograph made available by Albany Associates, fighters of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) sit on the back of an armoured vehicle following a meeting between Dr. Khalil Ibrahim, the leader of the movement, and United Nations-African Union Special Envoys for Darfur.

Photo credit: United Nations

Khartoum today

The Corruptions Perception Index has indicated Sudan as one of the most corrupt nations in the world. In September 2013 in the capital, Khartoum, anti-government protests erupted, sparked by government’s decision to reduce fuel subsidies. An estimated 200 people are thought to have been killed when these clashes turned violent. Protests of a similar nature have occurred previously in Sudan’s history, but this particular episode sparked widespread international media attention, as commentators viewed the uprising as an extension of the Arab Spring. However, unlike the majority of other Arab countries in recent years, the protests in Sudan ended after only ten days, and no major government reform or regime change followed. The pervasive political grievances that underpinned the protests live on. President al-Bashir’s ICC arrest warrant also remains un-executed due to a failure of cooperation from Sudan and neighbouring African states.

Elsewhere in the country, there are deepening conflict and humanitarian crises in South Kordofan and Blue Nile State. Throughout Sudan, chronic food insecurity and poverty prevail.

The work of local peacebuilding organisations here is essential. They are able to build grass-roots movements for peace and help traditional enemies resist resorting to violence. They are able to work in areas that international organisations cannot access and are best placed to build peace in their own communities.

Last updated: March 2014. Background information published on Insight on Conflict is compiled by volunteer researchers and does not reflect the opinions of Peace Direct. For information on how you can contribute to this site, please contact us.