What’s the Deal With an Agreement in the Sudans?

Hello All!

It turns out, geography is an important indicator of separate cultural development

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that knows the difference between the development on both sides of the 21st parallel.

In this week’s blog we’ll discuss a seemingly positive note in an otherwise tragic and violent newsscape from Sudan and South Sudan in Eastern Africa: An agreement on a fee to use shared oil pipelines.

The Current

Both Sudan and South Sudan, a country recently created in 2011 by seceding from the North, are heavily dependent on revenues from oil exports; landlocked South Sudan contains much of the oil while the North has the pipeline infrastructure and port agreements with neighboring countries.  Disagreements and fighting have intensified between the two this year after a failed oil pipeline agreement in January turned off the oil spigots in the South and ground both economies to a halt.

Border disputes are defining the territory for the Sudans

Consistent fighting along the disputed border lands between both armies and bands of rebels brought the two countries to the brink of war in April, especially after Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir called South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir an enemy “that must be fought until defeated.”  Then, South Sudan’s army invaded the oil rich region of Heglig across the border, claiming it for the new country, and suspending the ongoing negotiations in Ethiopia.

Since then, over 113,000 refugees have fled the fighting in the Sudanese states of Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan states into a camp in Jamam in South Sudan.  Flooding back in July gave the camp the unfortunate name of ‘the lake district’ and have led to cholera outbreaks and prompted evacuations.  With all the disagreements abundant between the two countries, the most certain losers are civilians increasingly mired in a refugee crisis.

I hope you brought more than your ten gallon hat to the negotiating table

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has put significant pressure on Juba, South Sudan’s capitol, to consent to an agreement and to end the fighting.  Pressure from the African Union and a stagnant economy put President Kiir in a more compromising mood for agreeing on a fee for transporting oil, something the North has tentatively agreed to.

While the unfinished agreement is welcome relief from two countries on the precipice of war, it is certainly not the final piece in the puzzle for peace and security between the two countries; in fact far from it.  The deal is far from over, and will have to include border negotiations that have stirred up significant nationalism and violence.  If the veil of peace and agreement were not thin enough, reports of renewed violence in Sudan’s Darfur region adds a messier situation to the conflict.

To gain a greater perspective on why this agreement is important and where the larger quarrels between Sudan and South Sudan originate, we’ll sift through the sands of the region’s history and people.

North-South Division Has Its Egyptian Roots

The Nile goes for quite a while

Similar to what I’ve written on before in Nigeria, the region now known as Sudan and South Sudan developed very differently between North and South.  When we take a look at the cultures, peoples, and development, we can see why significant conflict has developed between North and South.

The northern part of Sudan has had close contact and shares a great deal of its culture with Egypt, dating back to the ancient Egyptian Kingdom in 2700 B.C.E. when Egyptian pharaohs exerted their influence over the Cush peoples in Sudan (Cushite rulers even took over the Egypt-Sudan empire during a time of instability in 750 B.C.E).  Given its proximity to the Arabian peninsula and the Byzantine Empire, both Hellenistic and Hindu culture permeated its way into Southern Egypt and Sudan.  Therefore, Christianity influenced the Nubian Kingdoms of Sudan strongly into the Ninth and Tenth Centuries A.D.

Nubia, or Cush (as the Egptians called it) was a presence on the wall

The Nubian Kingdoms, which were significant warrior kingdoms, put up a stout defense against Arab-Muslim invaders for many years during the Islamic conquests following the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 A.D.  The Nubian Kingdoms were resilient in maintaining their Christian culture, and even made it a priority to protect the minority Coptic Christians in Egypt.  They did, however, maintain a peace with the Islamic Arabs to the North in Egypt by normalizing a lucrative trade relationship (which included slaves).  Eventually, into the 14th and 15th Centuries, the Nubian kingdoms declined and intermarriage between Christian and Arab Muslims was frequent resulting in a Islamic majority in Sudan.

The Ottoman Empire entered the scene in the 16th Century after they incorporated Egypt by ousting the Arab Mamluks and also included Nubia into their pashalik, or province.  Throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries, the former Christian Nubian kingdoms were controlled by a loose confederacy known as the Funj Empire who controlled the area through Sultanates and Chieftans.  The Northern portion of Sudan became interlocked with Egypt again in 1811 after Muhammad Ali purged the remaining Mamluks and regained control of the pashalik for the Ottomans.  This included Sudan, and the slave and commodity trade was the primary interest from Sudan for the reigning seats in Cairo.  It wasn’t until the mid-late 19th Century, under British pressure, that provincial governors in Sudan, particularly in the Darfur region reduced slave trade activities.

The Azande were one of many Nilotic peoples who made up the distinct southern Sudanese region

In southern Sudan, different geography, peoples, and cultures made the region unique from its now northern neighbor.  Nilotic peoples, composed of Dinka, Nuer, and Shilluk among others, came to the tropical region in the 10th Century, and later the Azande and the militaristic Avangura peoples.  Each of these peoples brought with them their own governing and cultural traditions that remained beyond the influence of Islamic and Christian movements until the 19th Century because of geographic barriers.  The slave trade became the variable that brought cultures together and started a tradition of hatred of the slave traders from the North, a relationship that has never been cozy.

The slave trade continued well beyond the initial quelling efforts of the British as Sudan’s Northern leaders contracted private Arab slave raiders, still under Egyptian control, had access to Middle East slave markets.  As is more popularly known in Western Africa, slavery decimated populations and destroyed the Southern Sudanese economy and political stability.

Not exactly your Atlantic slave trade

For a short period 1881 – 1898, an Islamic state that imposed a sharia law took over under a militaristic (or jihadist) campaign by Al Mahdi al Muntazar and by force took over Khartoum and resisted attempts by the British (more on them later) to retake the garrisons.  The Mahdist State, as it was known, imposed a harsh sharia law which excluded women, and convoluted the law to have payments be made to al-Muntazar as he declared himself to be a guide leading Muslims on the true path, hence the meaning of his name: “The awaited guide in the right path.” Unfortunately for Mahdi, six months after capturing Khartoum, he fell ill and died of Typhus (Not exactly the right path).  His successor (aptly named The Khalifa) continued jihadism by extending his reach south and west, but his power was purged by a conquering British force…

If It Wasn’t For You Meddling British and Your Colonialism…

The British were involved in Sudan, both Northern and Southern regions for decades until 1899 when they organized Egypt and Sudan as one colonial province.  Initially, it was the Suez Canal, the lifeline to India (Britain’s colonial breadwinner) that saw the British become more involved in Egypt in 1869.  Britain’s involvement was more of a fiscal overseer where a leader in Egypt would be acceptable as long as they went along with the British managing the Suez Canal (while exploiting the economic benefits).  The British also appointed a governor general in Sudan as part of their effort to halt the slave trade, an effort that as previously mentioned, was not very successful.

Oh, yea.. that makes sense why the British would want to control the Suez

The other motive for the British came from back home in Europe as countries raced to develop colonies in Africa in the 1890s (mostly due to the prospect of resources, and the discovery of quinine).  French and Belgian claims crossed with British territorial claims near the Nile headwaters in Southern Sudan and the British saw the waterway as an important resource to keep and hold, and therefore mounted a military campaign, led by Lord Kirtchner and composed of mostly Egyptian troops to “reconquer” the Sudan from The Khalifa and restore Egyptian rule.  This they did with superior firepower, resulting in few British casualties.

In 1899, an Anglo-Egyptian agreement resolved to govern Egypt and Sudan as a “condominium” with a border at the 21st parallel designating the territory below as Anglo-Egyptian Sudan and putting a British Governor General in charge.  In practice, the Governor General (a military officer) held great control over the territory from Khartoum and acted as a colonial administrator.

The Governor General of Sudan was running a Khartoum network

After Egypt’s independence in 1922, the question of how to govern Sudan remained, and the British instituted indirect rule through shaykhs in the North and chieftains in the South.   Indirect rule may have served to create a buttress against a central government from Khartoum as local leaders, especially in the South, worked against Arab influence from the North.

British policy towards Southern Sudan exacerbated the North-South divide by treating the three southern provinces, Equatoria, Bahr al-Ghazal, and Upper Nile as a separate region.   This intentional separation, or “closed door” ordinance, kept Northern Sudanese traders and merchants out of the southern provinces, as Britain wanted to develop a separate development policy for the South.  In addition, the British discouraged the spread of Islam and worked to revitalize African cultures.

Despite being a resource rich region, South Sudan’s economic stagnation resulted from isolation, a one crop economy (cotton) and a lack of education development (Sudanese often went to higher ed institutions outside the country).  The closed door policy severed any economic contacts that southern traders had developed, and if these efforts weren’t enough to show that the British regarded the Southern part of Sudan as separate, a 1930 directive stated that blacks in southern Sudan should be considered distinct from northern Arabs and that the region should be prepared to be integrated with British East Africa (Uganda, etc.).

As controversial as it was, the British effort to develop Southern Sudan separately did recognize the important cultural and ethnic distinction that existed between North and South (something they did not do in Nigeria).  As Sudanese nationalism became more popular, southern Sudanese were very wary of Arabic becoming the official language and of potential Northern Arab dominance; a predicament that might mirror a reincarnation of the slave trade.

Independence and a Never-Ending Civil War

In 1956, Sudan decided against becoming part of an independent Egypt and formed their own separate country.  Corruption and factionalism plagued the infant government, and a military coup took control in Khartoum in 1958 that undermined the tentative North-South coalition administration.  The military government under Ibrahim Abbud and his Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (an entity similar to what we saw after Egypt’s revolution last year) sought to “Arabize” society and cut off parliament and southern complaints, and expelled foreign missionaries from the South.  This was partly done to counter guerrilla movements that had rebelled against the Sudanese government since independence.

Wavin’ the southern independence flag since 1956

Abbud and the SCAF dissolved itself after its inability to quell the southern “problem” and a return to civilian rule including elections and a transitional constitution took place in 1964 after much popular unrest.  A coalition government developed that included a southern political party  advocating for an autonomous southern region within a unified Sudan.  The coalition government eventually collapsed and was very divided over how to handle power, and eventually fell victim to another coup in 1969, this time by a group of young army officers called the Free Officer’s Movement.

The officers created power under the Revolutionary Command Council under the chairmanship of Col. Jafaar Nimeiri that had at its goal to create a democratic republic to advance “Sudanese socialism” with a permanent constitution and Nimeiri as President.  Meanwhile, conflicts with the South had not healed properly since independence, and rebellious groups continued to wreak havoc on the fragile unification.

The Anya Nya, the main rebel group (composed of many ethnicities and political views) was well armed and trained, thanks to help from Israel and other African militants.  They frequently fought the Sudanese armed forces for control of much of the Southern countryside.  Anya Nya joined Joseph Lagu (a rebel military leader) and his political party the Southern Sudan Liberation Movement (SSLM) making a more powerful movement that incorporated a political governing group.  Nimeiri did seek peace with the rebels and eventually negotiated a truce in 1972 that gave autonomy to the South with its own regional governor (appointed by the president).

Nimeiri had conflicting interests in South Sudan

This peace was short-lived, however, as Nimeiri in the 1980s sought to counter the growing political clout of the South by dividing regions, dissolving the southern regional assembly, and by imposing sharia law.  Nimeiri did this to exploit the discovery of oil across the border in southern Sudan; with autonomy, southern Sudan might have been able to control the important resource, not a desire of Nimeiri or the North.

The southern based Southern People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and its military wing, the Southern People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) bitterly opposed Nimeiri’s new dictatorial tactics and violation of the 1972 agreement that had given Southern Sudan its own autonomy.  Nimeiri’s tactics and a stuttering economy provoked unrest and violence to erupt in a resumption of the civil war in 1983.

With his new titles, Bashir created quite the CV

After a coup and another Transitional National Council organized by military officers, a former political opponent Sadiq al-Mahdi of the Umma Party was chosen as President, but refused to approve a peace plan with the SPLA and the opposition party in the central government (the Democratic Union Party or DUP) that would have removed sharia law and ended the fighting.  In 1989, Col. Omar Hassan al-Bashir was selected from the Revolutionary Command Council (after yet another military takeover) as the new leader for the Sudanese central government and appointed himself President, General, Commander of the Armed Forces, Chief of State, and Prime Minister.

The SPLA and other opposition groups were heavily divided, but came to significant agreements in 1997 to continue to seek out a a degree of autonomy and the right for self-determination.  The SPLA received military assistance from Eritrea, Uganda, and Ethiopia (they had been upset with Bashir’s support of Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War). The support for Iraq’s dictator also changed Sudan’s relationship with the U.S. from an aid recipient to a rogue state.

Finally peace talks made headway after years of fighting in 2004-5 with a formal comprehensive peace agreement signed in 2005 that gave the SPLA 6 years of autonomy before a referendum for an independent South Sudan could be taken.  During this time, the sides agreed on sharing oil, use of sharia law was optional in the South, but regional disputes still were not resolved by this agreement.

Effects of the Civil War & South Sudan

At this point, you’re probably wondering, “Okay, he’s rambled on for 2500 words, why hasn’t this guy talked about the genocide in Dafur?  Clearly this guy is just insensitive to tragedy and doesn’t know his history.”  Whoa, whoa, whoa…. hold up, I’m getting to it.

What we should remember about the well publicized and advocate-heavy tragic offshoot of the war that is the genocide in Darfur, is that it is not completely over, and that Sudan’s overall stability depends on a peaceful Darfur.

Women and children risked violence and rape while collecting water, forcing families to flee to refugee camps

In 2003, rebel groups in Darfur aligned themselves with the Sudanese liberation movement against the central government of Omar al-Bashir.  Bashir responded not only with the Sudanese army, but also with bands of Arab militias known as “Janjaweed” who attacked and killed civilians, raped women, and displaced millions in the region.  In a region of about 6 million people, over 2.5 million were displaced between 2003 and 2007 and 400,000 people were killed from the violence or as a consequence of their displacement.  These horrible actions by the Janjaweed bring to mind Bashar Al-Assad’s use of the Shabiha, an Alawite militia group that uses similar tactics in the current civil war in Syria.  The sanction of these actions earned a high listing in 2009 for Omar al-Bashir on the International Criminal Court’s most wanted list (He still has not stood trial, and still is in power as Sudan’s head of state).

If those frightening numbers weren’t enough, the troubles remain even after the rebel groups have given up their armed struggle: The U.N. estimates that 2.7 million Darfuris are still internally displaced and that 4.7 million rely on humanitarian aid.  This genocide and its current aftermath are well known globally thanks to great efforts by NGOs, the U.N. and mass media dissemination, but it must remain part of the discussion when we look at the current disputes because Darfur’s stability is vital to a peaceful solution in the Sudans.  In addition, the Sudanese civil war itself took quite a toll, with 130,000 soldiers killed, and an estimated 1 million civilians dead (mostly from drought) and an estimated 200,000 southern Sudanese taken into slavery.

As for South Sudan, they obviously took advantage of that referendum put in place in the 2005 peace agreement and created their own independent state of South Sudan on July 9, 2011 with Juba as their capitol.  But as mentioned before, the location of the border that had not been resolved in 2005 was still at an impasse in 2011 and is the major cause of the violence and disputes today.


So, we’ve bitten off a huge chunk of history in a dynamic, diverse, ancient, and ill-defined region and now we should try and chew it down to a more digestible understanding of the present conflict… Was it more than we could chew? (I’ll let you decide)

Why have Sudan and the newly independent South Sudan been at violent loggerheads with each other this spring?

Well, we know that the two sides have been in a perpetual civil war for over half a century, where the South has fought for its own autonomy.  But it goes much deeper:  Southern and Northern Sudan have developed as different cultures, peoples, governances, since the settlement of the region by the many different ethnicities.  Their union was never peaceful,  and the distrust and hatred between North and South is deep rooted.

  • The Northern, more arid region was settled very similarly to Egypt as they were connected through the ancient Egyptian kingdoms, and then by the Islamic/Arab conquests.
  • The Southern, more tropical region was settled by many dark skinned Nilotic peoples, was relatively isolated from the North, and strongly resisted Islamic/Arab infiltration.
  • Arab leaders in the North engaged in a lucrative slave and commodity trade that pilfered the South of economic development, and created a culture of hate and resentment for the Arab North.
  • The British, after getting involved as a semi-colonial overseer in the conglomerate of Egypt and Sudan, developed the southern part of Sudan as a separate region below the 21st parallel, recognizing the distinct peoples and culture of the South and the potential for conflict between the two.
  • As an independent nation, several rebel groups have fought government forces and continue to fight for southern regional autonomy.
  • The endless civil war has left behind a trail of destruction, human rights abuses, severe poverty, and little infrastructure or education development.

The conflict from North and South I think can be summed up in three ways: the racial and religious differences of the region, and the exploitation of the South by the North from the slave trade to the discovery of oil.   This exploitation is a reason why the South has been so adamant in holding onto oil fields around the disputed border.

So, as discussed in the primer, the presumed successful negotiations actually have a long way to go (especially regarding the border disputes).  But now, at least we have an idea of why these disputes exist and what the consequences are.  Until there can be serious collaboration and multinational efforts on the border and resource issues, the possibility of more violence and unfortunate atrocities will remain.

Until the next ridiculously long explanation (hang on, I’m still chewing)

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:






Brian Raftopoulos and Karin Alexander (2006). Peace in the balance: the crisis in the Sudan





About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
This entry was posted in Africa, colonialism, International Affairs, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s