Sudan: Conflict profile

The Republic of Sudan has seen intermittent civil wars in different parts of the country since independence in 1956. Its protracted conflicts are largely a result of the political, economic, religious and cultural marginalisation of the peripheries by the government in Khartoum. An apparent breakthrough, marked by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, led to the independence of South Sudan in 2011. But it has had little significance for Sudan’s other regions, where the agreement was left largely unimplemented, and violent conflict persists.

Meanwhile, tensions between Sudan and South Sudan remain, due to unresolved issues regarding border issues and oil. The conflict, which has been as a “civil war of interlocking civil wars” has led to the perpetration of grave human rights violations, crimes against humanity and severe humanitarian crises in the country’s South, Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile regions.

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

Colonial rule, independence and two civil wars

Sudan’s conflicts are rooted in the creation of the state. During Sudan’s Anglo-Egyptian colonial rule, the Arabic Muslim sorth and Christian and animist south were ruled as two distinct entities. The north was modernised but the south neglected, creating parallel entities which overlooked the diversity and historical interrelations between the areas.

Sudan's conflicts are rooted in the creation of the state
A 1947 policy change to unify them meant that when the country was granted independence in 1956, Sudan was left with a heavily unified and centralised state, ruled from the north. The south, which already had social and political grievances, feared it would be dominated by the Arabic and Islamist North. Promises to create a federal system were soon broken.

In 1955, tensions flared up and led to the outbreak of the first Sudanese civil war. The conflict, which featured successive coups and regime changes, ended with the 1972 Addis Abeba agreement and another promise of political autonomy for the South. Disputes over the discovery of oil in the south in 1979, together with President Nimeiry’s decision to implement Islamic Sharia law for the whole of Sudan and end southern autonomy, led to a new surge in civil violence in 1983.

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

In the same year, southerner John Garang formed the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) to fight for a secular but unified Sudan. In another coup, Nimeiry was dismissed and replaced by Sadiq Al-Mahdi after general elections in 1986. Al-Mahdi gave his armed militias free reign in the South; they killed, enslaved and raped the local population.

In 1988, a famine hit Sudan. As food became a weapon in the conflict, the famine led to an estimated 250,000 deaths. In total, around two million people died, and another four million were displaced. A 1989 coup led to Omar al-Bashir assuming the presidency. Under his rule, repression increased while the situation in the south and other peripheries severely deteriorated.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the secession of South Sudan

Things changed in the early 2000s when international pressure, based on the 1997 US sanctions regime – influenced by the notion that Sudan was supporting terrorist organisations and destabilising the region – led to a north-south peace process. After extensive peace talks, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed by the SPLM/A and Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) in 2005. This ended the civil war and allowed for a referendum and eventual South Sudanese independence in 2011.

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

Unresolved issues and continuing violence: Darfur, the Two Areas and Abyei

However, large parts of the CPA, covering the future of other contested areas – Abyei, South Kordofan and Blue Nile – have not been implemented. Essential issues, including oil and border demarcation, have not been resolved with South Sudan.


In 2003, the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebel groups took up arms against Khartoum. Like the South, the rebel groups in Darfur accused the Khartoum government of politically and economically marginalising the non-Arab population of the region. In response, Khartoum armed the nomadic Arab Rizeigat and Misseriya "Janjaweed" militias to fight the non-Arab Fur and Zaghawa populations of Darfur.

In 2014, Darfur experienced the highest levels of violence since 2004
The 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) splintered the SLM/A in two factions; the SLM/A-Minni Minawi faction that signed the DPA, and the SLM/A-Al Nour faction that, like the JEM, refused to sign. The agreement failed, and a joint UN and African Union peacekeeping force (UNAMID) was deployed in Darfur in 2008.

In 2009 the International Criminal Court indicted President Bashir on counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, with three counts of genocide later added. In 2010 another peace process followed, leading to the 2011 Doha Document for Peace in Darfur, signed by the Government of Sudan and the Liberation and Justice Movement. But neither the SLM/A or JEM signed, and this agreement also failed to halt the violence.

So the conflict in Darfur continues. In 2014 Darfur experienced the highest levels of violence and displacement since the perceived height of the genocide in 2004. In 2014 nearly half a million more people were displaced.

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

The Two Areas

With an increasingly inhospitable environment for international NGOs, local peacebuilding organisations are more necessary than ever
The southern provinces of South Kordofan and Blue Nile (the “Two Areas”) were on the front line during the two civil wars, with many fighting alongside the SPLA against the government. As in other peripheries, the people of South Kordofan and Blue Nile demanded political reform and more autonomy.

The CPA had said that further negotiations, or arbitration if necessary, would determine the status of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, but the May 2011 elections led to the reelection of the northern governor. As most of the Nuba people of the Two Areas identify with South Sudan, and are aggrieved that the politial status negotiations have not taken place, the Sudan People’s Liberation-North (SPLM-N) was formed and took up arms against the government.

In 2011 an agreement was reached between the NCP and SPLM-N in Addis Ababa, but was subsequently rejected by al-Bashir as it was not received well by NCP hardliners. In November of that year, the rebel groups of Darfur and the southern provinces united into the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF).

The SRF agreed to the New Dawn agreement in January 2013, calling for a democratic, multicultural and multi-ethnic Sudan. This prompted the Government of Sudan to form the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), widely seen as the renewed Janjaweed paramilitary force, and deploy them to the southern peripheries to start a "Decisive Summer" offensive, with the purpose of ending the conflict militarily.


As per the CPA’s Abyei Protocol, the contested oil-rich area of Abyei will remain part of Sudan until a referendum has taken place. Conflict surged in 2007 and 2008. In 2009, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that the biggest oil fields in Abyei would remain a part of Sudan, while its other areas join South Sudan.

In June 2011 the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) was deployed. Peace talks led to an agreement on the establishment of a demilitarised border zone, but the referendum has been repeatedly delayed. In March 2015, amid new tensions, President Al-Bashir declared that Abyei would always remain Sudanese territory.

Sudan in 2015

Local peacebuilding organisations are essentail for the population of Sudan, now more than ever
As of 2015, over 3 million civilians are internally displaced and over half a million live in refugee camps in the region. According to the UN, 6.9 million people are in need of civilian assistance in Sudan.

Talks in many forms continue, and at the end of 2014 the SRF, NCF and civil society signed the latest communiqué, the Sudan Call declaration, calling for the end of war, the dismantlement of the one-party state and a comprehensive peace and democratic transition.

But with the continuation of war in Darfur and the Two Areas, disagreements over African-Union sponsored peace talks, and many political parties boycotting the 2015 elections, there is a huge amount of work to be done.

With UNAMID working on an exit strategy after having been asked to leave Darfur by the Sudanese government, and an increasingly inhospitable environment for international NGOs, local peacebuilding organisations are essential for the population of Sudan, now more than ever.

Last updated: August 2009