A Timeline for Catastrophe: Sudan’s Continuing Slide Toward War

Historical memory is often short when Sudan is the subject, and the events of even the past year often become blurred or inadequately related to one another. This is especially dangerous because of the likely form that renewed war in Sudan will take. As Baptiste Gallopin argued at the end of August—and thus prior to Khartoum’s military offensive in Blue Nile ("Sudan: Slippery Slope")—war will not come in the form of "an abrupt descent into full-fledged violence, but rather through a graduated series of unilateral measures that set the stage for a de facto international conflict." The timeline offered here represents an attempt to provide a sequential account of the events, developments, and statements that have brought greater Sudan relentlessly closer to renewed war over the past year. It necessarily focuses on the "unilateralism" that has emanated from Khartoum, and taken the form of brutal aggression against the people of Abyei, South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and increasingly South Sudan itself.

By Eric Reeves

December 30, 2011 (SSNA) — Such a timeline as I offer here cannot be complete, and yet also risks omissions that are important to understanding the course of events since September 2010, the point at which this timeline becomes significantly more detailed. A critical omission is Darfur, where genocide by attrition continues with only the barest of reporting by the UN/African Union force (UNAMID) or UN humanitarian agencies. Human rights and news organizations, of course, have no access to Darfur. The result is that a region formerly of considerable concern in the international community has become a "black box" (see the Appendix).

But of course even to note Darfur’s fate is to catch a glimpse of what the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party (NIF/NCP) is attempting in South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and virtually all of Abyei: in these three areas as well, Khartoum is doing all it can to keep prying international eyes away, and as a consequence has denied virtually all humanitarian access, even for assessment purposes. We have broad estimates for the number of displaced, the number at extreme risk, the number who face food shortages, the number of refugees from Blue Nile and South Kordofan; but they are estimates that are strikingly without adequate data sets and may well be low.

If I have erred, it is on the side of detail, especially for the past twelve months, and even more so for events following Khartoum’s May 21 military seizure of Abyei. At the same time, I have not attempted to chronicle all incidents of aerial attacks on civilians and humanitarian targets: for a comprehensive analysis and data spreadsheet for such attacks, surveying all reports since 1999, see "They Bombed Everything That Moved," May 6, 2011, updated July 15 and October 15, 2011 (www.sudanbombing.org). Moreover, I have not given even a synoptic account of all the academic and organizational reports on Sudan from the past year and more, but rather try to note those that seem to offer key information for the chronology I am attempting to establish, particularly with respect to Khartoum’s repeated reneging on agreements it has committed to.

Some redundant reporting of events has proved inevitable: in organizing and grouping developments that overlap in time—such as the military seizure of Abyei, offensives in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, and assaults on the territory of South Sudan—I have felt it necessary to include some more broadly relevant events in two places on the timeline (all dates and time references, including those within synopses, are in bold). Moreover, I’ve taken as many words as has seemed necessary to make sense of particular developments in the larger sequence of events. Finally, many significant developments have no clear or definite terminus a quo: for these I have, partially arbitrarily, picked a particular month for dating purposes, or have included particular dates within accounts accompanying other, related dates. I believe the timeline has been kept as chronologically sequential as possible given my ambitions.

Sources are typically indicated briefly, often with an embedded link. For a complete version of this timeline—with all formatting and links preserved—please see (in two parts because of its length):

A Timeline for Catastrophe: Sudan’s Continuing Slide Toward War | 30 December 2011

A Timeline for Catastrophe: Sudan’s Continuing Slide Toward War (cont’d)

(The text that appears here, again because of length, runs only through March 22, 2011.)

A Word document (.docx) version of the full text is available upon request from the author. I should say that I am particularly indebted to the work of Julie Flint, Douglas Johnson, the Small Arms Survey, Amnesty International, John Ashworth, and the Satellite Sentinel Project.


Timeline to Catastrophe: Sudan’s Continuing Slide Toward War

January 1, 1956: Sudan becomes independent of condominium rule by Great Britain and Egypt; it will be ruled for the next 55 years by three riverine Arab tribes (the Shaigiyya, Danagla, and Ja’alin).

1964: TheSudanese Muslim Brothers form a political party, the antecedent to the National Islamic Front.

1970: The Unregistered Land Act is passed in Khartoum: the Act provides a legal basis for large-scale land acquisitions, accelerating the encroachment of mechanized farming in traditional Nuba farmlands.

1972: The Nimeiri regime in Khartoum abrogates the Abyei referendum promised in the Addis Ababa Peace Agreement.

1970s: This is period in that sees the progressive annexation of Dinka Ngok lands by Misseriya Arabs.

Early 1980s: The Nuba people increasingly resist the aggressive Islamizing and Arabizing efforts of the regimes of Jaafer Nimeiri, Sadiq el-Mahdi, and finally the National Islamic Front (later renamed the National Congress Party, or NCP).

May 1985: Jafaar Nimeiri is overthrown.

June 30, 1989: The National Islamic Front seizes power in a military coup, deposing an elected government and deliberately aborting the most promising chance for a north/south peace since independence in 1956.

1990s: The National Islamic Front wages a genocidal campaign against the people of the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan; jihad is declared in January 1992, later confirmed by fatwas from pro-regime imams in Khartoum (April 1992).

1995: The first in-depth reports of the genocidal war in the Nuba Mountains are published; a secret airlift is organized by a small group of aid organizations.

1999: The oil pipeline from Heglig to Port Sudan is completed; the first 600,000 barrels of oil are exported in a shipment at the end of August.

2000: Brutal, final genocidal warfare continues in the oil regions of what was then Western Upper Nile.

November 2001: U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan, former Senator John Danforth, declares that the Nuba Mountains are "at the top" of the U.S. government agenda.

July 2002: The National Islamic Front/National Congress Party (NIF/NCP) regime and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) sign the Machakos Protocol, which guarantees South Sudan the right to a self-determination referendum and commits the parties to "addressing the root causes the conflict" in Sudan.

October 2002: The NIF/NCP regime and the SPLA/M sign a"Cessation of Offensive Hostilities Agreement."

December 2002: The people of the Nuba mandate the SPLM to negotiate their "self-determination."

January 2003: Despite mandating the SPLM to negotiate their future, there is deep foreboding among the Nuba.

April 2003: Khartoum’s counter-insurgency campaign in Darfur becomes genocidal following the successful Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) attack on el-Fasher air base; both regular military forces and Arab militia forces (the Janjaweed) attack non-Arab/African villages on a massive scale, displacing in the course of several years more than three million (internally as well as refugees in eastern Chad) and killing as many as 500,000 civilians.

May 2004: A protocol promising "popular consultations" for South Kordofan and Blue Nile states is signed by Khartoum and the SPLM.

May 2004: The Abyei Protocol is signed, guaranteeing the "residents" of Abyei a self-determination referendum; the Protocol stipulates the formation of an Abyei Boundaries Commission (ABC) to delineate Abyei’s borders.

January 9, 2005: TheKhartoum regime and the SPLM sign the "Comprehensive Peace Agreement" (CPA), including the protocols for Abyei, as well as South Kordofan and Blue Nile.

July 14, 2005: The ABC, comprising distinguished students of Sudan—chosen by both sides—submits its report to President Omar al-Bashir; it is never seriously considered by the NIF/NCP leadership.

May 2006: The "Darfur Peace Agreement" is signed in Abuja, Nigeria by the Khartoum regime and one rebel faction; the agreement is a disastrous failure, and leads to the fragmenting of the rebel movement; Khartoum fails to adhere meaningfully to any terms of the agreement.

2007: The international community fails to provide an effective security force for Darfur, instead relying on an unprecedented and hopelessly compromised UN/African "hybrid" mission. Since the day on which the force (UNAMID) took up its mandate (January 1, 2008), more than 1 million Darfuris have been newly displaced and insecurity has steadily eroded for humanitarian organizations.

May 2008: Abyei town is destroyed by Khartoum’s regular military and militia allies, with large numbers of casualties, and displacement of Dinka Ngok to Agok in South Sudan; personnel of the UN peacekeeping mission (UNMIS) do nothing to protect civilians as they are attacked.

July 2008: The AU Peace and Security Council calls for the formation of a "high-level panel" to examine the crisis in Darfur and formulate recommendations on accountability and reconciliation in the region. This panel is led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki; it accomplishes nothing.

November 2008: Khartoum begins heavily arming Arab militias in South Kordofan; the UNMIS commander in Kadugli (capital of South Kordofan), Karen Tchalian, is widely regarded as ineffective and strongly biased toward Khartoum.

March 4: Khartoum expels from Darfur thirteen of the world’s most distinguished humanitarian organizations, providing together approximately 50 percent of total capacity in Darfur. It is an unspeakably cruel action, justified on the preposterous pretext of "espionage." Although many tie the expulsions to the International Criminal Court indictment of President al-Bashir for atrocity crimes, the fact is that Khartoum had long been looking for an occasion on which to expel these organizations.

July 22, 2009: The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague issues its "final and binding" award on Abyei; the finding is favorable to Khartoum in several respects, significantly reducing the territory of Abyei and moving two highly productive oil sites—Heglig and Bamboo—to South Kordofan. The SPLM accepts the ruling; yet it will be only a matter of months before Khartoum claims that the PCA ruling did not settle the Abyei issue.

2010: Throughout 2010 there is increasing military activity in South Kordofan, including the heavy arming of militia forces. The Small Arms Survey in particular details much of this military build-up, beginning in 2008. Julie Flint notes "significant unexplained movements of tanks and troops in recent months," and the ominous appointment of "Major General Ahmad Khamis as commander of the 14th Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) infantry division in Kadugli. Head of Military Intelligence in the region during the civil war, Khamis has been consistently named as being responsible for detentions, torture, and executions."

August 2010: TheObama administration signals that Darfur will be "de-emphasized" in U.S. Sudan policy, at the insistence of special envoy Scott Gration. At the same time, Khartoum begins to promulgate its "New Strategy for Darfur," a blatant attempt to create the pretext for eliminating an international humanitarian presence in Darfur. "Development," the regime argues, will replace humanitarian services, despite a vast population still in desperate need of food, clean water, shelter, and primary medical care. Thabo Mbeki, chair of the African Union High-Level Panel on Implementation, and U.S. envoy Gration "strongly support" the "New Strategy."

August 8: Following a navigational error by a Russian pilot, South Sudan impounds a Khartoum-bound cargo helicopter carrying military men loyal to renegade rebel leader George Athor. The helicopter carries abundant evidence of the regime’s material support for Athor and his forces. (Sudan Tribune)

September 16: Senior members of the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party in Khartoum officially ratify the "New Strategy for Darfur."

October 25: Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee—and representing the Obama administration—declares of Abyei that "a few hundred square miles cannot be allowed to stand in the way of progress when the fate of millions of people is at stake." Abyei, as defined by the PCA, is approximately 4,000 square miles, and of enormous historical significance, a fact that seems to escape Kerry entirely.

Kerry’s extraordinarily destructive diplomatic blunder will serve as background to claims about Abyei made by the Khartoum regime over the next year and more.

November 8: A U.S. State Department spokesman insists special envoy Scott Gration has offered no plan for Abyei, despite the specific proposal offered by Gration at Green Tree Estate (Long Island, New York) on September 24 – 25. The proposal brought by Gration and his office is detailed by the International Crisis Group in a November 23, 2011 Briefing ("Negotiating Sudan’s North-SouthFuture," page 4); this State Department denial is part of a growing pattern of disingenuousness.

November 8: The U.S. State Department officially announces that Darfur will be "de-coupled" as an issue in bilateral negotiations with Khartoum over the regime’s continuing presence on the State Department list of terrorism-sponsoring nations. Khartoum sees the decision as an abandonment of Darfur in the interest of securing the Southern self-determination referendum, scheduled for January 9, 2011. This assessment is reflected in the statements of a number of senior regime officials.

October – November: Misseriya militia are massing around Diffra (Abyei), according to Africa Confidential (November 19, 2010). This continues a pattern of increasing militia military force that the Small Arms Survey (Geneva) has been tracing in South Kordofan since 2008.

October – November: Senior U.S. officials urge South Sudan to "compromise further" on Abyei, despite the terms of the Abyei Protocol and the "final and binding" ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Gration declares, "There’s no more time to waste …. The parties must be prepared to come to Addis [Ababa negotiations] with an attitude of compromise." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declares that "the parties must make the tough compromises necessary to settle the status of Abyei." Ironically, by this time the U.S. has lost whatever control over negotiations it may have had. The AU’s Mbeki becomes the default mediator, and fails badly yet again. Africa Confidential (November 19, 2010) reports the view of Dinka Ngok civil society: "Mbeki was basically telling the Ngok that the Abyei Protocol and PCA boundaries must all be renegotiated because the Misseriya wouldn’t budge, [said one prominent member of Abyei civil society]."

Khartoum sees that the U.S. and AU are prepared to "de-couple" Abyei as well as Darfur; this guarantees that the Abyei self-determination referendum will not take place as scheduled, and prepares the way for the May 21 military seizure of Abyei by the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and its Misseriya militia allies.

Of the October negotiations in Addis, Deng Alor (from Abyei and former foreign minister of the Government of South Sudan) recalls:

"Gration came last month [October 2011], I think in his attempt to arrive at any solution—not necessarily a just solution [to Abyei]. We were in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. That was the first time the issue of the division of the [Abyei] area into two came up. Gration was saying there would be not enough time now for us to set up a commission for Abyei. And maybe the best for us to do would be just to transfer the area back to the south, the way it was transferred to the north by the British, (who) used an administrative decree. [Gration] said President Bashir could use a presidential decree to do that.

"The National Congress said fine, you can do that, provided this area is divided into two—you give us the northern part. And I think he fell for that. When we came to the plenary and this issue was brought up [by the northern government], Gration immediately supported it. And this made the National Congress more difficult. They have become intransigent, because now they feel they have support from the United States."

"We took it up with Gration and he insisted [on this approach]. He even tried to mobilize people for this, from the State Department and from the (Obama) administration. Senator (John) Kerry came, and he tried to convince us to accept the division of the area." (from "The Road Back to Abyei," Douglas Johnson, January 2011)

Various regional sources indicate that Gration’s pressure on the South to accede to a further division of Abyei was extreme, a counterproductive diplomatic effort incisively analyzed by Johnson in "The Road Back to Abyei."

November 2010 – January 2011: Khartoum engages in a bombing campaign that targets various sites in South Sudan:

November 11: fighter jets and Antonov bombers drop at least one bomb on Kiir Adem (Northern Bahr el Ghazal);

•November 12: aircraft return and bomb south of the River Kiir again, killing five civilians and wounding seven Southern troops; the attacks were confirmed by an AP reporter in Kiir Adem;

•November 24: military aircraft return and again target Kiir Adem, wounding four soldiers;

•December 6, 8, 10: military aircraft repeatedly attack Timsaha (Raja County), Western Bahr el Ghazal; the SPLA reports that the last attack included the dropping of eighteen bombs;

•December 13: UN investigators confirm the attacks in the Timsaha region of Western Bahr el Ghazal;

•January 10, 2011: Timsaha (Raja County) Western Bahr el Ghazal is bombed again, the day after the Southern self-determination referendum.

December 14: With less than a months to the scheduled self-determination referendum, the Southern leadership claims that Abyei is being held hostage.

December 16: The head of UN peacekeeping warns that resumed war in Sudan could displace 2.8 million civilians. (Bloomberg)

December 16: UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warns that Khartoum is "blocking aid workers from entering the country ahead of next month’s referendum on independence for the south." Almost 1,000 aid workers are affected. Given the denial of humanitarian access that will begin in a matter of months, it is difficult not to see in this decision by Khartoum the first outlines of the future campaigns in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. (AP)

December 18: Shul Angok, press secretary for the Abyei administration, warns that the SAF "was continuing to increase its military presence in South Kordofan," in areas from which the assault on Abyei will later be launched. (Sudan Tribune)

December 19: In speaking approvingly of the flogging of a woman charged with adultery, President al-Bashir finds it apropos to declare: "there would be no question of diversity when a knew constitution was drafted, if the South became independent." In speaking of the widely publicized flogging of a Southern woman, al-Bashir declares Islamic "shari’a has always stipulated that one must whip, cut, or kill." (BBC) (Reuters)

December 29: Senior NIF/NCP official Nafi’e Ali Nafi’e accuses the UN missions in Sudan of "being the main actor in sustaining internal conflicts," and asserts that they play "the greatest role in fomenting conflicts in the country." (Sudan Tribune)

2011: Thenorthern Sudanese economy begins to tailspin, a process that continues to the present; the IMF projects negative real GDP growth for the northern economy: (-) 0.2% in 2011 and (-) 0.4% in 2012. The economy is burdened by the loss of oil revenue, lack of foreign currency reserves, inflation hovering at 20 percent, an immense (and unserviceable) external debt of $38 billion, and growing unhappiness among workers, as sugar and petrol subsidies are removed.

2011: Khartoum increases its arming and proxy use of Southern renegade militia forces. The clear purpose is to weaken South Sudan, and to tie down SPLA troops and resources. Civilian destruction is the primary ambition of the renegade militias, particularly those of George Athor and Peter Gadet (the latter leads the "South Sudan Liberation Movement" [SSLA] for much of 2011). The Small Arms Survey, inspecting weapons captured from these two militia groups, finds strong evidence that they have been provided by Khartoum. Details include the nature of the weapons, their distinctiveness, and even sequential serial numbers in some cases. They are predominantly of very recent Chinese manufacture, although some Iranian weapons have also been found. The first months of 2011 will see tremendous civilian destruction as a result of Athor’s military actions (see a series of reports from the Small Arms Survey).

Authoritative regional sources report that the SSLA is laying anti-tank mines (Chinese T-72 AT-mines) in large numbers in oil-rich Unity State. These indiscriminate weapons also come from Khartoum. Their primary effect is to greatly restrict the movement of humanitarian personnel and civilians.

January 6: According to Business Day (South Africa), Thabo Mbeki "has paid a glowing tribute to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir ahead of the country’s secession referendum on Sunday. Mr Mbeki said at a function at the University of Khartoum yesterday Mr al-Bashir—who was indicted in the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur in 2009—had accepted the secession referendum in a graceful, generous and humane manner." It is difficult to imagine a more obscene ignorance or disingenuous self-congratulation (Mbeki will later lash out at those who remain concerned about the prospects for peace in Sudan).

First week of January: Threats of a violent takeover of Abyei are announced in rallies in Muglad.

January 7 – 9: Repeated and well-coordinated attacks on the Abyei village of Maker (15 kilometers northwest of Abyei town) kill dozens and wound many more (Small Arms Survey, April 27, 2011).

January 8: The first of the rebel groups of the former Eastern Front merges with the Justice and Equality Movement of Darfur; eastern Sudan becomes increasingly explosive throughout the year.

January 9: The Southern self-determination referendum is held, peacefully and joyfully, as some 99 per cent of Southerners vote for independence.

January 13: The regime-controlled Parliament in Khartoum passes a law cancelling the Sudanese nationality of Southerners in the north; this response to the vote for Southern independence is enormously consequential for the 700,000 Southerners the UN claims remain in the north (Khartoum’s figure is 150,000, a telling discrepancy, revealing an ominous goal rather than a census count).

January 13: In the wake of the January 7 – 9 attacks on Maker, the first Kadugli Agreement is signed by leaders of the Misseriya and Dinka Ngok communities; it focuses on grazing rights and compensation for the killing of Ngok civilians in 2010. The agreement will fail completely.

January 14: In Khartoum U.S. special envoy Scott Gration—now despised by all parties to the conflicts except Khartoum, as well as by humanitarian personnel and Sudan advocates—promises the NIF/NCP leadership that the U.S. will remove Sudan from the list of terrorism-sponsoring nations by the end of the Interim Period (July 9, 2011) if "everything goes smoothly." At this point, violence has already accelerated in Abyei, and the region has not held the self-determination referendum promised by the CPA. Evidently because the SPLM has not "compromised" further on Abyei, the issue has been "de-coupled" in U.S. policy as defined by Gration.

January 17: The second Kadugli Agreement is signed, and focuses on migratory routes, Southerners returning to Abyei, and security arrangements. It, too, will fail completely. (For an authoritative account of both agreements, see Small Arms Survey, April 2011)

January 30: The UN reports eight attacks by Arab militia forces on Southerners returning to the South in the three weeks since the self-determination referendum; the attacks occur north of Abyei, and many others will occur subsequently—most unreported. (AP)

Late January: SPLA and SAF "Joint Integrated Units" are deployed to Abyei per the Kadugli agreement on security.

February: Khartoum accelerates economic warfare against the South following the vote for independence, blocking many North/South trading routes. These tactics will escalate throughout the year, culminating in the November 2011 announcement that the regime will sequester a portion of oil produced in the South until exorbitant transit fees are paid. By June 13 IRIN is reporting serious food shortages as a result of this closure of trading routes.

February 15: The NIF/NCP regime declares that there will be no extension of the UN peacekeeping force (UNMIS) in north Sudan, including South Kordofan, where military activities and deployments are rapidly escalating.

February 17: In a pattern of violence that will stalk Jonglei state for all of 2011, AFP reports massive civilian destruction and displacement:

"Over 20,000 people fled clashes last week between rebels and the army in south Sudan’s troubled Jonglei state in which over 200 people died, a senior official said on Thursday. ‘People have run from the fighting, and 20,000 people have been displaced,’ said Stephen Kuol, Jonglei’s state education minister, releasing the findings of an assessment mission to the devastated Fangak region in which he took part."

"The figures could not be independently verified, and the report of a United Nations team that visited the site of the clashes has not yet been released.

Many of the victims—the majority of them civilians—reportedly drowned in a river as they tried to escape the two days of fighting. Kuol, who comes from the area and who helped to bury some of the victims in mass graves, said he witnessed ‘floating corpses’ following the violence last week, which he described as ‘mass butchery.’ Followers of the renegade southern general George Athor are accused of carrying out the attacks, which broke a ceasefire many had hoped would end the conflict."

To be sure, the problems of insecurity in South Sudan, and lingering ethnic animosities, are complex and difficult issues confronting the new Government of South Sudan. And there is much to criticize in government performance to date. But the role of renegade militia forces such as that of George Athor, robustly supported by Khartoum to engage in precisely this sort of civilian destruction, must not be underestimated.

March 21 – 22: Four separate bombings attacks are reported in Raja County, Western Bahr el Ghazal (at Raja, Firka, Timsaha, and Upuranus) ….

For the complete timeline through December 30, 2011, in two parts because of length, see:

A Timeline for Catastrophe: Sudan’s Continuing Slide Toward War | 30 December 2011


Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College and author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide

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