Sudan [and South Sudan]
Hello, and welcome to the Global Thread podcast. I’m your host, Yasmin Aliya Khan, and today we’re talking about the coup in Sudan.
Thanks for being here, everybody. For this episode, I was going back and forth between whether I wanted to cover Sudan or Ethiopia, but I obviously ended up sticking with Sudan. I try to at least switch continents between episodes, but I think I’m going to just do Ethiopia next because the two stories tie in pretty well together, if for no other reason than their geographical proximity to one another.
Also, you may or may not have noticed that I’ve been more off the grid lately than usual. I took some time to do some traveling, which was much, much needed. This trip was a repackaged version of one that was originally planned for 2020. The trip started in New York, and from there I bounced to Seville and Barcelona, Spain; Amsterdam; Brugge, Belgium; and finally, Paris. If you follow me on Instagram, you probably saw random bits of my trip posted on my story, but for the most part, I tried to stay off of my phone… specifically, off of social media. And, generally speaking, I’m bad about taking pictures when I go places. There are only so many selfies in front of buildings one can take.
That said, it’s hard to visit Europe without the history nerd inside of seeking some bit of release. So, I’m working on a short series discussing some history about the places I visited. That should be rolling out on my Instagram and TikTok sporadically over the next few weeks, so keep an eye out for that.
And now, let’s talk about Sudan.
Right now, there are civilian protests in Sudan following a military coup attempt to overthrow the Prime Minister. The people are fighting back against the ousting of their PM in a resistance effort that has caught the military off guard.
Even if you haven’t heard too much about Sudan, I bet you’ve heard something about Darfur. Back when I was in high school, Darfur was a hot topic. It was and still is the site of an ongoing conflict and genocide that hit a peak, at least in terms of newsworthiness, in the early 2000s. Keep in mind, this was before the advent of Instagram, before YouTube, and it was a few years before the first iPhone even came out. For a story to get that kind of traction back then, it must have been a big deal.
But Darfur is just a region in western Sudan. The country of Sudan recently split into two countries - Sudan and South Sudan. As a whole, the former Sudan was bordered by the Red Sea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Chad, Libya, and finally and perhaps most importantly for the sake of this story, Egypt. The southern border of Egypt essentially makes up the northern border of Sudan. The creation of South Sudan in 2011 chopped off about a third from the bottom of Sudan to create the new landlocked nation.
The Nile River runs straight through Sudan, top to bottom, north to south, and it’s the main water source for most of the country. It’s got lots of what would be arable soil for agriculture, but persistent climate issues hinder production. There’s also a lot of mining opportunities in Sudan, especially for gold, and of course, they’ve got oil.
Oil was found in South Sudan, specifically, but it hasn’t been the economic boom for the region as one might have expected. Or maybe you’ve listened to enough of these podcast episodes to not expect that to be the case at all, and who could blame you?
The capital of Sudan is Khartoum, and most of the country is Muslim, which makes sense given its geographical location. Back in the 12th century, Arab tribes expanded out into northern and eastern Africa, taking their culture and religion with them. Today, much - but not all - of the conflict stems from differences between the Arabs and the indigenous Sudanese people. And by “conflict,” I mean years of civil war and genocide.
Back in ancient times, East Africa was a highly coveted land. The Nubian people established a society in the area and the Arabs in Egypt attempted to seize control of it. Successfully fighting off the Arabs, the Nubians maintained their kingdom, only to eventually be overtaken by Arabs in the coming centuries. Over time, the culture in East Africa became increasingly influenced by Arab culture.
So, let’s skip ahead to the 19th century. The British had started to move into Egypt and East Africa in the 1880s, around the same time that the Scramble for Africa was taking place. If you don’t know what that is, we talked about it back in our episode on the Central African Republic, which as previously mentioned, is one of the countries bordering Sudan today. For a quick recap, it was basically the major powers of Europe carving up Africa for themselves in an effort to exploit its people and resources, the repercussions of which are still strongly felt today. This explains why we have things like “Belgian chocolate” and “French vanilla.” Neither of those things grows in Europe.
Eventually and after a lot of back and forth, Egypt had managed to obtain control of Sudan. Prior to British involvement, an Egyptian ruler had united Egypt and Sudan. Once the British showed up, they aided in destabilizing the region by staging a coup of the Sudanese ruler and taking over operations. The British weren’t keen on a united Egypt and Sudan, despite a strong Egyptian nationalist movement to protect the union and declare the region independent from colonial rule.
Meanwhile, the region of Darfur was under Egyptian rule. The people of Darfur weren’t too happy with the Egyptians, so after a few years of revolt, the British stepped in to manage the situation. They kept an eye on the region from their perch in Egypt, but by 1916, Darfur was officially annexed into Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.
Once Darfur was a part of Sudan, many of the region’s resources were directed away from Darfur in the western part of the country and towards Khartoum in the east. Predictably, this caused further unrest in Darfur, more disdain against the British and the Egyptians, and a widening divide between the Sudanese people and the Arabs.
Jumping ahead, in the 1950s, the Egyptians started contemplating their own independence from Britain. By 1953, Egypt had abolished its monarchy on its path to independence. One of the new rulers was half Sudanese and sympathetic to their trials under British rule. He knew that in order to get both Sudan and Egypt out from under British rule, Egypt would have to relinquish sovereignty over Sudan. Furthermore, he was not confident that Egypt would be able to effectively rule and support Sudan without British aid. So, the Sudanese people were given the option of independence, which they took. After a vote, Sudan became an independent nation in 1956.
While Sudan was being ruled by the British, though, they sought to keep the region relatively unstable. They ruled the region with distinctions between the northern and southern regions. In the north, you had more Arab Muslims, while in the south, Christianity and English were being actively spread by missionaries. This distinction between north and south would continue to be problematic in the coming decades.
Before we go any further, there are a few overarching themes of this story, or multiple plotlines, if you will.
For one, there’s the history of colonialism and the impact of foreign intervention in the region, which we’ve already talked about a little bit.
Then, there’s the tension between the herders and the farmers, especially in Darfur.
On top of that, you have constant attempts of Arabization that have, over the years, led to the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands of African people on their own land.
Finally, there’s the presence of oil, which has acted as a destabilizing force in Sudan.
Let’s tackle a few of these plotlines first, and then we’ll have a better understanding of how they all tie in together to get to where we are today.
We’ll start with Darfur.
Just to give you a brief timeline of events in Darfur, it was annexed into Sudan in 1916, but it has since become a battleground. While news coverage of it has dwindled over the years, the violence and oppression have not.
Darfur is a region in the western portion of Sudan, so before it was annexed into the country, it sat between Anglo-Egyptian Sudan and French Chad. The people who lived there were Africans, as one might expect, but they suddenly found themselves existing in a space that was being infringed upon by European and Arab colonizers. The Arabs, in particular, wanted to promote Arab culture in Africa, which is a nice way of saying they were dabbling in genocide.
However, if you ask Sudanese leaders about the conflict in Darfur, they’ll tell you that it’s an internal issue between the farmers and the herders, and technically yes, that’s a part of it.
The farmers obviously need land and water to grow crops. They lead sedentary lifestyles, living on or near their farms. Conversely, the herders are nomadic. They also need water and grazing land for their animals, but both are hot commodities in those parts. Conflicts erupted between the farmers and the herders over land and water appropriation and usage.
Notably, the farmers were predominantly African and the herders, Arab. Therefore, it’s right to say that the conflict is between the farmers and the herders as much as it is between the Africans and the Arabs.
In 1988, the janjaweed started making themselves known in Darfur. Taking their cues and support from Gaddafi over in Libya, they were Arab camel herders keen on the Arabization of Africa. They were set up in the Darfur region as militia groups to act as a barrier between Sudan and Chad, which was dealing with its own civil issues. As the janjaweed became more and more destructive and deadly, the people of Darfur were left without aid. The Sudanese government, at best, turned a blind eye to the atrocities being committed against the African farmers, and at worst, they were complicit.
In 2002, after years of being both neglected by their government and targeted by these militia groups, the farmers of Darfur began to organize and fight back. After a few early successes, the Arab-run Sudanese government cracked down, organizing the janjaweed forces, funding them, arming them, and providing them with intelligence. Again, the Sudanese government denies involvement in the conflict, blaming it entirely on the herders and farmers fighting amongst themselves, but what happened went far beyond some skirmishes over resources. The new goal was annihilation. The janjaweed would raid villages, not only killing and kidnapping people, but also destroying the land so that it could no longer support life. They would poison wells, burn fields of crops, and tear down homes. Even those that survived the raids were forced to leave their villages in search of somewhere new, knowing that it could all just happen again.
By 2008, President Omar al-Bashir was charged with genocide by the international community, which eventually led to peacekeeping troops being deployed to Darfur. However, Bashir still remained in power, and many residents of Darfur will tell you that the violence is still ongoing.
It’s estimated that anywhere between 200,000 and 400,000 Africans have perished in Darfur at the hands of the militia groups since 2003, with millions more being displaced from their homes. And with such a wide range of potential deaths, you can assume that the figures are hard to measure and contested by the Sudanese government.
[CREATION OF SOUTH SUDAN]
Next, let’s talk about the split between Sudan and South Sudan.
The newly independent Sudan was not in a great place in 1956. In fact, it was at war… with itself.
The First Sudanese Civil War went from 1955-1972, so it technically started a year before independence. As I mentioned, the north was majority Muslim while the south was majority Christian. The north was better aligned with Egypt throughout its time under British rule, and once independent, the north was granted far more power than the south. The south was essentially cut off politically with little to no representation in Khartoum, and the religious and cultural differences between the two only exacerbated the dissent.
By the 2000s, Sudan was rife with war and poverty on several levels and the south was sick of it. With help from the international community, specifically George W. Bush and his administration, the nation was split in two, granting the Christian south its independence from the Muslim north.
But we’ve seen this before, haven’t we? When foreign governments intervene in a nation’s affairs, they don’t fully understand the intricacies of the social and political dynamics at play. Especially when dealing with tribal and nomadic people, it’s hard to draw an imaginary boundary without upsetting entire groups’ ways of life.
For the sake of independence, though, the various groups in the south came together to secede from Sudan. In a nearly unanimous vote, the southerners left Sudan. However, that unity would be short-lived because almost as soon as South Sudan became independent, the group divisions started to reappear.
Old tensions cropped up between two major tribes, the Dinka and the Nuer. The new president of South Sudan was a member of the Dinka tribe, but he named a Nuer VP in the hopes of forging some kind of diplomatic resolution to the conflicts. It was a nice idea, but that was it. It wasn’t long before the two groups were fighting one another again, with the VP hinting at staging a coup and the president dismissing the VP and his entire cabinet.
What followed was five years of intense civil war between the two groups that ended with both sides signing a ceasefire agreement in 2018. This brought some sort of peace to the nation, but it’s still very unstable. With food and water shortages brought on by a combination of climate change, disrupted supply lines, and the fact that it’s hard to plant crops while an entire country is at war with itself, millions of citizens were and still are living with food insecurity. The Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t helped, either, as far as the availability of resources goes.
[OIL IN SOUTH SUDAN]
Ok, now that you know about the Dinka and the Nuer, we should talk about Sudanese oil.
In 1972, the First Sudanese Civil War ended with the Addis Ababa Agreement, which created the Southern Sudan Autonomous Region. Following the agreement, there was nearly a decade of relative peace in Sudan.
During this window of opportunity, Chevron struck oil in the southern part of the country in 1979, setting the nation on a direct course towards a second civil war.
At the time, Jaafar Nimeiri was the president of Sudan. He had come to power by way of a military coup, and he was aligned with Gaddafi in his pro-Arab beliefs and style of governance. Once the oil was discovered in the south, Nimeiri was a little too optimistic about its economic prospects. He kept speaking about how rich the country was about to be, but unfortunately, the oil was slow and hard to come by.
Still, he started making moves. In direct violation of the Addis Ababa Agreement, he attempted to redraw the line demarcating the Southern Sudan Autonomous Region so that the oil field would be in the northern part of the country. Then, he started making plans for a pipeline that would move the oil extracted in the south up to the north. On top of all that, he began implementing Sharia Law across the entire country, angering both the Christian south and the Muslim north.
In response, the southern tribes began to retaliate. In 1983, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, or the SPLA, attacked an oil field, killing three workers and causing Chevron to halt its operations temporarily. The north wasn’t happy about this disruption.
The SPLA was primarily comprised of members of the Dinka tribe, so the Sudanese government started arming the Nuer to fight against the Dinka, even though both the Nuer and the Dinka were generally aligned in their opposition to Nimeiri. Later, the Sudanese government would arm Arab cattle herders from the Darfur region to occupy the border between the northern and southern parts of the country, right where the oil fields were. They were called the Baggara.
The region surrounding the oil fields was populated by the Dinka and the Nuer. However, the Baggara were given permission to do whatever they wanted to the African tribes with little oversight from the government. With weapons and horses that the Africans did not have, the Baggara drove the tribespeople from their land, kidnapping and enslaving the women and children, and destroying homes and villages. This was basically a reconquest of southern lands by the north. The Baggara took the southerners’ cattle and the lands upon which the cattle grazed. They also secured the southern oil fields so that the north could take the oil.
By 1990, the civil war was becoming expensive for Sudan, and the government had already defaulted with the IMF. In 1992, Chevron sold its oil concessions in Sudan, and they eventually became absorbed into the Canadian company, Arakis. The company began constructing infrastructure projects meant to support oil production and protect the sites, but by 2000, it was clear that the Sudanese government was using the infrastructure for, quote, “non-defensive purposes.”
Oil remains a constant source of contention between the two countries, especially as oil has become one of the region’s primary exports, specifically to China.
Around the same time that all of this was happening, Sudan, which was still one country, saw a few leadership changes. Nimeiri was removed from office two years into the civil war, and by 1989, Omar al-Bashir had taken over leadership of Sudan by way of military coup. He remained in power until 2019 when he was removed from office and charged with crimes against humanity by the international community. He still has to answer for the 1989 coup in which he seized power, as well as for conducting fraudulent elections, perpetuating widespread corruption, and facilitating genocide.
Upon his removal from office, an interim government was set up. This government was to be led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok for three years, at which point a general democratic election would be held. This would put the election somewhere around September of 2022, and Hamdok, per the terms of the interim government, would not be eligible to run for office.
Two years into his three-year run on October 25th, 2021, he got kidnapped and couped by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.
During his short time in office, Hamdok set out to undo 30+ years of an Islamist regime. He went directly against the conservative Sharia Law with moves like dramatically expanding the rights of women, permitting the sale of alcohol, and legalizing apostasy, or the renunciation of religion.
Hamdok took a more secular approach to governance in Sudan, choosing to focus on the nation’s long-suffering economy, tax issues, resource scarcity, near-failing banking sector, tribal warfare, etc. - all of this, of course, entirely during a global pandemic that has disrupted the global economy in an unprecedented way.
He also tackled agricultural challenges, believing that the sector was salvageable, even while acknowledging the challenges that climate change has inflicted on the region, such as higher average temperatures and lower average rainfalls.
All of these reforms upset the conservative religious faction in Sudan, but Hamdok insisted that this faction was a small and negligible minority. That said, Hamdok survived an assassination attempt during his first year in office, but it’s unclear who made the attempt. The Sudan Taliban has claimed responsibility for it, but it could also have been disgruntled former members of the Bashir regime.
Besides the conservatives, others in the country are concerned that Sudan will simply become a pawn in global oil operations in Hamdok’s attempt to ameliorate relations with the US and the Arab world. Additionally, Hamdok supporters have continually protested the terms of the transitional agreement, arguing that the military is still too active within the government and that it is preventing Hamdok from making the necessary reforms in a timely manner.
The October coup, understandably, sparked widespread protests in Sudan. However, in a rare occurrence, Hamdok and the arrested officials were allowed back into office on November 21st, provided that the military was still functionally in charge.
Hamdok’s supporters were disappointed in him. Many of them felt as though he rolled over and agreed to a bad deal rather than holding out for a better one with less military rule and more civilian rule. Additionally, Hamdok called for an end to the protests and violence, lamenting the loss of young lives in Sudan. After all, he is an economist. Young people dying, to put it quite coldly, is bad for the future of any nation. Again, his supporters felt betrayed by what they perceived to be weakness from Hamdok.
And so, a month after Hamdok has been re-instated, the protests in Sudan continue. Also, the election, originally scheduled for 2022, has been pushed back to 2023.
As we head into our third year of a pandemic that we were told would only last a few months, I’ve been seeing a lot of memes referring to teens and young adults wasting what’s supposed to be the best years of their lives sitting at home during a pandemic. They’re not traveling, they’re not meeting people, their education has been disrupted, their plans and timelines are being pushed backed indefinitely, etc. Sure, it’s a lot to deal with. I’ll admit to being disproportionately upset about having to cancel all of the trips I had planned for 2020, despite the fact that the rest of my life was, relatively speaking, unbothered. I had a lot to be grateful for and I was keenly aware of that, but I couldn’t help but feel the loss of those experiences I might have had.
First of all, to any teens or young adults listening to this, your 30s are better, anyway. Presumably, each subsequent decade continues to build on the previous one, hopefully for the better, and honestly, I don’t know anyone in their 30s or 40s who would opt to go back to 21.
Secondly, as a millennial, I can attest to how much it sucks being the victim of circumstances that are entirely out of your control and then being expected to somehow make the best of it without being given any tools with which to do so. In many ways, it’s unreasonable to expect an entire generation to pull itself up by its bootstraps, which we know is a nonsensical turn of phrase to begin with because it implies that the infrastructure and systems in place are so lacking that only the miraculously exceptional will be able to thrive within them as they are.
But of course, thirdly, we have to talk about perspective. The education thing, in particular, is concerning. Millions of students around the world have found their education disrupted by the pandemic in some way, shape, or form, and while I can’t possibly get into all of the reasons why that’s a bad thing, I’ll just say that it doesn’t exactly set anyone up for success going forward. We’re looking at an entire generation of students who have gotten a worse education than they would have gotten otherwise, and there is little talk about how to remedy the situation.
At least we had Zoom to bridge the gap between home and school. At least we still had schools to return to once the lockdowns lifted. At least our educational systems are still in place.
So here’s that perspective. In South Sudan, the war is so bad that the majority of schools have been closed without plans to reopen. There are children who will never advance beyond whatever elementary education they may have already acquired. Higher education isn’t an option. Imagine what that will mean for the future people of the region.
Bear with me for a second with this - I promise I have a point. You know about the chakras, right? You don’t need to believe in them for this to make sense, but they provide a bit of context. Your chakras are energy centers that run along your vertical meridian, and there are seven that people most refer to. There are the bottom three, the heart center, and the top three.
The very first one at the bottom is the root chakra. It grounds us in the physical world and its strength or weakness is often manifested in our lives in things related to our general stability. This includes our basic needs - shelter, food, water, clean air, etc.
For most of us in the western world, we don’t even think about these things. Even with this insane pandemic, the wavering economy, the looming housing crisis, the supply chain delays and shortages, etc. we generally don’t worry about where our next glass of water will come from. Most of us have a place to sleep every night and a dependably recurring income. Food is relatively easy to come by, however high or low the quality.
For the most part, our western root chakras are generally bright and glowing.
And we’re better off for it. The chakras stack on top of one another, with the bottom three tethering us to reality and the top three connecting us to god, the universe, general spirituality, whatever. If the bottom three are off-balance, though, the top three will be, too.
In war-torn countries like Sudan and South Sudan, families are forced to flee from one conflict zone to another, having to re-form a life at each turn with the very real possibility that as soon as they’re settled, they’ll have to flee again. There is little stability. There is just a constant search for basic human needs and no guarantees of finding them. How can one progress as an individual, let alone as a society, while having to constantly worry about the simplest means of survival?
Not only that, but consider the timeline. We’ve been in a pandemic for two years, now, which means that apart from the pandemic babies, we all remember a time before it. We all had plans and we were all chugging away at them. If you just consider that Sudan obtained its independence in 1956, you’ll understand that people have lived long, full lives under these circumstances. People who are your parents’ and grandparents’ ages have lived their entire lives under the constant threat of war and overall instability, mastering the art of survivalism and little else.
If a year or two of less-than education is a matter of concern for our students here, imagine was decades without education is doing to generations of people; to society. Imagine the jobs that will never be available to people who only have an elementary-level education. Imagine the ideas we’re missing out on, the innovation, the creativity.
Talk about opportunity costs. When inequity, war, racism, and scarcity are the most prevalent aspects of a society, the beauty that could have otherwise been is lost.
That’s it for this episode of Global Thread. I hope you enjoyed it and I hope you learned something. As always, I’m very grateful to have you here. You don’t have to be, but you are. Thank you.
If you’d like to support this podcast, you can do so at Patreon.com/globalthread. You can also follow me on Instagram and TIkTok at @yazzzzzk (five Zs), and you can read a transcript of this episode on my website, globalthread.org. Finally, if you like my music, you can give your compliments to Mr. Michael Connally over on Instagram, @musicbympc.
Next up is Ethiopia! I’ll talk to you guys in the new year.