Optimistic images of Sudan have come and gone in recent decades, whether as a potential grain producer for the Middle East in the 1960s-70s, or as an oil exporter in the late 1970s and early 1980s, leaving behind an unwieldy and impoverished assembly of peoples. After the televised publicity for the "Live Aid" famine in 1985, the western media view of Sudan is probably little different from that of a century ago - as "a quarter of a continent of sheer squalor" (With Kitchener to Khartum, by GW Steevens) - and the civil war is portrayed as a struggle between an Islamic "Arab" north and a Christian or pagan "African" south.

These simplistic perceptions do not assist an understanding of the real plight of the Sudanese people, nor do they contribute to a resolution of the war.  This report will highlight the processes at work in several geographical regions, illustrated by case studies from the north and south of the country.

Centre v periphery
Wealth from the south and other oil-providing regions such as Southern Kordofan, and the mineral deposits of the Red Sea Hills and Ingessana Hills is monopolized by central government for its own ends. The bargaining between the political elites of the regions and the centre has obscured the ethnic antagonisms and struggles over environmental resources which drive the war at a deeper level.

South v South
Long-established personal, tribal, ecological and political rivalries between different groups in the South have always been exploited by northern-dominated governments, especially the current one. Traditional enmities and tactical allegiances have enabled the government to arm particular ethnic groups as militia, or to escalate disputes between the pastoralist Dinka, Nuer and Shilluk.

Fragmentation under pressure
Disillusionment at the failure of western-led development programmes has assisted the rise of political and religious absolutism, and led to social fragmentation despite ostensible attempts to homogenise and unify the country. The historical drive of the northern Sudanese elite to Islamize and Arabize the indigenous peoples has accelerated, but the use of extreme force is proving counter-productive.

Sudan in the 1990s has become an internationally isolated pariah state, an abuser of human rights accused of harbouring terrorists, notwithstanding its cooperation with France over the capture of Carlos "the Jackal" in 1994. What strategic value this gigantic country possessed during the Cold War has faded, while a militarized legacy remains.

Entrenched in internal conflict, its rural economy collapsing, Sudan receives little development assistance and gains a larger proportion of its foreign income from emergency relief aid. It narrowly avoided expulsion from the International Monetary Fund in 1994, and the Khartoum government has struggled against international pressure for its behaviour to be debated by the UN Security Council.

Amid a man-made famine, both government forces and the guerrilla Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) stand accused of widespread gross abuses of the civilian population in the conduct of war.

The military coup d'etat of 30 June 1989 by officers loyal to the National Islamic Front (NIF) has been followed by a dramatic increase in human rights violations at all levels of society and a stifling of internal criticism. Unprecedentedly harsh in its treatment of individual opponents among the political elite, it has manifested disregard for human rights on a far larger scale in the "relocation" and "cleansing" of minority populations in northern Sudan, as well as in the south.

Nonetheless, it must be recognised that these actions represent the taking to an extreme of policies and attitudes that were already evident under previous governments. Sudan this century has been characterised by gross imbalances of power and development between the dominant Khartoum-Gezira-Nile Valley "centre" and the peripheral regions, whose inhabitants are treated as a source of cheap labour for agriculture, urban development and the military.

While its expansionist policies and discriminatory attitudes towards indigenous non-Arabised and non-Muslim peoples are consistent with those of previous governments in Khartoum, the regime of Lt-Gen Omar Hassan al-Bashir, guided by NIF leader Dr Hassan al-Turabi, has demonstrated a significantly greater intolerance of political dissidence or religious, ethnic and cultural diversity, and greater willingness to use extreme methods of oppression in all sectors of the society.

Lawyers, journalists and religious critics have been intimidated and jailed, and the reports of the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Sudan are dismissed as anti-Islamic. Minorities have been disproportionately affected by the divisive pressures operating in Sudan, and by the ambitious but destructive campaign of social engineering embarked on by the massively enlarged Ministry of Social Planning under Ali Osman Muhammad Taha. Taha, who was appointed Foreign Minister in 1995, was Turabi's deputy for many years, one of the most hawkish of NIF members - and a prospective future leader.

Sudan's political boundaries with neighbouring countries, inherited from the colonial era, have little to do with ethnic distinctions and affect numerous population groups which overlap them. These include the Beja in the north-east; the Nilotic Anuak, along the south-eastern frontier with Ethiopia; the Acholi on the southern border with Uganda; and the Masalit and Zaghawa on the western border with Chad. Additional confusion stems from the legacy of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, which strove at first to keep the South separate from the North in order to limit "Arab" influences but then abandoned plans to incorporate the South into Uganda.

Groups in the middle of the country such as the Nuba and Ingessana ended up neither "Southern" nor "Arab", but were deprived of opportunities for development, education and exposure to the outside world, leaving them ill-prepared when the country became independent as a single entity in 1956.

The rest of the Arab world has historically regarded Sudan as a "back-yard" from which to obtain slaves, and the aspiration to an Arab-Islamic cultural identity among Northern Sudanese is directly linked to the institutionalised discrimination against non-Arab peoples. 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 farther South and West.

The re-emergence of slave trading in Southern and Nuba children, reported persistently in the south-west, is the ultimate symbol of the devaluation of human life in Sudan and the starkest highlight of the social divisions of Sudanese society. The same mentality is shown in the widespread attempt at social engineering by the government in its growing exploitation of
dispossessed labour on giant agricultural schemes. The sequestration of land for these schemes, and the added pressure of environmental degradation further north, are primary motivational elements in the war, along with control of oil reserves and access to water.

Elsewhere, new "peace villages" are being established for displaced marginal peoples. Parastatal "Islamic endowment" agencies under the Ministry of Social Planning are given exclusive permission to provide facilities for education and development, but of a highly controversial nature.

The bodies responsible for mass indoctrination such as "al-Da'awa al-Shamla" (Comprehensive Call) and the "Bina al-Sudan" (Sudan Construction) are inherently intolerant of social diversity and operate by means of inducements or threats.

The people from the so-called marginalised areas who are being incorporated into the cultural, economic and political value system of the state still have no real power. They are under intense pressure to adopt Muslim identity merely to survive, or to conform to a narrower, NIF interpretation of Islam if they are already Muslim, and to aspire to Arab-Sudanese culture in denial of their own background.

The civil war, re-ignited in Southern Sudan in May 1983, had spread to the northern Sudanese provinces of Southern Blue Nile, South Kordofan and Southern Darfur by the end of the 1980s. Dispelling faint hopes raised by the overthrown civilian government of a negotiated end to the war in 1989, the Bashir regime intensified the drive for a military solution, bringing the estimated death toll in Southern Sudan to over 1.3 million by May 1993. Millions of people have been displaced: massive repeated upheavals of communities have been prompted by killings, rapes and destruction of villages and crops.

The government has repeatedly bombed villages from the air during its dry season offensives, and has increasingly used armed militias (Difa'a al-Shaabi or Popular Defence Forces, PDF) as a vanguard for the regular armed forces, intensifying a process initiated by the civilian government of Sadiq al-Mahdi.

Some PDFs are local antagonist tribal militias; other groups of fighters are drawn from urban volunteers and conscripted students. (For the first time, Khartoum hospitals have been filled with casualties from the South, increasing consciousness among the middle classes in the capital of the human cost of the war). Each side has been accused of using child soldiers, and a generation of war-zone children is growing up alienated from normal life.

Both the Khartoum government and the SPLA leaderships appear willing to contemplate the murderous disruption of war as an opportunity to break the constraints of social tradition and homogenize Sudanese society according to their own authoritarian models.

If the Khartoum government is Islamizing and Arabizing the north, then the SPLA is militarizing and Christianizing the south, and in SPLA-controlled areas Colonel Garang's "New Sudan" is sometimes characterised by militaristic "hymns" which hail both Garang and Christ as saviours.

At the same time, a form of war-lordism has emerged whereby regional administrators and military/security personnel are often free to impose their own methods without reference to central leadership, which is able to deny responsibility for atrocities.

Peter Verney 1995
source: "Sudan - Minorities in Conflict", Minority Rights Group 1995