Causes of Conflict in Sudan

The causes for the conflict in Sudan are various and their roots are steeped in history. The formation of the modern Sudan may be viewed as partly responsible for the current conflict.

Sudan is a collection of diverse groups of differing ethnic origins and cultural affiliations. The main causes may be classified as follows:

Through out the history of the country, which was unified in its current forms by the Turkish invaders, the questions of religion and identity remained paramount and served to expose the contrast between the Arabicised Muslim North and the rest of the country which is purely African.

The other factors played different roles in the conflict and they were as evident within the North itself and not only related to the North – South divide.

The diverse groups inhabiting the North are divided by ethnicity, tribalism, economic disparities, competition for resources, and the role played by the traditional elite. What tended to unite the North are the Islamic religion and the aspiration to join the Northern and Eastern Arab neighbours.

With Sudan being a poor country with many economic difficulties, the above factors interact in a very complex manner and demarcation lines between them tended to be blurred.

A full and comprehensive study of the detailed causes is beyond the purpose of this booklet and a condensed version is given in the following sections.

The question of Ethnicity, Identity, and Racism

Tribal labelling is a dangerous tool for describing and analysing conflict. The danger is because:

However, tribal labels cannot be avoided in explanations of conflicts in Sudan. As conflicts deepened, tribal labelling and tribal identities became an important factor in fuelling further conflicts. We therefore offer the following table as a means of access to many of the discussions introduced in this Guide. It is grossly simplified and not comprehensive: it must be used bearing in mind that the real situation is very much more complicated.
Some Tribal Groups in Sudan

(This table is for rough guidance only.)

Tribe or

tribal group

Characteristic way of life Characteristic location North/ South Arab identity
Nubians Crops Northern area North Medium-high
Ja’aliyin Crops Northern area North High
Shayqiyya Crops Northern area North High
Rufaa Crops Gezira/Blue Nile North High
Kababish Sheep, camels, crops N. Kordofan North High
Baggara Cattle, crops S. Kordofan & S. Darfur North Medium-high
Fellata Crops see note North Medium
Beja Camels, crops Red Sea North Medium-high
Fur Crops Central Darfur North Medium
Zaghawa Cattle, crops N. Darfur North Medium
Masalit Cattle, crops Central Darfur North Medium
Nuba Crops, livestock S. Kordofan North Medium-low
Ingessana Crops S.Blue Nile North Medium-low
Dinka (Jieng) Cattle, crops, fish Upper Nile and Bahr el-Ghazal South Low
Nuer Cattle, crops, fish Upper Nile South Low
Shilluk (Chollo) Crops, fish N. Upper Nile  South Low
Murle Cattle, crops S. Upper Nile South Low
Toposa Cattle, crops E. Equatoria South Low
Bari Crops E. Equatoria South Low
Lotuho Cattle, crops E. Equatoria South Low
Didinga Crops, cattle E. Equatoria South Low
Kakwa Crops S. Central Equatoria South Low
Mandari Cattle, crops N. Central Equatoria South  Low
Madi/Moro Crops, cattle Central Equatoria South Low
Azande Crops W. Equatoria South Low
Luwo Crops Bahr el Ghazal South Low
Bongo Crops S. Bahr el Ghazal South Low
Fertit Crops W. Bahr el Ghazal South Medium-low

Arab Identity

Being an Arab in Sudan – as with other identities – is partly subjective. It is to do with both the way that people want to label themselves and the way that others want to label them. Differences of viewpoint mean that Arab identity is not always clear-cut as it is possible to talk about degrees of Arabness.

The traditional criterion for Arab identity in Sudan has been biological descent (in the male line) from forbears who lived in Arabia. This approach to identity was backed up by the formal tracing of genealogies back to famous Arabs; especially ones who lived around the time of the Prophet Mohamed. This criterion is objective in principle. The problem is that the process of demonstrating such a lineage over more than a thousand years cannot, in practice, be fully objective. Often such genealogies have seemed to be mythological in character; the important thing was perhaps that a person or group had a strong enough sense of identity to assert the claim and have it widely recognised. There appears to have been a process whereby individuals and groups have increasingly adopted Arabic language and culture and later constructed an Arab genealogy.

Arab genealogies are more credible for some than for others. The Ja’aliyin, for instance, have a better Arab pedigree than the Baggara. The Fur, meanwhile, have long been considered non-Arab; but nowadays many of them would be offended to be classified as such.

Partly in response to such problems, some Arab politicians and intellectuals such as Sadiq al-Mahdi (much of whose support in the Umma party comes from the Baggara and others in western Sudan) have suggested that the real criterion of Arab identity is simply the adoption of Arabic language and culture while others tried to equate being Arab to the adoption of the Islamic religion. The later is a dangerous definition which is at odd with the teachings of Islam. Attempts by some groups within the followers of Islam to achieve dominant or elite positions, led to attempts to claim superiority for the Arabs by the virute that Quran –the holy book- was revealed in Arabic.

Whichever criteria is used, it seems that some people and groups are liable to be seen as more Arab than others.

"Arabs" or "Riverain Elites" as the Ruling Group

A popular characterisation of the ruling group in Sudan (especially among Southerners) is, simply, "the Arabs". However, Arab identity is not a simple matter as mentioned earlier and degrees of Arabness exist among the inhabitants of the Arabized North.

The most highly Arab people tend to be those from groups that are settled as dominant populations along the Nile, especially north of Khartoum, and along the Blue and White Niles as far as Sennar and Kosti. Along with slightly less Arabized people in that area, such as the Nubians, they were well-placed to benefit from trade with Egypt and beyond; they formed the bulk of the Sudanese urban elite in the three towns of Khartoum during colonial rule; benefited from the changes introduced by the Turks -then the British- such as education and the instruments of the modern state, and they led the political agitation for Independence. In this way, Sudanese "nationalism" was led by people who can be grouped under the label of "riverain elites" which tended to classify themselves as Arabs. These elites, it is argued, have continued to dominate politics and commercial activity.

Are non-Arabs excluded from control of the State? Since Independence, no non-Arab has held the post of President or First Vice-President. Non-Arabs have often been ministers, seldom if ever in positions where they could act independently without imminent risk of dismissal by Arabs above them. Defenders of the establishment may argue that the preponderance of Arab leaders is an accident of history; for centuries non-Arabs have unfortunately had less access to education, so that they have not yet produced many people able to win the highest office on merit.

Other people have argued that even the subordinate presence of non-Arabs in government is superficial. In this view, the Ruling Group buys the support of non-Arab politicians in exchange for powers and resources that help the kith and kin of those politicians, rather than benefiting the wider group that the politicians are supposed to represent. Hence (the argument goes) non-Arabs are not effectively represented in the State.

This argument is weakened by the observation that several current politicians thought to be near the heart of power in GOS – for instance, Ali el Hag Mohamed - are not Arabs (at least not in the strict sense). Conversely, a significant number of Arabs have joined the radical opposition over the years.

To say that "Arabs" are the ruling group, then, is too simple. Political and economic power may be focussed more narrowly on "riverain elites"; but the questions must then be asked: "Who exactly are these riverain elites, and how do they work?". We have not seen a detailed answer to these questions. What can be said here is that Arabism seems to function (as a method of labelling and an ideology) in such a way as to reinforce social stratification and make it harder for members of some ethnic groups to get wealth and power.

Sudan’s Constitution, as well as international instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, say that people are equal in rights and equal before the law, without distinction because of race, sex or religion. But there is a gulf between declarations of rights, and actual practice. Discrimination undoubtedly occurs in Sudan (as in many other countries), both in government and the general population. More study probably needs to be done on the ways in which this occurs.

Discrimination may be a very calculated action to serve the interests of one party or another. But it is often motivated or reinforced by prejudice; a psychological inability to evaluate people fairly, because of stereotypes about the group to which they belong. Prejudice is more deep-rooted than most people realise. It is embedded in our ideas of normality and the very language that we use to describe others. Everyone is prejudiced to some extent; a continual (and disturbing) effort is needed to see others more truly. In Sudan the effects of prejudice sometimes appear to be manifested severely in racism and tribalism. As with discrimination, more work should be done to analyse the ways in which prejudice reveals itself in Sudan.

[Simone [IWI]p.78 "Instead of the undecideability of Sudanese identity inserting itself as a productive force in national life, it is engineered as a problem that must be resolved, a problem on which the existence of the bulk of political life is dependent. Essential differences are framed as oppositions and obstructions that must be simultaneously 'cultivated' and suppressed in order for the political game to continue. What also ensues is a gradual willingness to torture and wound - all major sectors in Sudan today have demonstrated a callous and cynical attitude toward basic human rights."]

A complicating factor is the way Arabs in general treat Sudanese. Arabs never accepted Sudanese as their equals and the word ‘Sudani’ is normally interpreted as a slave. This sense of superiority caused a domino effect and as result Northerners tended to search for another group to look down upon.

"The Northerners’ sense of social prestige – in the face of discrimination from ‘purer’ Arabs in Egypt and the Gulf – is defended by looking down upon the ethnic groups further south and west"

It must be stated that many attempts were made by successive governments to remove statues and regulations which tended to benefit one tribal group or another from public life. The current regime worked to shift the balance towards an Islamic identity. Despite all the efforts, latent racism remains endemic in Sudan. Coupled with lack of education and the absence of a highly developed society and system of government, many politicians, officials and well meaning average Sudanese, kept racism alive while being oblivious to the actions and their consequences. The highly publicised operations of clearing the streets of Khartoum from homeless people during the early eighties became an exercise in ejecting dark coloured people from the capital with untold consequences. After the overthrow of Nimieri, the same actions continued, albeit being low profile and in the name of security.

More importantly, there are strong indications that the present government has looked for non-Arab supporters as a matter of policy. In many areas, the previously oppressed Fellata people (thought to be descended from West African pilgrims) have been empowered in relation to Arab communities. Whether this policy is open to a real reduction of Arab dominance in central government is less clear.

Islam and State in Sudan

The question of religion and its relation to the state played a large part in the conflict in Sudan since independence but became the dominant and most sticking point since September 1983. Although the current round of war did not start primarily on the question of religion, but Nimeiri’s imposition of Sharia transformed the conflict into an argument where religion was the main issue. All attempts to achieve reconciliation foundered on the rock of religion.

Arabic language and customs, and Muslim religion, have come into the area of present-day Sudan and spread southwards since the seventh century. Some people see this as the basic long-term dynamic of conflict in Sudan. However, the process was one of a spreading culture, not simply the conquest of one group by another.

The most important long-term factor has been domination of the trade routes to the Arab world and the Mediterranean. The main routes ran along the Nile to Egypt, and across the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsular. Economic and technological advance was stronger on the northern side where there were links to the wider process of development in Europe and Asia. The people in the best position to take advantage of access to these trade routes were those who shared Arabic language and culture, including Islam. These were:

Much of the process was slow and peaceful. Present day southern Sudan remained outside this process because of remoteness and the fact that none of the existing kingdoms extended southward.

By the early nineteenth century, the local rulers of the most important political units in northern Sudan – Funj (centred on Sennar), Keira (Darfur area), and Suakin (Red Sea littoral) - had adopted Islam and aspects of Arabic culture. In the 1820s, the former Funj territories were conquered by Muhammad Ali the ruler of Egypt. Up to this time, the lands south of parallel 10ºN were hardly penetrated by outsiders from the north. However, in 1840, a route was pioneered up the Nile. This route (which was ended by the rapids south of Gondokoro near present-day Juba) helped Egypt to annex the area now known as Southern Sudan. Meanwhile Egypt also took control of the Red Sea coast and Darfur. The approximate boundaries of today’s Sudan were thus established.

[Insert Map showing: main trade routes, Nile, Sennar, Darfur (approx), Suakin, Gondokoro, Khartoum, the Sudd, ref. map in Holt and Daly]

Although ruling in the name of Islam and the Khalifa, the Turks showed all the brutality, corruption and blundering of an occupying force and their reign resulted in widespread malcontent.

In addition, the attempts to abolish the system of slavery, which was prevalent in the country, made some beneficiaries ready to help finance the ejection of the Turco-Egyptian invaders.

A pious boat builder from Dongola moved to Aba Island on the White Nile and started a religiously based movement against the "corruption" of the Turks and Ulema who supported them. Control of the Sudan was taken from Egypt in the 1880s, by the religiously based movement Mohammed Ahmed Abdullahi, the Mahdi, established. An Islamic state was promulgated in most of the current day northern Sudan. But from 1896 the country was re-conquered under the supervision of Britain. Britain and Egypt announced a Condominium, i.e. joint rule, in 1899. Britain was the dominant partner.

The British steered a careful course during their stay in Sudan. Although they introduced secular education in the country, they continued to court religious leaders and in effect used them as an instrument of control and a helping hand to ensure that revolutionary and communist ideas were fought using religion.

Educated northern Sudanese who started movements for independence found it necessary to enlist the patronage of the leaders of the two main Islamic movements in Sudan: al-Insar and al-Khatmia. British mischief making caused the two leaders to be indispensable for the newly created elite as they lacked the means and the language to address the uneducated masses whose concerns were far removed from the septic atmosphere of Gordon Memorial College. As a result, the two main political parties that can claim popular mandate remain politically based and beholden to the aspiration of their supporting sects and the whims of their leaders up to this day.

After independence in 1956, some political leaders tried to break the stranglehold –especially on the unionist side- but the scheming of the sect leaders made it impossible for them to gain seats in the rural areas. Combining religious and political power was not something to be given away in a system that is not democratic by its nature.

The military government which took power in 1958 tried to use Islamic conversion as means to unify the country and end the war but its efforts were disastrous and resulted in a more violent conflict. The war caused its demise and ironically its overthrow propelled Hassan al-Turabi into prominence.

The democratically elected governments, which ruled between 1964 and 1969, failed to address the question of religion in Sudan and as a result the war continued unabated.

In 1969 a left supported group of military officers came to power in Sudan. Their obvious secular stance helped bring about the Addis Ababa agreement that resulted in the cessation of hostilities and a fragile peace policed by an undemocratic regime was established.

The 1973 Constitution (Sudan’s first new constitution after Independence) said "Islamic Law and Custom shall be the main sources of legislation" (Art. 9). But it purported to guaranteed equality to followers of all beliefs, and did not explicitly say that Islam was the state religion. This state proved to be satisfactory for Southerners despite the obvious fudge.

In September 1983 Nimeiri’s government replaced the secular penal code with a set of laws derived from Islam. There were celebrations in Khartoum, but the measure was criticized by many. It was attacked not only by secularists but also by religious Muslims who thought that Islamic Law had been misinterpreted or misused. On 21st August 1986 Prime Minister Sadiq al Mahdi suspended the application of some aspects of the "September Laws". However, under his premiership, a revised version was developed by Hassan al Turabi to replace them. In February 1991 the military government introduced a new Islamic penal code which was close to Turabi’s version.

Northern political leaders have sometimes stated that specifically Islamic constitution and law is not a religious necessity for Muslims. But they have found it politically difficult to resist the calls for them.

The Sharia Question in National Peace Talks

The question of Islamic Law has been a stumbling-block in all negotiations between the GOS and SPLM/A about the character of the state.

Why is this gulf so hard to bridge?

Many Northerners hold that Sudan must be designated an Islamic state, with Islam as the main source of legislation. The main argument for this is that the majority of the citizens are Muslims and that Muslims cannot accept secularism. Another argument (articulated, for instance by Sadiq al-Mahdi on behalf of the Umma Party in 1985) is that a common religion is essential in the formation of a nation state, and that this can emerge peacefully if it is not obstructed. The NIF has asserted that sharia is closer than any other legal system to the African cultural heritage.

The SPLM/A has repeatedly said that it cannot accept any official role for sharia in the law of Sudan. Some widely-promoted interpretations of sharia still conflict sharply with modern conceptions of human rights and civil liberties. A variety of restrictions is placed on women. In Islamic courts the status of women and non-Muslim men (for instance in the weight given to their testimony) is to be less than that of Muslim men. Non-Muslims are not allowed to take part in the politics of an Islamic state or hold a position of authority above any Muslim. Christians and Jews receive official toleration and protection while paying a special form of tax. People of other religions may not qualify even for this. Some Muslims say openly that their objective is to estabilish Islamic rule.

GOS peace negotiators over the years have tried to insist that an official role for Islamic Law can be made compatible with equal rights and status for all citizens. Frequently, the GOS demand has been that Islamic sources (along with non-Islamic custom) be acknowledged as a source of state legislation. Meanwhile there could be balances and safeguards. For instance, Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi in 1988 suggested:

This could be enlarged to include all the desirable sources so that the different identitities are satisfied. At the second session of the IGADD peace talks in 1994, GOS brought out a compilation of many of the balances and safeguards that had been put forward over the years. Freedom of belief and worship and religious practice shall be guaranteed in full to all Sudanese. There shall be no legislation which would adversely affect the religious rights of any citizen....

....[P]ersonal laws shall be governed by the religion or custom of those involved....

States [in the federal system] with predominantly non-Muslim populations where Shari’a laws will not apply can adopt alternative laws in accordance with agreed procedures....

The constitution of Sudan shall be silent on state religion and shall be called the "Constitution of the Federal Republic of the Sudan...."

However, the SPLM/A was not impressed. Why has its position been so firm on this question? The SPLM/A and others appear to believe that any official role for sharia is inevitably a tool for domination by the North. To understand this, it is necessary to consider the background of real and perceived domination, racism and discrimination in Sudan.

How, precisely, might an official role for Islamic Law become a tool for Northern domination, if there were undertakings on safeguards such as the ones quoted above? This is a question which would seem to merit more study, and un-pressurised dialogue between people of different sides. However, an argument against an official role for Islamic Law may be constructed like this:

Islamic Law is believed by Muslims to be given by God. There would therefore be a strong tendency for Muslims to give it precedence. The Muslim majority in any national assembly would favour Islamic principles over other principles when passing legislation. Muslim judges and police officers would apply Islamic laws in preference to others. Agreed balances and safeguards cannot be trusted to hold firm, given the history of the weakness of agreements and law in Sudan. As an example, the 1998 Constitution rules out secular parties opposed to sharia.

What possible routes are there to reconcile positions? What ways might there be of handling the disagreement over sharia in peace talks?

History gives little encouragement. Before 1989, the most promising peace negotiations (for example, Koka Dam and the November 1988 Accords) dealt with it essentially by deferring the issue for discussion by a proposed National Constitutional Conference. In the interim parties agreed to freeze ‘the September 1983 Laws’, or the huduud punishments in them. But this was only possible because these laws were considered to be flawed interpretations of sharia. The question of principle was not addressed.

A possible route to reconciliation of positions has been put forward based on the work of the late Mahmoud Mohammed Taha. This work draws a distinction between the sources of Islamic Law (mainly in the Quran) and the system of law that was developed from those sources afterwards. It is argued that the latter was based on aspects of the Quran and Sunna particularly appropriate to the specific social and political needs of the Middle East in the eighth and ninth centuries. It was therefore "based on the prevailing institutions and norms of that particular time and place which had no conception of constitutionalism and the rule of law in the modern sense of these terms"

By basing their governmental system on the fundamental principles of justice, equality and liberty contained in other parts of the Qur'an and Sunna, Muslims can now develop a modern constitutional order which reconciles the aspirations of Muslims to be governed in accordance with Islam with the rights of all citizens. This is an attractive idea in many ways. But it is hard to see how such a process – challenging an entrenched way of interpreting sharia - can take place in Sudan in the forseeable future. Are there leaders who have the belief and will to carry it forward? Could the Sudanese Islamic sects adapt to a radical modernization of this kind? Are there potential media of religious education which could compete with the organized network of the Islamist movement? These are explosive questions. When Nimeiri had imposed his sharia in the early '80s, he soon used it to justify the execution Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, despite the fact that the latter was widely regarded as a saintly man.

Nyot Kok (1991a) suggests that a general principle of political and legal coexistence could be derived from a device used in the Criminal Bill of 1988 (produced by the NIF Attorney General, al-Turabi). It said that a Muslim in the South would have the choice between a huduud penalty and a non-huduud one. However, many doubt that any partial or regional application of the Islamic Law would survive for long in an explicitly Islamic state.

"Flexibility of approach seems to have existed in inverse relation to actual involvement in implementing an Islamist programme…. The Muslim Brotherhood, despite its apparently flexible ideas, was effectively in alliance with Nimeiri while he was pursuing policies which were harsh, vindictive and fundamentalist…. The religious basis ceases to be a framework within which ideas can be developed and debated, but becomes a badge of identity – a slogan around which specific sectors of the population can be mobilised against other movements and parties…. Only movements which dissociate the state from religion (as the Republican Brothers do) can remain free of this dilemma."