Sudan, Africa’s largest country, has endured civil war for all but 10 years since it achieved independence in 1956, after nearly 80 years of British rule. One of the world’s poorest, most backward countries, Sudan sits on a sea of oil that cannot be exploited due to the continuing conflict. Despite its vast size, Sudan is largely a forgotten land torn by a complex struggle that stems from its colonial experience, its ethnic and religious divisions and from the self-interests that take precedence over progress.
Historically, Sudan has been viewed as a nation divided between north and south. The North is more developed and more prosperous, is influenced by Egypt and is predominately Muslim. The South is home to untapped natural resources, Christian and animist beliefs, poverty and a resilient rebel movement.
During most of the 1800s, Sudan was controlled by the Turko-Egyptian (Ottoman Empire) and developed a substantial slave trade. In 1881, Muhammed Ahmad el Mahdi, (the Rightly Guided One) led a rebellion of northern tribes, driving the Egyptians from Sudan. In 1896, the British and Egyptian allies invaded and defeated the Mahdist forces in 1898 at the battle of Omdurman.
The Anglo-Egyptian allies created a so-called “condominium” administration in the capital Khartoum and focused their attention on developing agriculture in the North. The North was predominately Muslim and more similar to Egypt than the traditionally African South. The British exploited ethnic and religious differences as a means to maintain control, as they had in many other colonies.
The South of Sudan was declared a “closed area” and was isolated in almost all respects. After World War II, Britain prepared to abandon its colony, but wanted to prevent Egypt from gaining total control. To counterbalance Egypt’s influence in the North, Britain sought to include Southerners in a federated government and opened the closed areas. Sudan gained its independence in 1956. As usual, the stage was set for violent conflict and factions fought for control over a weak and ineffectual government in Khartoum.
In 1958 General Abboud seized power, established military rule and pursued an agenda of Arabization. He was quickly confronted by the Anya Nya rebels and the allied Sudan African National Union (SANU). Abboud was deposed in 1964 as civil war escalated. In 1969 Col. Mohammed Jaa’far Nimeiri seized power and declared an Islamic state, its policies based on Shar’ia, or Islamic law. He negotiated the Addis Abba Accord, which brought a ceasefire and limited autonomy for the South.
After the government reneged on portions of the agreement, a new rebel force emerged in the South. With foreign support, Dr. John Garang led the Sudan people’s Liberation Army and Movement (SPLA/M) as it took control over substantial areas in southern Sudan. In Khartoum, other dissident factions overthrew Nimieiri in 1985. Government instability continued until 1989 when General el-Bashir and the National Islamic Front gained control. El-Bashir declared a holy jihad and mounted increasingly successful counter attacks against the SPLA.
Under pressure, SPLA broke into two factions: SPLA-Mainstream (led by Garang) and SPLA-United led by Dr. Rick Mashar). SPLA-United has suffered from infighting but remains a source of friction and influence in isolated areas. SPLA-Mainstream emerged as the more powerful of the rebel factions established an area of influence in the Upper Nile and Southern Kordofan region. In northeastern Sudan another rebel group, the Sudan Allied Forces, are waging their own battles against the Khartoum government in the Darfur provinces. Given Khartoum’s limited resources and capabilities much of Sudan is essentially without any form of government.
Sudan’s civil war is being fought essentially without rules. All of the factions, government or guerrilla, have committed atrocities, without concern for human rights, or condemnation and sanctions from an international community that isn’t watching. The death toll is unknown and humanitarian organizations estimate refugees numbers as high as 4 million, of which as many as 2 million have died while in flight.
Ironically, much of the conflict is a battle for control of resources in the South, even though no one seems capable of developing the resources. It’s estimated that Sudan oil reserves may be as much as 200 billion barrels. Until Sudan can develop a more diverse economic base, its people rely on the country’s fragile agricultural base, prone to drought and resulting famines. Extensive efforts to produce food are devastating the land. Between war and famine unknown millions of people have been displaced and forced to migrate to other regions and neighboring states.
In 1999, an international consortium built an oil pipeline from the Muglad basin to the Red Sea. Rebels immediately started a bombing campaign targeting the pipeline. Meanwhile, the Khartoum government is plagued by factional power struggles among the various Muslim groups, while there is essentially no political participation from the rebel-held Southern territories.
Sudan shares borders with Egypt, Libya, Chad, the Central African Republic, Zaire, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Virtually all of these states have their own political problems, continuing conflicts and diverse interests. Given the size of Sudan and absence of security measures, the region has become a base or transit point for assorted guerrillas and terrorists. Amid this cauldron of dissent, Islamist fundamentalists have tried to make headway. Osama bin Laden set up operations in Sudan before being expelled and relocating al-Qaeda to Afghanistan.