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Sudan (and Darfur)

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The conflict in Sudan, explained

Since Sudan became independent in 1956, the Muslim Arabs in the north have dominated the government, ruling over black Africans in the south (who mainly practice traditional, “animist”* religions, though missionaries have converted a minority to Christianity). Power and wealth have not been shared equally. Khartoum, the capital, has luxury hotels and shopping malls, while the south, with an area the size of Texas, has only 100 miles of paved roads; most of the south’s residents live in huts with thatched roofs.

Civil war between north and south has been continuous since independence in 1956, except for a 11-year peace beginning in 1972. The conflict resulted in over 2 million deaths between 1983 and 2005, according to the rebels; more than 4 million people have been displaced from their homes, and human rights abuses have been widespread. Repeated negotiations and peace agreements failed to end the violence, in part because some rebel groups refused to sign the agreements.

Not all of the conflict has been north vs. south, however. The people of Sudan are divided among many different ethnic groups (speaking as many as 134 different languages, according to one study), and conflict has erupted among the different Muslim groups of the north, and among the different groups of the south.

South Sudan became a separate nation on July 9, 2011, but the fighting goes on, both within South Sudan (where rebel militias oppose the new government) and between other groups and the government in Khartoum.

*animist religions are characterized by a belief in spirits that inhabit natural objects, or by a belief in spirits belonging to people and capable of separating from the body.

Darfur: an overview

A drought-prone region in the west of Sudan, roughly the size of France, Darfur is home to 40-80 different ethnic groups. Nearly everyone in Darfur is Muslim.

Darfur was neglected after Sudan became independent, and has the poorest education and health services in the country. Most Darfurians make their living by subsistence farming or nomadic herding. Clashes in Darfur go back to 1987, when an Arab militia from Chad, called the Janjaweed, joined with Darfurian Arab nomads in a war for land with the Fur, the non-Arab people who live in the center of the region. (“Darfur” means “Land of the Fur.”) Disputes over land and livestock led to further clashes in the 1990s.

In 2002, Fur villagers organized defense groups, and united under the banner of the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA). In 2003, Islamists who had been ousted from the Khartoum government formed the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). A full-blown conflict emerged in 2003, when the JEM joined the SLA in launching attacks on government military bases.

The government responded quickly and brutally. Already fighting a civil war with the south, Khartoum turned to the Janjaweed (see above) to suppress the rebels, giving them arms and sometimes providing military support. Rather than fight the rebels directly, the Janjaweed have struck back against unarmed civilians who belong to the same ethnic groups as the rebels: mainly the Fur, Masaalit and Zaghawa. The Janjaweed burned villages—completely destroying more than 400 of them—murdered civilians, raped women, and seized land. More than two million civilians fled from their homes; another 250,000 refugees fled to neighboring Chad.

A U.N. Security Council resolution demanded that Sudan’s government disarm the Janjaweed, but instead, Khartoum took many of the fighters into its army, and continues to use them against villagers they believe side with the rebels.

At the time, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that what was happening in Darfur was genocide, but human rights organizations avoided that term, instead charging the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed with crimes against humanity.

Peace talks have failed to stop the fighting, because not all rebel factions have signed the treaties. Fighting between the government and the rebels goes on today. Although human rights abuses have been committed by every side, observers put most of the blame on President Bashir and his government, because of their brutal response to the insurgency. The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for President Bashir.

For an overview of the crisis see Save Darfur’s website or Prospect Magazine.

The Republic of South Sudan: born in hope and crisis

On July 9, 2011, the new Republic of South Sudan joyously celebrated its independence. The new nation faces huge challenges, however. In the first six months of 2011, more than 2,000 people died in rebel attacks and ethnic violence. The new nation has spent more on security than on education, health care, electricity, and industry combined. It has the worst poverty rate in Africa (most of its citizens live on less than a dollar a day); most of its villages lack running water and electricity. Less than 25% of South Sudanese adults can read, and more than one in ten children die before the age of 5. Charitable organizations are currently feeding more than half the population. Ethnic tensions threaten the new nation’s stability: the government is run mainly by the Dinka, the largest of the nation’s tribal groups, but rebel army leaders include the Nuer, historic rivals of the Dinka.

On the positive side, the country has great agricultural potential, since 80% of its land is arable. And one advantage it has over other states emerging from devastating civil wars is its oil wealth; with this wealth, however, has come widespread corruption, and the new government has not yet learned how to root it out.

For more on the new nation of South Sudan, see Bloomberg News.


2/27/12: Over the past year, more than 100,000 refugees have voluntarily returned to their villages in Darfur—a sign that the conflict there may finally be coming to an end.

1/13/12: Violence has broken out between the Lou Nuer and Murle tribes in South Sudan, near the Ethiopian border. In just a few weeks, armed Lou Nuer raiders have slaughtered hundreds, and left tens of thousands displaced and homeless. The violence is a reminder that South Sudan’s independence does not in itself end the ethnic hostilities that have plagued the region. For details, see World Politics Review.

Geography and fast facts

• Location: just south of Egypt.

• Size: until the independence of South Sudan, the country was the largest in Africa, roughly the size of the U.S. east of the Mississippi River. The Republic of the Sudan is now the third largest country in Africa.

• Capital of Sudan: Khartoum

• Capital of South Sudan: Juba

• Average per capita income (2009): $2,300

• Population (2009): over 41 million. Of this total, about 75% live in the mostly-Arab north, which includes most of the country’s major cities.

• Exports: oil has accounted for about 70% of Sudan’s export earnings.

• Foreign debt: Sudan owes more than $21 billion to other countries, more than its entire annual gross domestic product*. It is the world’s biggest debtor to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

*The total value of goods produced and services provided in a country in one year.

Key issues at present

• How to share the oil wealth. 75% of Sudan’s oil is in the new Republic of South Sudan. But the refineries, most of the pipelines, and the main port are in the north. An agreement for sharing the oil wealth has yet to be worked out.

• Where to draw the North/South border, and what to do about the oil-rich Abyei region, which sits on the border. According to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, Abyei must hold a referendum to decide whether it will be part of Sudan or South Sudan. That referendum has yet to happen, and tensions in the area are rising.

A humanitarian disaster

Violence, famine and disease have killed more than two million people in Sudan, sent 600,000 people fleeing to other countries for safety, and displaced about four million people within the country. President Bashir’s expulsion of 13 humanitarian aid groups in 2009—groups that had delivered about half of all aid in the country—left the U.N. and remaining organizations struggling to make up the difference.

The U.S., Sudan’s leading donor, has given more than $8 billion in aid since 2005, for humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping, development, and reconstruction.

Relations with the U.S.

Sudan’s relations with the U.S. have long been strained, largely because of Sudan’s ties with North Korea and Libya, its support for Islamist terrorist groups, and crimes against humanity committed by the government while suppressing rebellions. At the same time, though, the U.S. has provided Sudan with billions of dollars in humanitarian aid. In 1993, the U.S. listed Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism, a designation it still bears; sanctions followed in 1997. After U.S. embassies were bombed in East Africa in 1998, cruise missile attacks were launched against targets in Khartoum and Afghanistan. Since 9/11/01, however, Sudan “has provided concrete cooperation against international terrorism,” according to the U.S. State Department. President Obama’s Sudan policy mixes the threat of sanctions (if President Bashir’s government fails to improve the situation in Darfur) with the possibility of economic rewards for progress.

Names to Know

• General Omar al-Bashir: President of Sudan since 1989, he also serves as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

• Colonel John Garang: a charismatic leader who united rebelling factions and led the Sudan People’s Liberation Army until his death in a helicopter crash in 2005. His goal was a Sudan in which wealth and power were shared more equitably, rather than secession of the south.


Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/SPLA): these are the political and military wings of a rebel movement based in the south of Sudan. Since the independence of South Sudan, its leaders—including Salva Kiir Mayardit, the new president—have governed the country.

National Congress Party (NCP): the governing party of Sudan, headed by President Omar al-Bashir. Its ideology is Islamist, nationalist, and conservative.

The Justice and Equality Movement (JEM): an Islamist rebel group in Darfur, led by Khalil Ibrahim. The JEM fought the government and the Janjaweed until signing a truce in 2010.

Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/SLA): a rebel political and military force in Darfur, representing non-Arab black farmers. Its leaders include Abdul Wahid al Nur and Minni Minnawi.

Janjaweed: local militias that have attacked the farming population of Darfur since 2003, committing murder and rape as a strategy for suppressing the anti-government rebellion. The Janjaweed militias are drawn from mostly black, Arabized Muslims who herd livestock; in the past, they competed with Darfur’s population over grazing land, especially during droughts. Janjaweed is a combination of the Arabic words meaning outlaw, gun and horse: they have often attacked on horseback, with rifles and AK-47s. For more on the Janjaweed, see Wikipedia.

Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM): an alliance of ten smaller rebel groups fighting the government in Darfur. The LJM, formed in 2010 includes the SLA, but is a rival of the JEM.

Dinka: largest of the black African tribes in Sudan. Most Dinka herd cattle during the dry season and grow grains during the rainy season.

The Mahdi

Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah, a Sudanese religious leader, declared himself the Mahdi, or messiah, in 1881. Reacting against domination by Egypt and England, he led a successful rebellion and repelled a British force sent to destroy his movement. The government he established was fundamentalist and Islamist. Although he died in 1885, six months after conquering Khartoum, his followers ruled Sudan until a British-Egyptian force overthrew them in 1898. For more on the Mahdi, see Wikipedia.

Where does the name “Sudan” come from?

The name comes from the Arabic, “Bilaal-el-Sud,” which means “Land of the Black,” referring to the race of its inhabitants.


Nicholas Kristof, “Dodging Bombers in Sudan,” New York Times, 2/22/12: “This is a mass atrocity that has attracted little attention: a government starving its people, massacring them, raping them, and bombing them — all in hopes of crushing a rebel movement. Sudan has barred aid workers and journalists from the area, the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan, in a largely successful effort to conceal savagery that has echoes of Darfur.”

“The New State of South Sudan,” New York Times editorial, 7/8/11: It will take decades to build a functioning state in the south. Meanwhile, in order to attract foreign investment, the south and the north will need to work out their unresolved problems peacefully. And the international community must support that effort.

Charles Davis, “A Sudan Reality Check,” aol news, 1/10/11: The South’s independence won’t resolve most of Sudan’s conflicts, because “oppression of the Sudanese people is a national, not a regional, problem. The war in the South and the massacres in Darfur are merely the most public among many clandestine crimes.”

Rajiv Shah, Andrew Mitchell, and Erik Solheim, “Sudan at a Crossroads,” politico.com, 5/8/11: outlines what will have to happen after South Sudan becomes independent, in order to achieve peace in the two countries.

For more information



U.S. Department of State Background Note

New York Times


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Even more information: a brief history of troubled Sudan

Small, independent kingdoms occupied the area that is now Sudan until 1821, when Egypt conquered the northern region. The south remained fragmented among its many tribes until 1881, when Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah declared himself the Mahdi (the Islamic messiah, or restorer of the faith) and started a campaign to unify the tribes of western and central Sudan. The Mahdi’s revolt succeeded in conquering Khartoum in 1885.

In 1898, an English and Egyptian force led by Lord Kitchener toppled the Mahdist state. Britain and Egypt governed Sudan together from 1899 until 1956, when the country received its independence.

A series of unstable civilian and military governments ruled Sudan after 1956. Civil war broke out soon after independence, when Southern army officers rebelled against the Arab-led government. The war lasted until 1972.

The 1972 peace agreement gave the South a degree of autonomy. In 1979, though, Chevron discovered oil in the South. The rulers in the north took back the financial autonomy the South had enjoyed. The north continued to violate the terms of the 1972 treaty, and southern soldiers mutinied, marking the start of Sudan’s second civil war.

The conflict grew fiercer when the government imposed shari’a (Muslim law) on the entire country, including non-Muslims. Much of the population, including Muslims, opposed punishments such as amputation for theft and public whipping for possession of alcohol.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the civil war turned the south into a land of burned villages. Thousands of boys (the “Lost Boys”) set out on foot for other countries to escape the violence.

In 1989, General Omar al-Bashir took power in a military coup. Bashir banned all political parties, and his hard-line stance on Islamic rule intensified the conflict between north and south. Bashir’s government repressed political opponents at home and supported radical Islamic groups, providing a haven for al-Qaeda in return for financial support.

Rebel groups united during the 1990s under the charismatic Colonel John Garang. In 1997, after military losses, the government signed peace agreements with different rebel factions.

The conflict in Darfur, which began in 2003, has killed 200,000-400,000 people, and displaced almost two million from their homes.

In 2005, a Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed by the government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army created a semi-autonomous Government of Southern Sudan. The agreement provided for a ceasefire, withdrawal of troops from Southern Sudan, and resettlement of refugees. The agreement also called for elections after four years and a referendum on independence in 2011.

In 2009, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Bashir for crimes against humanity and war crimes. This was the first time the ICC had indicted a sitting head of state. (In 2010, the ICC added genocide to the other charges.) In retaliation, the government threw 13 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) out of the country. (The ejected NGOs had provided health care, clean water, and sanitation services.) Since 2009, despite the arrest warrant, Bashir has traveled to various countries in Africa and the Middle East.

A referendum on independence was held in South Sudan in January, 2011. Nearly 98% of registered voters participating, and 99% of them voted to secede from Sudan.

In June, 2011, just before the South became independent, the Sudanese Army began a savage campaign to crush rebels in the Nuba Mountains of central Sudan. Analysts said the sudden escalation of military action by the government had two purposes: 1) to pressure the South into giving up more oil wealth after independence; and 2) to discourage other rebel groups from rising against the government.

On July 9, 2011, the Republic of South Sudan celebrated its independence. Meanwhile, non-Arab Sudanese in many parts of the country—including Darfur, Blue Nile State, Kasala, and the Nuba Mountains—continue to fight the government in Khartoum.

Last updated 2/28/12

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