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Sudan’s decades of war

BBC News Online, Monday 17 January 2000, 12:35 GMT

War between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and Sudanese Government forces has dominated southern Sudan for decades.

Southern Sudan is populated by Africans who follow mainly Christian or animist beliefs.

The Muslim Arab northerners form the support base for the succession of unstable military governments which have ruled Africa’s largest country since independence from the United Kingdom in 1956.

The first civil war after independence ended with a peace agreement in 1972, and some moves were made towards federalism.

But the north-south conflict continued, and worsened following the imposition of Sharia (Islamic law) in 1983 under President Nimeri.


Negotiations between the government and the political wing of the SPLA—the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement—occurred in 1988 and 1989, but they were overtaken by events, when General Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir took power in a military coup in June 1989, banning all political parties in the country.

In January 1991 his government gave the southern states a non-Sharia legal system, and considerable autonomy in internal affairs.

However, non-Muslims living in the north of the country were still subject to Sharia law.

Peace negotiations between the government and the SPLA broke down in September 1994 over this issue.

The government pulled out of the talks after accusing the non-Muslim regional states who were sponsoring the talks of bias against the Islamist regime.

Peace talks between the Sudanese regime and opposition groups in May 1998 led to agreement on the principle of self-determination for the south, which was to be achieved through a referendum overseen by the international community.

Boundary disputed

However, no date was set up for the referendum, and there was no agreement on which states should make up the referendum’s constituency.

The government says the line between north and south should be along the boundary set by Britain when Sudan became independent in 1956.

But the SPLA says that the province of Abyei—taken away from the south four years before independence—should also be included in a future autonomous region.

The rebels also say the war will continue unless the government makes similar concessions to rebel allies in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile region in the north.

The question of the relationship between religion and the state remains unresolved, with the Khartoum government apparently unwilling to suspend Sharia.

Progress towards peace has been hindered by inter-factional fighting.

It is estimated that more than 1.5 million people have died in Sudan since 1983.

Famine danger

The World Food Programme says that up to 2.4 million people are severely affected by war in the south.

The Sudanese Government is restricting humanitarian flights into some rebel-held areas and aid agencies warn that this year could see a repeat of the 1998 famine in which an estimated 100,000 people are thought to have died.

The SPLA and the government have for several years agreed to temporary ceasefires in limited areas of the conflict zone, to allow the passage of food aid.

In November 1999, United States President Bill Clinton signed a bill which will allow the US to give food assistance to the rebels in the south.

The policy—which has not yet been put into practice—is controversial, because it puts the US squarely on one side of Sudan’s civil war and means it has no influence over the other party.

The UN has criticised the bill because of the way it uses food aid, which is traditionally exempt from political manoeuvring.

The World Food Programme warns that the policy could risk the official UN food aid programme—Operation Lifeline Sudan, which has been distributing food around Sudan for the last ten years.

Operation Lifeline is dependent on the acquiescence of the Khartoum Government.