New Internationalist


April 1990

new internationalist
issue 206 - April 1990



Map of Sudan 'Whoever has drunk from the River shall return' goes a Sudanese saying about the Nile, whose power over life and death gives it magical properties. Death has the edge at the moment as Africa's largest country is torn apart by civil war and people are united only in their ability to withstand suffering.

In the droughts of the 1980s outsiders predicted a massive famine toll in the desert and scrub of the mainly Arab North. Here rich farmers and merchants exploit peasant farmers and nomads, and export their wealth. The outsiders were wrong. The poor simply shifted to a lower level of existence, eked out with berries, leaves and grass. All but a few thousand refused to die as predicted.

In the savannah and swamps of the largely African South, the seven-year war of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) against four successive Khartoum regimes has cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Government-armed tribal militias loot, rape and murder civilians, sell children into slavery and leave famine in their wake.

But even after walking 1,000 kilometres or more to a refugee camp, the once-proud cattle herders and farmers of the South endure. Two million now live in squalor in refugee camps or northern shanty towns.

It was 35 years ago that the Anglo-Egyptian colonial powers abandoned the comparatively developed North and the totally underdeveloped South. This ushered in a 17-year civil war and a procession of bitterly divided civilian governments alternating with military regimes.

Sudan's vast size and limited infrastructure, decades of declining rainfall, environmental degradation, falling crop yields and erratic commodity prices have all handicapped development. Ethnic and religious diversity, and a flow of resources towards the triangle of Khartoum, Port Sudan and the irrigated cotton fields of the Gezira, have fostered the divisions leading to civil war.

Politically, there have been few bright spots and today's regime is the worst yet. Backed by Islamic fundamentalists, some of whom favour Sudan's partition, its inexperience and incompetence is destroying the economy. The reintroduction of Islamic law in the form of kangaroo courts and brutal punishments is worsening the war with the SPLA, whose leader Colonel John Garang proposes a unified, federal, secular and socialist 'new Sudan'.

Even the aid agencies are beginning to pull out, despite the millions in need of food, health care, clean water and education. The junta is blocking relief shipments and development efforts. It stands accused of a campaign to starve the South that would result in genocide.

Nick Cater

Leader Lieutenant-General Omer Hassan Ahmed el-Beshir

Economy GNP per capita $330 (US $18,530)
Monetary unit: Sudanese pound
Inflation is unrecorded and out of control. Imports include food and consumer goods. Main exports are cotton, livestock, sesame, peanuts and gum arabic (used in ink, food thickeners and pills).

People 23.8 million

Health Infant mortality 107 per 1,000 live births (US 10 per 1,000)

Culture Arabs make up 39 per cent of the population, Dinka (in the South) 20 per cent; there are 19 ethnic groups and some 600 sub groupings.
Religion: Islam 70 per cent, Christianity four per cent, many traditional and/or animist beliefs.
Language: Arabic is the official language, English is frequently used among elite. There are reckoned to be 115 languages, 26 of them spoken by more than 100,000 people.

Sources: State of the World's Children 1990 and information supplied by author.


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Gap between peasants and elites / merchants is growing.

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Debts rising; exports falling.

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Isolated by lack of education and traditional restrictions; new pressure from Islamic fundamentalism.

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Military regime with 'popular commitees' and tribal militias for local control.
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33% men, 14% women. Mostly in North; education all but abandoned in the South.

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Political prisoners, torture, slavery. Free press, unions, political parties all banned.

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50 years
(US 75 years) Malnutrition and disease endemic; little health care.

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This article was originally published in issue 206

New Internationalist Magazine issue 206
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