Pulitzer Center Update

Modern History of Conflict in Sudan

Mark C. Hackett, Special to the Pulitzer Center

Mark is the founder and president of Operation Broken Silence. Views expressed in this guest post are not those of the Pulitzer Center.


June 30, 1989 is a date that will always be engrained in Sudanese history.

For six years leading up to this day, a civil war between the predominantly Muslim north and Christian/traditional south had put the southern provinces of Sudan in a state of emergency. The war was being fought primarily over the government's decision to circumvent the Addis Ababa Agreement, which had given southern provinces a large amount of autonomy. When the government attempted to impose new Islamic laws on the entirety of Sudan, southern troops rebelled, launching attacks along the north/south border and dragging the region, including key crossfire areas such as the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains, back into a bloody war.

Exacerbated by drought, famine, and ongoing violence, tens of thousands of Sudanese had already perished as the war continued to expand between the government and Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) rebels. When then-President Gaafar Nimeiry was ousted and a new government installed, the war continued even as negotiations between the SPLA and several political parties within Sudan. Though minimal, this was the first chance at peace since the war had started.

On June 30, 1989, then-Colonel Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir seized power in a bloodless coup and quickly began to consolidate power over the next few years. By the end of 1999, Bashir was in near total control of the government after he sent government troops and tanks to parliament and ousted Speaker of Parliament Hassan al-Turabi. At this point, however, the SPLA were scoring major victories against government troops and their proxy militias known as the People Defense Forces (PDF.) While the government remained in control of several key cities and towns across southern Sudan, SPLA forces were seizing large areas outside of the more populated cities and continued to attack transport lines and government forces that moved between cities and bases.

At the turn of the century and despite the SPLA gaining ground on the battlefield, widespread starvation continued to threaten the region. Seeing the SPLA as a force that could no longer be ignored and a government that had no desire for peace, the United Nations and the United States received permission from both the regime as well as the rebels to initiate Operation Lifeline Sudan, which witnessed tens of thousands of tons of food and emergency relief supplies delivered directly to areas affected by the war.

In 2002, the United States government's Sudan Peace Act declared that Bashir's regime was conducting a campaign of genocide, claiming upwards of 2 million lives, against the southern provinces. The international community led by the United States soon stepped in and pressured both sides into a series of long peace talks. In 2003 and 2004, substantial progress was made and the fighting began to die down. The talks finally brokered into peace on January 9, 2005 under the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which stated the following implementations were to be made:

• Southern autonomy for 6 years, at the end of which would be a referendum to decide if the southern provinces should secede from the rest of Sudan.
• Revenue from oilfields to be split equally between the north and the south
• Islamic law to remain in the north and voted on for the south
• If secession vote negative, the south and north would combine their troops into a 39,000 strong force.

The CPA also called for extensive changes to government security forces and more democratic principles leading up to national elections as well as the referendum.

The Genocide of Darfur

2005 seemed to be the final breakthrough needed to secure a lasting peace in Sudan. Even in 2003 when the peace talks began, a more optimistic approach to Sudan's future by the international community through the means of pressures and severe engagement had taken a hold of the civil war and dragged it to an extremely tense, yet somewhat peaceful solution. But even as the civil war between north and south was reaching what was thought to be the ultimate conclusion, another conflict was brewing in the little known western portion of Sudan. Today, due to the horrific events that have occurred there over the past several years, we know it as Darfur.

With the world focused on the CPA, little attention was being given to western Sudan, which had suffered marginalization and sporadic attacks under the regime for years. It should have been no surprise that the impending crisis would witness crimes comparable to that of the 1994 Rwanda genocide, especially considering the years of tension and distrust that created a chasm between the government and the ethnic-African Darfuri people. However, the international community was focused on bringing all the north and south together to end the war and paid little attention to Darfur, despite several warning signs that an impending crisis was about to become known as the first genocide of the 21st century.

The official start date of the war in Darfur was February 26, 2003, when a rebel group called the Darfur Liberation Front (DLF) attacked the military headquarters of the Jebel Marra district of Darfur. However, the real fighting did not begin until April 25, 2003, when a series of attacks by other rebels culminated into a joint operation by the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) against the government military base at al-Fashir. According to the government, by the time the rebels retreated from the area, four Antonov bombers and helicopter gun ships were destroyed, the base's commander killed, and over one hundred soldiers, pilots, and technicians killed or taken into rebel custody. The rebel attack created a major setback for the regime in the region, and gave the rebels a significant strategic advantage in the immediate area for the time being.

Due to the severity of April 25 rebel strike and the rebel groups winning skirmish after skirmish against the government forces in the area, the regime in Khartoum was temporarily without a solution. Government forces were not trained for extensive desert combat and not used to fighting off the successful hit-and-runt tactics of the rebels. The CPA was still two years away from being signed and government troops were tied up in the southern provinces and eastern Sudan. By the end of 2003, the rebels had won well over 30 battles against government forces and were soon within striking distance of major towns, provincial capitals, and were setting their gaze on the nearby oil-rich Kurdufan region of Sudan. If the rebels seized this area from the regime, they would not only be within striking distance of Khartoum, but also would have the potential opportunity to unite with the growing power of the southern rebel movement, spelling catastrophe for north Sudan as well as a certain end to the regime's power.

With increasingly slimmer options to fight two civil wars simultaneously, the regime turned to an old tactic of arming local ethnic-Arab groups loyal to the government, paying them in cash, uniforms, and weapons, then unleashing them into the conflict zone. This had been extremely effective in repelling southern attacks during the north/south civil war and created a new challenge for southern troops. As the Darfur rebels continued their successful insurgency campaign, the regime responded by using the local Darfur Arab tribes, now known as the Janjaweed, as it's key counter-insurgency force.

Over the next several months, the Janjaweed, supported by armed elements of the Sudanese regime, conducted sweeping scorched earth campaigns across Darfur. Scattered reports of mass murder, rape, and ethnic cleansing began to leak out of the region as the rebels were forced to retreat into protecting communities that were loyal to them. A small African Union peacekeeping force was deployed to the region to document the human rights abuses as well as act as a preventative force; and, in September of 2004, U.S. Marine Captain Brian Steidle became one of three U.S. military observers working with the African Union in Darfur. It was also in September of 2004 that then Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly stated that "genocide has been committed" in Darfur.

Over the next six months, Steidle would witness the horrific acts committed by the Janjaweed and recognize them as genocide. When his contract expired and his frustration on how little was being done to stop the violence came to a head, Steidle returned to the U.S. with what was, at the time, some of the only photographic evidence of the genocide being committed in Darfur. Soon after his return, Steidle met with New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof, who published the photos and story of Darfur in his column at the paper.

The results of the New York Times publishing Steidle's work immediately culminated into a call for action. A small advocacy movement known as the Save Darfur Coalition soon developed into a worldwide movement with millions of dollars behind it as Amnesty International unveiled the Eyes on Darfur website with satellite evidence, stories, and ground photos of the carnage and destruction occurring in the region. Aid organizations working in Sudan also began to receive additional private and public funding to expand their work in the region (today the aid network in Darfur is supported with nearly $2 billion). By 2006, it came into public light that U.S. President George Bush was considering a plan to send American troops into Darfur alongside NATO soldiers to halt the violence.

By this point, the conflict between the rebels and the government had metastasized into a direly complicated crisis that had the Janjaweed and rebels attacking members within their own ranks as well as each other. The rebels had begun splintering into dozens of factions soon after their initial victories across western Sudan. The regime soon stepped in and began to use this breakup for political and military advantage, playing the rebels off one another with ceasefire offers, alliances, and sending additional troops into active rebel hotspots. All parties were committing grave human rights violations, and any hopes of intervening were now impossible due to the multi-faceted insecurity that plagued the Darfur provinces.

Today, the United Nations and African Union have a hybrid peacekeeping force in Darfur (UNAMID) as well as south Sudan (UNMIS).

A Lack of Multi-tasking on the Part of the International Community

Today, certain key elements of the CPA remain unimplemented due to the fact that the international community has mismanaged dealing with the two major crisis zones of Sudan, as well as potential flashpoints for future crises such as Abyei, Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile, and the little-known Eastern Front. Eastern Sudan alone has an alarming number of government troops deployed to protect key components of the oil industry from Eastern Front rebel groups (some estimates state as many as three times the amount of government forces in Darfur).

This is in large part due to not viewing Sudan's issues from an inclusive perspective, leading to a failure at multi-tasking in crisis management and prevention in Sudan. After the CPA was signed, the world turned its gaze to Darfur. Today, Darfur remains unsolved and rampant insecurity continues to plague the region, made worse by a recent government offensive in the heart of Darfur at Jebel Marra. Meanwhile, between the north and south, several key components of the CPA including security reforms remain unimplemented.

Instead of focusing on Darfur and implementing the CPA simultaneously, the international community, primarily at the guidance of the United States, tried to tackle one crisis at a time.

Failure to Build a Free and Secure Society

Since Bashir's regime seized power in 1989, it has ultimately failed at bringing peace to Sudan. Instead of protecting Sudan's many sources of national pride, including both strong Islamic and Christian heritages, it has chosen the route of trying to force Sudan to become a purely Muslim nation, often times utilizing violent tactics to do so. This was made obvious during the civil war between the north and south, when thousands of Christians were dragged away to slavery in the far north of the country, many of them forced into a religion they never had any intention of joining.

However, the real reason the regime has failed to provide a free and secure society for all Sudanese remains a desire for power. While Bashir has used his regime to promote Islam, in both peaceful and violent ways, his creation of an Islamic authoritarian single-party state, finalized in 1993, shows the regime's desire to remain in control and not be supplanted by free and fair elections, rebellions, or army mutinies.

This is most noticeable in Darfur, which is predominantly Muslim. The regime never had a need to push the Muslim faith into the region due to Islam already playing a key role in everyday life for millions of Darfuris. The widespread atrocities committed by the government through the military and Janjaweed were carried out to protect the regime's power and control over Sudan. Bashir's regime only responded to the rebel threat in Darfur when it was certain the rebels were becoming a major threat to the government's authority.

The regime's desire for power is now evident in south Sudan as well, though it was not at first. When the civil wars between the north and south began, it was apparent that religious and cultural differences were a major factor. Today though, the regime's extensive use of arms shipments to supply different ethnic groups in the south against one another has been largely successful in keeping much of the region in a state of humanitarian crisis. At first, this could appear to be a move to keep the south weaker than the regime. However, a series of fast-approaching key CPA deadlines, requirements, and events help explain the reason behind the regime's most recent attempts to maintain its strong position.

Manipulated National Elections Amid a Brewing Catastrophe

The destabilization campaign of the south coupled with the upswing of the regime's military operations in Darfur comes at what could become the bloodiest addition to Sudan's history. With national elections slated for mid-April, this is Bashir's chance to be validated as a democratically elected leader. Under normal election and international circumstances, this would be acceptable.

However, Bashir has an international arrest warrant levied against him by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes committed in Darfur. On top of this, the court is reconsidering adding charges of genocide to the warrant. There is also sufficient evidence indicating that the recent national census was heavily manipulated by the regime, with tens of thousands of Darfur refugees and IDPs not registered. The ballots, originally to be printed in a country neutral to the Sudan crises, instead are being printed in Khartoum, with the south stating that some of the ballots have already been publicly distributed in pro-government areas. Rampant insecurity in Darfur and parts of the southern provinces will no doubt keep tens of thousands of refugees and IDPs away from the polls. Political repression against opposition groups remains high, especially for northern opposition parties. Also, certain southern political elements under the SPLA's political arm have reportedly oppressed opposition at the local levels of national elections.

Besides the deep-running manipulation of the electoral process on the government's part, the rampant insecurity in Darfur is highly unfriendly towards free and fair elections. Apart the insecurity, government registration of Darfuris was clearly manipulated by bribing local officials, denying people sufficient time to register, and working heavily in remote areas to register groups loyal to the government. These disturbing actions have been further added to by many IDPs and refugees refusing to register altogether, due to lack of trust in the regime.

The obvious consequences of actions such as these for Sudan as a whole are obvious, especially in Darfur. The regions rebels took up arms in 2003 due to marginalization, and further marginalizing Darfuris will undoubtedly make the situation in Darfur additionally dire. The world could witness a renewed effort on the part of Darfuris everywhere, including the international diaspora, to support the rebels in hopes of getting their land, and through this, their lives back. From the Jewish revolts against the Romans to the present day, history is full of examples of what happens when a government further marginalizes an already marginalized people group.

These manipulated elections come with the high risk of leading Sudan back into a state of full-scale civil war, whether it be between north and south, Darfur and Khartoum, or both. This potential threat for war could come with a price tag much higher than the 2.5 million that have perished in the south and in Darfur over the past several years. Even if war is averted, there is still the referendum on southern independence soon afterwards, which carries another high risk of war with it due to the seemingly increasing desire of southerners to withdraw from the rest of Sudan.

Further compounding the consequences of sham national elections, several opposition candidates have withdrawn from the electoral process. While Bashir would have won regardless, the volunteer withdrawal of so many candidates leaves the few remaining opponents of Bashir with zero hopes of even posing a minor challenge to his regime. Even if elections were free and fair, the lack of any competitive challenge created by so many candidates refusing to participate due to the manipulation leaves Bashir as the only serious contestant. To say these elections are free and fair would be similar to saying that the regime is not guilty of mass atrocities.


The conclusions of Operation Broken Silence are that Sudan is in no shape for free and fair elections. Rampant insecurity in Darfur, a manipulated electoral process, and the withdrawal of candidates should be major warning signs for the international community. The United States must withdraw the $95 million it has pumped into the electoral process, condemn the regime in Khartoum for manipulating national elections and for the recent military campaign in Jebel Marra, and immediately work with key international partners, including the United Nations, to delay elections. Upon delaying elections, Operation Broken Silence believes the international community must

• push through to the full implementation of the CPA, which would create a safer environment for free and fair elections
• ensure that the census is adjusted appropriately to accurately reflect that all parts of Sudan have a say in the elections
• provide full opportunities to Darfuri IDPs and refugees to vote in a safe and secure environment in which they will not be threatened, bullied, or bribed to vote a certain way
• reprint the ballots in a neutral nation that is supportive of neither side in any of Sudan's crises
• fully implement the ICC's arrest warrant against Bashir
• engage all sides in a proactive manner, especially in Darfur, to bring peaceful solutions to the ongoing conflicts
• begin the process of bringing to justice those that have perpetrated serious human right's abuses and war crimes in all of Sudan's crises zones.

Currently, Sudan is running a high risk of a return to civil war and potentially genocide due to the political situation and insecurity issues challenging both the south and Darfur. By acting proactively now, the international community can stave off impending disaster, potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives, and began to walk in partnership with Sudan towards a safe, secure, and free society that cherishes the multi-cultured, ethnic, and religious heritage of the entire nation.