Independence and Civil Wars
The provisional constitution that established Sudan on January 1, 1956 failed to settle two issues critical to many Sudanese: whether the state would be secular or Islamic and whether the state would be wholly unified or work as a federal system. The Arab-led Khartoum government reneged on promises to southerners to create a federal system, which led to a mutiny by southern army officers that launched 17 years of civil war (1955-72).
Until 1969, there was a succession of governments that proved unable either to agree on a permanent constitution or to cope with problems of factionalism, economic stagnation, and ethnic dissidence. These regimes were dominated by “Arab” Muslims who asserted their Arab-Islamic agenda and refused any kind of self-determination for southern Sudan.
In May 1969, a group of communist and socialist officers led by Colonel Gaafar Muhammad Nimeiri, seized power. In hopes of warding off coup attempts by factions on both the left and right, Nimeiri reached out to Southern Sudanese leaders and neighboring countries to broker peace. Nimeiri signed an agreement in Addis Ababa in 1972 that granted a measure of autonomy to the South. Southern support helped him put down two coup attempts, one initiated by officers from the western regions of Darfur and Kordofan who wanted for their region the same privileges granted to the south.
But tensions grew over the government’s systematic violations of the peace agreement, discovery of oil in the south and a growing Islamic shift culminating in Khartoum’s countrywide imposition of Islamic Sharia law in 1983. That year armed groups in the south, including the main rebel organization, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), began a fresh insurrection.
The war continued even after Nimeiri was ousted and a democratic government was elected. The leader of the SPLM, John Garang, refused to recognize the government and to negotiate with it as representative of Sudan. He did agree, however, to negotiate with government officials as representatives of their political parties.
On 30 June 1989, Colonel Omar al-Bashir led a group of army officers in ousting the unstable coalition government of Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi in a bloodless military coup. Under al-Bashir’s leadership, the new military government suspended political parties and introduced an Islamic legal code on the national level. The Bashir government combined internal political repression with international Islamist activism. It supported radical Islamist groups in Algeria and supported Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Khartoum was established as a base for militant Islamist groups: radical movements and terrorist organizations such as Osama Bin Laden’s al Qaeda were provided a safe haven and logistical aid in return for financial support. In 1996, the UN imposed sanctions on Sudan for alleged connections to the assassination attempt on Egyptian President Mubarak.
The war with the South went on for more than 20 years and killed an estimated 2 million civilians – most in a systematic scorched-earth campaign to destroy Christian populations living in oil-rich territories, considered Sudan’s first genocide. It is estimated that as many as 200,000 Southern Sudanese and Nuba children and women were taken into slavery—mainly to North Sudan—during raids perpetrated in Southern Sudanese towns and villages. On the pretext of fighting Southern Sudanese rebels, the government of the Sudan deployed its regular armed forces and militia elements, known as the People’s Defense Forces (PDF), to attack and raid villages in the South and the Nuba Mountains for slaves and cattle.
Meanwhile, the period of the 1990s saw a growing sense of alienation in the western and eastern regions of Sudan from the Arab center. The rulers in Khartoum were seen as less and less responsive to the concerns and grievances of both Muslim and non-Muslim populations across the country. Alienation from the “Arab” center caused various groups to grow sympathetic to the southern rebels led by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), and in some cases, prompted them to flight alongside it. In the 1996 national election, where Bashir was the only candidate by law, Bashir transformed Sudan into an Islamic totalitarian single-party state and created the National Congress Party (NCP) with a new parliament and government obtained solely by members of the NCP.
End to the North/South Civil War
Peace talks between the southern rebels and the government made substantial progress in 2003 and early 2004. The peace was consolidated with the official signing by both sides of the Nairobi Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) on January 9, 2005.
The 2005 CPA established a new Government of National Unity and the interim Government of Southern Sudan and called for wealth-sharing, power-sharing, and security arrangements between the two parties. The historic agreement provides for a ceasefire, withdrawal of troops from southern Sudan, and the repatriation and resettlement of refugees. It also stipulates that by the end of the six-year interim period, during which the various provisions of the CPA are implemented, there will be elections at all levels, including for national and southern Sudan president, state governors, and national, southern Sudan, and state legislatures.
On July 30, 2005, the charismatic and revered SPLM leader John Garang died in a helicopter crash. The SPLM/A immediately named Salva Kiir, Garang’s deputy, as First Vice President. As stipulated in the CPA, Kiir now also holds the posts of President of the Government of Southern Sudan and Commander-in-Chief of the SPLA.
The CPA mandates that a referendum be held no later than January 2011, giving southerners the opportunity to vote either for unity within Sudan or separation. The referendum is one of the most controversial aspects of the CPA. Some experts think it may never take place because most of Sudan’s oil reserves lie in the south, and the north is unlikely to give up control of so much wealth without a fight. Analysts also believe, however, that any delay in the referendum could lead to a unilateral declaration of secession by the South, which could also trigger full-scale national war. Other sources of tension include the division of national wealth, power-sharing, demarcation of the north-south border and the integration of government troops and former rebels into joint military units.
In 2003, while the historic north-south conflict was on its way to resolution, increasing reports began to surface of attacks on civilians, especially aimed at non-Arab tribes in the extremely marginalized Darfur region of Sudan. A rebellion broke out in Darfur led by two rebel groups–the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). In seeking to defeat the rebel movements, the Government of Sudan increased arms and support to local militias known as the “Janjaweed.” Attacks on the civilian population by the Janjaweed, often with the direct support of Government of Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), have led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people in Darfur, with an estimated 2.7 million internally displaced people and another 250,000 refugees in neighboring Chad and Central African Republic.
Relations reached a crisis point in October 2007 when the SPLM temporarily walked out of the coalition government complaining that Khartoum had not implemented key aspects of the deal. One of the issues cited by the SPLM was the failure of government soldiers to leave southern oil fields. Under the peace deal, the fields are supposed to be patrolled by joint units of northern and southern soldiers. The SPLM rejoined the government in December 2007 after an agreement that the northern troops would leave.
But in May 2008 clashes in the disputed oil-rich town of Abyei, which is claimed by both Khartoum and the Southern government, displaced tens of thousands and re-ignited fears of a new civil war. Since then, joint forces have begun operating in the region. And in July 2009, both sides said they accepted a ruling by an independent arbitration court in The Hague over Abyei’s borders, placing the major Heglig and Bamboo oil fields in the north. The positions of the borders are particularly important because residents in the Abyei area have been promised a referendum in January 2011 on whether to join north or south Sudan.
In March 2009 the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for President Bashir for seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, accusing him of responsibility for atrocities in the Darfur region. The arrest warrant is the first of its kind issued against a sitting head of state. President Bashir retaliated by expelling the 13 largest international aid organizations from Sudan and dismantling 3 Sudanese aid organizations as well, accusing them of passing information on to the ICC. The expulsion put millions of lives at immediate risk; while some of the aid has been restored, mainly through other aid organizations filling in the shortfall, many wide gaps in services still exist. In particular, services protecting women and girls from sexual violence, or treating them after attacks, have not been restored by any measure.
Elections that took place in April 2010 were widely considered illegitimate and resulted in the “re-election” of Bashir as President of Sudan. Under the existing climate of violence and political intimidation, the elections could not and were not free or fair. In December 2009, the government of Sudan violated the rights of Sudanese to peaceful assembly by arresting dozens of northern and southern opposition leaders, protesting the lack of electoral reforms promised by the CPA.
While the referendum on Southern Sudanese independence passed peacefully in January 2011, many contentious post-referendum issues are yet to be resolved. With violence increasing in marginalized areas such as Darfur and in the East, many are concerned that the US government may race to reward Khartoum too early for its allowance of a peaceful referendum process.