In 1988 Sudan reaped its best harvest in at least a decade, yet as many as half a million Sudanese may have died of starvation. Most were victims of the civil war raging in the southern provinces, and anarchy in the west. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the war zones, seeking refuge in camps in Ethiopia and other neighboring countries or in northern Sudan.

Veteran relief workers visiting camps for the displaced in Southern Kordofan Province say conditions in them are the worst they have ever seen, and invoke Auschwitz and Belsen to convey a sense of what they have witnessed in the camps — unburied human corpses lying where they expired, some of them missing parts that have been carried off by hyenas or vultures, fields of skulls and bones, and a host of the living, scarred and maimed by government troops or private militias and hovering on the brink of starvation. Cardboard and tin squatter settlements ringing the capital have swollen the population of Greater Khartoum to four million — about a fifth of the country’s people — and bands of small boys from these settlements roam the streets of wealthy and middle class neighborhoods picking through the trash for food, competing with goats.

There is a lot of trash there for them to sift. Luxury real estate development may constitute the only growth sector of the Sudanese economy. Air-conditioned villas and palaces rise out of the dust, some of them five stories tall, providing their occupants — “Islamic” bankers, government ministers, military officers, and high level functionaries, speculators in foodstuffs and real estate, Sudanese agents of Gulf capital — with panoramic views of the heaps of rubble that were the houses of the poor before the floods of April 1988.

The international media played a bright spotlight on Sudan briefly in the late stages of the terrible famine of the mid-1980s, and rediscovered the country in early 1989. Graphic reports generally attributed the appalling suffering to a recrudescence of fanatical Islam, conflict between the Arab and Islamic North and the African, Christian and pagan South, and government genocide. Some Western observers even seem to see in these conditions evidence of some enduring human evil, and have given them literary expression in extended, evocative articles in The New Yorker (March 18, 1989) and Granta (Spring 1989).

Genocidal violence, ethnic conflict and religious fanaticism are aspects of the Sudanese crisis, but they are the epiphenomena of deeper conflicts. There are identifiable social reasons why all of this is happening at this particular moment, embedded in a history of class struggles and rivalries among fractions of the Sudanese bourgeoisie. As a result, Sudan has lurched from one dominant pattern of capital accumulation to another and back again, producing a general crisis of subsistence throughout the society.

Ruling Class Conflict

When Sudan emerged independent from British rule in 1956, two fractions of the tiny bourgeoisie, nurtured in the bosom of colonialism, competed to control the new state. On one side stood the agrarian bourgeoisie, based in irrigated cotton production for export, though soon to shift its investments into mechanized farming of sorghum for the domestic market. Opposed to this group stood the commercial bourgeoisie, regional and foreign traders. The political parties which have dominated Sudan formed around these two fractions of the bourgeoisie, although the religious forms their organization took obscured this basis in rival branches of capital. Agrarian interests coalesced around the Ansar sect [1] to form the Umma Party, while commercial interests, after some false starts and a succession of parties, organized around the Khatmiya sect in what has become the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Until the early 1970s, the interests of agricultural capital dominated the state and economic policy. The pattern of growth in this period was very unusual in the Third World. While cotton production for export stagnated, the sector that produced food for mass consumption within Sudan took the lead. Capital accumulation thus depended upon a corresponding expansion in mass purchasing power. The Gezira Scheme — a two-million-acre irrigated government operated farm — employed over 300,000 migrant cotton pickers each year who were partly paid in sorghum. The rapid expansion of both irrigated and rainfed agriculture following independence took place on the same basis of large-scale production employing many seasonal workers and paying them partly in kind. Thus, expansion of production contributed to the increase in demand for its own main product.

It was this internally articulated pattern of capital accumulation and economic growth which was primarily responsible for Sudan’s good fortune in the Sahelian drought of 1968-1973. Drought was as bad in most of the central agricultural zones of Sudan as it was in the famine-stricken countries of West Africa, yet there was no famine in Sudan. Peasants in most areas were still able to maintain sound fallow and rotation practices, to produce surplus grain and store it and, when all else failed, to make more family members available for seasonal wage labor to make up for losses at home. Besides, starvation was bad for business.

But while this pattern of growth protected rural Sudanese from famine, the regime of capital accumulation upon which it was based was entering a crisis from which it would not recover. Sudan depended on expensive imports of fuel, machinery and other goods, but expansion of production for the home market rather than export limited the hard currency earnings necessary to pay for imports. In addition, the agrarian bourgeoisie used the state to shift the main burden of taxation onto commercial activities and the export sector, reducing producers’ incentives to grow export crops, and directed government facilities toward support for private farming. The resulting neglect of the export sector led to deterioration of the irrigation infrastructure in the government-operated schemes which produced most of Sudan’s export crops.

Fiscal Crisis and Starvation

In 1973, world market prices for cotton and other primary products began to drop sharply and oil prices soared. Sudan was hit with a balance-of-payments crisis and a fiscal crisis of the state simultaneously. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Paris Club and Arab capital, in concert with Sudanese commercial capital, pressed the Nimeiri regime to reschedule Sudan’s external debt with Arab guarantees, adopt IMF stabilization policies (currency devaluation, reduction of consumer goods subsidies, etc.), and reorient the economy toward exports. The World Bank coordinated foreign assistance to rehabilitate the public irrigation sector while foreign Arab capital took over further expansion in the private sector. Nimeiri swung the resources of the state away from the indigenous mechanized farming sector to Arab investments in Sudanese agriculture involving Sudanese commercial capitalists as junior partners and agents.

From the mid-1970s on, the position of Sudan’s rural masses deteriorated rapidly. Already many pastoralists had been evicted from their grazing lands to make way for the big mechanized farms. They moved into marginal arid zones, battled cultivators or other pastoralists for access to scrub and fallow land, and their herds destroyed the grass cover. Bush and forest sources of fuel, building materials and supplementary foods disappeared into capitalist farms or encroaching desert. Now rural people had to pay skyrocketing prices for the things they needed from the market — including, increasingly, food as the land productivity deteriorated and commercial farm production was reoriented toward foreign markets. Saudis, not noted for their taste for sorghum, did not compete directly with rural Sudanese for their basic staple. Instead, sorghum was fed to poultry and livestock for export, or shipped to Arab countries to be fed to livestock previously exported from Sudan. Exports of sorghum rose during the years of drought, peaking at over 412,000 metric tons in 1982.

The Nimeiri regime entered its final crisis in 1983. People in the Southern Region had been growing restive for several years after the 1972 settlement of the long civil war failed to bring them tangible benefits. Instead, inflation depressed living standards. The government started digging the Jonglei Canal through the Sudd swamp to provide more water to Egypt and the North, and decided to take the oil recently discovered in the south to the north for refining. Armed uprisings broke out in various parts of the South. Nimeiri, having failed to build popular support through the Sudan Socialist Union after brief alliances with the political left and right, sought legitimacy as Sudan’s Imam beginning in the late 1970s. He declared a particularly harsh form of Islamic law and brought the Muslim Brothers into the government. Opposition forces in the South rallied around Colonel John Garang to form the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLM/SPLA) and quickly eliminated central government presence in the rural areas of the southern provinces.

The northern provinces suffered renewed drought beginning in 1980. Already pushed to the limit by the destruction of the surrounding bush and fallow and the resulting declines in agricultural fertility, rural people lived off their stored surpluses and meager wages until, by 1984, these were exhausted. People began to starve, particularly in the far west. Others still had some cash — or assets they could exchange for it — which they took to grain merchants to purchase grain. In Gedaref and al-Obeid, angry mobs rioted and looted the full granaries of merchants who refused to sell them sorghum while anticipating further rises in price.

The famine eventually had severe effects on the urban population. Combined with Nimeiri’s repressive use of Islamic law and the dislocations of the deepening civil war in the South, it prompted opposition to coalesce under professional and trade union leadership in the capital, culminating in a general strike that brought the entire government and economy to a standstill in late March 1985. On April 6, 1985, the top military brass deposed Nimeiri.

The populace refused to return to work until the new regime froze (but did not repeal) the harshest Islamic laws and restored basic civil rights. Political parties organized above ground for the first time since 1969. The SPLA/SPLM denounced the elections in April 1986 as a sham. Umma Party leader Sadiq al-Mahdi campaigned on a program of the repeal of Islamic law and peaceful resolution of the civil war. These promises, plus the outright purchase of votes (with Libyan financial assistance), gained the Umma Party the largest number of seats in the National Assembly, but not a majority; Sadiq became prime minister of a coalition government with the Umma’s old rivals, the DUP.

Looting the State

A new factor in these elections was the National Islamic Front, the party formed by the Muslim Brotherhood and funded by Saudi money and the Faisal Islamic Bank (FIB). The Front took nearly a fifth of the seats in the Assembly (though only a tenth of the popular vote), and after taking office, Sadiq backed down from his promises to repeal the Islamic laws. This indecision in turn stalemated negotiations with SPLA/SPLM.

The civilian politicians, scrambling to catch up with the vast wealth accumulated by Nimeiri’s small band of cronies, began the wholesale looting of the state. Cabinet ministers, provincial governors and other high officials sold food aid, government licenses and contracts, urban real estate, and other favors to themselves, their relatives or the highest bidder. Umma MPs were paid by the Mahdi family (with Libyan assistance) to supplement their salaries and maintain party discipline. Assets of government corporations went to leading supporters of the major parties (and, in some cases, to their foreign Arab sponsors, such as the Arab Authority for Agricultural Investment and Development) at bargain prices.

The routing of state revenues into private pockets severely compromised the government’s ability to function. Strikes by government workers for non-payment of salaries, sometimes for several months at a stretch, became common. Inflation, conservatively estimated at 60 percent in early 1989, rapidly ate up the few salaries that were paid. Many public buildings visibly began to crumble. Libraries at the universities have not been able to buy books for several years and most subscriptions to international scholarly journals have long been cancelled due to non-payment.

The new and voracious branch of capital, sponsored by a marginalized faction of the Saudi royal family, primarily through the Faisal Islamic Bank (FIB), has thrown the old contest between the Umma-based agrarian bourgeoisie and the DUP-based commercial bourgeoisie into chaos. What has been going on since Nimeiri’s downfall — against the backdrop of famine, civil war and rural anarchy — is a full-scale scramble for the realignment of capital economically, institutionally and politically. The scale of accumulation required to be a player has taken a quantum leap from that of the 1970s, while the agricultural base of the historically dominant fraction of capital has been eroded. The urgency of the pursuit means that participants can not invest in productive enterprise and wait for their investments to mature; capital must turn over virtually on a daily basis.

At the center of this scramble are the “Islamic” banks and their subsidiary enterprises. Faisal Islamic Bank, established in 1979 with Saudi backing, was the first and remains by far the strongest. In the last few years, the Umma and DUP groups have each established an Islamic bank in efforts to compete with the NIF for financial dominance.

Key to the success of FIB and the other Islamic financial institutions in Sudan is their legal status as religious institutions exempt from central bank oversight and all taxation, and their favored access to government licenses, export credits and the like. This position also makes their accounts private and unavailable for inspection by government, “partners” or employees. FIB accounts, for instance, are done in Cyprus. Economic instability and high inflation make efforts to corner the markets for various consumption items and urban real estate the favored activities of these banks. FIB controls a large share of the sorghum market, including about a third of sorghum exports.

Hoarding basic commodities fuels the spiraling inflation and the chaos of shortages, and petty corruption proliferates as well. Taxi drivers find it more remunerative to sell their quotas of gasoline on the black market and leave their taxis idle than to operate them. The Post Office is often the least likely place to go in search of duty or postage stamps, as the denominations one needs are often only available from the “informal sector” operating outside on the street. Bakeries often have no bread because they have sold their flour to the big hotels and restaurants on the black market.

None of the rival fractions of capital has succeeded in securing control over the state, so all have responded by systematically dismantling the government and building more reliable parallel state structures within each of the three main parties. Police and soldiers have a strict ration of bullets checked out for use in their often antiquated guns when they go on duty and checked back in at the end of the shift, while private militias bristle with AK-47s and all the ammunition they can use. The Umma militias and tribal militias loyal to the Mahdi family are by all accounts the most extensive. The NIF has had cadre trained by Hizballah in Lebanon and is striving to equal the Umma in firepower.

Many of the militia units in Southern Darfur and Southern Kordofan Provinces and the southern parts of Blue Nile Province were initially armed by the army or the Umma Party to be used as auxiliaries in the war against the SPLA. Instead, these mainly pastoral tribal groupings have used automatic weapons to make up for their crippling losses of herds and pasture in the drought at the expense of their sedentary, non-Arab neighbors. They attack villages, steal livestock and kill or drive off the inhabitants. Sometimes they capture women and children and force them to tend herds or till fields, or sell them to other groups experiencing labor shortages.

Large areas of Darfur and Southern Kordofan have been carved up into the domains of local warlords who control all movement in their territories, preying upon southerners fleeing the devastation further south, looting relief columns trying to get to the south or to the refugee camps in the North, and organizing raids on various communities. With automatic weapons so widely distributed, local and personal disputes often erupt into deadly violence within communities. Outsiders who try to feed or otherwise help the displaced and the destitute are often harassed by local militias and government officials, particularly in Darfur and Southern Kordofan. Some observers have charged the government with a deliberate policy of genocide against the non-Muslim, non-Arab populations of Sudan. But more often there are no effective government organs present to articulate or carry out any policy at all. Local officials may simply be acting to support their families through corruption in the absence of their government salaries or any legitimate alternative. Or else they take orders from local warlords.

In November 1988, the DUP sent its own delegation to Ethiopia to negotiate with representatives of SPLA/SPLM. Both parties agreed to call for the freezing of all Islamic legislation and the convening of a constitutional conference of all parties, including SPLA/SPLM. The Umma and NIF rejected this agreement. The DUP left the government, precipitating a political crisis that lasted until the military coup in June 1989.

Since the army reflects the political divisions of the wider society, it is not immediately obvious what changes can be expected from the new regime. The army is most unified on the issue of the war, for which it has been woefully equipped and which it has been losing badly as morale has plummeted. The majority of officers favor an immediate negotiated end to the war. The main obstacle for the past three years has been the refusal of the civilian government to back down from the imposition of Islamic law, a policy few in the military support. However, within a few weeks after the June coup, a tiny group of officers sympathetic to the NIF and supporting Islamic law had forced out over 300 senior officers and asserted control of the state. They did open negotiations with SPLM/SPLA, but Garang’s negotiators abandoned the talks after the first day when the government refused to budge on the issue of Islamic law. By August 1989, informed observers in Khartoum speculated that the military regime would seek to end the war by ceding the south to the SPLA and isolating the movement there while consolidating control in the north.

Even if the new regime succeeds in ending the civil war — whether through partition or a negotiated settlement — not all the killing would stop. The basic conditions of subsistence crisis responsible for the chaos and slaughter in the west remain. It is not easy to see how communities locked in life-and-death struggles over shrunken and damaged resources can quickly patch up their differences and resume living amicably again as neighbors, even assuming their resources are somehow restored. What is clear, however, is that a definitive end to the civil war is a prerequisite for the healing and rebuilding process to start.


[1] “Sect” here corresponds to tariqa (path), a term referring to the disciplines elaborated by a Sufi leader and to the body of his followers. The Ansar, founded by the Mahdi, arose from Sufi roots and functions in a similar manner to other Sufi brotherhoods, although the Mahdi intended it to supersede all sectarian organizations and its present leaders deny that it is a Sufi brotherhood.

How to cite this article:

Jay O'Brien "Sudan’s Killing Fields," Middle East Report 161 (November/December 1989).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This