African Studies Quarterly

The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars. Douglas Johnson, Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press 2003. 234 pp.


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Drawing on his own research as one of the foremost historians on the Sudan, as well as first-hand experience working in the southern Sudan, Douglas Johnson has written a concise, accessible and authoritative guide to the civil wars that have plagued the country’s modern history. First begun as a 1992 report commissioned for relief personnel engaged in the Sudan, Johnson has expanded and updated the work to include the events of the past decade in order to remedy “the institutional amnesia afflicting diplomats, journalists, and development, relief and human rights workers: anyone who has dipped into the current of the war with only a vague apprehension of its source”.

Organized around a set of “historical factors” that he places at the root of Sudan’s civil wars, the book provides an excellent comparative framework for analyzing one of the world’s most intractable insurgencies. Foremost among the causes of the country’s recurring wars is a durable political economy that sets the centralizing power of expansionist states against peripheral regions. Manifested in the transcendent practices of slave and cattle raiding and land displacement, Sudanic states have, since the 18th century, exploited and alienated peoples along the periphery, “creating groups of peoples with a lastingly ambiguous status in relation to the state”. In other words, the history of contemporary conflicts predate colonial interventions and Britain’s decision to grant independence to a united Sudan before inequalities between North and South – inequalities exacerbated by Britain’s “Southern Policy” for administering the South – could be remedied. That the colonial period is so often the starting point for analyses of the country’s war is indicative of what Johnson terms our historical “amnesia” in regards to the Sudan.

A theme that emerges later in the book, and is intrinsically related to exploitative modes of state consolidation, is the persistence of fragmentation among and between communities in both the South and North. Among the founding principles of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in 1983 was the need to prevent the sorts of military factionalism that beset southern forces in the first civil war (1955/61-72). Johnson is at his best in discussing the internecine SPLA split in 1991 and the still unresolved Nuer civil war. He also traces the fracturing of the “Northern Muslim consensus” as the North-South war has expanded into regions of the North – Darfur, Southern Kordofan, Red Sea – over the past decade as a result of Khartoum’s meddling in neighboring conflicts, and the government’s pursuit of a radical, exclusionary policy of Islamization at home and abroad. Also noteworthy given current preoccupations with so-called “resource wars” is Johnson’s analysis of the relationship between war economies and relief/development policy. He traces how “having captured the relief effort, Khartoum will continue to work for the subjugation of Southern labour and Southern resources”. Those contemplating peace as part of the Machakos peace process currently underway in Kenya should contemplate the effect of peace on the persistent pattern of the North’s commercial exploitation of the South.

It is clear that the author’s sympathies lie with southern resistance to Khartoum. In this respect, however, the book provides a useful counter to what Johnson correctly identifies as the predominant focus on the North in the historiography of the Sudan. The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars is an immensely important contribution to the literature. It should be read by students of conflict, on the continent and elsewhere, as well as all those associated with relief, development and peacemaking in the Sudan.

Lee J.M. Seymour
Northwestern University