Frontline World

Sudan - The Quick and the Terrible, January 2005

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "The Quick and the Terrible"

The Geopolitics of Tragedy

Witness to a Crisis

Land and People, History and Government, Effects of War, Economy and Oil

Background, News, Humanitarian Response, Defining Genocide




Images of Sudanese landscapes, people and culture
Facts & Stats

• Land and People
• History and Government
• Effects of War
• Economy and Oil

The collision of cultures, religions and ethnicities in Sudan -- including those of sub-Saharan Africa and those of the Arab Islamic world -- have led to nearly 50 years of civil war. Since 1956, when Sudan first gained independence from the United Kingdom, there have been only 11 years of peace.

Land and People

Sudan is the largest country in Africa -- more than one-quarter the size of the United States -- and borders nine other countries, including Egypt, Chad, Kenya and Ethiopia.

Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, sits where the White Nile and the Blue Nile join together as the Nile and flow north to Egypt and into the Mediterranean.

The country's name derives from the Arabic bilad al-sudan, which means "land of the blacks."

Sudan has an estimated population of 39 million, 52 percent of which are black, and 39 percent Arab. Arabic is the official language, and the government has attempted to impose Islamic sharia law since 1983.

Seventy percent of Sudan's population is Muslim. Animists and Christians, who for the most part live in southern Sudan, account for about 30 percent of the population.

In Sudan, "Arab" is an ethnic and cultural term, typically referring to those who can trace their ancestry to the original inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula and whose mother tongue is Arabic. "Muslim" refers to anyone who follows the Islamic religion. In Sudan, many blacks are Muslim.

The median age in Sudan is 18 years, and life expectancy is 58 years. (In the United States, the median age is 36 years, and life expectancy is 77 years.)

Sudan has an adult literacy rate of about 60 percent.

Darfur is a region in western Sudan, abutting Chad and the Central African Republic. It is about the size of Texas and has a population of 6 million; the majority are Muslim and have African features.

The three largest African tribes in Darfur are the Fur, the Masalit and the Zaghawa. Generally speaking, most people of African descent in Darfur are farmers, and most people of Arab descent in Darfur are nomadic herders.

There is fierce competition for land between herders and farmers, including violent battles between Fur farmers and Arab herders from 1987 to 1989. This competition has fueled the present conflict in Darfur.

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History and Government

For the first half of the 20th century, present-day Sudan was a colony of the British Empire. Even as Sudan achieved independence from Britain in 1956, civil war was already brewing between the north and the south.

Army coups in 1958 and 1969 plus civil war impeded attempts to build a parliamentary democracy. In 1972, the Addis Ababa Agreement enforced a peace agreement between the government and separatist southern rebels.

Civil war was sparked in 1983 when the military regime tried to impose sharia law as part of its overall policy to "Islamicize" all of Sudan.

Beginning in 1983, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) led insurrections in the south, a region dominated by Animists and Christians.

In 1989, compromise between the ruling government and southern opposition groups seemed imminent, but Omar al-Bashir, a politically and religiously extreme military leader, led a successful coup and became chief of state, prime minister and chief of the armed forces. Al-Bashir has been elected only once, in 1996.

Al-Bashir continues to lead a government run by an alliance between the military junta and the National Congress Party, which pushes an Islamist agenda.

Sudan's government imposed a penal code in 1991 that instituted amputations and stoning as punishments.

The Sudanese government harbored Osama bin Laden in the 1990s until the Clinton administration successfully pressured the government to expel him in 1996.

In 1996, terrorist threats led President Clinton to withdraw the U.S. ambassador to Sudan. There is still no U.S. ambassador in Khartoum, although the embassy remains open.

In 1997, the United States imposed economic sanctions, prohibiting trade with businesses in Sudan and prohibiting investment in Sudan by U.S. businesses.

In early 2003, just as negotiations to end the civil war were progressing, a new rebellion spawned in the western province of Darfur when ethnically African rebel groups, including the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA), attacked military installations. The SLA's attack was rooted both in its belief that the government was neglecting Darfur and in its objections to the government's preference for hiring ethnic Arabs as top government officials.

The Sudanese government has enlisted Janjaweed -- armed nomads from the north -- to attack villages that ostensibly harbored rebels. Attacks usually follow a pattern: Government planes bomb villages in Darfur, then, within hours, Janjaweed ride in on horses or camels to pillage homes and rape and murder civilians.

The Sudanese government maintains that the Janjaweed are acting independently, without government support.

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Effects of War

Since the 1983 start of the civil war, more than 4 million people have been displaced, and an estimated 2 million have died. Opposition groups as well as the government have been accused of atrocities in the conflict.

Since 2003, violence in Darfur -- called ethnic cleansing by some and genocide by others -- has left an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 dead and an estimated 1.2 million to 2 million people displaced. Survivors face severe shortages of food and clean water.

An estimated 200,000 Sudanese have escaped to Chad, where they are living in refugee camps. Many are in desolate areas near the city of Abeche, where temperatures frequently exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

An estimated 2.3 million civilians in Darfur are in need of emergency aid, but bottlenecks created by both the government and the rebel forces cut them off from food and medical supplies.

In 2001, Sudan was declared to be free of polio, but the disease is making a comeback in the wake of war. Health experts say the probability is high that more than 10,000 Sudanese have been infected with the virus.

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Economy and Oil

Although much of Sudan's land is made up of plains and deserts, it has large areas of arable land, significant gold deposits and massive oil reserves.

Agricultural production -- such as cotton and peanuts cultivation -- employs 80 percent of the workforce and contributes 39 percent of the gross domestic product.

Sudan is one of the poorest countries in the world. Annual per-capita income in 2001 was $340.

Oil accounts for about 73 percent of Sudan's total export revenues.

Officials from the Sudanese Energy Ministry estimate that the county has 3 billion barrels of oil reserves.

Foreign companies began oil exploration in the Red Sea in the 1960s; the most fruitful oil fields were found in southern Sudan by Chevron. In 1981, Chevron and the Sudanese government formed the White Nile Petroleum Corporation to oversee oil production in the south, but Chevron suspended its southern Sudan operations in 1985 because of fighting near the oil fields.

Many Western oil companies have abandoned investments in Sudan, both because of the conflict and because of criticism by human rights groups. Economic sanctions imposed by the United States in 1997 barred American companies from operating in Sudan. The nation's major trade partners include China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, India, the United Kingdom, Germany, Indonesia and Australia.

The SPLA has declared oil installations a "legitimate military target," saying that oil revenues have supported the government's human rights abuses and that the government has displaced thousands of civilians living near the oil fields.

Upon the 1999 completion of an oil pipeline that extends from the southern oil fields through Khartoum to the Red Sea, Sudan began exporting crude oil -- and immediately recorded its first trade surplus. The same year, the government halted delivery of aid to people living near the oil fields.

Some experts refer to Algeria, Pakistan, China and Russia as the "Darfur Four": Each of these four countries has major oil investments in Sudan and has opposed the U.N. Security Council's plans for arms and oil embargoes.

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Sources: CIA World Fact Book; U.S. State Department; Reuters Foundation; Reuters; Wikipedia; BBC News; U.S. Department of Energy; Sudan Update; International Crisis Group; The World Bank; Encyclopedia of the Orient; "Dying in Darfur," by Samantha Power; "Tragedy in Darfur: Understanding and Ending the Horror," by Alex de Waal.