A Tale of Two Sudans: Corruption, Strife, and War

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At the end of the Cold War a quarter of a century ago, a little-known army officer – Omar al-Bashir – conducted a coup d’etat in Sudan.  Despite attempts to introduce and enforce Sharia law throughout the country, the religiously syncretic, non-Arab populations in the western and southern regions remained recalcitrant.[1] In order to consolidate his power, Bashir turned to Beijing and Moscow.  As its economy had been posting double digit gains in GDP on a yearly basis, China eagerly invested in the expansion of Sudan’s oil infrastructure.[2] At the same time, Russia began supplying Khartoum with attack helicopters, fighter jets, and weapons in exchange for oil revenue.  By 2003, Bashir and the National Islamic Front – the radical Islamist organization behind the regime – had the financial means and military prowess to stamp out opposition through force.[3]

Over the next four years, the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Arab Janjaweed militia orchestrated a campaign to eliminate the Fur people in the western region of Darfur.  Villages were raised.  Women were systematically raped, and men were tortured and murdered.  The first genocide of the twenty-first century, which claimed more than 300,000 lives and displaced almost three million, was only halted by the intervention of the international community.[4] Despite international sanctions and losing the southern third of the country after a bitter civil war nearly three years ago, Bashir remains in power, and the entire region has become destabilized by insurrection, low-intensity conflicts, and the prospect of outside intervention.  In order to stem the erosion of security and forestall the making of another “Syria” in Sudan and South Sudan, the world must come to terms with the new dynamics of power and sovereignty between Khartoum, Darfur, and Juba.

In 2007-8, the United Nations and the African Union created and dispatched a combined peacekeeping force (UNAMID) of approximately 9,000 military and security personnel in Darfur.  At that time, non-Muslim Nilotic peoples, who comprise a significant segment of southern Sudan, continued their armed struggle for independence.[5] When South Sudan achieved official statehood on 9 July 2011, tens of thousands celebrated in the streets.  Their jubilation, however, was short-lived.[6] Despite inheriting Sudan’s oil fields, landlocked South Sudan remains dependent on ports in Sudan to export its lucrative commodity, and rows over transportation fees have resulted in stoppages in the flow of oil.  Under President Salva Kiir, thirty-eight percent of the budget has been dedicated to the military in contrast to only ten percent or less for education and infrastructure improvements.  Even more alarmingly, widespread bureaucratic malfeasance claimed up to $4 billion in the first year of independence (2011-12).  Despite taking anti-corruption measures, Kiir has not been able to restore confidence in his government.[7]

In an attempt to compensate for its loss of oil revenue, Khartoum has recently promoted the mining and export of precious metals in North Darfur.  Discoveries of potentially large gold deposits in the area have yielded both significant profits and created new tensions.  Although sporadic to some degree, the conflict has been partly fueled by the seeming renewal of the alliance between Bashir and the Rizeigat – one of the Arab tribes that constituted the Janjaweed militia responsible for the 2003-2007 genocide – for the purpose of acquiring gold for Sudan’s Central Bank.  As the gold rush has filled Khartoum’s coffers and kept the regime financially afloat, resource wars over cattle, water, and precious metals in Darfur have come with a significant social cost.  From January to October 2013, fierce competition for the Jebel Amer gold mine between indigenous tribes and the government-backed Rizeigat resulted in nearly 1,000 deaths and approximately 150,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs).[8]

Over the past six months, economic contraction, political dissent, and insurrection have shaken both regimes.  After the elimination of fuel subsidies in September 2013, thousands of cash-strapped Sudanese citizens took to the streets of Khartoum and other cities to protest the instantaneous 100% hike in gas prices and to denounce the repressive rule of Bashir.  Tensions quickly escalated into violence, and a brutal crackdown by state security forces followed with more than 200 people killed and hundreds (if not thousands) of political dissidents arbitrarily arrested.  At the end of the year, Bashir unilaterally appointed General Bakri Hassan Saleh as Vice President to both bolster security and quiet critical voices within the National Islamic Front.[9] Beyond suppressing all civil opposition, Bashir has been conducting military operations in South Kordofan and Blue Nile state in an attempt to quash an armed rebellion by the northern faction of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM-N).  Instead of victory, Khartoum’s heavy-handed approach has only sparked a backlash and raised the number of IDPs to nearly three million.[10]

Meanwhile, the onset of a civil war has now threatened the regime and the integrity of South Sudan.  Shortly after a failed coup attempt, Vice-President Riek Machar accused Kiir of erecting a dictatorship and publicly called on the SPLM and the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) to forcibly remove the president from power.[11] His provocative stand not only further delegitimized the government but also served to incite a war between the Nuer and the Dinka tribes.  The internecine conflict has since fractured the national polity, crippled the economy, and displaced more than 400,000 civilians.[12]

How should the international community respond?  Part of the solution can be found in the character of Harkhuf who governed Upper Egypt in the twenty-third century B.C.E. and established extensive diplomatic and trade relations with Nubia (modern-day Sudan). The epitaph on his tomb, which reads “I gave bread to the hungry, clothing to the naked, I ferried him who had no boat,” is one of the first humanitarian claims in world history.  In the spirit of his documented compassion to the region, the UN Security Council must increase the amount of humanitarian aid to the war-torn region, strengthen the international sanctions regime on Khartoum, assist in brokering a long-term agreement between rival factions in South Sudan, and support the diplomatic initiatives of UNAMID Joint Special Representative Mohamed Ibn Chambas to bring lasting peace and security to Darfur.[13]Only global indifference can consign the two Sudans to a tale of future woe.

About the Author

Jeff Roquen is an independent writer and PhD student in the Department of History at Lehigh University (Pennsylvania, USA)

[1] Robert O. Collins, A History of Modern Sudan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 185-191.

[2] Michael L. Levin, The Next Great Clash: China and Russia vs The United States (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008), 114-115.

[3] “China’s Arms Sales To Sudan: Fact Sheet” Human Rights First

[4] Don Cheadle and John Prendergast, Not On Our Watch: The Mission To End Genocide In Darfur And Beyond (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 7-8; “Darfur Warrant for Sudan’s Bashir: ICC Adds Genocide,” BBC NEWS 12 July 2010.  Death toll estimates from the Darfur genocide in the mid-2000s range from 200,000 to nearly 500,000.  Most analysts cite 300,000 as the most accurate figure.

[5] Opheera McDoom, “UNAMID risks breaking promise in Darfur,” Reuters 28 July 2008.  In subsequent years, the UNAMID force reached its originally projected level of more than 20,000 military and security personnel.

[6] Mike Pflanz, “South Sudan Independence: Juba celebrates the birth of a nation,” The Telegraph (UK) 9 July 2011.

[7] David Smith, “South Sudan: The death of a dream,” The Guardian (UK) 20 January 2014.

[8] Ulf Laessing, “Special Report: The Darfur conflict’s deadly gold rush,” Reuters 8 October 2013; “Sudan’s Bashir tells Salva Kiir oil flows will continue,” BBC NEWS 3 September 2013; “Sudan’s Tribal Smokescreen,” The Hindu (India) 21 November 2013.  Upon the independence of South Sudan in July 2011, Juba inherited seventy-five percent of Sudan’s oil infrastructure base.

[9] Khalid Abdel Aziz and Maggie Fick, “Analysis: Sudan’s Bashir empowers old army ally, tightens grip,” Reuters 10 December 2013; “Sudan escalates mass arrests of activists amid protest crackdown, Amnesty International 2 October 2013.

[10] “Sudan’s Borderlands: Restless,” The Economist 1 February 2014; “1.9 million displaced in Sudan’s Darfur: UN,” Times Live (South Africa) 16 December 2013.  Beyond the number of IDPs in Darfur, the conflict in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile state has created at least one million internal refugees.

[11] “South Sudan vice-president Machar calls on army to topple Kiir,” RFI 20 December 2013; Daniel Howden, “South Sudan: the state that fell apart in a week,” The Guardian (UK) 23 December 2013.

[12] Laura Smith-Spark, “South Sudan fighting fuels surge in numbers fleeing homes,” CNN 15 January 2014; Jay Newton-Small, “South Sudan Faces Uphill Struggle for a Longer-Term Peace,” Time 24 January 2014.  From a UN estimate, approximately 10,000 people died in the first month of the South Sudan civil war.

[13] Peter Walker and Daniel G. Maxwell, Shaping the Humanitarian World (New York: Routledge, 2008), 13-14; “UNAMID’s Head Meets Ugandan President,” UNAMID Press Release, 16 February 2014.


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