Love Thy Neighbor: Regional Intervention in Sudan's Civil War

By Prendergast, John; Mozersky, David | Harvard International Review, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Love Thy Neighbor: Regional Intervention in Sudan's Civil War


Prendergast, John, Mozersky, David, Harvard International Review


The historic peace agreement currently being completed between the government of Sudan and the country's main rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), will mark the end of a long and bloody chapter of Sudanese history. Negotiated by the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the resolution of the conflict under regional supervision should bring a fitting conclusion to a war that was consistently supported and fuelled by the interventions of the same neighboring states that are today pushing for peace.

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The SPLA's revolt against the central government of President Gaafar Nimeiri began in 1983. Those leading the revolt opposed the government's abandonment of the 1972 Addis Ababa peace agreement, which ended the first civil war, the government's attempt to move forward on oil and water projects with little southern Sudanese input and benefit, Nimeiri's manipulation of the South and southern interests for political gain, and Nimeiri's decision to implement Islamic shari'a laws throughout Sudan in September 1983. The SPLA, led by Colonel John Garang, initially espoused a Socialist ideology and was embraced by Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, who shared the same beliefs. Ethiopia housed numerous SPLA training camps, which Mengistu funded and supported with Soviet assistance, encouraging the SPLA to set up their base of operations in Addis Ababa.

Despite Nimeiri's 1985 overthrow and the 1986 election of a democratic government in Khartoum, the civil war continued in Sudan. Several attempts at negotiating a settlement took place under the democratic government of Sadiq al Mahdi without success. In the spring of 1989, a significant build-up of internal pressure to resolve the war prompted al Mahdi to agree to a peace plan predicated on the freezing of the Islamic shari'a laws. On June 30, 1989, the day before the bill that would have frozen the shari'a laws was to be passed, the National Islamic Front (NIF) led a bloodless coup, stealing power from al Mahdi and postponing any hope for a peace agreement.

Still supported by the interventions of Mengistu's regime, the SPLA embarked on a string of successful military campaigns in the South, capturing larger tracts of territory from the government, and threatening to expel Khartoum altogether from southern Sudan. In 1991, two events changed the direction of the war. The first was the overthrow of Mengistu in Addis Ababa, which ended any further interventions on behalf of the SPLA and triggered an SPLA exodus from Ethiopia across the border the southern Sudan and Kenya. The second was a major split in the SPLA along broadly ethnic lines that halved the rebel forces. Khartoum capitalized on the split, eventually negotiating separate peace agreements with the key leaders of the breakaway factions, the Nuer leader Dr. Riak Machar, and the Shilluk leader Dr. Lam Akol.

The string of SPLA military victories in the South was slowly reversed, after SPLA lost Mengista as its main benefactor. The SPLA was now also fighting against its breakaway factions, which were increasingly being supplied by Khartoum. By 1994, Garang's SPLA had nearly been pushed out of the South altogether, holding on to a scattering of small garrisons throughout the South and a few key outposts along the Ugandan and Kenyan borders, thanks largely to the support of the Ugandan President and Garang's former classmate, Yoweri Museveni.

IGADD Intervenes

As Ugandan support for the SPLA grew, so did regional opposition to the Islamist government in Khartoum, fuelled by the regime's support for opposition elements in countries throughout the region. The government of Sudan, the SPLA, and Akol's SPLA-United faction engaged in a series of peace talks in Abuja, Nigeria, under the auspices of the Organization for African Unity (OAU) during 1992 and 1993. After failing to reach an agreement in Abuja, the Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Development (IGADD) stepped in to broker a new round of peace talks between the government and the SPLA at the annual IGADD summit in late 1993.

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