Pursuing Peace in Sudan

Members of the SPLM-N riding in a technical. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Sudan is in the midst of a political transition that many hope will fulfill the demands of the nation’s people for civilian government. Three decades of authoritarian rule under Omar al-Bashir, which sowed widespread popular distrust in the state and fueled longstanding social, economic, and political grievances between communities, has ended. After months of sustained protests, a coup brought an end to Bashir’s government on April 11, 2019. Further protests against military rule eventually pressured the junta to strike a deal with civilian leaders in August 2019, establishing a roadmap for a transitional period. Now, one of the transitional government’s top priorities is making peace with different rebel movements in Darfur and southern Sudan. Although varied and deep historical grievances pose significant challenges to peace, the Sudanese people have proven committed to establishing it.

On October 14, 2019, Sudan’s transitional government began negotiations with rebel groups to end years of civil war.[i] The Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) are two rebel groups that represent historically marginalized communities that have been denied access to the state in independent Sudan. In addition to this oppression, a history of stalled negotiations, broken promises, and widespread violence has sown deep distrust in the state. Overcoming this distrust and providing these communities with access to the state will be critical to any negotiation and the only way to ensure durable peace and stability in Sudan.

The SPLM-N’s grievances are primarily defined along Sudan’s North-South divide. British colonial rule entrenched political and economic imbalances between the Muslim, Arab north and the non-Muslim, non-Arab south.[ii]  Leading up to independence, disagreements over how to govern indicated clear North-South divisions. Northern political leaders wanted to Arabize and Islamize the south, which in turn campaigned for a federalist system.[iii] This disagreement led to the first Sudanese civil war, beginning in 1955 and ending with the signing of the Addis Ababa Agreement in 1972.

Throughout the first Sudanese civil war, northern elites engaged in a process of Arabization and Islamization of the south and of non-Arab communities throughout the country.[iv] While the Addis Ababa Agreement granted the south autonomy, in 1983 President Gaafar Nimeiry declared Sudan an Islamic state and instituted a strict set of Islamic laws that further alienated non-Muslims.[v] In response, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and Army (SPLM/A), led by Joseph Garang, launched a revolution.[vi] The ensuing conflict lasted 22 years and resulted in further fractures within society. In 1989, Omar Bashir secured the presidency in a coup and preceded to harden the state’s Islamist legal system. Civil war was a near constant during this time, with multiple rebel groups taking up arms against the government and each other.[vii]

The scale of violence during this war was immense, causing an estimated two million casualties and four million displacements.[viii] In 2005, after several years of failed negotiations, Bashir and his National Congress Party (NCP) finally reached a settlement with southern rebels to end the second civil war. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement granted the south regional semi-autonomy, codified a system of power sharing between the SPLM/A and NCP, established a method for splitting oil revenues, and promised a self-determination referendum for the south.[ix]

In the January 2011 referendum which followed, 98.8 percent of southerners voted in favor of independence.[x] Later that same year, the state of South Sudan was established and the SPLM became its ruling party. However, elements of the SPLM in the provinces of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, which remained part of Sudan, established the SPLM-N to continue their opposition to the Bashir government.

Elsewhere in Sudan, Bashir’s regime not only continued the Arabization and Islamization policies of his predecessors but also directed and allowed severe violence against civilians. In 2003, opposing the state’s Arabization policies, the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebelled in Darfur. In response, government forces known as the janjaweed engaged in sustained campaigns of atrocities against the non-Arab Fur, Zaghawa, and Masalit populations of Darfur.[xi] From 2003 to 2005, the violence resulted in an estimated 200,000 civilian deaths. Bashir is charged by the International Criminal Court with three counts of genocide, among various other counts, for his role in these events.[xii]

In 2011, the JEM, SPLM/A, and SPLM-N established an alliance called the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF). Although these groups committed to overthrowing the Bashir regime and succeeded in taking and holding territory,[xiii] they also prioritized negotiations with the state. However, Bashir’s government neglected the group’s calls for collective peace talks and instead pursued separate negotiations in Darfur and South Kordofan.[xiv]

Today, Sudan’s rebel groups remain on the peripheries. Their historical marginalization and resulting distrust in the state will certainly create skepticism among these groups over negotiations and any agreement. At the same time, there are significant fractures within the rebel movements, and achieving compromises will thus prove challenging. For example, the SPLM-N is split between two competing factions, one led by Abdelaziz al-Hilu and the other led by Malik Agar. For now, both sides claim they are willing to coordinate in negotiations with the government.[xv] There is the potential for such cooperation to fall apart if negotiations favor one side. Yet, the transitionary government’s mandate to establish peace provides a unique moment of potential for a lasting peace.

If an agreement that has genuine consensus support from Sudan’s rebel groups can be reached, the real test for the new government will begin. After decades of targeting communities and denying access to the state, convincing marginalized groups that the government is sincere and dedicated to peace will require years of faithful implementation. This will be a fragile process. However, it is promising that the August 2019 constitutional declaration called for the government to make peace with these groups early in its transition. Incorporating these communities into the transition will hopefully grant them not only access to the new government but also a role in its founding. Past settlements failed to adequately incorporate non-Arabs and non-Muslims into state structures, instead relying on violence and oppression to foster an Islamist-Arab national identity. By prioritizing peace and incorporation of these groups, the protest movement that brought down the Bashir regime seems keen not to repeat this pattern of oppression and marginalization that fueled decades of violence.


[i] Denis Dumo and Katharine Houreld, “Sudan government and rebels meet for peace talks in Juba,” Reuters, October 14, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-sudan-politics/sudan-government-and-rebels-meet-for-peace-talks-in-juba-idUSKBN1WT1OC.

[ii] Scott Straus, Making and Unmaking Nations: War, Leadership, and Genocide in Modern Africa (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2015), 239.

[iii] Douglas H. Johnson, The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars: Old Wars and New Wars (Rochester, NY: Boydell and Brewer, 2016), 27.

[iv] Straus, 240-41.

[v] “Background: Decades of north-south conflict,” Al Jazeera, July 02, 2011, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/spotlight/southsudanindependence/2011/07/20117217141500611.html.

[vi] Straus, 245.

[vii] Johnson, 127.

[viii] Abdel Ghaffar M. Ahmed, “Multiple Complexity and Prospects for Reconciliation and Unity: Sudan,” in Alfred Nhema and Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, eds., The Roots of African Conflicts: The Causes and Costs (Athens: Ohio University Press), 75.

[ix] John Campbell, “Ten Years Later: Taking Stock of Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement,” Council on Foreign Relations, January 9, 2015, https://www.cfr.org/blog/ten-years-later-taking-stock-sudans-comprehensive-peace-agreement.

[x] Jeffrey Gettleman, “After Years of Struggle, South Sudan Becomes a New Nation,” The New York Times, July 9, 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/10/world/africa/10sudan.html.

[xi] Robert J. Griffiths, U.S. Security Cooperation with Africa: Political and Policy Challenges (New York: Routledge, 2016), 50.

[xii] “Al-Bashir Case,” International Criminal Court, accessed September 22, 2019, https://www.icc-cpi.int/darfur/albashir/Pages/default.aspx.

[xiii] Andrew McCuthen, The Sudan Revolutionary Front: Its Formation and Development (Geneva: Small Arms Survey, 2014), 19-30.

[xiv] Ibid., 35.

[xv] “SPLM-N Agar forms peace negotiating team, says ready to coordinate with al-Hilu group,” Sudan Tribune, September 15, 2019, http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article68120.

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