The current civil war is often thought of as a struggle between northern Islamists and southern Christians. The reality however, is a far more complex mix of power struggles, poverty, race and religion which date back centuries to a time when current day Sudan consisted of a number of smaller nations.
The Berlin Conference and the division of Africa by European powers in 1885 defined the borders of Sudan, as we know it today.
However, as far back as the 7th century, Egypt has disputed the territory. In 1898, the Egyptians and British together gained control of much of the north of Sudan, sparking an unsuccessful rebellion in the south of the country to regain control. A period of Anglo-Egyptian rule followed, which lasted until Independence was declared in 1956.
Even before Independence, civil war in Sudan was already looming. In 1955, the Anya-nya war started in the southern area of western equatorial, led and facilitated by the British. This culminated in political control being exerted over the south, leading to a further 17 years of conflict between the north and the south of the country.
Elections for a representative parliament took place, where the National Unionist Party won an overwhelming victory. The liberal democracy of Sudan post independence proved to be difficult, however. The parties were badly organized; fractions appeared according to old division lines, like religion and tribes, but also new personal interests. Hence the political Sudan proved unable to build the country in the way people had hoped for and conflict between the north and the south of the country continued.
In 1969 a military coup saw the start of the presidency of Jaafar Nimeiri and, following the Addis Ababa agreement in 1972 which sought to bring rival factions together, there followed a period of relative calm, despite a revival of the Anya-nya war in 1975.
During Nimeiri's presidency, politics veered from extremes of pro-eastern European socialism to Islamic revivalism. In order to gain support from the increasingly important Muslim Brotherhood, Nimeiri introduced the so-called Islamic law system of Sharia across the whole country, including the southern Christian and animist region in 1983.
The introduction of Sharia law, the political divisions in the south and an ever-deteriorating economy, contributed to an increase in conflict. In the same year, John Garang became leader of the Sudan's People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) which based its ideology on a united, secular Sudan and the civil war in the South was resumed. Nimeiri was swiftly deposed in a bloodless coup and sought exile in Egypt.
A short-term interim government was established until, in 1986, Sadiq el Mahdi was elected president of Sudan in a return to civilian rule. Economic collapse followed the elections, the war in the south escalated and a number of opposition parties arose in the north.
By 1989, the impact of conflict resulted in the deaths of more than one million people - killed either by conflict or by the resultant famine.
In this year, a further coup saw Lieutenant-General Omar Hassan al-Bashir take charge of the presidency and introduce a period of 'Islamisation', which to some extent exacerbated the ongoing civil war.
The country's troubles were added to again by the severe famine of 1998, especially in the south where 2.6 million people were in great danger. Reaching the hungry was difficult amongst the fighting and in late 1999 the government of Khartoum declared a cease-fire in the south, in order to help aid reach the starving population.
A peaceful solution?
In the past few years, there have been several attempts to bring peace and stability to Sudan with regional governments and international parties becoming increasingly involved in the process. Both the SPLM/A and the government have attended a series of peace talks in Kenya throughout 2002 and 2003.
During the early part of 2004 significant progress was made during the various peace neogtiations held in Kenya. On 26th May a series of protocols were signed between the Government and the SPLM/A. It is hoped that these will lead to a final peace deal in the coming months.
Unfortunately the humanitarian crisis in Darfur has delayed the current round of talks which were due to begin in late June 2004. Although the Darfur area is not part of the current peace discussions, the current suffering there has dominated the political agenda. With some 1 million people displaced, organisations are responding to very immediate needs in both Darfur and neighbouring Chad. Ockenden International continues to monitor the situation carefully with a view to possible intervention in the medium term.
With visits to Sudan by Colin Powell and the US Secretary general Kofi Anan in late June it is hoped that a solution to the Darfur crisis can be found in the very near future. Meanwhile, the overall peace talks continue to move slowly.