The Forgotten Conflicts in Sudan

Review of:

Douglas H. Johnson, The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars. James Currey, Oxford, 2003. 234 pages.

Review of:

Douglas H. Johnson, The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars. James Currey, Oxford, 2003. 234 pages.

Sudan is, like the rest of Africa, neglected in the mainstream media except for the occasional use of it as a rhetorical device. Because the alternative media generally lacks the resources to do its own in-depth coverage, it too often neglects the same regions and issues the mainstream media neglects. What information there is often comes from sources that are not only by specialists, but for specialist audiences as well. Douglas H. Johnson’s book, “The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars” (James Currey, Oxford, 2003), grew out of a report he wrote ten years earlier for relief personnel involved with the country. It is, nevertheless, of great value for a general audience interested in trying to understand Sudan’s civil war(s).

Johnson’s book reveals the depth of his knowledge and experience with Sudan. He decries the ignorance characterizing much media coverage of the country and rejects the idea that Sudan’s conflicts are about ‘an age-old confrontation between ‘cultures”, ‘Arabs vs. Africans’, or the ‘consequence of an artificial division imposed by colonial powers.’ (pg. xiv). He also has criticism for human rights groups, ‘many of whom seem still in search of the ideal liberation group’, which is one kind of mistake, or ‘strive to apportion blame equally’, with ‘pious even-handedness’, focusing ‘on specific acts of war often at the expense of exploring the structural patterns of injustice.’

Johnson’s rejection of stereotypes in favor of knowledge and understanding of economic, political, and cultural patterns is most welcome. So, too, is his more or less open bias in favor of the liberation movements of South Sudan, and his focus on their strategies, ups, and downs: in an asymmetric situation, the author is trying to take sides with the oppressed. That he does so without covering up or glossing over the human rights abuses, errors, and atrocities committed by the southern armies (recognizing that they are not the ‘ideal liberation group’) and forces is to his credit.

The book does have flaws, however. The main flaw is its uncritical acceptance and use of the US language of ‘terrorism’. While providing useful information on US policies towards Sudan during the Cold War, its analysis of US policies after the Cold War are less illuminating, particularly on “War on Terrorism” related issues. Explaining the Clinton administration’s policies, Johnson writes “Association with other militant Islamists such as Hamas and Usama bin Ladin, and continuing military ties with Iraq and Iran were further reasons for the US condemnation of the Sudan as a terrorist state, and for its reason to support regional defence schemes for the Sudan’s most exposed neighbours.” Rather than a source for these claims, Johnson provides a footnote mocking Jonathan Steele of the UK Guardian and author John Esposito for overemphasizing the US role and for “laying more stress on US policy than Khartoum’s ideology and intransigence for the failure of negotiations” (pg. 102). Discussing Sudan’s relationship with bin Laden, Douglas describes how Sudan displaced the Beja to “provide training camps for foreign Islamic organizations and farming schemes to both finance and feed the training camps. One of the most active persons in the area was the Saudi Islamist, Usama bin Ladin… Bin Ladin was rewarded with land in the Port Sudan area for training camps for Hizbullah and Hamas, as well as land elsewhere…” (pg. 137). Describing the Bush II administration’s approach to Sudan, Johnson identifies “two tracks to the American approach, which are not necessarily connected: the international assault on Usama bin Ladin’s al-Qaida network and terrorism generally, and the search for areas of negotiation between the government of Sudan and the SPLA.” (pg. 177).

Steele and Esposito could well have over-emphasized the US role in their writing, and there is ample documentation that bin Laden was active in Sudan. But given Johnson’s nuanced approach to the conflict and his reluctance to take the pronouncements of Sudan’s government (or even the Sudanese rebel groups) at face value, it is a shame that his analysis of US policy lacks the same nuanced and critical approach, instead taking US aims and policies to be what the US says they are (fighting “terrorism” and “militant Islam”, without mention of the US record of support for both). Moreover, the claim that bin Laden was involved in training specific groups like the Lebanese Hizbullah, which is also a political party, and the Palestinian Hamas, ought at least to be sourced, given the implications of such a claim.

Another problem with the book is that, since it is written for a somewhat specialist audience, it assumes a reasonably high level of knowledge about Africa, and particularly about Sudan’s neighbors.

Despite these flaws, Johnson’s book is highly useful in coming to grips with Sudan’s very complicated civil war(s), a topic that is inadequately covered and not well understood. Because the inadequate coverage and poor understanding help to exacerbate and prolong the conflict, the book – which combats both — has to be considered an important contribution indeed. Below is a summary of some of its points.

The Pre-Colonial and Colonial Legacy

Johnson argues that the historical pattern of the Sudan conflict has roots in the pre-colonial reality of Sudan, when successive states, based in the Arab and Muslim north, treated the South (a region with numerous languages and ethnicities, with the largest groups being Dinka and Nuer) as a hinterland – a source of resources and of slaves. These patterns persisted during the period of Egyptian rule in the 19th century, and during the “Mahdist” state at the end of that century. The Mahdi, a religious ruler based in the north, continued incursions into the south, seeking to plunder food and slaves. In this pre-colonial period, not only was the exploitation of the southern hinterland by the northern-based state established: so too was the army’s intervention into economic and political matters, the patronage power of leaders, and the precarious nature of citizenship for those who were not part of the central state’s conception of citizenship.

If these patterns were established before the British colonial era of 1899-1847, colonialism certainly did not mitigate them. The British brought Northern Sudanese into the police, military, and bureaucracy, offering these posts as an incentive to Northern elites in order to induce them to defect from their loyalty to the Mahdi, who the British replaced. Because the Mahdi was never firmly established in the south, however, except for a few garrisons and the occasional raids, the British did not have the same incentive to educate, promote, and ‘develop’ Southern Sudanese and bring them into the state apparatus.

In 1920, the administration enacted a ‘Closed District Ordinance’, preventing non-Southerners from settling there. This had mixed effects – in some ways it helped prevent a flood of elites from the North taking up positions of ownership and power in the South. The view from the North was that it artificially divided the North from the South, resulting in uneven development and more divergence between the societies than had to exist. Next, in 1930, the British enacted the ‘Southern Policy’, which declared that the South was to be developed along ‘African’ lines. With their ‘Southern Policy’, the British were trying to use indigenous power structures, laws, and customs, in order to rule. Because the North had a relatively uniform legal and state system, compared to more diffuse structures in the South, this policy also resulted in divergence between the two regions. British educational policy also neglected the South. In other parts of the world, British educational policy had helped create the class of nationalist elites who would demand and win independence. In Sudan, this class was very small, and since authority was based in the North, it was dominated by Northern Sudanese.

Colonial economic policies contributed to disparities in development as well. Export royalties went to the central government, based in the North. Northern elites managed to use the state apparatus to accumulate capital through government contracts – opportunities denied to Southerners. The Closed Districts Ordinance, while preventing some forms of exploitation, “did nothing to stimulate a southern Sudanese commercial class to balance the influence of trading companies based in the northern Sudan.” (pg. 17). Major economic projects were based in the North. As independence approached, the unaddressed disparities between North and South would become the source of conflict.

Nationalist Weaknesses and the First Civil War (1942-72)

After World War II, there was a tussle between Britain and Egypt for dominance in Sudan. Both parties courted the northern Sudanese as they were the elite in the country. The result was two-fold: first, the northern Sudanese did not have to engage in a long struggle with the colonialists, a struggle that might have forced them to come to an accomodation with the South, in order to win independence. Second, none of the nationalists, North or South, developed a mass base or following. In the rapid transition to independence, a “Sudanization commission” was charged with replacing colonial civil servants with Sudanese. One spark to the civil war was when, in 1953, the Sudanization commission resulted in “Northerners were appointed to all the senior positions in the South. Most politically active Southerners saw this as the beginning of Northern colonization of the South.” (pg. 27). Southern nationalists convened a conference in 1954 and sought a federal system for the country; if that failed, they wanted self-determination and possible independence from the North.

The next spark, and the beginning of the war, came when a Corps of southern Sudanese soldiers, “whose British officers had only recently been replaced by northern Sudanese officers, feared that they would be disarmed and moved to the North.” (pg. 27). A mutiny broke out in 1955 in Torit, and many were killed in the mutiny and in the repression by northern Sudanese forces that followed. The British left in 1956. The Sudanese military took over in 1958. In the years that followed the 1955 mutiny, the mutineers, some of whom escaped to the bush and to exile, became the core of a guerrilla movement seeking ‘self-determination’. This movement, called the Sudanese African Nationalist Union (SANU), had difficulty gaining political support in Africa, where the newly decolonizing governments of the Organization for African Unity (OAU) viewed it as ‘secessionist’. It was also split by internal problems, with some wanting to disarm, negotiate, contest elections, and to participate in the Sudanese government with the return of civilian rule in 1964, and others not, some wanting a federal solution for all of Sudan and others wanting separation.

Another military coup changed the Sudanese regime in the north in 1969, bringing a new leader, Jaafar Nimairi, to power at the head of a divided faction. Meanwhile, the southern movements found support from Ethiopia (because the Sudanese government was supporting the Eritrean secessionists) and Uganda (whose dictator, Idi Amin, opposed the Sudanese government as a client of Israel who recruited many southern Sudanese into the Ugandan army). The southern movements underwent a series of internal coups that brought the military thinkers to power in a new organization called the Southern Sudan Liberation Movement, and had some military successes thanks to their new weapons, external support, and organization. Negotiations between the Nimairi regime and the SSLM followed, culminating in the Addis Ababa Agreement in 1972.

The Failed Peace Agreemnt (1972-83)

Johnson argues that there were structural flaws in the Addis Ababa Agreement that meant it could not serve as a framework for lasting peace. The southern movement was seeking a federal structure for Sudan in which the south would have autonomy. The agreement gave it far less. A Southern Regional Government was formed, with powers to raise revenue and legislate in mining “without prejudice to the right of the Central Government in the event of the discovery of natural gas and minerals.” (pg. 40) The economic powers and limitations of the regional government were frustrating for the south, but the security provisions were still more contentious. The SSLM wanted two regional armies (north and south) in addition to the national army, but did not win this. Instead, an equal number of northern and southern soldiers were posted in the south. The integration of the SSLM guerrillas into the army was far from smooth.

Over the next ten years, the central government repeatedly interfered in the elections of the Southern Regional Government. Also, the powers of the central government continued to encroach on southern autonomy by precedent and by the breaking of financial obligations, with the central government spending on average just 23.2% of its annual development budget on the south (pg. 42).

An economic crisis struck in 1977-8, bringing the IMF and USAID into the picture: “The condition the US and IMF imposed for their financial support in the early 1980s was the forced reduction of the state budget and the privatization of nationalized corporations.” (pg.43). The Nimairi government also opened the door to the Islamist political parties to try to bring ‘stability’. Like the IMF/US, their help came with strings: Islamic legal reform and the establishment of Islamic banks.

These Islamic banks sought to invest in massive mechanized agricultural schemes, making a transition for Sudanese agriculture from subsistence to cash-crop production for export. These schemes provided an incentive to displace the people who live in the areas where the projects are, and were, slated to occur. Other resources and megaprojects became sources of conflict as well. Pipelines and refineries, built by Chevron, were sited in the North, causing resentment in the South. Water, too, became a key issue, as a proposal to build a canal (the Jonglei canal) to divert water from the South to the North was strongly opposed by southerners. The Jonglei canal became a frequent target for the southern guerrillas when war broke out again in 1983.

There were conflicts over the border between the north and the south, exacerbated by the problems faced by Arab cattle herders who pastured on the borders during a drought in the 1970s. These herders attacked Dinka villages, and many believed that the northern Islamist parties, as well as local police and army, were arming and encouraging these attacks. Elsewhere, too, there was evidence that the north was trying to create ‘facts on the ground’ to move the border in its favour. With Sudan’s oil, most of which is found in the south, becoming an issue, the central government attempted in 1980 to re-draw the boundary with the Southern Region to place the oilfields and agriculturally productive areas near the border in the North. In 1983, Nimairi’s central government ‘redivided’ the Southern region – dissolving the region into 3 parts in an unconstitutional move.

Internationally, Sudan’s government was moving closer to Iraq’s regime, supporting it in its war with Iran, and Egypt’s regime, signing an ‘Integration Charter’ in 1982. The Islamist parties that had recently joined the government sought to undermine the Addis Ababa agreement, which they saw as an obstacle to the creation of an Islamic state. In 1983, shari’a law was imposed, at the same time the Southern Regional Government was dissolved (pg.56).

The Current Civil War(s)

Like the first civil war, the second civil war began with a mutiny, with a battalion of southern Sudanese soldiers refusing an order to move north in January 1983. By July, a new organization was established, the Southern People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), whose military wing, dominant in the movement as a whole, was the Southern People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), commanded by John Garang and with an important base in Mengistu’s Ethiopia.

The patronage of Ethiopia (a country that, fighting a secessionist movement in Eritrea, had no desire to set a precedent of secession), combined with the desire to reach out to other groups that were against the Sudanese regime but not necessarily for separation, made the SPLA opt for a program of ‘revolution’. The SPLA says it is fighting for a new Sudan, in which the aspirations of the South can be met.

This position, along with other factors, eventually led to a split in the SPLA between the dominant faction seeking federalism for all of Sudan and a movement for outright independence for the South. The central government sought to capitalize on this division, and ended up sponsoring the latter faction to try to weaken the SPLA overall. This resulted in an odd situation: the separatists were being armed and supported by the very power they sought to separate from, in order to fight the federalists. The government also employed tribal militias and Arab cattle herders as part of their counterinsurgency strategy. The cycle of raid and attack against civilians, reprisal and counter-reprisal, including many excesses by the SPLA, turned the war into a war on the civilian population.

The SPLA had some military successes and managed to capture and control parts of the South. Nimairi’s regime collapsed in 1985 after a popular uprising. Islamist parties emerged from the ensuing elections far stronger, as members of the ruling coalition of Sadiq al-Mahdi’s government. The Islamic banks thrived under the new government, expanding their mechanized farming schemes into parts of the South in the mid-1980s, “ultimately drawing new regions into the civil war.” (pg. 80) Under the new regime, raiding by northern-sponsored militias against populations of the South became extremely devastating, creating famine. These raids resurrected the institution of slavery as well, with militias capturing people for sale, partly as a means of terrorizing and displacing the population. The SPLA regained the military initiative, however, and sentiment in the Northern military against the unsuccessful war led to the fall of Sadiq al-Mahdi’s regime in 1989.

The SPLA returned to the defensive when the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia, their most important ally, fell in 1991. 200,000 Sudanese refugees, who had been living on the border in SPLA-protected areas, had to evacuate Ethiopia to Sudan. These refugees, as well as the hundreds of thousands internally displaced by the war, created a crisis not only for the SPLA but for the relief agencies of the world. Relief was, and is, used as a weapon of war. It is worth quoting Johnson at length on this issue:

“The international relief effort was both ill-coordinated and inadequate and was incapable of confronting the government strategy of splitting the SPLA through manipulating relief… The US government obstructed the relief effort, disputing the UN’s figures and proposing to divert relief aid to help stabilize the new Ethiopian government’s control over its provinces. The US even floated a proposal that relief to the Sudanese returnees be cut off and all those who could not return to their homes should be required to return to Ethiopia as refugees. The returnees thus became a political football, and the relief effort was seriously undermined. This opened the way for further intervention from Khartoum, which ultimately split the SPLA.” (pg. 90)

In the 1990s, some of the worst fighting was between the different factions of the ‘split SPLA’. The fighting, the war-caused famines, and the politicized relief efforts brought the casualties into the millions. The factions only re-united in 2002: in the meantime, the government had taken advantage of their disunity to seize control of key oilfields in the South. (pg. 126).

Meanwhile, the Islamic government was beginning to alienate parts of the population of the North, with its repression, its imposition of a particular kind of politicized and self-serving Islam. One example of this was the outlawing of ‘apostasy’, the repudiation of Islam by a Muslim, punishable by death. But whether or not one has committed an ‘act of apostasy’ is decided by the government, and the government has applied the law to execute Muslims who are its opponents. The progressive disenfranchisement and harrassment of women, as well as those of minority Muslim sects, has also alienated many. In other parts of the country, regional, ethnic, and sectarian conflicts have flared. Johnson writes:

“As the war continues relentlessly, the question arises, what are people fighting for? There are now many more – and more diverse – combatants than there were in 1983, and they are fighting for different immediate objectives.” (pg. 142)

The Economic Logic of War

There is an economic logic to the war in Sudan. Alluded to earlier, it is a pattern repeated in other conflicts, in Africa and elsewhere. Combatants seek to control strategic resources, targeting the civilian populations who live in the territories where those resources are found. The populations are displaced by war and massacre, and peculiar forms of ‘development’ can proceed. In addition, the deployment of paramilitary forces who are used to terrorize civilians contributes to flight and displacement. In Sudan, the use of slave raiding by these paramilitary militias is a particularly atrocious form of terror.

Sudan’s oil is a good example. Described in a massive report by Human Rights Watch (1), control over oil in the South has become one of the causes of the conflict itself, with Canadian companies like Talisman Energy Inc., as well as Chinese National Petroleum Company, the Malaysian Petronus Carigali Overseas Sdn Bhd, and the Sudanese state oil company getting into Sudan in 1995, followed by the Qatari Gulf Petroleum Corporation and the Swedish Lundin company and the Austrian OMV (Sudan) Exploration GmbH in 1997. The Netherlands based Trafigura Baheer BV got a contract to sell Sudan’s oil internationally in 1999. Johnson describes the logic of oil exploitation as follows: It is “made possible by clearing the oilfields of their civilian population through the activities of the Sudanese armed forces and… militias… and then securing the areas through the alliance with the … break-away factions of the SPLA. Once installed, the Sudanese military has used the oil company roads and airfields to attack civilian settlements within a widening security radius.” (pg. 163) The companies have argued that they need to have a policy of ‘constructive engagement’ with the Sudanese regime. Johnson’s reply: “Constructive engagement’ may work well for the oil companies and the Sudan government, but it has not for the people in the war zone.” (pg. 165)

Johnson points out the politics of relief as an issue as well. The displaced populations, removed by force from their lands and their means of earning income or producing food, are totally dependent on external aid for their survival. They are used as a blackmail or bargaining chip, and relief agencies are unable to respond adequately to this problem.

The role of international actors

Johnson emphasizes the internal aspects of the conflict, but as the involvement of the oil companies and international relief agencies (and not just those) shows, Sudan’s war has always been international as well. The Sudan government was supported by the United States as a Cold War ally against Mengistu’s Ethiopia (a friend of the USSR at the time) from the 1970s. With Chevron entering Sudan for oil in the 1980s, and the IMF imposing a structural adjustment, the US became even more interested. The government used the funds and military supply against the SPLA. With the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia, the US lost interest in Sudan as an ally. The void left by Ethiopia for the SPLA was eventually filled by Museveni’s Uganda. Museveni, who in turn is supported by the US, has given the SPLA some assistance. In exchange, the Sudanese government has sponsored armed insurgencies against the Ugandan government. The US ‘intervened’ rather spectacularly in Sudan in August 1998, launching cruise missiles and destroying the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant, the country’s only plant for veterinary medicines. Sudan’s promises to share intelligence with the US’s ‘War on Terror’ has since bought it some breathing room, however (2).

The importance of understanding

Johnson concludes his book with a reflection on the different ideas of a moral community found in the various communities of Sudan. He argues that unless everyone involved, including the outside actors and relief agencies, take these ideas into account, there is no possibility for peace. Certainly, the Sudan’s conflict, like other forgotten conflicts (3) is at a difficult point today. At any rate, Johnson is certainly right in that a tragic and difficult situation is not made easier if its root causes are not understood. Even after its flaws, Johnson’s book is a very important contribution to understanding those causes.


1) See Human Rights Watch, ‘Sudan, Oil, and Human Rights Abuses’, Nov 25, 2003. Also, see their earlier report, Feb 1 1999 on the Human Rights Causes of Famine in Sudan
2) Jemera Rone, ‘Sudan: Rebels, Religion, and Oil’ Human Rights Watch, Commentary, November 25, 2003.
3) Many of which are in Africa. It’s worth noting that in the conflicts that are not ‘forgotten’ – Israel/Palestine, for example – the intervention from outside (notably that of the United States) is very often highly destructive.

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.