The History of Sudan’s Third Civil War

Accelerating violence by Khartoum’s regular and militia forces threatens many hundreds of thousands of civilians in Blue Nile and South Kordofan; the regime’s military seizure of Abyei is now a fait accompli; the international community seems unable even to speak about the urgent need for cross-border humanitarian corridors to reach highly distressed populations. War has begun again in Sudan, and it is a war whose historical trajectory is tragically clear.

By Eric Reeves

December 10, 2011 (SSNA) — When the history of Sudan’s third civil is written, most will judge that the precipitating event was the Khartoum regime’s May 21military seizure of the contested border area of Abyei. And it will be a terminus a quo in some ways similar to the Bor Mutiny of May 1983 that began twenty-two years of unfathomably destructive civil war, and which came to an end only with the 2005 "Comprehensive Peace Agreement" (CPA). Abyei is as deeply embedded in the history of South Sudan as the Bor Mutiny was twenty-eight years ago—an uprising in the Jonglei State town that ironically Colonel John Garang was sent to quell by then-President Jaafer Nimeiri (Garang had, in fact, done much to prepare the groundwork for the mutiny).

The largest significance of the mutiny lay in the fact that it marked Garang’s emergence as the rebellion’s charismatic and visionary leader for more than two decades. Eventually he would see his military and diplomatic efforts crowned with a peace agreement that, if upheld, offered as much as any negotiations with the Khartoum regime could reasonably yield. Indeed, many of the most ruthlessly brutal figures in the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime and its military establishment felt that too much had been offered. And many observers, including this one, felt that only with the most robust of efforts to see the agreement implemented could future war be avoided. This included implementation of the CPA’s critical Abyei Protocol.

The Bush administration, which can rightly claim the CPA as a signature foreign policy achievement, squandered its diplomatic triumph with an unforgiveable failure to follow through with a vigorous commitment to implementation. During a six-year "interim period" the evident conviction was that either the people of the South would vote to stay unified with the North—an absurd delusion, even at the time—or that some sort of vaguely satisfactory resolution of "outstanding issues" could be fashioned, including resolution of the festering Abyeicrisis. None of this casual optimism proved warranted, and when the Obama administration finally became engaged on Sudan in early 2009, time was running exceedingly short: national elections were scheduled for the following year—and would prove a predictable electoral travesty—and the Southern self-determination referendum was scheduled for January 9, 2011, with an inevitable vote for secession determining that July9, 2011 would be the date for independence.

I have written frequently and at length about the incompetence of Obama administration policies in Sudan during past two and a half years, and in particular about the manifest foolishness and ignorance of Obama’s special envoy for Sudan, retired Air Force Major-General Scott Gration. Of the many administration failures, however, none will prove as consequential as the crude attempt to side-step the Abyei issue, which was also scheduled, per the terms of the CPA, to hold aself-determination referendum in January 2011. Beginning in fall 2010 a series of ad hoc and expedient measures were taken by the administration to ensure that the Southern self-determination referendum took place as scheduled, since it was obvious even to the Obama people that a failure of this referendum would ensure renewed North/South war. This expediency included "de-coupling" Darfur from the central negotiating issues defining U.S. engagement with Khartoum.

In the process, the Obama administration abandoned any meaningful commitment to the Abyei Protocol in the CPA, a key provision that was perhaps the most contentious of all issues resolved during final negotiations in Naivasha, Kenya in 2004. The Protocol represented a compromise for both sides, but it guaranteed the "residents" of Abyei a self-determination referendum, based on an Abyei geographically defined by the Abyei Boundaries Commission (ABC) stipulated in the Protocol. In July 2005 the ABC—distinguished students of Sudan, chosen by both sides—submitted its report to regime president Omar al-Bashir, who promptly declared he would not accept it, despite the commitment embodied in the CPA.  After regime’s regular and militia forces largely destroyed Abyei town in May 2008, the Government of South Sudan agreed to "final and binding" arbitration by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague; for it was clear to the southern leadership that the international community would offer no other help in resolving the issue. The findings of the PCA, more favorable in several respects to Khartoum than to the South, were released in July 2009. Even so, it was not long before Khartoum would yet again renege, even on this "final and binding" resolution of the Abyei dispute.

In fall 2010 Obama administration officials, as well as Senator John Kerry, finally grasped the urgency of the looming Abyei crisis, given Khartoum’s avowed refusal to permit a self-determination referendum that did not include the migratory Misseriya Arabs, who grazed their cattle seasonally in Abyei. This was the first and only time that Misseriya "residency" in Abyei had been raised as an issue. Khartoum’s factitious commitment to this enlarged "enfranchisement" was clearly a ploy, but one the Obama administration fell for. Senior officials, including Hillary Clinton as well as special envoy Gration, pressured both sides to "compromise" further on the terms of a "final" Abyei settlement, as if there had been no compromise in the original Protocol or in the finding of the PCA. Kerry, in a moment of unforgiveable ignorance—on many counts—declared that the North/South peace agreement shouldn’t not be held hostage to a “few hundred square miles" of territory (in fact, Abyei is only slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut). U.S. expediency, and the failure to understand the historic significance of Abyei to the South, was being broadcast in ways that made it impossible for Khartoum to miss. (Sudan historian Douglas Johnson has offered an incisive critique of American diplomatic malfeasance in responding to the Abyei crisis.)

Beginning in January 2011 military activities by Khartoum’s regular Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and its Misseriya militia allies increased in and around Abyei, and tensions built steadily, despite two nominal agreements about grazing rights for Misseriya herders. From February through March, the regime’s regular forces deployed with increasing strategic purpose in the Abyei region, and by late March the military seizure of Abyei itself was simply a matter of deciding when to use these forces. This was all established beyond any reasonable doubt by satellite photography from the Satellite Sentinel Project, which had been following these deployments for many weeks. Even more ominously, during roughly the same interval, a "creeping military coup" was occurring in Khartoum, a political assessment now almost universally shared. This fundamentally changed the risk/reward calculus governing decisions about war and peace. And guided by this calculus, the regime hardliners and military strongmen made a decision to use an accidental fire-fight between the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and Khartoum’s SAF (May 19) as pretext for invasion; and given the deployments of the preceding two months, it was hardly surprising that it took only two days to seize all of Abyei and in the process drive more than 100,000 indigenous Dinka Ngok into South Sudan, where they remain today with vastly inadequate humanitarian resources.

The new U.S. special envoy for Sudan, Princeton Lyman, had quickly accepted the UN assessment of responsibility for the incident that would trigger Khartoum’s military seizure; this assessment had been almost immediately rendered by UN special representative for Sudan Haile Menkerios solely on the basis of interviews with two senior SAF officers. It is difficult to imagine a more irresponsible decision under the circumstances, and strongly suggests that the UN was more intent on appeasing Khartoum than accurately assigning responsibility. But once the U.S. had accepted Menkerios’ assessment, Khartoum’s generals had their casus belli and the military seizure of Abyei was ordered.

Menkerios seemed to ignore the fact that much violence instigated and supported by Khartoum had preceded this military seizure, including the destruction of Maker Abior, Todach, and Tajalei villages; and certainly the memories of the razing of Abyei town in 2008 were still strong. The Dinka Ngok were poised for flight. Carrying what little they could, they fled to Agok in South Sudan (where they were again attacked by the SAF) and some as far as Turelei. By May 29 it was clear that Khartoum had destroyed the key Banton Bridge, linking Abyei to the South. Most of Abyei had again been razed, and a UN investigation concluded that there was evidence of "ethnic cleansing." Some human rights experts went so far as to say Khartoum’s actions were evidence of crimes against humanity. Fear continued to sweep through Agok, the closest town in South Sudan to Abyei, and thousands fled even further south and west. These people have no intention of returning until their security can be guaranteed, a highly unlikely prospect. Regime presidental-Bashir has unambiguously declared Abyei to be part of the North, and that his military will not withdraw.

A UN peacekeeping force of Ethiopian troops has belatedly, and only partially, deployed to the region; but in reneging on yet another agreement, Khartoum has all too predictably declared—in violation of the letter and spirit of the peacekeeping agreement—that it will not withdraw it forces until the entire Ethiopian brigade has deployed—in other words, no time soon, if ever. The Abyei issue has been settled; Khartoum has created, militarily, a fait accompli and the international community seems unprepared to insist on any withdrawal or surrender of defacto military control. Indeed, Khartoum has declared as much, and the lesson of international irresolution on Abyei that has not been lost on the increasingly militarized regime.

Initially, some observers saw in Khartoum’s military seizure of Abyei an effort to grab easy leverage in negotiations with the South on other issues, including the 20 percent of the North/South border that remains undelineated, oil revenue-sharing (now at the center of rapidly intensifying economic warfare), the status of southerners in the North, as well as security arrangements and other issues. But as I argued at the time, given the evidence that was coming from South Kordofan, the concern was not how Khartoum would bargain with Abyei, but how it would extend its military aggression. In the event, on June 5—two weeks after the seizure of Abyei and more than a month before southern independence (July 9)—Khartoum’s SAF and Arab militia allies began a large, well-prepared military campaign in South Kordofan, again using a contrived military event as pretext. But the extent of the planning and the purpose of the military actions were clear from the beginning—including a pre-positioning of body bags and tarps for use in the mass gravesites that would soon appear. The targets were members of the SPLA-North, and more generally the Nuba people, African tribal groups who are the predominant population in South Kordofan. Large-scale ethnically-targeted human destruction was established by numerous eyewitness reports, including many in a confidential (though leaked) UN human rights report (July 3, 2011).

Like Blue Nile—which would be militarily attacked on a broad basis beginning September 1—South Kordofan is a border state that colonial borders have placed in the North. But much of the last civil war was fought in the Nuba Mountains, as well as in southern Blue Nile; some 30,000-40,000 of the best SPLA troops are from South Kordofan and Blue Nile, and are determined to protect their families and homelands. The need for such protection became especially clear with the engineered election of Ahmed Haroun as governor of South Kordofan in May 2011, results irresponsibly and foolishly ratified by the Carter Center (Atlanta). Khartoum wanted Haroun as governor so that he could continue with the activities that he had energetically engaged in during the early years of the Darfur genocide—activities for which he has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on dozens of counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes. Khartoum would not let Haroun lose, and he in turn would not let down his bosses.

I have described extensively the genocidal onslaught that quickly gathered pace in Kadugli and the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan, where hundreds of thousands of Nuba people have been forced to flee their homes in the face of constant aerial bombardment and who are denied all international humanitarian assistance. To date there has been no meaningful international discussion of the need to create, on an urgent basis, cross-border humanitarian corridors into South Kordofan and Blue Nile, and to do so by all means necessary. We have no idea of the death toll, but it will soon be staggering, given the massive disruption of the planting season caused by Khartoum’s relentless bombing campaign and the absence of any food supplies from any aid organizations. People, already severely malnourished, will starve in large numbers in two to three months according to the assessment of one seasoned humanitarian worker who very recently made the dangerous journey into South Kordofan. Moreover, news from the ground in recent days makes clear that Khartoum’s dry season offensive has begun: the SAF can make use of its tracked vehicles, including tanks and heavy artillery carriers, and is doing so on several fronts.

Although the regime of course permits no journalists or human rights monitors into any of the three contested regions, we now have reports from intrepid journalists who have made it into the Nuba Mountains, into Kurmuk in southern Blue Nile, as well as the testimony of the many tens of thousands who have fled to the South and to Ethiopia. Amnesty International has very recently issued a terrifying account of the bombing of civilians in Blue Nile. The effects of such bombing are inevitable: the UN estimates that the number of refugees from South Kordofan and Blue Nile will reach 100,000 by the end of the year. But given the violent pace of displacement, this seems far too optimistic, and in any event it will be a figure that must be added to the more than 100,000 Dinka Ngok civilians who cannot return to Abyei because of a continuing SAF presence.

When all too predictably war extended into Blue Nile—with a repeat of widespread, indiscriminate bombing—the fall harvest (late October through November) was almost completely disrupted. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is now predicting that the harvest will "fail." And still there is no planning for or even discussion of cross-border humanitarian corridors that are—now—desperately needed. The town of Kurmuk, the last significant bastion of the SPLA-North in Blue Nile, was captured on November 3, sending tens of thousands of additional civilians into Ethiopia; a much greater number have been displaced since September 1, almost certainly numbering in the hundreds of thousands; a great many of these people are already severely malnourished and vulnerable to disease. And further violence in the area seems inevitable: the Satellite Sentinel Project has revealed photographic evidence of Khartoum’s immediate military extension of the airfield near Kurmuk, as well as the construction of helipads for military helicopters, both gunships and troop-carrying aircraft. Kurmuk lies only 40 miles from the border with South Sudan, and its Antonov bombers can now reach the capital of South Sudan, Juba.

It would be difficult to overstate the scale and number of policy failures represented by the present situation, which is defined by conflict that rages on three fronts (including Darfur), and which may spread to a fourth, as the eastern region of Sudan is also poised to explode in discontent. The assaults on civilians in Blue Nile, South Kordofan, and the displacement of the virtually the entire Dinka Ngok population from Abyei have together come perilously close to compelling action by the military forces of the South. And yet despite this growing danger, threatening millions of people in the bordering countries as well as in the two Sudans, Khartoum faces no consequences for its most egregious acts of violence and most vicious atrocities. On November 10, for example, the refugee camp at Yida was bombed; Yida is well inside southern Unity State, and has been home to more than 20,000refugees from neighboring South Kordofan. Four bombs were dropped, and three exploded, though with no casualties; but the fourth landed immediately outside a school were some 200 students were gathered. Casualties would have been horrific if the bomb had detonated. All humanitarian personnel have now been evacuated, and a population that made the desperate trek from South Kordofan to Yida is utterly bereft. Only the strongest will make it to new locations further inside South Sudan.

What was Khartoum’s response to the Yida bombing, witnessed by personnel from the humanitarian organization Samaritan’s Purse, by reporters from the BBC and Reuters, and others? The regime’s ambassador to the UN denies the bombing ever took place, calling all accusations of such an event "fabrications." Meanwhile, war-time propaganda aggressively spews from the regime’s variously controlled media in unprecedented quantity.

There have been numerous other bombings attacks on territory of the now sovereign nation of South Sudan, going back over a year, and they show no sign of abating; there have also been numerous cross-border ground incursions by the SAF and its militia allies. Very recent fighting in the Jau region, on a contested section of the border between South Kordofan and oil-rich Unity State, has been intense and may well prove to be the tipping point, as a major military clash appears to be imminent. Speaking of the fighting near Jau, Nhial Deng Nhial, the foreign minister of South Sudan, declared on December 8 that the North and South were on the "brink of war" because of Khartoum’s assault on this Dinka region. Khartoum is also clearly supporting—with arms and logistics—the worst of the renegade militia forces operating in South Sudan, encouraging them to attack civilians, to destabilize the region, and to tie down SPLA forces. The Small Arms Survey (Geneva) has provided compelling evidence of extensive arms shipments—overwhelmingly of Chinese manufacture—that can only have originated in Khartoum. These same renegade militias are actively engaged in laying anti-tank mines designed to restrict or paralyze humanitarian operations and to control civilian movement. It is the most brutally indiscriminate form of warfare.

Given these actions and provocations, it becomes increasingly difficult for the leadership in Juba to watch as their former brothers-in-arms, and their families, are hunted like animals, bombed indiscriminately, and denied all international humanitarian relief. Given the failures of the international community—including the UN, the AU, and actors such as the EU and the U.S.—Juba will inevitably conclude that the South is on its own in this newest round of war, as it has long known it would likely be, despite the support at the time for the Security Protocol of the CPA.


Journalism is supposedly the first draft of history; but in the border regions of Sudan we have more than a first draft: we have a ghastly reprise of the conduct of war that has defined Khartoum’s brutal military control of its restless peripheries for decades. We have as well a reprise of the shameless mendacity with which this regime speaks to the international community, a mendacity that goes almost entirely unchallenged. And as in Darfur—and the Nuba Mountains in the 1990s—we have the supremely callous denial of international humanitarian assistance to many hundreds of thousands of desperately vulnerable civilians—children, women, the elderly, and the infirm. Moreover, just as the regime has turned Darfur into a "black box," from which exceedingly few honest accounts emerge, including from the UN, so Blue Nile, South Kordofan, and Abyei are becoming steadily less visible.

The mutiny in Bor in 1983 of course had many antecedents and causes (including a previous civil war, 1955-1972); the military seizure of Abyei in May 2011 is also an event with a highly complex historical context. But if we wish to trace the trajectory of growing civil war in Sudan, Abyei marks the point at which an apparently irreversible move to greater and greater conflict was reached. In turn, the failure to address the issues that made Abyei such a conspicuous flashpoint will define the Obama administration’s "loosing of the peace" in Sudan; and it will be a failure that may well prove even more destructive of human life than the misguided U.S. intervention in Iraq under former President Bush.

Despite protestations, remembrances, and various declarations of resolve, Rwanda continues to stand as a grim reminder of the degree to which inaction and merely standing by can be as immoral as the unreasonable and illegitimate exercise of military power. In Sudan, Darfur marked the failure of President Bush during his "Rwanda moment"; and now the border regions of Sudan appear to be marking the failure of President Obama during his own "Rwanda moment." And absent a firm commitment to securing humanitarian corridors into Blue Nile and South Kordofan, by all means necessary, his administration will preside over civilian deaths from disease and starvation that may well number in the hundreds of thousands.

Eric Reeves has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade. He is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.

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