Africa’s longest war, between northern and southern Sudan, lasted from 1955 to 2005 (with a shaky pause of eleven years) and claimed the lives of up to two million people. In 2011, the country was divided into Sudan and South Sudan after the South Sudanese voted to form an independent state. However, many disputes remain to be resolved and from time to time the risk of a new war between the countries has been imminent. In both countries, difficult internal conflicts are taking place at the same time.
The 2005 peace agreement stipulated that the people of the south, after six years, would be allowed to decide whether they wanted to form their own state or continue to be part of Sudan. Between 2005 and 2011, Sudan was a federation between North and South.
In the January 2011 referendum, residents of the south by a large majority said yes to independence. The new state of South Sudan was declared in July of that year, despite many unresolved disputes over the division of the country.
The unresolved issues quickly became acute, in particular the unclear rules on oil extraction, on which both countries depended. Most of the oil wells were in South Sudan, but the oil pipelines ran through Sudan, to the only shipping port in the Red Sea.
In early 2012, a new war was imminent, before the UN Security Council succeeded in forcing both countries to withdraw the troops they had gathered at the border. The Security Council also urged them to start negotiating the dispute: the exact demarcation and how much South Sudan would pay for oil shipments through Sudan.
After a few months, they agreed on several points, but not on the demarcation. Living up to the agreements proved difficult, and peace is not guaranteed.
At the same time, conflicts are ongoing within Sudan, including in the Darfur region in the west. In South Sudan, civil war broke out in 2013, partly as a result of a power struggle within the government, partly due to conflicts between the country’s two dominant ethnic groups, Dinka and Nuer.
It was not until 2015 that a peace agreement was entered into and it took until the spring of 2016 before a coalition government could take office. However, the joint government soon broke down and during the summer, fighting broke out both in the capital Juba and in the countryside, where the violence is still ongoing.
The conflict between north and south
The civil war in Sudan was fought between Arabs in the north and black peoples in the south. It lasted from 1955 to 2005, with a break of eleven years with an uncertain peace.
However, it can be said that the differences between northern and southern Sudan have existed since the dawn of history and are based on the slave trade that various rulers in the north conducted among black Africans for centuries.
In the early 20th century, when British colonizers took control of Sudan, slavery was banned, but in the South, mistrust of the new rulers remained strong, although they spoke English instead of Arabic. The British had limited knowledge of the cultures and ways of life of the South Sudanese peoples and were most interested in how the area could be used economically.
Plans in the 1930’s to build a canal in the Jonglei region, to direct more water to cotton plantations in northern Sudan and Egypt, met with so much opposition that the project was shelved.
The British did not devote much resources to developing southern Sudan. The area was ruled in principle completely separate from northern Sudan according to the classical colonial principle of divide and rule to weaken the resistance. Thus, in practice, there were two different countries at different levels of development that would coexist within common borders as independence approached after the Second World War.
When the people of the south did not get through the demand for autonomy, they took up arms against the regime in the north in 1955, a year before Sudan became independent.
The conflict has been partly ethnically based: Arabs against black Africans, partly religious: Muslims against animists and Christians. But like most conflicts in Africa, it has mainly been about natural resources: water, oil and the right to land and pastures.
Great ethnic mix
In the Nile Valley in northern Sudan live Nubians and Arabs, by the Red Sea in the east live Beja, related to the Somalis, and on the Darfur Plateau in the west live black Nilo-Saharan peoples live with Arabs. Most North Sudanese are Muslims. Arabs may make up only half the population, but the Arab clans around Khartoum dominate politically, economically and culturally.
South Sudan belongs to black sub-Saharan Africa. There live Nilotic, usually herding people like Dinka and Nuer. The majority practice traditional African religions, but educated South Sudanese are usually Christians.
The first round of civil war lasted until 1972, when southern Sudan was promised internal self-government. But it soon began to erode and discontent increased again. In 1983, war broke out again. Now the people of the south were protesting above all against the fact that the government, in cooperation with Egypt, had resumed the British plans for a canal construction.
The Jonglei Canal was intended to ditch the Suddområdet’s marshes to increase the Nile’s water flow to the north. As little as the British, the Sudanese government cared about the consequences for the environment and the local population.
Canal construction was halted after being attacked by a newly formed guerrilla, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), whose political branch was called the SPLM. Both had been formed by John Garang, a Christian member of the Dinka ethnic group.
Another reason for the resumption of the war was that the then president Gaafar Numeiri had Islamic Sharia law introduced. Although he promised that sharia would only apply to Muslims, in the south it was not trusted.