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Why is Sudan so prone to civil war?

Sudanese refugees who crossed into neighboring Chad receive aid at a distribution center on April 30. A growing number of Sudanese are fleeing their country following recent fighting between two rival generals in Sudan's capital Khartoum.
AFP via Getty Images
Sudanese refugees who crossed into neighboring Chad receive aid at a distribution center on April 30. A growing number of Sudanese are fleeing their country following recent fighting between two rival generals in Sudan's capital Khartoum.

Updated May 10, 2023 at 10:58 AM ET

When Sudan won independence on New Year's Day in 1956, two features stood out in the new nation: it was the largest country in Africa, and it was already embroiled in civil war that had erupted several months earlier.

Some see a link between Sudan's vast landscape, the many different groups that make up the country, and the repeated internal conflicts that have plagued the nation for decades.

For the past month, two rival generals have been feuding for control of the capital Khartoum, raising fears of another major conflagration.

"If you take Sudan, and you look at other large countries throughout the world, not just in Africa, they are almost always very difficult to govern," said Susan D. Page, a former U.S. diplomat who spent years working in the country.

She's one of three former negotiators who spoke to NPR about the challenges of establishing and maintaining a peaceful, stable Sudan.

"When people are very different from one another — farmers, herders, nomads — it's always going to be quite difficult to rule," said Page.

Sudan has multiple fault lines.

Britain and Egypt jointly ruled Sudan for the first half of the 20th century and essentially treated the north and the south as two separate colonial territories.

That division carried over when Sudan became independent, with Arab Muslims in the north dominating the country, alienating African Christians and other groups in the south and the west.

Sudan has a wide range of ethnic, linguistic and tribal differences. Residents in remote parts of the country feel the elites in Khartoum monopolize the country's limited resources.

The result: Sudan has suffered three domestic wars spanning well over 40 years of the country's 67 years of independence.

Page helped negotiate the end of one civil war, back in 2005. She later became the first U.S. ambassador to South Sudan when it broke away from Sudan in 2011 (South Sudan fought its own civil war just two years after gaining independence).

Risk of renewed civil war

Page is now worried about the current fighting that pits Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the commander of the military, against Gen. Mohammed Dagalo, the head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.

"I think we have a notion that powerful countries can sort of wave a magic wand and get people to stop doing what they're doing," said Page, who now teaches at the University of Michigan. "That is what diplomacy is about. But it's very difficult once the big guns literally have come out."

The previous conflicts, waged in the remote southern and western parts of Sudan, were disasters for one of the world's poorest nations.

Yet the current fighting could potentially be even more devastating. More than 500 people have been killed in and around Khartoum – by far the most developed part of Sudan, and home to more than 5 million people.

"What we're essentially seeing is the deterioration of the Sudanese state itself with consequences, first and foremost, for the Sudanese people," said Payton Knopf. He was the U.S. deputy special envoy to the Horn of Africa until last year and is still working in the region.

There's no easy solution. Knopf says previous peace deals kept military figures in positions of power — which created conditions that then led to future conflicts.

"It's sort of like saying you're going to put the foxes back in charge of the henhouse after the foxes have bombed the hen house and killed a lot of the hens," said Knopf.

"I think it's time to retire the notion that a power-sharing arrangement in which the military or the Rapid Support Forces are the dominant actors is ever going to be a stabilizing decision," he added.

A history of long wars

The two feuding generals have effectively controlled the country for the past four years and shown no sign of ceding power.

Alex DeWaal at Tufts University is an expert on Sudan and was called to the country in 2005 as part of an African Union effort to negotiate an end to fighting in Sudan's western region of Darfur.

That peace effort failed, and the military's brutal crackdown on rebels and civilians in Darfur was deemed a genocide by the United States and others in the international community.

That experience taught DeWaal how hard it is to end conflict in Sudan.

"Quite a few times I've been meeting with Sudanese generals, and they have this mindset when they go to war, which is, 'We will land a knockout, killer blow on the other guy. We can win a decisive victory and don't stop us.' And they're always wrong. Invariably, they cannot achieve that decisive victory," said DeWaal.

As a result, Sudan's wars have been painfully long.

"I recall from so many meetings that glazed look in their eyes when they had resigned themselves, pretending they had no agency and that war was inevitable. Getting them out of that mindset to recognize, yes, they started it, and yes, they can stop it, is the challenge of the mediator."

The U.S., Egypt and Saudi Arabia all have influence in Sudan. The rival Sudanese factions have sent representatives to Saudi Arabia in an attempt to halt the conflict. They've been talking since Saturday, but there's no sign of a breakthrough.

Meanwhile, growing numbers of Sudanese civilians are fleeing the country. Further fighting could set off a massive refugee outflow to neighboring states ill-prepared to handle such an influx.

Susan D. Page says it's always Sudan's civilians who bear the brunt of these conflicts.

"I just hope that the Sudanese people themselves are not forgotten, that everyone will pay more attention to the Sudanese population and their wants and desires, and not just those of the men with weapons," said Page.

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Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.