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THE CIVIL WAR IN THE SUDAN is at an impasse. The government and the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM) remain at loggerheads. Moreover, the government and opposition are dividing into warring factions, epitomized by the power struggle between Islamists and the defection of the Umma leader from the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Meanwhile, the fighting has caused almost unimaginable human suffering and devastation. More than half of the population of the south has died or fled their homes. War-induced famine has been caused by the government and its militias, which burn villages, steal cattle and human beings, and destroy stored food grains. The contestants also struggle for control over vital oil fields located in the south.

Although the civil war began in 1983, its intensity and human devastation have increased since the National Islamic Front (NIF) seized power in 30 June 1989 through a military coup d'etat. The Islamist government transformed the civil war into a religious jihad (holy war) in which soldiers have the duty to kill those who fight against its authority. The fatwa (Islamic legal opinion issued by religious scholars) states: "He who is a Muslim among the rebels is an apostate, and non-Muslims a heathen...both standing in the face of the Islamic call (dawa), and it is the duty of Islam to fight and kill both categories." [1] In addition to the proclamation of jihad, under which soldiers swear the baya (religious oath of allegiance) to President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the Penal Code of 1991 based criminal law on Shari'a (Islamic law). [2] Residents of the south are only exempted from five of the 186 articles of that code, those that relate to enforcing certain provisions of the hudud (religiously prescribed punishme nts). Non-Muslims who live in the north have hudud applied to them, and all citizens must abide by Shari'a commercial and civil codes. The constitution promulgated in 1998-99 affirms that Islamic public law applies to all Sudanese citizens, even though a third are not Muslim and even though many Muslims object to its rigid provisions and in-built discrimination.

The SPLM rejects this religious-based system. It calls for the separation of religion and state and for a constitutional system that accords legal equality to all citizens. The SPLM insists on the restoration of democracy and the devolution of power to the regions. Moreover, the SPLM maintains that unity is conditional: In the absence of democracy, equality under the law, and the separation of state and religion, the marginalized peoples must have the right to secede. This right to self-determination must be operationalized by a vote in a referendum during the interim period, which would give the southerners and other marginalized peoples their choice between remaining within the Sudan and establishing their own state. [3] While a few members of the government accept the idea that the south could secede, as a means to create a cohesive Muslim state in the north and to end the drain that the war causes on manpower and the economy, [4] the dominant view is that the south is an essential part of the Sudan, an i mportant arena for proselytization, and a link in the longterm goal of the Islamization of Africa. [5] Moreover, the Upper Nile region, at the least, must be retained due to its valuable oil resources.

The views of the government and the SPLM could not be further apart. Their political visions are completely antithetical. The only potential overlap relates to the idea of decentralization. Under the SPLM's proposed confederation, the south and north would establish their own constitutions, with a common non-religious political system in the capital city. Although the SPLM proposal is far removed from the government's offer of selective "exemptions" to the south, it does open up the possibility of a two-system country in which Shari'a might be retained in the north. Absent serious negotiations, these ideas remain slogans rather than operable programs.

Neither side has the power to impose its will decisively on the other. The government controls the state institutions, armed forces, and security services, and has vastly expanded a variety of popular militias that include tribal forces and religiously-motivated volunteers. Money, arms, and security personnel from China, Malaysia, Qatar, Iran, and Iraq have strengthened its grip on power. [6] Revenues from oil exports, which began in August 1999, bolster its ability to prosecute the war and even develop its own arms industry. [7] And the government has split the northern exiles, by winning a reconciliation agreement with the former prime minister al-Sadiq al-Mahdi and thereby removing the influential Umma party from the NDA.

The SPLM functions in the southern countryside, although not in the towns of Wau and Juba or in much of Upper Nile. But the SPLM lacks the resources to restore agricultural production, devastated by war and famine, and is beset by intra-southern ethnic tensions and the depradations caused by ambitious local warlords. Its alliance with the northern exile opposition through the NDA and military support from neighboring Uganda, Eritrea, and (until recently) Ethiopia enhanced its strength in the mid-1990s. [8] The allied forces even opened an eastern front through Eritrea and Ethiopia. But the recent border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea led to a rapprochement between Addis Ababa and Khartoum at the expense of the NDA, which undermined its positions in the east. Overall, the SPLA remains a guerrilla force that lacks air power and heavy weapons and can do little more than harass the armed forces. Moreover, mistrust between northern and southern elements in the NDA affects its tactics and complicates long-range planning.

As a result, each party in the conflict thinks it has the potential to win by force or by attrition, or at least to stave off defeat. Each believes it can find new allies that will help it checkmate or counterattack. Along with the profound political differences, these beliefs provide disincentives to negotiate and make the serious trade-offs required to end the civil war.


The Sudan has suffered from civil strife ever since it achieved independence in l956. [9] Southerners' disaffection with their forcible inclusion into a centralized state, their discontent with government demands to transfer southern soldiers to the north, and their resentment at government efforts to Arabize the southern educational and governmental system fueled guerrilla warfare that lasted from 1955 until the Addis Ababa Agreement in 1972. That agreement granted the south political autonomy with a regional executive and legislature. The southern region gained some control over its economy and educational system as well as freedom of religious expression. Those measures led to a decade of relative calm and considerable socio-economic development. Nonetheless, the same president who had signed the accord annulled its terms in 1983. Unable to tolerate the relatively free-wheeling political life in the south and increasingly beholden to northern politicians who opposed the Addis Ababa Accord and pressed him to base the constitutional system on Islamic law, President Ja'afar Nimeiri unilaterally redivided the south into three provinces and then imposed Islamic public and criminal law on the whole country. The timing of Nimeiri's actions was also influenced by the discovery of oil in Bentiu (Upper Nile); he could not tolerate the idea that oil revenue would primarily benefit the south. His moves, which were backed by militant Islamists like Hasan al-Turabi, angered southerners so much that fighting immediately resumed. Colonel John Garang and other officers founded the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement/Army (SPLMISPLA) in May 1983 and violence swept across the south. In contrast to the rebels of the 1950s and 1960s, who demanded that the south secede, the SPLM called for the end to Islamic law and the creation of a decentralized political system based on equality before the law and the fair sharing of power among all the Sudanese peoples.

When a popular uprising in Khartoum overthrew Nimeiri in April 1985, it appeared that the interim government would annul Nimeiri's decrees and sign a peace accord with the SPLM. Nonetheless, neither the interim government nor the government elected in April 1986 took effective steps to start negotiations with the SPLM. Fighting even spread into the Nuba mountains (South Kordofan) and Ingessana hills (Southern Blue Nile). Prime Minister al-Sadiq al-Mahdi sought military aid from Arab and Muslim countries, which he attracted by defining the war as an African attack on Sudan's Islamo-Arab identity. Al-Mahdi also failed to rescind Nimeiri's Islamic decrees, even though he had denounced them in 1983. He merely offered southerners exemptions from a few of their provisions. [10] His perspective therefore remained firmly Islamist and Arabist, far from the aspirations of the SPLM.

Other northern politicians, however, did reach out to the SPLM to bridge the political differences. The northern and southern participants in the Koka Dam Conference in March 1986 called for a national constitutional conference that would restructure the legal and political system in ways that would be fair to all the peoples." Most importantly, Mohamed Osman alMirghani, head of the Khatmiyya religious order and leader of the conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), signed a pathbreaking agreement with Garang in November 1988 that called for freezing Nimeiri's Islamic decrees and affirmed that political differences must be resolved by democratic dialogue in a constitutional conference, not by force. [12] Freezing Islamic law was a major concession for this leader of a religious-based political party; the gesture won Mirghani widespread support in the north as well as the south. In reaction, alMahdi joined forces with hardline Islamist Turabi to block the implementation of Mirghani's agreement. [13] Inde ed, the overriding purpose of the Islamist coup d'etat in June 1989 was to cancel negotiations between the government and the SPLM that were based on that DUP-SPLM accord and to prevent the convening of the constitutional conference, scheduled for September 1989. [14] Turabi's NIF enlisted the support of like-minded military officers, who viewed negotiations with the SPLMISPLA as an act of treason. General Bashir served as Turabi's front-man in the seizure of power. [15]


Bashir immediately canceled the DUP-SPLM accord on the grounds that it compromised the right of the Muslim majority to base the political system on Islamic law. Bashir stated that the junta would restart negotiations with the SPLM from scratch. [16] He adopted the positions of al-Mahdi and Turabi: The south could be exempted from a few aspects of Islamic criminal law, but would have to follow Islamic civil and commercial codes; southerners who lived in the north would be subject to all of its provisions. The Penal Code of 1991 and numerous other presidential decrees codified this Islamic legal system.

Garang responded that peace was only possible if the military regime resigned, democracy were restored, and the constitutional conference were convened. [17] Nonetheless, the SPLM was willing to talk to representatives of the de facto government about how to restore democracy and achieve peace. However, SPLM-government negotiations in Addis Ababa (19-20 August 1989) and Nairobi (1 December 1989) revealed the wide gap between their positions. Former US President Jimmy Carter, who hosted the Nairobi talks, made the government furious when he suggested it suspend Islamic law for three months, prior to holding the constitutional conference. [18] The government, which had just launched a major military offensive in the south, responded that it would "impose peace by force." [19]

As fighting resumed in the fall of 1989, refugees fled in increasing numbers to neighboring countries. In addition, the Sudanese government began to assist dissidents who tried to overthrow the governments in Ethiopia, Chad, Uganda, and Kenya. It helped Tigre nationalists overthrow the proSPLM government of Mengistu Haile Mariam in May 1991, aided the Eritrean liberation movement to gain independence, and joined with Libya in overthrowing the government of Chad in December 1990. As a result, leaders of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) sought to stem the trend toward regional destabilization, caused in part by the Sudanese civil war and exacerbated by Khartoum's zeal to spread its version of politicized Islam throughout Africa.

When Nigerian president Ibrahim Babangida served as OAU president, he pressed the government and the SPLM to hold negotiations in Abuja, the Nigerian capital. Those negotiations were delayed by a split in the SPLA in August 1991 caused by officers who criticized Garang's autocratic leadership, believed that the demand to transform the political system was hopeless under the existing circumstances, and hoped that the government would let the south secede. Led by Riek Machar and Lam Akol, they formed their own movement, initially called SPLA-Nasir. [20]

This schism played into the government's hands: The regime could play off the two wings of the SPLM against each other. The government signed a ceasefire with SPLA-Nasir in January 1992 in which it hinted that the south would have the right to self-determination. More significantly, the ceasefire enabled the army to cross the area controlled by the dissidents in Upper Nile in order to attack SPLA positions further south. Machar also unleashed SPLANasir forces against both the SPLA and civilians. These often degenerated into inter-tribal warfare: Nuer raids on Dinka civilians devastated the countryside and undermined Machar's claim to uphold human rights in his area of operation. [21]

Nigeria hosted two rounds of talks in the summer of 1992 and the spring of 1993. [22] These negotiations underlined the core differences between the SPLM and the government. In the meetings in 1992, the government delegates emphasized the principle of majority rights: The Muslim majority had the right to establish the constitutional system that it preferred. Religious diversity would be honored by exempting the south from the hudud. Over time, Arabic would become the universal language and religious differences would diminish. [23] Their version of a federation would retain the central government's authority over policymaking related to religion, education, and the economy, including natural resources.

The SPLM differed from the government on every issue. Its delegates called for a secular democracy and equality before the law; they opposed religious and racial assimilationism and the marginalization of non-Muslims by the concept of exemption. Delegates from SPLM-Nasir emphasized that two distinct peoples lived in the Sudan: It was time to end the artificial unity and create two separate states. [24] Both SPLM delegations upheld the right of the south to self-determination. From the perspective of the main SPLM delegation, unity was feasible and desirable if alt citizens gained the same constitutional rights. [25] If, however, the government insisted on an Islamic state, the SPLM would insist on self-determination. This might lead to the south's secession or might result in a loose confederation in which the north and the south would have different legal and political systems. The SPLM delegations failed to gain Nigerian support for self-determination, much less persuade the government negotiators. Nigeria had denied the right of secession to Biafra in the 1960s and the head of the Sudan government's delegation stated bluntly: "Separation comes from the mouth of the gun." [26]

When the delegations reconvened in April 1993 (without SPLANasir), the government was in a much stronger position on the ground. The armed forces had pushed the SPLA southward to the borders with Uganda and Kenya; the government believed that it was about to destroy the SPLA. Bashir therefore had already adopted a maximalist stance: "We will not abandon our principles for any reason.... What we now apply in Sudan is God's will. We will never satisfy humans to displease the almighty God." [27] The government insisted that Islamic law remain the supreme public law throughout the Sudan, with the sole exception that it would not apply hudud in the south. The SPLM delegates continued to state that they preferred a nonsectarian, democratic system, but they increased their emphasis on the right to self-determination. If the government insisted on a unitary state that would Islamize and Arabize the entire country, the south would demand independence. A confederation would be the optimal compromise, given the ideolog ical deadlock: The northern and southern states would each be sovereign in its legal, security, and economic arrangements. [23] Thus, the south could institute a secular political system alongside the north's Islamic system. At the end of an interim period, southerners and other marginalized peoples (notably the Nuba and Ingessana) would conduct an internationally supervised referendum in which they would choose between continuing the confederation or gaining independence. [29] The SPLM argued that the south could only be incorporated into an Islamic state by outright military defeat.

Within weeks of the collapse of the negotiations, the armed forces launched a large-scale offensive. This inadvertently helped to widen the circle of mediators. The OAU's East African Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Desertification (IGADD) sought to mitigate the harm the fighting caused to Sudan's neighbors. IGADD established a Standing Committee on Peace in Sudan in September 1993, chaired by Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi; Uganda, Ethiopia, and Eritrea were also members. Although tensions ran high between the Sudanese and Ugandan governments, since they supported each other's dissidents, Khartoum expected support from the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, which it had helped to attain power. Nonetheless, Bashir sought to postpone the IGADD talks, hoping to seize the areas bordering Uganda and Kenya and thereby eliminate the SPLA militarily. He refused to meet Garang at the first IGADD meeting (March 1994) and rejected the idea of including constitutional principles and the issue of self-dete rmination in the agenda. [30]

The government and SPLM position papers at the second session (May 1994) reiterated their stances at Abuja. This prompted the IGADD mediators to write their own Declaration of Principles (DOP), whose contents shocked the government and pleased the SPLM. The IGADD DOP emphasized the importance of an overall political settlement: Talks about a cease-fire and an interim period were meaningless without agreement on fundamental political principles. IGADD's preferred principles were "a secular and democratic state" with social and political equality, separation of state and religion, independence of the judiciary, and self-administration for marginalized peoples. The DOP stated that, in the absence of agreement on those principles, the south should have the right to self-determination. A referendum should therefore include the option of independence. In other words, the unity of the Sudan was conditional on the establishment of a secular state. The government was "enraged" at the DOP [31] whereas the SPLM called it "even-handed" and "a pleasant surprise." [32]

The government rejected the DOP at the third IGADD meeting (July 1994) whereas the SPLM expressed full confidence in IGADD and the DOP. At the fourth meeting (September 1994), the government was represented by two NIF stalwarts who not only refused to discuss self-determination and secularism but also asserted that the government would establish unity by force and that its longterm aim was to Islamize all of Africa. [33] The Kenyan chair immediately ended the session. He convened a special IGADD summit later that month, which reaffirmed its support for the DOP and mobilized support from European and American donors by forming the Friends of IGADD (later renamed Partners of IGAD). However, IGADD talks remained suspended until 1997. By then, the government's military and political position was weaker and the SPLM/SPLA was considerably stronger.

During that hiatus, the government tried to bypass IGADD by signing a Political Charter (1996) with Machar, Akol, and other southern warlords. [34] This charter (reaffirmed in 1997) included a provision for self-determination, which its southern signatories interpreted as allowing for secession. However, the government insisted that self-determination take place within a geographically united country. When negotiations resumed in July 1997 under the renamed IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development), Bashir felt constrained to sign IGADD's DOP since he had already conceded the right of self-determination in the Political Charter. Nonetheless, Bashir stressed that the DOP was not legally binding and that the government would never accept secularism or a confederation. [35] Indeed, the government's constitution (1998) reemphasized that Islamic law underpinned the political and legal system. Further IGAD meetings from October 1997 through 2000 failed to bridge the divide.

Throughout the 1990s, the government and the SPLM could not find any common ground on which to base an agreement. In contrast to the democratic era, in which public debate and dialogue helped the antagonists to reach an agreement that freezing Islamic law could pave the way to a comprehensive accord, the Islamist military regime blocked the give-and-take that might have let to mutually acceptable solutions. Instead, cultural and religious polarization deepened.

The two sides also failed to resolve their differences because each side felt it had other options. The government believed that it could defeat the SPLA militarily and rule the south through its southern allies; the SPLM believed that its alliance with northern opponents of the government and assistance from African governments could ward off defeat and perhaps even overthrow the regime. Neither side viewed negotiations -- and the compromises essential to such negotiations -- as the only way to end the civil war.


The government used the Political Charter of 1996 and the accompanying political agreement in 1997 as a way to solidify the support of southern officials and anti-SPLA militias for the existing system. The charter recognized the Islamic constitution and its nominally federal system. It also endorsed the current north-south borders, which "shifted" to the north areas rich in oil, copper, and gum arabic. The referendum at the end of an interim period of unspecified duration would be held in the context of territorial unity. Most importantly, the southern militias committed themselves to mobilize to carry out these accords, a code for joining the armed forces in the battle against the SPLA.

The government deliberately fanned jealousies among its southern allies, dangling positions as governor or commissioner as ways to reward or punish them and to make them envious of each other.[36] For example, Bashir's appointment of Machar to chair the council that would administer the south alienated Machar's former ally Akol, other militia commanders, and the southern politicians who had worked with the regime since 1989. Akol ran unsuccessfully for governor in Upper Nile; a Shilluk, Akol was defeated by a Nuer rival and later accepted a ministerial post in Khartoum. Dinka officer and former SPLA commander Kerubino Kuanyin Bol viewed himself as senior to the Nuer Machar; after rampaging through northern Bahr al-Ghazal and shifting allegiance several times, Kerubino was assassinated in the fall of l999. [37] Paulino Matip, a local warlord who led the Anya-Nya II militia, challenged the authority of fellow-Nuer Machar in the oil-rich Bentiu area. By 2000 the government had enabled Matip to consolidate his p ower, in the process devastating and depopulating the countryside. [38] Machar was reduced to pleading with the Khartoum government for funds and for the authority to turn the council of the south into a real governing body. In early 2000 he abruptly left Khartoum, breaking with the regime without being accepted back into the SPLM fold. [39]

In any event, the government was unable to secure a firm military hold over the south. As of 2001, the armed forces and allied militias controlled most of Upper Nile, with its vital oil fields, Juba (the capital of Equatoria), and Wau, the capital of Bahr al-Ghazal and the end point for the railway from the north. The rest of the south was either under SPLM control or contested militarily. Thus, the government's option of defeating the SPLA militarily and ruling through its southern allies was only partly successful. Its actions made much of the south ungovernable, but did not lead to the "peace from within" that its officials said they sought. (Many argue that the government really aimed at depopulating key parts of the south, since it could then rule the territory and utilize its resources without contending with a hostile population. [40])


The SPLM came to view the alliance with northern opponents of the government and assistance from African governments as crucial ways to ward off defeat. Under the most optimistic scenario, the joint effort through the NDA would lead to a new political system that would institute principles of democracy and secularism. The NDA had been formed in October 1989 by all the political parties and unions that the military junta had banned. It called for a nonviolent campaign to overthrow the dictatorship and abolish the Islamic laws, along the lines of popular movements that had overthrown the first and second military regimes in 1964 and 1985, respectively. Its effort to launch an uprising in November 1989 failed when the government cracked down on strikes and protests by doctors, professors, and students. [41] The government's purges of the civil service, unions, police, and armed forces also weakened the NDA's potential for political action. Many politicians fled abroad and former prime minister al-Mahdi was conf ined to virtual house arrest until he escaped to Eritrea in December 1996. Although cashiered military officers formed a Legitimate Command in September 1990, they could not create an effective fighting force in exile. Moreover, precisely because the NDA served as an umbrella under which all the diverse political and professional groups could stand, it often proved incapable of adopting clear and principled stances. Ideological and personal differences made cooperation difficult.

From mid-1989 to mid-1991 the SPLM/SPLA did not perceive NDA support as important. The SPLA controlled nearly ninety per cent of the countryside in the south and maintained lines of communication with fighters in the Nuba mountains and Ingessana hills. The SPLM had been formally aligned with the NDA since March 1990, but had pursued negotiations without coordinating with it. However, Mengistu's fall in May 1991 eliminated the SPLA's principal source of military support. Then, the defection of SPLA commanders in Upper Nile and their cooperation with the armed forces drastically altered the situation on the ground. When the negotiations in Abuja in 1992 and 1993 not only failed to achieve any results but also reemphasized the deep polarization, the SPLM leadership developed an increased interest in working with the NDA.

Moreover, northern politicians active in the NDA were becoming anxious about the SPLM's political stance and its military setbacks. The NDA had taken for granted SPLM's support for the unity of the Sudan. Once the SPLM began to stress the principle of self-determination, with the implication that secession was a possible outcome, the NDA began to realize that it had to find a way to preclude secession. Virtually all northern politicians deplored the potential "loss" of the south. The SPLA's military difficulties also concerned the NDA, since the northern politicians had assumed that the fighting in the south would fatally weaken the regime in Khartoum. (This perspective was resented in the south, whose politicians concluded that northern politicians were content to let the southerners do the fighting for them; then, when the NDA would control the central government, they would marginalize the south once again.)

The first indication of a shift was the NDA's effort to accommodate the SPLM's political demands in 1993-95, followed by its decision to mount its own military campaign in 1995. Until then, the NDA had merely stated that, should it gain power, it would hold the constitutional conference under the terms of the DUP-SPLM accord of 1988. DUP and Umma politicians wanted to delay a decision on the issue of the source of legislation until the constitutional conference could be held, and they especially wanted to avoid agreeing to a secular constitution. (This, in turn, enhanced southerners' suspicions and increased their interest in the option of secession.) The NDA finally dealt with the constitutional issue by avoiding the word "secular", which al-Mahdi and other northern Islamists viewed as synonymous with "atheist" or "anti-religious".

The first formula that bridged the gap was embodied in the Nairobi Declaration of April 1993. This declaration upheld principles of equal rights and nondiscrimination by referring to international human rights covenants, which would be an integral part of the Sudanese constitution and would guarantee full equality to citizens "without discrimination on grounds of religion, race, gender, or culture." [42] The declaration did not refer to the question of self-determination, which was first faced squarely by the Umma party. Umma and SPLM signed an agreement at the latter's headquarters in Equatoria in December 1994, known as the Chukudum Accord. [43] Through this agreement, the Umma leadership acknowledged that, in order to allay southerners' suspicions, northerners must recognize southerners' right to choose their political status. Unity could not be based on force, but must arise from free choice.

The principle of self-determination was endorsed by the NDA convention in Asmara in June 1995. That meeting also endorsed the international human rights conventions and stated that an NDA-supported government would abolish Islamic public law and prohibit the formation of political parties on religious bases. Instead of using the value-laden term "secular", its resolutions referred to the "non-use of religion in politics." [44] The convention also supported the SPLM's call for a confederation during the interim period, during which the south would maintain its own army.

The NDA launched military operations after the convention in Asmara. Although some officers and parties affiliated with the NDA had already tried to carry out military counter-coups against the regime and had undertaken acts of sabotage, the Legitimate Command had failed to undertake any coherent military planning or actions. Secret annexes to the Asmara agreements laid out a strategy to topple the regime by combining guerrilla warfare in the east and south with a civilian uprising in Khartoum and other northern cities. [45] However, the prospects for a successful civilian uprising were weak, given the widely ramified security structures and the removal of dissidents from the civil service, police, and army. In fact, the government easily crushed a hastily-organized civil uprising in Khartoum in September 1995. [46] Nonetheless, the Asmara conference led to the formation of a joint military command under the authority of Garang that linked the fighting in the south and the Ingessana hills to a new effort in the east. Several political movements formed armed groups, including the Beja Congress, the new secularist Sudanese Allied Forces (SAF), and the Umma party.

Guerrilla probes took place along the eastern border from the Red Sea through Kassala and Gedaref and more extensive military efforts were launched in the Damazin area of Northern Blue Nile, south east of the Roseires Dam, which complemented the ongoing fighting in the Ingessana Hills in Southern Blue Nile. These units sought to disrupt commerce on the highway between Port Sudan and Khartoum, destabilize the economy of the grain-growing Kassala-Gedaref area, and place at risk the Roseires dam on the Blue Nile, which provides three-quarters of Khartoum's electricity and stores water essential for the Gezira and Rahad cotton-growing areas. When the government opened the oil pipeline from Bentiu to the Red Sea in August 1999, NDA guerrilla forces mounted several sabotage operations against that pipeline and against another pipeline that carried refined oil from Port Sudan to Khartoum. [47]

These attacks were facilitated by the support given the NDA and SPLA by the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments. By 1995, those governments had broken with their erstwhile allies in Khartoum since Sudan was supporting subversive Islamist movements. Ethiopia was especially angered by the Sudan's apparent involvement in the attempt to assassinate Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in July 1995. [48] As a result, Ethiopia allowed the SPLA and NDA to operate across its border and Eritrea let the NDA open political offices, military bases, and training camps.

The joint efforts meant that the SPLA/NDA could launch simultaneous attacks in the south and the east that compelled the government to disperse its forces widely. However, the joint efforts stirred up new forms of tension between and within the northern and southern politicians. Northern NDA groups used the new front to claim that they had weight on the battlefield as well as in the political field. This increased the competition among the parties, since some groups that were active militarily -- such as the Beja Congress and SAF -- had much less political weight than the Umma and DUP. Moreover, many northern politicians saw the fighting in the east not only as a way to weaken the Khartoum government but also as a way to reduce southern suspicions that northern politicians let them bear the burden of waging the war. Those politicians hoped that this would convince the SPLM to drop its option of secession. They also feared that, should the SPLA liberate only the south, it would demand secession and thereby le ave the northern NDA in the lurch.

The joint effort, however, made many southerners fear that Garang was ignoring the south by concentrating on coordinating military operations in the east. Southern soldiers wanted to give priority to liberating the south; they had little interest in marching on Khartoum. In fact, they wanted to make sure that the SPLM controlled the south before Khartoum was liberated. This was the way, in their view, to prevent an NDA-supported government from reneging on the pledges made at Asmara and to form a secure base for southern independence, should that be necessary.

Thus, although the NDA-SPLM alliance emerged in 1995 as a serious political and military challenge to the regime, it was weakened by mutual suspicions. Those internal tensions increased after al-Mahdi escaped from Khartoum to Eritrea in December 1996. With his rival Mirghani heading the NDA, Garang leading the military operations, and al-Mahdi's cousin Mubarak al-Fadhil the NDA secretary general, there was no specific position available for the former prime minister. Al-Mahdi assumed the role of roving emissary for the NDA, a role that he sought to transform into de facto leader of the NDA. He felt himself to be "above" the NDA, operating on its behalf but without being restricted by its structures.

Increasingly frustrated by the lack of political activity by the NDA, alMahdi met with assembly speaker Turabi in Geneva in May 1999 in order to craft a national reconciliation accord. This accord apparently provided for alMahdi to replace Bashir as president, Turabi to become prime minister (a newly-proposed position), Garang to cooperate with them (in an unspecified role), and Machar to continue his alliance with the government. In other words, Turabi and al-Mahdi would share power and would revive the system of past regimes of co-opting their southern clients. [49] The scenario unraveled when Garang refused to play this game; al-Mahdi and Garang's relations degenerated into bitter verbal attacks during the winter of 1999-2000. [50]

Nonetheless, al-Mahdi went ahead with a meeting with Bashir in November 1999 in which they agreed on broad principles for political reconciliation. His unilateral action outraged the other members of the NDA. Heated criticism of al-Mahdi in NDA meetings in Kampala (December 1999) [51] and Asmara (March 2000) prompted him to withdraw from the alliance and to send key Umma leaders back into Sudan in April to test the political waters. [52] Later, Umma militiamen returned to Sudan [53] and Mahdi himself returned on 23 November 2000. [54]

Meanwhile, Bashir declared emergency rule in December 1999, thereby preventing the Turabi-dominated legislature from voting on drastic constitutional changes that would have introduced the position of prime minister and reduced the president to a figurehead. [55] Bashir thereby undermined Turabi and al-Mahdi's power-sharing scenario while seriously compromising al-Mahdi's political credibility. Bashir then held elections in December 2000, under the current constitution, which further placed al-Mahdi in an awkward situation, having burned his bridges with the NDA without having gained a substantive agreement with the regime.

The NDA itself barely weathered the crisis. Mirghani seemingly preferred to remain its head rather than return to play a minor role in Khartoum. Its secularist members clung more tightly to the SPLM's platform calling for a united, non-sectarian state. (This placed further pressure on Garang to de-emphasize the possibility of secession, a position that alienated many southerners who were fed up with the political maneuvers among [56] northern politicians. ) Nonetheless, the NDA did authorize Mirghani to meet with Bashir in Asmara in September 2000 to explore bases for a reconciliation. [57]

External support for the NDA and SPLM diminished in the late 1990s. The border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea from mid-1998 to June 2000 undermined the NDA's reliance on their diplomatic and military support. Ethiopia restored full diplomatic relations with the Sudan, which made it impossible for the NDA/SPLA to resupply its forces east of the Roseires dam. Eritrea also resumed contact with the Sudanese government. NDA training camps had to move from Eritrea into eastern Sudan and supply lines were cut at times due to the Ethiopian-Eritrean fighting. Even the Ugandan government signed an accord with the Sudanese government that was supposed to limit each side's support for dissidents. [58] Should that accord be implemented, the SPLA's support system would be undermined.

The NDA-SPLM relationship was also complicated because the NDA was not party to the IGAD negotiations. The NDA called for the overthrow of the government whereas SPLM, a constituent member of the NDA, negotiated with that same government. The government blocked attempts to add the NDA as a formal negotiating partner in IGAD and the SPLM was also ambivalent about directly involving the NDA in IGAD. In any event, northern NDA leaders would not want to attend as bystanders or junior members of the SPLM delegation. This meant that IGAD talks dealt basically with north-south issues, rather than with the transformation of the governing system in Khartoum.

It was therefore not surprising that al-Mahdi encouraged the governments of Libya and Egypt to launch a diplomatic initiative that would bypass African-dominated IGAD. [59] Their joint effort in the winter of 1999-2000 emphasized national reconciliation and preserving the territorial unity of the Sudan. It played to the interests of the northern political forces, rather than to the south, and thereby renewed southern fears that the NDA would set aside its commitments to a non-religious state and self-determination.

Garang's high-profile visit to Cairo in May 2000 was therefore intended to win President Mubarak's approval for merging the IGAD and Egyptian-Libyan initiatives. [60] This would end the dangerous division between Arab and African based diplomatic efforts and prevent the Sudanese government from playing one initiative off against the other. He seemed to win Egyptian support for an effort to coordinate with the Kenyan principals in IGAD and with the Partners of IGAD. This coordination failed to materialize, given the rivalries and mutual suspicions of the Egyptian and African politicians.


The impasse between the government and the SPLM is unlikely to end in the near future. The ideological antagonism remains deep, despite hints that a confederation might temper the differences in the short run. The fighting shows no signs of diminishing, despite partial and temporary ceasefires. External military support for the NDA and SPLA has weakened, however, just as Khartoum's military resources are growing.

The high point for the opposition forces came in 1994-95, when IGAD articulated its path-breaking DOP and when the NDA reached an agreement on the fundamentals of an alternative constitutional system. Since then, IGAD has been unable to transform its negotiating principles into operational agreements and the NDA has suffered serious internal stress. The fragility of the NDA's consensus on the nature of the constitutional system and self-determination for the south has become evident. Even though the government has undergone an intense internal crisis as Turabi and Bashir jockey for power, it has manipulated the diplomatic scene to its advantage, playing off the Egyptian-Libyan initiative against IGAD and using the accord between Bashir and alMahdi to disrupt the internal dynamics within the NDA as well as to put pressure on the NDA-SPLM alliance. The complex interactions among the northern and southern politicians and the ever-shifting alliances with external governments make the government and the SPLM each believe that it has alternatives to a negotiated accord and that it can always maneuver itself into a stronger bargaining position. Meanwhile, the fighting continues to devastate the south and the social fabric of the entire country is torn by the decades of discord.


A bizarre twist in Sudanese politics occurred on 19 February 2001 when Turabi's cousin Omar Ibrahim al-Turabi signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with SPLM officials, in Geneva. Turabi's Popular National Congress (PNC) and the SPLM agreed to coordinate peaceful protests in order to force Bashir from power and reinstate democracy. SPLM spokesmen argued that the MOU committed the PNC, for the first time, to support political freedoms and the south's right to self-determination as well as to recognize the country's multiple religions and ethnic identities. However, the MOU shocked the NDA, whose members opposed Turabi's ideological zealotry and blamed him for the

destruction of the democratic regime in 1989. It also shocked southerners who could not imagine that Garang would align with their archenemy. And it alienated Islamists who then declared that Turabi was a traitor to the mujahideen who had died fighting the SPLA. The government immediately arrested Turabi, a move that Turabi hoped would turn him into a martyr. Nonetheless, the MOU's lack of credibility served to confirm the widespread view that Turabi was an opportunist politician at his core. More seriously, it contributed to undermining the SPLM's claim to represent political views within the south, a claim that was already increasingly contested by southern politicians who wished to prioritize the goal of secession.

Ann M. Lesch is Professor of Political Science at Villanova University, Pennsylvania.


(1.) Issued 24 April 1992; quoted in Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Beset by Contradictions (New York: 1996), 24.

(2.) International League for Human Rights, Sudan's Human Rights Record (New York: 1991), 5-6, 16-17.

(3.) John Garang's statement at the symposium on the Sudan at the U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., 22 October 1993; Peter Nyot Kok in Sudan Democratic Gazette (SDG) #44 (January 1994), 8.

(4.) President Bashir's statement on 20 February 1999, quoted in Ann M. Lesch, "Sudan: The Torn Country," Current History 98:628 (May 1999), 218. Former Turabi disciple Abdelwahab El-Affendi adopts that view in "'Discovering the Sudan': Sudanese Dilemmas for Islam in Africa," African Affairs 89:356 (July 1990), 385, 388-89.

(5.) SDG #45 (February 1994) quotes a banner at a rally: "We will only stop when the forces of Islam have raised the Islamic flag over Capetown and the whole continent of Africa has been Islamified."

(6.) Ann M. Lesch, "The Sudan: Militancy and Isolation," in The Middle East and the Peace Process, ed. Robert O. Freedman (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1998), 332-5; for recent information on China's stake in the oil fields, see China Online (11 September 2000) and, for Malaysia' share, see Dow Jones (18 October 2000).

(7.) Bashir, inaugurating the industrial town near Khartoum, stated: "We will produce mortars and tanks and then we will go to warplanes and rockets." Associated Press (AP), 27 October 2000.

(8.) Lesch, "The Sudan: Militancy and Isolation," 324-6.

(9.) For background information, see Abel Alier, Southern Sudan: Too Many Agreements Dishonored (Exeter: Ithaca, 1990; Francis Mading Deng, War of Visions (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1995); Dunstan M. Wai, The African-Arab Conflict in the Sudan (New York: Africana, 1981); text of Addis Ababa Agreement in Steven Wondu and Ann Lesch, Battle for Peace in Sudan (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000), 195-213.

(10.) For example, Mahdi's letter delivered to the SPLM in April 1987; text on SPLA radio (20 April 1987) and Garang's response on SPLA radio (26 August 1987).

(11.) Speeches and declaration in Mansour Khalid, ed. Call for Democracy: John Garang (London: Kegan Paul International, 1992), 118-44; analysis in Peter Nyot Kok, Governance and Conflict in the Sudan (Hamburg: Deutsches Orient-Institut, 1996), 57-58; text in Wondu and Lesch, 215-8.

(12.) Text on SPLA radio and Middle East News Agency (MENA) 17 November 1988; text in Wondu and Lesch, 219-21; Kok, 68.

(13.) Statement by Turabi to Le Monde (24 February 1988).

(14.) Interview with NIF's Ali Osman Mohamed Taha in al-Sharq al-Awsat 9 May 1989; Kok, 71, 84.

(15.) Turabi admitted this in 1999-2000, after his split with Bashir; see analysis by Al-Effendi in al-Quds al-Arabi, translated in Mideast Mirror, 4 August 2000.

(16.) Reuters, 1 and 7 July 1989.

(17.) Speech on 10 August 1989, broadcast on SPLA Radio (14 and 15 August 1989); text in Khalid, 237-68.

(18.) Text of Carter statement in Wondu and Lesch, 223-5.

(19.) Amin al-Khalifa to Sudan News Agency (SUNA), 30 November 1990.

(20.) Declaration in Sudan Update 3:4 (24 September 1991).

(21.) Amnesty International, Sudan: The Ravages of War (September 1993), 21-23; J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins, Requiem for the Sudan: War, Drought, and Disaster Relief on the Nile (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1994), 300-301.

(22.) These negotiations are analyzed in detail in Wondu and Lesch.

(23.) Ibid., 31-32, 40-41.

(24.) Ibid., 35.

(25.) Ibid., 51-54.

(26.) Khalifa, quoted in Ann Mosely Lesch, The Sudan: Contested National Identities (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998), 173.

(27.) Al-Hayat, 5 September 1992.

(28.) Wondu and Lesch, 122-24.

(29.) See table with SPLM's three political models in Lesch, The Sudan, 176.

(30.) The most detailed analysis of the IGADD process and statements during 1994 is provided in Steven Wondu, IGADD: No Quick Fix (Nairobi: New Sudan Magazine, 1995); also reports in SDG #47-55 (April to December 1994); text of DOP in Wondu and Lesch, 227-9.

(31.) Bashir quoted in SDG #49 (June 1994), 5.

(32.) Wondu, 25, 28.

(33.) Ghazi Salah al-Din al-Atabani, quoted in Wondu, 51-54.

(34.) South Sudan Independence Movement, Southern Sudan Bulletin (London) 2:1 (March-June 1996), 3-9.

(35.) SDG #87 (August 1997).

(36.) Lesch, The Sudan, 159, 163-5.

(37.) Reuters, 15 September 1999.

(38.) Reuters, 4 September, 21 October, and 6 November 1999; Agence France Presse (AFP), 2 August 2000.

(39.) Reuters, 6 February 2000; AFP, 5 and 8 February 2000; SDG #118 (April 2000), 3.

(40.) See, for example, the testimony by Roger Winters, director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, 28 September 2000; also SDG #115 (December 1999), 2, and #116 (January 2000), 2.

(41.) Amnesty International, Sudan: Permanent Human Rights Crisis (New York: August 1990); Human Rights Watch/Africa, Sudan: "In the Name of God" (New York: 1994).

(42.) Text in SDG #36 (May 1993), 2; Kok, 209; Lesch, The Sudan, 190.

(43.) Text in SDG #56 (January 1995), 4; Kok, 216; Lesch, The Sudan, 193.

(44.) Text in SDG #63 (August 1995), 4-5, and in Wondu and Lesch, 23 1-41; Kok, 216; Lesch, The Sudan, 190.

(45.) Lesch, The Sudan, 196.

(46.) SDG #66 (November 1995), 9; Sudan News and Views (London), 30 September 1995.

(47.) AFP, 23 September and 6 October 1999; The New York Times, 17 October 1999; Reuters, 16 January and 3 May 2000; AFP 6 May 2000.

(48.) Press release, Ethiopian Foreign Ministry, 1 September 1995; Middle East International #508 (8 September 1995).

(49.) SDG #115 (December 1999), 6; the author's interviews in Cairo on the political situation with Sadiq al-Mahdi (29 February 2000), Tijani Tayib of the NDA (1 March 2000), and David Lokosang of the SPLM (24 May 2000).

(50.) See their critical statements in AFP, 16, 19, 26-28 November, 8 and 10 December 1999, and Mahdi's "open letter" to Garang dated 1 March 2000.

(51.) Wall Street Journal, 8 December 1999.

(52.) Analysis by AI-Effendi in al-Quds al-Arabi, translated in Mideast Mirror, 24 March 2000; APP, 4, 6 and 7 April 2000.

(53.) AFP, 22 June and 18 November 2000.

(54.) Reuters, 23 and 26 November 2000; his speech in AFP, 25 November 2000; criticism of elections in Reuters, 15 November 2000, and AFP, 1 and 27 November 2000.

(55.) AFP, 12 December 1999.

(56.) In particular, the journalist Bona Malwal launched a campaign for self-determination in late 1999, which descended into personal invective against Garang by Spring 2000; see Malwal's editorials in his SDG #115 (December 1999), 1, 4-5; #120 (June 2000), 1; and his "open letter" to Garang in #119 (May 2000), 8-9, 11.

(57.) SUNA, 27 September 1990; Mideast Monitor, 25 September 2000; earlier reports on contacts in AFP, 8 May, 30 June and 27 July 2000.

(58.) AFP, 11 December 1999, and 28 July 2000.

(59.) SPLM press releases on its position, 30 August 1999 (Nairobi) and 1 September 1999 (Cairo); Washington Times, 1 October 1999; Reuters, 20 October 1999.

(60.) Reuters, 10 May 2000; interview with Garang in al-Ahram weekly, 18 May 2000.
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Author:Lesch, Ann M.
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Geographic Code:6SUDA
Date:Mar 22, 2001

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