"Sudan’s Spreading Conflict (II): War in Blue Nile", crisisgroup

Africa Report N°20418 Jun 2013

Executive Summary

Full PDF Report


The war in Blue Nile state has had a horrible impact, with about a third of the state’s population in need of humanitarian assistance, including some 150,000 refugees in South Sudan and Ethiopia and approximately 200,000 displaced or severely affected within the state. It resumed in September 2011 because the root causes – mainly the concentration of power and resources in Sudan’s centre at the expense of its peripheries – had not been resolved by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The war pits against each other old enemies, the long-ruling National Congress Party (NCP) regime in Khartoum and the northern branch of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) that won South Sudan’s independence, but was not able to achieve as much autonomy as it had hoped in Blue Nile. The conflict’s local and national dimensions are more intermingled than ever, and it will not end conclusively without a truly comprehensive national dialogue between the regime and both armed and unarmed oppositions.

Blue Nile state is a “microcosm of Sudan”, inhabited by an array of communities and deeply divided between “indigenous” and Arab and non-Arab “newcomers”. The area has long been marginalised, its natural wealth mostly enriching elites in Khartoum without them sharing power and redistributing resources. This feature is the main cause of Sudan’s multiple conflicts. Many had hoped the CPA would transform governance, but neither the NCP nor the SPLM focused on the reforms that would make “unity attractive” and prevent South Sudan from pursuing self-determination. Such a right was not granted to the “two areas” of Blue Nile and South Kordofan, and the CPA instead offered vague “popular consultations”. In 2011, the process allowed 76,000 Blue Nile citizens to air their grievances, and the SPLM used this to push for “self-rule”. The consultations were supposed to be finalised before South Sudan’s July 2011 independence, but once that deadline passed the NCP was less inclined than ever to share power, let alone to allow local autonomy.

The SPLM-North (SPLM-N) was supposed to become an opposition political party after July 2011, but it still had troops, which Khartoum wanted to expel or disarm expeditiously. This in particular led to the resumption of war in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. A last-minute deal between the NCP and the SPLM-N, the 26 June 2011 framework agreement, brokered by the African Union (AU) and late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, was rejected by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. Hardliners in his party in particular disagreed with the agreement’s commitment to a national solution. Since then, both humanitarian and political negotiations, with international players confused on whether they should be separated or linked, have largely stalled.

The SPLM-N in Blue Nile was less prepared for war than in South Kordofan, where the rebels managed to seize more territory and weapons than they ever had during the earlier war (1985-2005). In Blue Nile, they were rapidly pushed toward the South Sudan border and lost Kurmuk, their historical stronghold on the border with Ethiopia. Addis Ababa, a former SPLM/A supporter, has refused to help and cautiously remained a neutral mediator. Even South Sudan, under international pressure, has not proved willing or able to support former comrades as much as might have been expected given their historical ties.

The SPLM-N now has united with the main Darfur rebel movements under the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) with a more than ever national agenda. But divisions remain between South Kordofan and Blue Nile, and within Blue Nile itself, notably over whether the conflict should take a national dimension. Those differences are benefiting Khartoum’s strategy to limit peace talks and subsequent agreements to local issues in order to prevent reform – seen as dilution of NCP power – in the centre. While they partly supported SPLM-N calls for autonomy during the popular consultation, Blue Nile’s political elites, including NCP members, are now critical of the SRF’s national agenda and support a local solution. Yet a local deal is unlikely to address the root causes of the conflict in Blue Nile, which are not different from those of the other regions’ conflicts.

This report is the second in a series analysing the spreading conflict in Sudan’s peripheries. A comprehensive solution, including broader governance reform and meaningful national dialogue involving the whole armed opposition, is necessary to end the multiple conflicts and build a durable peace. Thus, many of the recommendations in the first report, Sudan’s Spreading Conflict (I): War in South Kordofan (14 February 2013) and the preceding, Major Reform or More War (29 November 2012), are relevant for solving chronic conflict in Blue Nile, which goes beyond local dynamics.

Since the 1980s, the state has become a major battleground for the ideological competition between two opposed models: Khartoum’s attempts at unifying and centralising the country with a dominant Arab-Islamic identity, which South Sudan’s separation is paradoxically reviving, versus the rebel SPLM/A’s and now SRF’s agenda for a more inclusive and devolved Sudan. Attempts to resolve Blue Nile’s past and current conflicts thus very much reflect Sudan’s existential dilemma as to how best it should define itself.


To save lives and cope with massive displacement


To the government of Sudan:

1.  Refrain from linking humanitarian access and ceasefire to political conditions in the direct negotiations with the SPLM-N.

2.  Allow international humanitarian organisations – UN agencies and non-govern­mental organisations (NGOs) – full access to both government- and SPLM-N-controlled areas of Blue Nile, including from across the South Sudanese and Ethiopian borders; allow those humanitarian actors to conduct proper humanitarian assessments and deliver aid involving international staff, with no presence of government security forces unless they demand otherwise; and consider guaranteeing the neutrality of the operations by permitting monitoring by independent international observers.

To the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N):

3.  Allow international humanitarian organisations to conduct humanitarian assessments and deliver aid involving international staff in SPLM-N-controlled areas, including from government-controlled areas, with no SPLM-N military or intelligence presence, unless the humanitarian organisations demand otherwise; and ensure, within its capabilities, that all humanitarian aid goes to civilians and that combatants are separated from civilians and not based in refugee camps.

To address the local dimensions of the Blue Nile conflict

To the government of Sudan and the SPLM-N:

4.  Negotiate a ceasefire in the “two areas” of South Kordofan and Blue Nile to facilitate both humanitarian operations and negotiations, including at the national level.

5.  Resume the popular consultation process in Blue Nile where it was left at the outbreak of the conflict so that it can serve as a basis for state- as well as national-level negotiations.

To the government of Sudan:

6.  Acknowledge the popular consultations or any purely local process will not be sufficient to solve the conflict, and should run in parallel with a national process including the whole armed opposition.

7.  Re-legalise the SPLM-N as a political party allowed to operate in all Sudan; and reinstate SPLM-N elected officials at their pre-war positions.

8.  Allow the SPLM-N to retain its troops for a transitional period, following well-monitored security arrangements.

To initiate a meaningful national dialogue and transition

To the government of Sudan:

9.  Bring the NCP, the SRF, other opposition forces and civil society groups together in an arrangement to govern for a limited period with well-defined parameters (based on agreed principles reiterated in previous agreements) that is intended to lead first to a comprehensive ceasefire and humanitarian access to conflict areas; and allow the political forces to flesh out a roadmap for a durable peace process, perhaps taking the 28 June 2011 framework agreement and the 24 April 2013 AUHIP draft Declaration of Common Intent as a basis for discussion of a national transition that includes:

a) debate and agreement on a system of governance that can end the conflicts between the “centre-Khartoum” and Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile, as well as the East and North; and

b) drafting of a permanent constitution.

To the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF):

10.  Develop and articulate detailed political platforms and visions that can form the framework for the transition.

11.  Work to broaden the opposition’s grassroots support and popular backing for a transitional framework, including in Blue Nile.

To assist in ending conflict and building sustainable peace and reform

To all parties:

12.  Urge the SRF and other opposition forces to recognise that a managed transition is much preferable to a coup or violent regime change and their likely attendant chaos.

To the Republic of South Sudan government:

13.  Support the SRF’s efforts to negotiate directly with the Sudanese government.

To the UN Security Council, AU Peace and Security Council, Council of the League of Arab States, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the government of Ethiopia:

14.  Demand and work for a single, comprehensive solution to Sudan’s multiple conflicts in a process that runs in parallel with the negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan but is not conditioned on them; and coordinate effectively between the two tracks so as to prevent obstacles in one delaying, or derailing, the other.

15.  Support, through training and capacity building, the establishment and growth of national parties that can represent and articulate the demands of marginalised constituencies, including populations in the peripheries, youth, women, nomads and urban and rural poor.

Nairobi/Brussels, 18 June 2013