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Book Review

A well-researched but limited analysis of the causes of war in Sudan

Nasr Salem


The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars by Douglas H. Johnson. Publisher: Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2004. Pp.: 234. Pbk: £12.95/$24.95.

By Nasr Salem

For outsiders and non-specialists, the on-going crisis in the province of Darfur, western Sudan, has brought to light the fact that the Sudan’s long-drawn-out predicament is made up not of one civil war but rather of several, sometimes interlocking, civil wars. If anything, elucidating the nature of these civil wars requires an understanding of the historical patterns that shaped inter-communal tensions for decades – and perhaps centuries – until they erupted into protracted civil strife. But internal wars often present outside players with opportunities to interfere in the affairs of countries mired in civil strife, and Sudan’s impasse has been no exception.

Douglas H. Johnson’s well-researched book grew out of a report he was commissioned to write for international workers carrying out relief efforts in the country. The author attempts to provide “a broad explanation of the origins of the Sudan’s multiple and recurring civil wars, and why these wars have not ended” (p. xi). He describes his line of analysis as one that debunks such notions as the “age-old confrontation between ‘cultures’ defined by bloodlines (‘Arabs’ vs. ‘Africans’),” and “the consequence of an artificial division imposed by colonial powers” (pp. xi-xii). He also reserves some critical remarks for human rights groups because they “seem still in search of the ideal liberation group” or striving “to apportion blame equally”, with “pious even-handedness” (p. xii).

But Johnson’s experience with international relief organizations working in Sudan has apparently clouded his vision, causing him in the process to adopt their anti-Khartoum moralizing and, hence, to advocate a cause and take sides. His claim to debunk stereotypes in favour of knowing and understanding “the economic and political patterns which have affected the development and exercise of state power in the Sudan since at least the nineteenth century” (p. xii) does not stand up to close scrutiny. His narrative is nothing short of an openly biased account that does not shy away from blaming the drive to implement the Shari’ah in Sudan for providing conditions conducive to the eruption and perpetuation of civil strife.

Perhaps the most serious of the flaws borne out of Johnson’s bias is his uneven approach to the pronouncements of various governmental actors. Whereas he is reluctant to take the pronouncements of the Sudanese government at face value, he displays an uncritical acceptance of the US’s attitudes and policies towards Sudan. Take, for example, his explanation of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy stands towards Sudan: “Khartoum’s hostility to its neighbours became a factor in defining the US’s attitude towards its former ally. Association with other militant Islamists such as Hamas and Usama bin Laden, and continuing ties with Iraq and Iran were further reasons for the US condemnation of the Sudan as a terrorist state, and for its reason to support regional defence schemes for the Sudan’s most exposed neighbours” (p. 102). This sounds more like a statement coming straight out of a USgovernmental press release than a nuanced scholarly analysis.

The author argues that “the origins of the Sudan’s current problems predate the unequal legacy of the colonial system in the twentieth century” (p. 7). He traces these origins to the pre-colonial era, when successive states, based in the predominantly Arab and Muslim north, treated the south of the country, a polyglot mixture of nationalities, ethnicities, religious denominations and tribal communities, as a sort of milch cow – a source of wealth, food resources and slaves. This exploitative relationship between the northern states and the south continued during Egyptian rule and the “Mahdist state”. British colonialism not only failed to mitigate these patterns of exploitation but also contributed to the emergence of new disparities between the north and the south. For instance, the Closed District Ordinance, which was enacted in the 1920s to prevent non-southerners from settling in the south with an eye at extirpating the internal slave-trade and halting the spread of Islam into non-Muslim areas, failed “to stimulate a southern Sudanese commercial class to balance the influence of trading companies based in the northern Sudan” (p. 17). Worse still, Johnson notes, the “exploitative nature of the central state towards its rich, but uncontrolled hinterland … re-emerged with force in the Sudan since independence, especially during the Nimairi period” (p. 7).

Johnson demonstrates that the early sparks of the first civil war in the Sudan emerged in the years preceding independence from British colonial rule, and were in many ways linked to the drive to impose a unitary state fusing the various regions together in a single nation-state. One factor contributing to the souring of inter-communal relations at the time was the fact that the Sudanization commission, charged with replacing colonial civil servants with Sudanese, appointed northerners “to all the senior positions in the South. Most politically active Southerners saw this as the beginning of Northern colonization of the South” (p. 27). The 1955 Mutiny in Torit by soldiers of the Equatorial Corps, “whose British officers had only recently been replaced by northern Sudanese officers” (p. 27), was triggered by the soldiers’ fears of being disarmed and moved to the north. Thus, when the British left in 1956, all the ingredients of civil strife were present, complete with a group of mutinous soldiers, who retreated to the bush, forming the core of an armed movement using guerrilla tactics in pursuit of ‘self-determination.’ Interestingly, the guerrillas, who were knit together very loosely, “became known colloquially by the vernacular name of a type of poison – Anyanya.” On the other hand, southern leaders who went into exile formed a political movement that “eventually called itself the Sudan African Nationalist Movement (SANU) in emulation of the East African nationalist parties” (p. 31).

Beset by internal dissension and divisions along ethnic and tribal lines, the movement underwent a series of internal purges and coups that culminated in the formation of the Southern Sudan Liberation Movement. Lengthy negotiations between a new military regime headed by Jaafar Nimairi and the SSLM resulted in the Addis Ababa Agreement in 1972. Through Johnson’s prism the reader revisits how the peace agreement, which established the Southern Regional Government, collapsed under the weight of its own structural contradictions and flaws, infusing in the process added complexity to the country’s predicament. For instance, the issue of the borders of the Southern Region “became entwined with the issue of oil and economic development. In November 1980 the new National Assembly considered a bill to set the boundaries of the new regions in the North. At Hassan al-Turabi’s instigation, the bill redrew the Southern Region’s boundaries, placing the oilfields of Bentiu and the agriculturally productive areas of Upper Nile Province inside neighbouring northern provinces. The action provoked an immediate confrontation between the Southern Regional Government and the National Assembly, which was solved by appeal to the President of the Republic” (p. 45). Johnson, who makes little effort to conceal his anti-Muslim predisposition, blames the Islamic banks, which contributed to the growth of agro-industry in the Sudan, for contributing to the displacement of large numbers of people in the south and “interference … in their access to pastures and water” (p. 49).

Against the backdrop of the complex and unresolved issues borne out of flaws in the Addis Ababa Agreement, the second civil war began in January 1983, again with a mutiny that broke out when a battalion of southern Sudanese soldiers refused to obey an order to move north. In the summer of that year a new political organization was formed, the Southern People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), with an armed wing, the Southern People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), led by John Garang and maintaining close links with Ethiopia. Despite Johnson’s clearly partisan tone on the side of armed groups in southernSudan, these groups’ human-rights violations, political blunders and strategic errors dot his analysis. His narrative includes grisly portraits of the cycle of raiding, attacks and counter-attacks against civilian populations, with many excesses by all sides involved in the fighting, effectively turning the war into a vicious campaign against civilians and “ultimately drawing new regions into the civil war” (p. 80).

In the areas under its control, the SPLA/M set up a Stalinist-like system of administration and rule, where “the leadership relied on force rather than persuasion to maintain cohesion. Dissenters were removed while the causes of dissension were not, and the civil base of the Movement was neglected in favour of the military organization” (p. 91). Paradoxically, Johnson shows how the SPLA/M drive to achieve cohesion by force ended up fostering factionalism that fuelled in-fighting between the various factions of the “split SPLA” in the 1990s. This in-fighting helped the government to expand its control over key oilfields in the South.

Ethiopian patronage would later come to haunt the SPLA/M. The rebels maintained bases in southwestern Ethiopia. This fact drew them “increasingly into Ethiopia’s internal war” that preceded the fall of the Mengistu regime. The SPLA’s military fortunes suffered a serious reversal with the collapse of the Mengistu government in May 1991. “The New Provisional Government of Ethiopia was not only hostile to the SPLA but had close links with the Sudanese army. It handed over all of the old Ethiopian government’s security files on the SPLA” (p. 88).

The narrative concludes with reflections about the different ideas of peace and war as well as on the notions of what anthropologists call a ‘moral community’ prevalent among the various communities in the Sudan. Johnson notes that there exists “in the Sudan today numerous moral communities which the current civil wars are in the process of making exclusive of each other” (p. 173). This does not bode well for the future of Sudan. It makes it hard for one to be optimistic about the durability and long-term sustainability of the current peace process.

Johnson’s book provides a useful and lucid portrait of the complicated civil wars gripping the Sudan. But unfortunately there is much too much chaff with the wheat in his book. In a nutshell, The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars is not a work of scholarship but rather one that combines elements of both speculative and learned analysis with advocacy.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 3

Rabi' al-Awwal 22, 14262005-05-01

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