Sudan: A History of Failed Peace Agreements

By M. Ali

Sudan has been ruled by a succession of long-lasting military juntas, interrupted by short spells of attempted parliamentary pluralism, since it attained political sovereignty from Egypt and Britain in 1956. Sudanese politicians and their governments, whether military or civilian, have habitually dishonored peace settlements. This pattern has typified the Sudanese government’s policy towards South Sudan throughout the past half century.

Reneging on promises started well before independence, with the 1947 Juba Conference between Northern and Southern leaders. Consequently, of Sudan’s 55 years of national statehood, the country has been at war with itself for 38 years in the South, 7 years in Darfur and since June 2011 in Kordofan and Blue Nile, with outbursts of violence in the Eastern and Northern regions.

A main reason for Sudan’s unity during the past decades is its vast territory of about However, protracted conflicts and civil wars have wrecked the country, sapped its resources, and accelerated the socio-economic and political marginalization of large proportions of its citizens. Khartoum, the seat of political and economic power, continued to monopolise national resources, thereby luring citizens from war-ravaged areas and now has the largest displaced population of any city in the world.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the government of Sudan and the Sudanese People Liberation Movement (SPLM) ended the longest war in Africa after more than 2 million lives lost. The 2005 CPA established a new Government of National Unity, an interim Government of Southern Sudan with provisions for wealth sharing, power sharing, and security arrangements between the two parts of the country. The agreement arranged for the withdrawal of troops from southern Sudan, the repatriation and resettlement of refugees, and a referendum allowing South Sudan to decide on unity or separation. In addition, the CPA provided special arrangements for areas north of the 1956 border between North and South Sudan affected by the conflict, namely Abyei, the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile region.

The Abyei region consists of the territory of the nine Ngok Dinka chiefdoms that were transferred from North to South in 1905 during the Anglo-Egyptian rule in Sudan. In a separate ballot, a referendum on the status of Abyei will present the residents of Abyei with the options of retaining its special administrative position in the north, or be part of Southern Sudan. The CPA also allowed the remaining two areas of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile to conduct “popular consultations” on the peace agreement. "Popular consultation", which is vaguely defined in the CPA, was meant to be a process to ascertain the "will of the people" in the two states on the "shortcomings in the constitutional, political, and administrative arrangements of the [CPA]," which are then to be resolved by negotiation between the states and the national government. While offering a chance to alter the balance of power between the national government and the states, "popular consultation" clearly envisages an outcome wherein Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile remain part of northern Sudan.

On 7th of February 2011 the Southern Sudanese voted overwhelmingly for secession in order to bring a definite end to the civil war. However, as usual, the CPA was not fully honored and armed conflict reignited in the disputed areas of Abyei, the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile region.


The CPA stipulated that an Abyei Boundaries Commission (ABC), formed with equal number of members chosen by Khartoum and Juba, define the territory to be included in the self-determination referendum; their work will be final and binding. However, Khartoum rejected the ABC report, claiming the Commission had exceeded its authority. In May 2008, Northern military forces attacked causing the displacement of 50,000 residents. Subsequently, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague examined the status of Abyei for “final and binding” arbitration and announced its ruling in July 2009, allotting one of the three oil fields to Abyei and two to South Kordofan. The decision was to be followed by the appointment of Abyei Referendum Commission as designated by the Protocol.

Yet, in April 2011, National Islamic Front (NIF)/NCP fully disavowed its commitment to accept as “final and binding” the Hague ruling, and thereby made a mockery of its commitment to the Protocol and the CPA. International and African Union attempts to reach a settlement continued throughout 2010 to no avail. South Sudan’s referendum on self-determination stayed on track (albeit slowed down) while Abyei’s was derailed by dispute.

The Sudanese Government suddenly championed the new issue of the Misseriya Arabs in Abyei, never previously discussed in negotiations or at the ABC. This was another example of the old habit of dishonouring agreements as a means to extract concessions. In the following months there were large troop deployments as part of a government military campaign, with no response from the international community or the UN mission in Sudan (UNMIS). Eventually, the Sudanese Armed Forces completed its seizure of all of Abyei on May 21-22. President Bashir declared the next day that “Abyei is northern Sudanese land. We will not withdraw from it”. Widespread pillaging and burning of huts occurred within Abyei and the surrounding villages coupled with looting. UN Integrated Regional Information (IRIN) reports showed that both humanitarian food stores and medical supplies are among the targets of looters. More than 300 were killed and estimates of numbers fleeing out of the area ranged as high as 50,000. The Sudan Satellite Project (SSP) uncovered evidence of the invasion, military activities and aerial attacks. The UN, IOM, WFP and other independent reporters underlined the shocking humanitarian situation in Abyei.

Following Security Council sessions, and an agreement brokered by an African Union mediation panel led by former South African President Mbeki, both governments have agreed to withdraw their troops from the region. The forces of South Sudan have since withdrawn and the original Southern administrator has been replaced by a governor appointed from Khartoum.

South Kordofan

The situation in the Nuba Mountains has been brutal for some time. During 1986-1989 the elected government of Prime Minister Sadig el Mahdi armed Baggara tribes to fight their Nuba neighbors, politicizing age-old competitions over resources. Following the NIF military takeover of political power in 1989, scores of villages were destroyed by joint army and militia operations. In 1992 when the NIF declared jihad, all rebel supporters and sympathizers, Christians as well as Muslims, were denounced as apostates deserving death. Villagers were burnt out of their homes and forcibly relocated to “peace camps” in government controlled areas. Nuba women were raped and children forcibly Islamized. The head of security in South Kordofan (who later sought asylum in Switzerland) insisted that government troops were under strict orders, " kill anything that is alive…to destroy everything, to burn the area so that nothing exists".

In late May 2011, instead of speeding up CPA implementation, Khartoum demanded the disarming of the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) units remaining in the north. As expected the SPLA resisted and heavy fighting started in Kadugli, the state capital. The SAF launched multiple aerial and ground attacks which according to civil society groups and eyewitness reports led to massacres of innocent civilians following house-to-house searches in the capital and surrounding villages. Some religious leaders protested against “ethnic cleansing” policies; eyewitnesses who fled Kadugli described how people of particular ethnic groups were hunted down in the streets, arrested en-masse and subjected to indiscriminate looting and burning of buildings, including aid agencies and church buildings. Of course the government rejected these accusations.

It has been extremely difficult to get any accurate information about developments in South Kordofan. Non-government media, diplomats and NGOs are barred, while UN agencies face unending restrictions. Conservative estimates suggested that last June an estimated 200,000 citizens were displaced. Representatives from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International witnessed bomber planes dropping their load on civilian areas while the Sudanese government blocked food and other aid deliveries to them.

On June 28, a framework for a peace agreement was signed in Addis Ababa which suggested modalities for the cessation of hostilities including a detailed timeline and humanitarian access to South Kordofan. The agreement sought to eventually disarm and integrate militia groups into the armed forces as well as promote the “establishment of political partnership and governance arrangements for Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan.” It further reiterates the commitment of both sides to the peace accords that ended the civil war.

However, President Bashir, upon his return from a visit to China, publicly annulled the agreement; and, "…directed the armed forces to continue military operations in South Kordofan until the cleansing of the region is over". The Sudan News Agency (SUNA) quoted Bashir saying that the military campaign would not stop until the Deputy Chairman of SPLM and gubernatorial candidate Abdelaziz el-Helu, described as an outlaw, is arrested.

Blue Nile

Conditions in the Blue Nile are similar to those of the Nuba Mountains and it has also seen confrontation between the SPLA and government forces. No less than 50,000 citizens fled from Damazin when clashes started with about 25,000 additional individuals taking refuge in Ethiopia. Moreover, there are numerous reports of indiscriminate aerial bombing by Khartoum in the region; thousands continue to flee into Ethiopia as major civilian infrastructural settings and services are destroyed. Calls for an immediate ceasefire by the UN and other international actors have fallen on deaf ears. At a SUNA press conference held on 3rd September, the Information Minister Kamal Obeid stressed that “The Sudan government will not negotiate with the State of South Sudan” and further pointed out that the Armed Forces will continue to shoulder its tasks and responsibilities in keeping ‘security’ and ‘stability’ in the Blue Nile.


Abyei, the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile are sometimes referred to in Sudan as the “three areas” –crucial transitional and contested zones spanning across the north-south political, military and cultural divides. Essentially, these areas underline Sudan’s diversity and its mosaic of African, Afro-Arab and Arab identities merging with Islam, Christianity and traditional African beliefs. Many had hoped these links would bridge and enhance ties between the Northern and Southern parts of Sudan. Regrettably, the NIF regime is imposing a straightjacket of cultural, religious and political uniformity which has ripped apart that wonderful diverse social tapestry and set Sudan on fire.

Satellite imagery has confirmed the presence of several mass gravesites, capable of holding several thousand bodies. This photographic evidence is confirmed by credible eyewitness accounts presented to UN human rights investigators as well as to the Satellite Sentinel Project, with human intelligence assets in Kadugli. Moreover, the Sudanese Red Crescent Society [SRCS] has confirmed that Khartoum gave them some 2,500 body bags and plastic tarps prior to the fighting and ethnically targeted executions that began on June 5; by the end of that month the SRCS had publicly announced a need for additional body bags.

The hesitance of international bodies as well as regional and other foreign powers to at least question the Khartoum Government has allowed the regime extra time to pursue its agenda of broken promises and war. The hope that Sudan's 2005 CPA and its affiliated referendum on self-determination for South Sudan would bring a final end to violent conflict throughout the country has evaporated in the face of battles, bombardment, massacres, displacements as well as starvation and massive human rights violations in the three areas. Present-day Sudan is rapidly sliding into widespread violence, economic and humanitarian crisis, and corruption. The spectre of Rwanda style ethnically-based conflicts and a failing Somali-type state has become extremely real in this once unified country.

About the Author:

M. Ali is founding member of several women’s NGOs in Sudan, which extend nutrition, protection & livelihood projects to displaced citizens and refugees in marginalized communities. Dr. Ali started a medical career in 1980 with the Ministry of Health; and since 1990 has been a consultant and facilitator to several NGOs.

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