Sudan has an unenviable and deserved reputation for mass atrocities. This is closely associated with its recurrent armed conflicts and political instability. Among the major events that warrant classification as mass atrocities are the following:

  • Massacres during the first civil war (1955-72), including the killing of northern traders in Torit by mutineers in 1955, and killings of southern civilians by the army in the 1960s.
  • The military assault on the headquarters of the Umma Party and Ansar movement in 1970.
  • The imprisonment and execution of members of the Sudan Communist Party following the failed coup attempt in 1971.
  • The raiding, burning, abduction, and killing carried out by militia forces drawn from Baggara Arab tribes in Southern Kordofan and Southern Darfur during the early years of the second civil war (1985-88), against the Dinka tribes of Abyei and Northern Bahr al Ghazal, including policies of starvation and the el Daien massacre of 1987 perpetrated against displaced Dinka.
  • Massacres of Dinka in Wau town by the army and Fertit militia in 1986-7.
  • The mass executions of Nuba leaders and burning of Nuba villages in 1988-89, followed by major military campaigns and forced displacement, culminating in the Nuba Mountains Jihad of 1991-2.
  • Massacres of Dinka and Nuer in inter-tribal conflict, notably in Bor, following the split of the SPLA in 1991.
  • Militia raids and massacres in Bahr al Ghazal in 1997-98, chiefly perpetrated by renegade Dinka militia allied with the Government of Sudan.
  • The clearance of the oilfields of Upper Nile and Unity by the army and militia (both from the north and the south) during 1998-2000, including the mass displacement of the indigenous Nuer population.
  • Massacre, forced displacement and other violations perpetrated by militia and army in Darfur in 2003-04.

Of this list, four episodes (the late 1980s militia raids, the Nuba Jihad, the oilfields clearances and the Darfur counter-offensives) are arguably genocidal. The remainder of this memorandum will focus on these four.

The mass displacement of the Abyei people in May 2011 and the comprehensive destruction of Abyei town by the Sudan Armed Forces, is undoubtedly an atrocity, mitigated by the fact that the Ngok Dinka evacuated the area in the face of the army’s advance. The recent killing of at least 100 Nuba leaders, following the outbreak of war in Southern Kordofan in June 2011, may yet qualify as a mass atrocity. There have also been massacres involving hundreds of civilians as a result of internal conflicts in South Sudan, before and after independence on 9 July 2011.

As these most recent episodes show, Sudan and South Sudan still have the propensity for mass atrocity. In a general and an important sense, mass atrocity in Sudan has not ended. The ending of each episode is merely respite. Some locations (e.g. the Nuba Mountains, Abyei and the major oilfields of Unity State) have recurrent atrocities.

The temporary ending of the specific episodes of mass atrocity appears to follow from variant combinations of the following factors:

  • The exhaustion of the military or militia. Sustaining a military campaign in Sudanese terrain is difficult, and funds, logistics, distances and lack of infrastructure make it difficult to carry out a campaign during longer than a single dry season. (The 1980s militia raids were a seasonal phenomenon.)
  • The perpetrators achieving specific goals. The Nuba Jihad succeeded in reducing the territories controlled by the SPLA and reducing its offensive capability. The oilfields clearances made it possible to establish oil wells and other infrastructure. The Darfur counter-offensives were a tactical military success.
  • Resistance of the targeted group. In all cases, the targeted group had military capabilities and could fight back, or at minimum retreat into difficult-to-reach territory (hills or swamps) from where it could regroup and continue to resist.
  • Internal divisions among the perpetrators. Temporary tactical unity of purpose and coordination of activities, frequently gave way to sharp divisions within the ruling group. For example, the chiefs of the Baggara Arab tribes were unhappy at the power that was exercised, or usurped, by militia commanders. In the case of the Nuba Jihad, the army favored limited military objectives while civilian ideologues pursued more ambitious plans for the relocation of the population and socio-cultural and religious transformation. The army’s dislike, distrust and fear of militia and of the National Intelligence and Security Service also led to contradictory or paralyzing policies on occasions.
  • Public opinion. Sudanese domestic public opinion was a factor in several cases, though its impact is hard to measure.

During all these episodes, the leaders of each side were in communication with each other, often tactically bargaining. During the 1980s militia raids, the chiefs on each side continued to talk and by the early 1990s, they had negotiated a number of local truces. In the middle of the Nuba Jihad, the provincial governor of Southern Kordofan agreed a cessation of hostilities with his SPLM/A counterpart (it was then countermanded by another official). The Arab and Fur leaders in Darfur were frequently in negotiations and intermittently had pacts.

Violent conflict and atrocity in Sudan occurs in the context of a turbulent political system, characterized by a combination of extreme disparity between center and periphery, and instability at the center. In the Sudanese vernacular it is a “political marketplace” in which local elites seek the best price for providing political support to the ruler. Violence is often used as a means of making a bid in this auction, either a local leader demanding either a higher price (by attacking a police station or looting a trader’s lorry), or the government indicating that it will not pay (by burning a village, looting livestock and raping women). It is rare for members of the elite, including the provincial elite, to be targets of this violence. For all sides, the rural populace is principally a factor in a political game. The rapidity of political realignment means that all alliances are contingent on political circumstance. While distrust is pervasive and lasting, enmities can be set aside for tactical political gain. Sudan’s conflicts are replete with examples of individuals switching sides, regardless of erstwhile animosity.

In summary, most of the time, everything in Sudanese political life, including the lives of ordinary people, is subordinate to tactical political calculus. When that political calculus changes, which may happen for diverse reasons, the rationale for inflicting atrocity also changes. It may lessen or disappear, and may then reappear, probably in a different form.

Occasionally, a military threat breaks the rules of this political game, and causes the ruler to panic. When the ruling elite collectively panics, and especially when it has little intelligence about the threat, it puts together a tactical coalition capable of perpetrating atrocities on a bigger scale. This happened in the Nuba Mountains in 1987-91 and in Darfur in 2003.

Similar threats also arose in Blue Nile in 1987, 1989 and 1997, and in Darfur in 1991 (in each case military incursions by the SPLA), but in each of these instances, the military and security response did not involve mass atrocity. The likely explanation for this is that the government could respond to the threat without large-scale violence against the civilian populace. In each of the Blue Nile incursions, Ethiopian military backing for the SPLA was a major factor, and was known to the intelligence services, as a result of which the response was almost exclusively a conventional military counter-attack. (In the 1989 case, the attack was actually led by Eritrean forces.) By contrast, the Nuba insurgency was an indigenous guerilla war. In the case of the 1991 Darfur incursion, the ruling party had a strong network in Darfur that could quickly and efficiently isolate the SPLA sympathizers and round them up. In 2003, following the split of the Islamists and the defection of most Darfurian Islamists to the opposition, the government had no comparable intelligence and targeted response capacities, and relied instead on targeting entire communities on the basis of ethnicity.

For a similar reason, we have reason to be concerned that the recent ascendancy of the army in decision making and the marginalization of the NISS may contribute to more less discriminate repression. More importantly, the sense of betrayal and paranoia that imbues the politics of the ruling military elite in Khartoum, following the secession of South Sudan, combined with scarcity of funds for renting the allegiance of provincial elites, is making it more likely that the Government of Sudan will resort to force readily and persistently. For the people of South Sudan, a strong rationale for voting for secession was that this provided an historic opportunity to be free from atrocity committed by northern Sudanese forces. However, unresolved issues between the two countries (economic relations, the border, the status of Abyei) mean that conflict has not ceased. The matter of the citizenship status of southerners in the north and northerners in the south is being resolved by each side, by agreement, depriving the other’s nationals of citizenship rights. The mutually-antagonistic and aggrieved mindset of both makes further violence likely.

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