Alternative names: Equatorians (pol.), various ethnic groups: Dinkas, Nuers, Anuaks, Shilluks, Equatorians, Latukas, Taposas, Turkanas, Moru, Madi, Azande
Location: southern area of Sudan, in towns and camps in north and central Sudan; in exile, especially in Ethiopia
Population: in total about six million
% of population: about 28%
Religion: animist, Christian
Language: various indigenous languages, English (lingua franca)
“Southerners” is a general name given to the varied peoples who live in the southern area of Sudan, about one third of Africa’s largest country. Although the current war is generally described as a conflict between the “Arab Muslim” north and the “Christian and animist” south, this is misleading and simplistic. Sudan is a nation of several hundred ethnic and religious groups and sub-groups and the concept of a north-south divide in the Sudan is a relatively recent one.
The peoples of the southern third of Sudan divide into four main linguistic groups as follows: (i) the Western Nilotes, who are the largest linguistic group. The major tribes are the Dinka, Nuer, Anuak and Shilluk and they inhabit the northern and central area of southern Sudan; (ii) the Eastern Nilotes, often referred to as Equatorians, who include the Bari-speakers, Latuka, Taposa and Turkana, and who inhabit the southern regions bordering East Africa; (iii) the Central Sudanic group, who include the Moru and Madi, and (iv) the Azande, who are related to West African peoples.
There was no north-south division in the area of modern Sudan before the nineteenth century when, after the Turco-Egyptian conquest of Sudan in 1821-23, Egyptian forces moved south into the region and opened it up to traders. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the northern regions of the Sudan had been subject to strong Islamic influence and some rulers in the region had adopted an Arab identity. These Muslim leaders expanded their authority southward and conducted raids to provide slaves for their armies and for the international slave market. In the wake of the Egyptian forces followed European and Sudanese merchants, and
itinerant northern traders who captured slaves for the Egyptian territories and northern Sudan. This trade in slaves destroyed the independence of the southern Sudanese people who, with no internal cultural or political unity, were unable to resist the threat posed by the Muslim state to the north.
The Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, which came into force in 1898, accepted the by now traditional definition of the south as a single region. A policy of devolution was introduced and rural areas were administered by tribal leaders who ordered internal affairs according to traditional law, guided by British officials. This system of administration effectively halted the southward movement of Islam, since the northern rural communities followed a combination of local custom and Islamic law (Shari’a), and the two administrative structures necessarily developed along different lines.
Although the British-run administrative system in the south did emphasize tribal values, hence causing the minimum of disruption to the way of life, it failed to prepare the people of the region for independence. Education was neglected, economic development severely restricted, and commerce left under the control of northern Sudanese merchants and companies. While regional exploitation had been halted, the inequalities caused by the lack of regional development had increased. The south now lacked an educated elite capable of administering the country after independence. Awareness of this problem led southern leaders to propose first a delay in independence and, when that failed, a federal system of government for the entire country. This option too was rejected in 1958 and the only recourse left to the south appeared to be a call for secession.
In August 1955 a series of mutinies on the part of southern police and troops of the Equatorial Corps marked the start of the first civil war, which continued until 1972. Independence followed five months later on January 1, 1956. After independence Muslim sectarian domination in the north and weak political organization in the south led to the formation in 1958 of a military government which ruled with civilian assistance until 1964. During this time several guerrilla armies were formed, dedicated to fighting for self-determination in the south.
Although southern Muslims had been among the earliest supporters of southern opposition to Khartoum, northern leaders believed this support to be the result of foreign interference, and they initiated changes designed to lessen foreign influence in the south. Arabic was introduced as the administrative and educational language, Christian missionaries were expelled from the south and Friday replaced Sunday as the weekly day of rest. The British administration had not in fact placed much emphasis upon Christian education in the Sudan, believing it to be disruptive of tribal life. The effect of these new measures now actually increased the popularity of Christianity in the region, creating a feeling of southern Sudanese unity in the face of northern hegemony.
In 1964 general discontent brought about a return to parliamentary politics, but an all-party Round Table Conference held in the following year failed to reach a solution to the southern problem. In the north, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Umma Party were amongst those calling for a unitary national government without southern regional government, and they also joined another group, the Muslim Brothers, in their call for an Islamic state. The 1968 Constituent Assembly, elected to draft a permanent Constitution, failed to reach agreement on these points.
By 1969 the civil war had spread to all three southern provinces. On 25 May 1969 a military coup led by Colonel Nimeiri replaced the civilian government. The Constituent Assembly was dissolved and political parties banned. A secular, socialist State was declared, with regional autonomy proposed for the south. In 1971 negotiations began between the government and the Southern Sudan Liberation Movement (SSLM) which had been formed in the previous year.
The war ended in March 1972 with the Addis Ababa Agreement which led to the formation of regional government in the south and guaranteed its autonomy. The agreement provided for a single southern region with a regional Assembly which had legislative and revenue powers and which elected a President for its own High Executive Council (HEC), responsible for internal administration and security. The Agreement also provided for the absorption of some of the guerrillas into the national police, army and prison service. But neither the members of the Sudan government of the day or the main guerrilla movement were involved in the negotiations and this undermined its future. In practice government policy was frequently decided in Khartoum however, without reference to the regional government, particularly in the fields of education and economic planning, and regional autonomy was severely curtailed by financial dependence.
Although the first government, under the leadership of Abel Alier, did make progress in establishing an administrative and governmental structure, many felt that progress was not rapid enough. This led to a smooth transfer of power in 1978 when Joseph Lagu was elected President of the National Assembly. Lagu was ineffective as a government leader, however. Despite his powers of oratory he lacked administrative and political skills and antagonized many of his own supporters. President Nimeiri was asked to dissolve the regional Assembly which he did, appointing an interim regional government. In 1980 a new Assembly returned Alier to office. A growing rift was now apparent between the regional government and the politicians of the Equatoria region and this, combined with a general feeling of unrest in the south, ultimately led to the outbreak of the second civil war.
In addition to problems relating to administration and development, southern leaders were concerned about several major border disputes. Under the Addis Ababa Agreement mineral-rich Kafia Kingi district was to have been returned to the south and the inhabitants of border areas allowed to decide whether they wanted to be included in the southern or northern parts of the country. These stipulations had not so far been met, and central government had taken the decision to site the nation’s first oil refinery in the north and not in the south where most of the nation’s oilfields are.
The question of Equatoria had now become a pressing issue. The people of that region are mostly agriculturalists. They had been subject to British administration long before the Western Nilotes, who inhabit a seasonally swampy area inaccessible to British administrators; as a result such educational and economic development as there was in the Sudan under British administration had been mainly concentrated in Equatoria. Equatoria had provided the impetus for the 1955 mutiny and Equatorians had controlled the Nilotic pastoralists in other parts of the south.
The balance had altered after the civil war, however. During the war Equatorians had crossed the border and joined related peoples outside the Sudan, particularly those in Uganda, where they were welcomed into Idi Amin’s army and administration. In their absence from the Sudan, increasing numbers of Nilotic people had entered the guerrilla forces. Many had also joined the Anyanya movement, and when that party was absorbed into the national army in 1972 the number of Nilotic people in the forces became far greater than it had been in 1955. Although many exiled Equatorians elected to remain abroad, a substantial number returned to the Sudan after the fall of Amin in 1979. On their return they found a majority Nilotic population and few employment opportunities, and many embarked upon an anti-Nilotic campaign similar to that previously waged in Uganda.
Equatorians were divided over the issue of regional autonomy, which had been proposed by central government; however in 1981 Nimeiri dissolved both national and regional Assemblies, appointed an interim government and held new national and regional elections on the issue of further regionalization. The southern constituencies rejected division by a two to one majority and Nimeiri announced that elections would now be held within the framework of a united region.
Between 1972-77 several units mutinied and escaped into Ethiopia where they joined forces with small groups opposing the Addis Ababa Agreement. In 1976 the Ethiopian government protested to Nimeiri about the Sudan’s support for Eritrean and anti-Dergue forces and threatened to aid the Sudanese dissenters if this support did not stop; however as the Arab states, still closely linked to the Sudan, were providing strong backing to the Eritreans, Nimeiri could not risk pursuing a contrary policy; as a result Ethiopia began to aid anti-Nimeiri groups. In 1982 more northern soldiers were sent to the south and by early 1983 there was armed conflict in many parts of the region.
The Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA) and its political wing, the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM), were formed in 1983 by mutinous army units and Anyanya II groups in Ethiopia. Fighting broke out between the SPLA/SPLM and breakaway groups, whose members favoured complete secession rather than a restructuring of the south. The dissidents, mostly Nuer and members of Anyanya II, were defeated, and their leaders killed in the fighting.
Regionalization did not prove successful in Equatoria and after the announcement of Shari’a law in 1983 there was the constant Islamic threat from the north. The economy was in ruins, famine was becoming a major problem, there was corruption within the government and the war continued in the south. All these factors, together with an increasingly severe application of Shari’a law in the north, finally brought about the fall of Nimeiri in April 1985.
A Transitional Military Council was formed and a civilian cabinet appointed. The 1973 Permanent Constitution was abolished but Shari’a law was retained without its harsher punishment laws. The SPLA refused to recognize the council but in 1986 they agreed to a meeting with the National Alliance, a group of trade unions and political parties which together had brought about Nimeiri’s removal. At this meeting eight points were agreed, including proposals that the state of emergency and all laws restricting freedom be lifted and an effective ceasefire established, that regional government be recognized by the council, which should agree to dissolve itself in favour of an interim government including the SPLA/SPLM, that all military pacts with other countries should cease, and a constitutional conference be convened to discuss major points of disagreement between the parties.
In 1986 elections were held and a Muslim coalition government formed in Khartoum under the leadership of Sadiq al-Mahdi. The strength of southern opinion had forced Sadiq to accept in principle the notion of reunification of the south, but this decision was criticized by Islamic parties favouring an economically weak and dependent south and, by implication, the expansion of Islam into these non-Muslim areas.
Past associations of the south with “paganism”, slavery and servility persist in the minds of many northerners and it is partly for this reason that southern opposition to Shari’a law is deeply felt. It is feared that the expansion of Islam into the south will threaten the cultural traditions and values associated with tribal religions, and that racial antagonism on the part of the northern Muslims will place southerners in an inferior position in their own land.
In 1986 the SPLA base was moved from Ethiopia to the Boma plateau overlooking Eastern Equatoria and operations were extended into the Blue Nile and Kordofan provinces. Despite some army successes the SPLA had by early 1988 captured much of the region along the Ethiopian border and also a large area in the centre of the country. Yet the fighting between the forces of the government and the SPLA has produced relatively few casualties while civilian deaths have been high. The Khartoum government has made increasing use of Arab militias in their fight against the SPLA, although in practice it is Dinka civilians who are the main victims. These militias operate for the most part independently of the army and are provided with arms and ammunition but are unpaid. There have been reports of looting and slave-trading, mainly directed at Dinka civilians in Kordofan and Darfur provinces. In March 1987 over 1,000 Dinka and other southern civilians were massacred by Arab militias from the Rizeigat ethnic group in southern Darfur. Wholesale massacres took place in Wau in August and September 1987, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Dinkas. In its turn the SPLA is reported to have encouraged rival tribal militias to aid their cause.
The activities of the militias have greatly contributed to the numbers of homeless and to the destruction of food supplies in the south. Both army and SPLA units have requisitioned food from civilians and independent armed groups are also active, capturing relief food outside major towns. By the end of 1988 it was reported that at least one quarter of a million people in the south had died of starvation. Three million, perhaps half the population of the south, had fled or had been internally displaced. Over 300,000 refugees had fled to Ethiopia, a large proportion being young Dinka men trying to escape conscription into the SPLA. At least one million refugees lived in makeshift camps on the outskirts of Khartoum; these were the chief victims of the disastrous flood of August 1988. The government in Khartoum ignored and sometimes denied the scale of the problem, leading to allegations of genocide against southerners. Attempts by international agencies to get food aid to the south largely failed in 1988.
Worldwide publicity at the scale of the disaster in the south and diplomatic pressure from the US among others led to increasing pressure on both the government and the SPLA to begin peace talks. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), one of three parties in the government coalition, began to make contact with the SPLA after consultation with the Prime Minister, and on 16 November a peace agreement was signed between John Garang of the SPLA and the DUP. The agreement provided for a constitutional conference, the suspension of the state of emergency (imposed in 1985) as a prelude to a ceasefire, and of the imposition of Islamic law. The last in particular fuelled the anger of the National Islamic Movement (NIM) which had been brought into the government coalition in May; its members took to the streets of Khartoum, indiscriminately attacking southerners. The Prime Minister vacillated, on the one hand indicating that he was in favour of concessions for peace, but on the other procrastinating in bringing the accord before parliament. At the last moment he refused to sign it and the DUP left the coalition while the Umma Party and the NIM continued in government. The war in the south continued.
By this stage the government of Sadiq al-Mahdi was losing much of its support in the north, there were riots over food prices at the end of the year, and in early 1989 open talk of an army coup. There was a further attempt in March 1989 by Sadiq al-Mahdi to renew negotiations with the SPLA, but again the NIM and the Shari’a issue proved to be stumbling blocks and there was further delay, although one round of talks with the SPLA was held. It was therefore no surprise when a successful military coup took place in Khartoum on June 30, 1989 and General el-Beshir and a 15-member junta took power. The General declared that all previous peace efforts were null and void and although there were several announcements to the effect that fresh negotiations would take place, this in fact had not begun by August 1989. Meanwhile the grip of the SPLA on the south had tightened with the fall of the government garrison at Torit in July 1989, resulting in 30,000 refugees entering Uganda in search of food and sanctuary.
The immediate future is unclear. By August 1989 there had been no progress in lifting the state of emergency, implementing a ceasefire or ending the war. Although prompt action by relief agencies, aided by international pressure on both government and rebels to allow food supplies into war zones, has prevented famine on the same scale as in 1988, the situation is effectively at a stalemate. The northern government appears to be still committed to an Islamic state, and until this issue is resolved there is unlikely to be peace in the Sudan.