6 - History: déjà vu? Patterns of power

Southern Sudan - where most of the oil is - has long been a zone of extraction rather than of development. In fact, since the resurgence of civil war in the last two decades it has gone backwards in terms of development and social provision.

Sudan's mineral wealth - oil in Southern Sudan and Southern Kordofan, as well as gold in the Red Sea Hills and chromium in the Ingessana Hills, is monopolized by central government for its own ends. Bargaining between the various political elites - of the regions and the centre -sometimes obscures this one-way flow of wealth.

Struggles over environmental resources - land and water as well as minerals - drive the war at a deeper level than questions of religion.

For a long time oil stirred strikingly little popular interest in Sudan, except as a commodity to queue for. Soon after oil was discovered in 1979 in President Jaafar Nimeiri's reign, a government newspaper cartoon ran: "Oil? Fine, but where will we get the barrels?"


How Khartoum's newspapers showed it: Jaafar Nimeiri (centre), the ageing Sudanese ruler in whose era oil was first discovered, was persuaded to return from exile in 1999. He was photographed in May 1999 with the current regime's top men (Hassan al-Turabi, left, and Omar al-Bashir, right) with their hands on a valve wheel, turning on the oil he had once heralded.

The "oil card" has been played repeatedly to defuse Sudan's political and economic crises, but with little connection with real prospects. Under the dictatorships of Nimeiri (1969-1985) and Bashir (1989 to date), it has been characterised by media hype and fanfare.

Nimeiri staged massive celebrations in 1983 to mark what he claimed was the beginning of Sudan's oil-exporting age. In 1994 and in 1996 Omar al-Bashir announced that Sudan had become one of the major oil-exporting countries. In contrast, the oil issue hardly featured in the media during the democratic period (1985-1989) between the two dictators.

Now the National Islamic Front government is presenting oil as a national asset that the Sudanese people must defend with their lives, but the popular suspicion prevails that it intends to fill its own coffers before those of the nation. Their belief is rooted in history...
For most of the 19th century Sudan was an outpost of the Turco-Egyptian empire. Its inland boundaries were indistinct: Southern Sudan was continuously subjected to raids for slaves and other commodities such as ivory and ostrich feathers. The vast southern and western territory was regarded by the Arabic-speaking Muslims of the Nile Valley around Khartoum as Dar al-Harib, or the place of war, in contrast to their civilised Dar as-Salaam, or place of peace. This perception, and its blend of disengagement and ownership, continues to the present day. It has parallels with Christian history, and is linked to the Northern Sudanese tendency to identify with the Arab world rather than Africa. The commodities have changed to some extent. The elephants and ostriches, for example, have been virtually wiped out in the civil war. And although human slavery has flared up at the end of the 20th century, it is nowhere near the scale of the old trade, having been superseded by mass low-paid agricultural labour. Fertile land, water, and now oil are the premium commodities.
 Late 19th century
A short-lived period of independence known as the Mahdiyya followed the Sudanese Mahdi's siege of Khartoum and defeat of the British General Gordon, who had attempted reforms as the envoy of Egypt, including the abolition of slavery in Sudan. When British forces led by Kitchener "reconquered" Sudan, Britain began a period of joint condominium rule with Egypt in which the south and west were "pacified" at the dawn of the 20th century. Sultan Ali Dinar of Darfur held out until 1916.
 Early 20th century
In the 1920s and 1930s the British administration closed off southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan, in a policy of separate development where English and Christianity were encouraged in contrast with the Arabic and Islam of the north. Ostensibly introduced to eliminate slavery and other exploitation, this policy isolated the communities of the south from outside trade at a time of rapid development in the north, leading to increased inequality. After the Second World War, as independence loomed and the closed districts reopened, southerners and Nuba were unprepared for the political bargaining that followed. Options for linking Southern Sudan with Uganda were dropped in favour of the status quo - a "united" Sudan that had never truly been united, except in the relationship of master and slave.
 1940s -1956
In the run-up to Sudan's independence in 1956, the civil service and administration were placed increasingly in Sudanese hands - but almost entirely Northern Sudanese, as educated Southerners were extremely rare and completely lacking in political clout. The British failure to ensure equity for the south had disastrous consequences. Feeling cheated and aggrieved, separatist Southerners began an initially low-intensity civil war aimed at establishing an independent South.
 1956-69 Civil War / Independence
Sudan's first civilian Prime Minister, Ismail al-Azhari, lasted just two years after independence. 1958 saw the first military coup. A pattern of alternating chaotic civilian governments and military regimes was established when the first dictator, General Abboud, confident of a military solution, escalated the civil war in the early 1960s but was brought down by a civilian uprising in October 1964. The war continued through five years of haphazard civilian rule dominated by arguments between Islamic sectarian parties, during which Sadiq al-Mahdi won and lost the position of Prime Minister while still in his early thirties.

When Colonel Jaafar Nimeiri seized power in May 1969 he was regarded as relatively progressive and secular, accepted by desperate southerners as well as northerners because of his no-nonsense military background. Nimeiri achieved what the civilians did not: a peace agreement was signed in Addis Ababa in 1972, guaranteeing autonomy for the south.

The 1972 agreement set out regional self-rule and the incorporation of the rebel Anya-Nya ("snake poison") forces into the Sudanese Army. Over a million war-displaced Sudanese returned home, although some low-level insecurity continued, led by Anya-Nya fighters unwilling to be assimilated into the regular army, who called themselves "Anya-Nya Two".


Nimeiri presided over a period in which Sudan was regarded first as a potential agricultural breadbasket for the Arab world, and then as a source of oil wealth for the first time. The hasty loans made then to Sudan's ruling elite remain unpaid a quarter of a century later.

"There was a time - it is hard to believe now - when ... Sudan was regarded as economically very promising, and there was talk about it becoming the bread basket of something, the world, Africa, the Middle East… There is an enormous amount of fertile land and lots of water, and I suspect it was at that time that these loans were made…" (Stanley Fischer, International Monetary Fund, 12 September 1999)

However, the breadbasket vision crumbled as investors saw their projects mired in bureaucracy or foundering in their own impracticality: few survived in recognisable form. The impact of the 1970s OPEC oil price shocks on the Sudanese economy was equally damaging, and Sudan went from "breadbasket" to economic "basket-case" in the following decade.

7- Doing business