Some two million Sudanese--nearly 8% of the country's population--have lost their lives to war or famine-related causes since 1983, when fighting resumed in Africa's longest running civil war. Millions more have been displaced, many fleeing to neighboring states. Despite competing peace initiatives on the table today, there is no end in sight to the conflict. Instead, the prospects are for intensified combat as the war spreads to new areas of the country.
What started in the 1950s as a battle between the Arabized, Islamic north and the non-Muslim, African south has become a contest between an extremist Islamic movement that controls the country's center and a diverse alliance of peoples and political groups that challenge it from the periphery. What is at stake is the country's identity--whether it is to be strictly Arab-Islamic or loosely multicultural and secular, and whether it can exist as one or the other within a single national boundary. But that is not all. The steadily escalating conflict has drawn in many of Sudan's neighbors--in the fighting and in efforts to promote peace while involving the United States in a hostile confrontation with the current regime.
Sudan has the largest land mass in Africa, with borders that touch Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Congo, Central African Republic, Chad, and Libya. It straddles the Nile and abuts the Red Sea, a location that made it the target of revolving-door superpower intervention throughout much of the cold war. The U.S. alone provided more than $2 billion in arms in the 1970s and 1980s--ostensibly to counter Soviet influence in neighboring Ethiopia, though most of the weaponry ended up being used in the civil war. Today, new oil revenues fuel fresh arms purchases.
The latest round of civil war erupted in 1983 when the national government in northern Sudan under Gen. Jaafar al-Nimeiri gutted a regional autonomy pact that had ended 16 years of combat. Khartoum reneged on the peace pact after confirming oil discoveries in the south. When Nimeiri imposed restrictive Islamic religious law throughout the country, non-Muslim southerners joined the opposition in droves.
The Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) led the revolt. Its army, the SPLA, quickly captured much of the southern third of the country, which its political wing administered as if it were a separate state. Meanwhile, in 1985 at the peak of a popular uprising in the north, military officers overthrew Nimeiri, promising peace and a return to democracy. However, the election a year later of Sadiq al-Mahdi, the leader of a powerful Islamic sect that had long dominated Sudanese politics, did little to change the country's basic policies. During his tenure, the war worsened and the economy crumbled further. …