Sudan Conflict Overview

from independence to today

Posted by OBS Team on January 1st, 2014

This overview is a brief history that provides a contextual background for understanding the issues Operation Broken Silence works on. Specifically, this overview provides an overarching historical narrative of the relationship between Sudan and the now independent country of South Sudan. It is part of our Educational Resources list. 

Sudan's Independence: 1956

On January 1, 1956, Sudan gained independence from the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, the joint British and Egyptian government that administrated Sudan. The new country came with a rich diversity of about 600 ethnic groups speaking over 400 languages in area roughly 1/3 the size of the United States. 

The geographic "north," making up about 65% of the country, is predominately Muslim with a variety of mixed ethnicities within the broader categories of "African" and "Arab." The southern regions, which now make up the separate country of South Sudan, is mostly Christian and animist with various ethnicities underneath the broader category of "African." From 1930 to 1953 the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium governed northern and southern Sudan separately, contributing to the already unique ethnic and religious differences between these two parts of Sudan. 

The 1956 constitution did not address two crucial issues across broader Sudanese culture that has led to various conflicts across the country ever since. First, it was not decided if Sudan should be a secular state or an Islamist state. Second, the country’s system of national governance failed to include the majority of Sudanese and protect the rights of the people. The Arab-led government of Sudan based in the capital of Khartoum failed to fulfill its promises to southerners to create a federal system that was more inclusive. In 1955, an unorganized mutiny by southern army officers began. Sudan would never be the same again. 

First Sudanese Civil War: 1955-1972

The first civil war played out in three primary stages over a period of 17 years from the perspective of southerns: the initial unorganized guerrilla war, the formation of the semi-organized Anyanya movement, and the emergence of the powerful South Sudan Liberation Movement.

STAGE 1: Unorganized Guerrilla Warfare (1955-early 1960s)

The initial southern mutinies were quickly suppressed; however, many survivors fled the towns were mutinies occurred and began an uncoordinated insurgency in rural areas of southern Sudan. Many of these units were poorly armed and lacked organization. The newly formed Sudanese government and the outgoing British saw these groups as more of annoyance than a real threat. Regardless, the Sudanese government began rebuilding up it's armed forces in the south.

STAGE 2: Anyanya Movement Coalesces  (early 1960s-1971)

As guerrilla leaders consolidated control over small rural areas they began to coordinate more closely. Crippled by internal political and ethnic divisions, the Anyanya, a secessionist movement composed of the 1955 mutineers and southern students, emerged. Despite it's overall lack of coordination, Anyanya groups began expanding their territory over much of rural southern Sudan. For the first time, Sudan's northern-dominated central government was facing a real military challenge in the south. 

However, the Sudanese government faced just as many internal divisions as the Anyanya. Between 1958-1971, four coups by northern leaders and popular protests prevented the central government from crushing the ever-growing military threat presented by the Anyanya. In-fighting between Marxist and non-Marxist elements of the upper levels in the military class further exacerbated the crisis within the Sudanese government. A short-lived coup against then Sudanese leader Nimeiry ended particularly brutally with Sudanese Communist Party leaders executed. 

STAGE 3: South Sudan Liberation Movement (SSLM) Emerges (1971)

By 1969, the Anyanya posed a formidable military threat to the central government in Khartoum. Despite its own, often bloody internal divisions, the Anyanya movement now had large swaths of the south under it's control. After a series of brief internal coups and leadership changes and in 1971, the various sections of the Anyanya movement finally fell underneath a single command structure with the objectives of secession and the formation of an independent state in southern Sudan. The SSLM found itself more able to directly challenge the central government in Khartoum. 

Unable to secure a victory in the face of internal strife, the war ended with the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement between SSLM and the Sudanese government. The agreement granted significant regional autonomy to southern Sudan on internal issues, and also promised the Abyei area, located on the north-south geographic, ethnic, and religious fault line, the right to hold a referendum to remain a part of northern Sudan or join the newly formed southern region. 

The First Sudanese Civil War claimed an estimated 500,000 lives, with a mere 20% of war-related deaths being armed combatants. The effects of the war had traumatized southerners and only increased mistrust of the central government in Khartoum. Even as hundreds of thousands of displaced southerners moved back to their communities, the seeds for the next war were already planted. The coming conflict would be one of the most destructive in modern human history.

Second Sudanese Civil War: 1983-2005

Various arguments still exist today in trying to define the conflict that would result in South Sudan's independence. The war, as well as the genocide committed underneath the fog of war, has been described as having racial and religious origins and roots in marginalization of the periphery regions of the country. There is much truth to be found in these arguments; however, if there is a primary reason for this conflict, it lies in the system of exploitative governance in Khartoum that emerged in the 1970s.

The second civil war played out in three primary stages over a period of 22 years: war and peace with the Nimeiry government/transitional government; war, genocide, and peace with the Bashir regime; and international intervention.

STAGE 1: Sudan People's Liberation Army Forms and Fights (1983-1989)

Northern intrusions, both militarily and politically, into the south during the 1970s significantly raised tensions during that decade. The discovery of large quantities of oil in the south in 1978 was swiftly followed by a northern attempt to gain access and control of these areas. This violated the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement. Meanwhile in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Islamic fundamentalists in Khartoum gained more and more power within and outside of the government. Under pressure from within, then President Nimeiry declared all of Sudan to be an Islamic state and terminated southern autonomy in 1983

The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), a southern rebel group founded in 1983 after the SSLM, formed following a series of southern mutinies within Sudanese government ranks. The SPLA managed to seize large swaths of rural areas in southern Sudan. In 1984, President Nimeiry announced the end of the attempted implementation of Islamic law in the south in an attempt to peacefully end the brewing conflict. Southerners and other Sudanese non-Muslims remained deeply suspicious.

A short-lived coup that unseated Nimeiry in Khartoum in 1985 led to a reversal of some Sudanese government policies in the south. Protests across Sudan began in 1988 as the war strained the national economy. Under pressure from across Sudan to end the war, the government of Sudan attempted to secure peace with the SPLA. After several complex political moves and threats from the Sudanese military, the Sudanese government reached a deal with the SPLA. 


STAGE 2: Bashir Regime Takes Power, Genocide In Southern Sudan (1989-2005)

In 1989, Colonel Omar Hassan al-Bashir and the National Islamic Front seized power in a military coup and began ruling via a military junta of 15 military officers (reduced to 12 in 1991) assisted by a civilian cabinet. Bashir took the titles of president; chief of state; prime minister; and chief of the armed forces.

Between 1989-1991, the Bashir military regime consolidated control over the government by banning trade unions, political parties, and other "non-religious" institutions. Over 70,000 members of the army, police, and civil administration were purged in order to reshape the government and bend it towards the Bashir regime's vision of an Arab and Islamic-dominated Sudan. It quickly became clear that agenda existed only to preserve the new government’s own power. In 1991, the Bashir regime instituted Islamic Shari’a law across Sudan, raising fears in the south that a full-blown war with Khartoum was inevitable.

The full-blown war came in the summer of 1992, when a massive Sudanese government offensive into southern Sudan drove the SPLA out of their strongholds and to the far southern extremes of the country. Hundreds of thousands of southern Sudanese civilians fled the government onslaught as unarmed communities were bombed with both conventional and chemical weapons. Arab militias followed in the wake of the Sudanese military to loot and pillage. 

The rapid invasion of southern Sudan led to dissension within the SPLA and divided the rebel army into two factions that would split further in the coming years. For the next few years, the SPLA would be fighting itself as well as the Sudanese government, with certain southern factions aligning with the government of Sudan at various times to preserve their own interests.

Amid a growing campaign of oppression and destruction against southern communities by the Sudanese government, southern Sudanese began fleeing into the remaining areas underneath SPLA control. Upon witnessing the endless streams of refugees at their borders, hearing the stories of horrors, and the growing regional distrust of the Bashir regime, nearby countries such as Uganda and Ethiopia began providing the SPLA with large amounts of military assistance and training.

Meanwhile, the SPLA began sending arms and small units throughout South Sudan and into the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions further north, where war would break out as well. Sudanese government forces soon found themselves fighting a growing guerrilla warfare campaign by the SPLA. Government forces frequently carried out reprisal massacres against southern Sudanese following lost battles with the SPLA.

As images and stories of the true horrors of the catastrophe in southern Sudan began to make it out of the country, international engagement in ending the conflict and saving lives began to increase. Successive famines in southern Sudan from the government-enforced humanitarian blockade had caused the death toll in southern Sudan to skyrocket. 

By the late 1990s, the tide of the war was dramatically shifting as a better armed SPLA had once again taken control of large swaths of southern Sudan, choking Sudanese government supply lines and attacking troops moving between government garrison towns. The Sudanese government responded with more scorched-earth tactics and an increased targeting of civilians through aerial bombings and a denial of humanitarian relief to certain areas. Meanwhile in the United States, the ongoing suffering of southern Sudan was generating a growing international response.

STAGE 3: International Intervention

In October of 2002, the U.S. government passed the Sudan Peace Act, a comprehensive piece of legislation that would dramatically increase support to the southern Sudanese cause. Underneath the Bush administration, the United States government began assisting the people of southern Sudan with humanitarian relief and began confronting the Sudanese government on the international stage. The Act also declared that Sudanese government actions in southern Sudan amounted to genocide. 

On top of increasing battlefield losses, the Bashir regime now found itself fully isolated on the international stage and floundering under heavy pressure from U.S. diplomatic actions and sanctions. The government of Sudan's war and genocide in the south had become too costly to continue. Fighting began to die down in 2003 and 2004 as the United States and other international partners began brokering a peace agreement that aimed to address the majority of the issues between the north and south. Meanwhile in the western Darfur region of Sudan, an uprising against government oppression was met with another brutal genocide. 

On January 9, 2005, the government of Sudan and the SPLA signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The CPA managed to secure a referendum vote on southern independence after an interim period of autonomy and provided solutions for a variety of other issues as well. Left out of the CPA were any real solutions for the Nuba Mountains, Abyei, and Blue Nile, three areas that straddled the north-south fault line. Conflicts with the Sudanese government renewed there in 2011

The implementation of the CPA deteriorated leading up to southern Sudan's vote for or against independence. The vote went ahead despite concerns of a renewed conflict and with the support of the international community. After decades of war, the people of southern Sudan voted 98.83% in favor of independence. And on July 9, 2011, mass celebrations swept across South Sudan as it became the world's newest country. 


Despite progress made, peace remains elusive for South Sudan. Since independence, massive state-corroding corruption, political instability within the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), and persistent tensions with Sudan over the sharing of oil revenues has left South Sudan deeply vulnerable to a renewed conflict with the north.

The situation took a turn for the worse on December 15, 2013, when tensions between SPLM factions loyal to President Salva Kiir, of the Dinka ethnic group, and those aligned with his former Vice President Riek Machar, of the Nuer ethnic group, exploded into fighting on the streets of Juba, the capital city. South Sudan’s dramatic return to war has torn communities apart and left tens of thousands dead. Both Kiir and Machar fought on different sides of the SPLA-split in the Second Sudanese Civil War.

Today, the divisions within the SPLA have ripped South Sudan apart along ethnic lines in certain areas of the country. After so many years of devastating war with the north, the people of South Sudan are calling for a final peace and an end to the infighting. It is of paramount importance that the international community hold South Sudanese leaders accountable to the demands of their people. 

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