David Mayen is a Master's candidate in International Security as well as a 2010 Sié Fellow. In this piece, he explains the historical origins behind the momentous changes occurring in his native homeland of Sudan.
In this analysis of Sudan I will attempt to revisit the foundation of a North-South divide that plunged the country into the longest and deadliest civil war in sub-Saharan Africa. In a departure from available political analyses of reasons for state failure and civil war in Sudan, which are based on institutional and structural explanations, I hope to give an historic perspective- which I believe to be equally determinative of what Sudan has become.
The people of South Sudan have just concluded a referendum for self-determination in which they, according to preliminary results published by the Southern Sudan Referendum Bureau, overwhelmingly voted for independence. Results released by ten Southern states that constitute the future republic revealed that 99 percent of South Sudanese voted in favor of separation from a Muslim dominant- and Arab controlled- North. the European Union Elections Observation Mission, the U.S.-based Carter Center, the African Union, the European Union, the League of Arab States and East African observers concurred that the vote was credible and conformed to international standards. It is very rare to see a population voting with such an overwhelming percentage in a free and fair plebiscite.
What makes more than 3.8 million people, representing a population that is more than 13 million, forge such unity of purpose? To answer this, I will briefly revisit the background of the South-North civil war, from pre-colonial interaction up to the referendum. (1)
Pre-Colonial Era: The origin of civil war (North-South) in Sudan can be traced back to the early 19th century. In the 1820s, the Ottoman Empire sent troops under Ismail Pasha to invade present-day South Sudan for slaves. The professed aim of the invasion, which took Khartoum (Muslim North) as its base, was to enslave thousands of non-Muslim Africans to replace an Ottoman army (currently consisting of Albanians) whose loyalty was eroding due to invasions fatigue. While the North itself was under the same occupation (Turko-Egyptian), Islam prohibits enslaving fellow Muslims; hence, a pagan South was targeted. The fact that invading forces took thousands of slaves to Khartoum before being conscripted or sent to Middle Eastern markets identified the North as an origin of oppression. Invading forces headed South and engaged southern tribes in a region where attacking Ottoman forces was considered the duty of every young man who came of age, while the word Arab became synonymous with evil. After decades of the slave trade, a Northern-based revolution (Mahdist Revolution 1881) overthrew the Turko-Egyptian government in Khartoum and established an Islamic state based on Sharia Law.
Having contributed to the Madhist Revolution, southern tribes expected that the slave trade would come to an end. However, after establishing a caliphate in the North, the new head of state (Al-Mahadi) thought the cost of halting such a lucrative trade was economically unattractive. To their disillusionment, southern tribes had to continue fighting northern invaders instead of reaping the fruits of their contribution to the Madhist Revolution. Instead of slave camps being shut, Mahadi sent one of the most notorious slave traders of his time, Zubeir Pasha, ahead of a big force of North Sudanese to establish more camps such as Dem Zubeir in Western Bahar Elghazal state, where slaves were brought from the entire region before being transported to Khartoum and the rest of the Arab world.
Colonial Era: In 1898, the slave trade was brought to a halt by the British Empire, which invaded Sudan from its base in Egypt. An Anglo-Egyptian new government was faced with two different challenges, governing the North and pacifying the South. The latter task was the most difficult given the background of mistrust among southern tribes regarding whatever came from the North. Hence, to build trust in South Sudan, Lord Cromer, the British Consul General in Egypt (1882-1907), sought to establish law and order among what he called the "savages" living in the region; that task would be carried out by sending a few British soldiers and more missionaries. In addition, South Sudan was closed from northern employees and traders for fear that their presence would jeopardize measures to achieve the above objectives. Thereafter, for more than five decades, a South-North dichotomy oriented both regions to opposite directions: the South to East Africa and the North to the Arab World. That situation was only reversed two years before Sudan was granted independence as one country- not as the separate states demanded by southern tribesmen and politicians.
Post-Independence to Present-Referendum: To the dismay of the South Sudanese, Britain capitulated to Egyptian pressure-- using the Suez Canal as a bargaining chip-- to grant Sudan independence (1956) as one country. Having learned of a plan to join the South with the North in one nation-state, hundreds of letters (present in archives) were sent by southern tribal chiefs to the British governor rejecting the plan. South Sudanese tribes decided to take up arms in the face of Khartoum a year before formal independence, starting the first civil war which lasted for 17 years (1955-1972). Successive military governments in Khartoum rejected many demands by the South for federation and carried out futile attempts to subdue its people and convert them to Islam.
After an agreement on southern self-government (Addis Ababa Agreement 1972- which ushered in the only period of truce between the two sides) was aborted in 1983, another civil war erupted and lasted for 21 years (SPLM/A Revolution 1983-2005). Millions of South Sudanese fled into refugee camps across the region and IDP camps in the North. Under U.S. leverage, a peace agreement brought the second South-North war to an end.
Three million lives (by most estimates) had been lost in the South in both civil wars. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2005) granted South Sudan self-determination as a right to be exercised after six years of self-government. Northern troops in the South withdrew north of 1956 borders and Southern troops in the North withdrew to the South. A government was established in the South and an agreement over sharing oil revenue from Southern oil fields was reached. The peace agreement stipulated that within the six-year interim period prior to a Southern referendum, unity with the North was to be made an attractive option by Khartoum through developmental projects. However, it is widely believed that Khartoum did not do enough to alleviate the bitterness that accumulated in the South Sudanese people throughout their historic acrimonious relationship with the North; hence, the overwhelming vote for independence in 2011.
(1) This piece is therefore a quick chronological account of the root causes of Southern grievances rather than scientific research; hence, it might contain some organizational defects. But, to be able to grasp a bigger picture, which is my aim, I hope it is taken in totality rather than broken up into sentences and episodes. Similarly, I will focus on a South-North dichotomy in which African populations in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile regions (geographic North) are mainly excluded from my chronology even though they are considered allies of the South. I will also not tackle anything related to post-referendum arrangements whose failure or success will determine prospects for war and peace between both states.