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Chapter 5. National Security


Sudan's national emblem, a prominent symbol in military insignia

SUDAN OCCUPIES A STRATEGICALLY SENSITIVE AREA of the African continent, and the nation's military establishment, developed during the period of British colonial administration, has remained influential in independent Sudan. Problems of domestic origin have, however, been the paramount sources of national security concern.

Sudan has experienced civil war during three-quarters of its existence as an independent nation. Historical divisions between the Arab-dominated north and the predominantly Black African, non-Muslim south spawned civil strife that was settled only in 1972, after about seventeen years. Open conflict broke out again in 1983 after President Jafaar an Nimeiri abrogated the peace accord by abolishing the Southern Regional Assembly, redividing the south into three regions, and imposing the sharia, or Islamic law, on the entire country. Since that time, the southern rebel forces, known as the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), have gradually expanded the fighting, leaving the government forces in control of only a few key garrison towns of the south. Essentially a revolt among the Dinka and Nuer peoples, the largest groups in the south, the conflict has spread beyond the southern region to southern Darfur, southern Kurdufan, and southern Al Awsat states. The struggle has been complicated by the government policy of arming militias in communities opposed to the SPLA. As a result, local intercommunal conflicts have been exacerbated, and the civilian population has been victimized by violence and atrocities. Millions have been forced to flee their homes in the south to escape the fighting and avert starvation.

In spite of the pressures it faced in the south, the Sudanese military constituted the most stable institution in a nation beset by upheaval and economic crisis. Initially having a reputation for nonpartisanship, the armed forces were generally accepted as the guardians of the state when confidence in elected leaders faltered. Nimeiri, who came to power in a military coup d'état in 1969, was himself deposed by a group of officers in 1985. After a three-year period of civilian parliamentary government from 1986 to 1989, a group of middle-ranking officers again intervened to impose military rule. Aligned with the National Islamic Front (NIF), an Islamist (Muslim activist, also seen as fundamentalist) party, the new military clique purged the armed forces of potential dissenters, arrested suspected opponents, and introduced harsh internal security controls. A politico-military militia, the Popular Defence Forces (PDF), was organized as an urban security force dedicated to the goals of the Islamist movement.

Its economy in a crippled condition, Sudan has been almost entirely dependent on help from other countries to equip its armed forces. After severing military ties with the Soviet Union in 1977, Sudan turned to Egypt, China, the West European countries, and the United States for arms. In most cases, these purchases were financed by Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab states. The reluctance of Western nations to supply weapons and munitions that could be used to support military operations in the south and the new military leaders' alienation from other Middle Eastern countries have made it increasingly difficult to procure arms and matériel.

The Sudanese armed forces, numbering about 71,000 in the early 1990s, were responsible for both internal and external security. Most troops were deployed to defend against SPLA attacks and contain the southern insurgency. Their effectiveness was impaired by poor morale and shortages of functioning weapons and essential supplies. Most of the armored vehicles, artillery, and aircraft from the Soviet Union were more than twenty years old and no longer serviceable as a result of lack of maintenance and spare parts.

In addition to the questionable effectiveness of its armed forces, Sudan faced other security problems. Sudan had on its borders two states equipped with Soviet arms: Ethiopia on the east and Libya on the northwest. Although each of these states constituted a potential threat, it was the seemingly unwinnable war in the south and the growing unpopularity of a military leadership fueled by strong Islamism that were the dominant national security issues.

Data as of June 1991

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