South Sudan

Sep 7, 2018 |

1983-2004: Second Sudanese North/ South Civil War

In 1983, barely a decade after the much-heralded end to the first civil war, Sudan was once again wrapped up in civil war that caused the deaths of an estimated 2 million Sudanese, mostly southerners and civilians. The primary causes of the war lay in Khartoum’s policies towards the South, which included exploiting the South’s oil wealth, while neglecting to invest in the region’s development. As a result, jobs, wealth and public services were concentrated in the ‘Arab triangle’ region. At the same time, the government in Khartoum brutally imposed Arabism and Islam on the south and denied southern autonomy.

Although now this conflict is seen as a war for independence, many leaders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) – the main rebel group – including its founder John Garang, favored the creation of what they referred to as “New Sudan” with equal rights for all groups and regions, rather than the creation of an independent South Sudan. And, until relatively recently, many observers thought that “insurmountable obstacles” – including the demarcation of a border, the presence of oil wealth, and the citizenship of Sudanese living across the new border –  made independence “not a viable alternative”.

Riek Machar (Nuer) splits from SPLM/A, backed by Khartoum government (1991-2002)

In 1991, Riek Machar – a member of the Nuer tribe (the second largest ethnic group in South Sudan) – split off from the rest of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/ Army (SPLM/A) and formed a new group, the SPLA-Nasir. With the backing of the National Congress Party (NCP) government in Khartoum, Machar began fighting against the rest of the SPLM/A. As a result, “armed violence between the two SPLA factions became increasingly ethnicized, leading to indiscriminate targeting of civilians on both sides becoming what many South Sudanese call “the civil war within the civil war”.

This division lasted until 2002 when Machar re-united with the SPLM/A, which resulted in a reduction in internecine violence. The unified SPLM/A was one reason why the government in Khartoum began serious negotiations to end the war.

Discovery of oil in South Sudan

The discovery of oil magnified the issue of southern secession and gave increasing importance to the issue of demarcating a border, in particular, the disputed region of Abyei. George Clooney, a longtime activist on the region noted that “nobody gave a damn about that area [Abyei] until they found oil… It has become, you know, a rather big deal and it has become a rather big deal because there’s oil”.

Researched and Written by: 

Nicholas Dudek

Contributing Author

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