John Garang, former leader of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement and Army, in April 1986. STR/AFP/Getty Images
Sudan’s modern history could accurately be described as perpetual war with some sporadic days off. The first major uprising of the last century happened in 1955, when southerners belonging to a Sudan Defence Force garrison in Torit, Equatoria, staged a mutiny. This was the result of a chain of events set off by the Arab-led government, which had previously made false promises of equal representation for the north and the south in the federal system. The initial rebellion wasn’t particularly organized or effective, but Khartoum’s failure to stamp it out allowed dissent to spread to rural areas throughout the south, where guerrillas sowed the seeds for a more defined secessionist movement.
Just under a decade later, a low-key but protracted bush war, with persistent ambushes by the Acholi, Bari, Dinka, Madi, Nuer, and Lotuko tribes against Sudanese military units, effectively bottled up Khartoum’s troops into besieged garrisons full of nervous conscripts.
In 1963 Sudanese army officer and Madi tribesman Joseph Lagu defected to the southern cause. He proceeded to inject professional military structure into what were until then only loosely connected regional rebellions, and he secured support in the form of training and weapons from Israel and other countries. The result was a rebel military force christened the Anyanya, which translates to “Snake Venom.”
Despite the uprising, Sudan was eager to begin oil exploration, and in 1959 a collection of European and American companies began their search in the north. This proved unsuccessful, so the pursuit moved southward, ultimately shifting the war from a battle over territory to a conflict over resources.
On May 25, 1969, Colonel Gaafar Muhammad al Nimeiry, along with three other colonels, overthrew Sudan’s civilian government in a coup. Nimeiry had served in Juba and was sensitive to regional problems. His nationalization policies and sympathy for the southerners provided some stability, since he recognized a need to solve the south’s grievances, which could mostly be alleviated by establishing a semi-autonomous region. But despite his socialist leanings, Nimeiry was not prepared to shake up colonial fault lines.
At this time the commander of the Ugandan army, Idi Amin, a Kakwa from the extreme north of Uganda near the border of present-day South Sudan, backed the Anyanya. Amin hired Nigerian war veteran and German mercenary Rolf Steiner to provide military training for the rebels. It wasn’t long before Lagu and Steiner butted heads, however, and Lagu ordered the soldier of fortune to leave Sudan. One of Lagu’s junior officers was a young Dinka captain named John Garang, who fully committed to combat in October 1970.
Faced with losing control over half of its territory, the Sudanese government began to hold discussions with the goal of ending what had been dubbed “the 17-Year War.” By February 27, 1972, Sudan had negotiated a peace agreement in Addis Ababa, which unified the country but also laid out the blueprint for the next war. The agreement made no mention of oil, and the clumsy idea of integrating Anyanya rebels with Sudanese troops was destined for bloody failure.
In 1974 Chevron began its search for oil in the newly pacified south and central regions. The first well was discovered in 1978 in Bentiu, a town that lies smack-dab in the center of what is now northern South Sudan and the traditional stomping grounds of the Dinka and the Nuer tribes. The discovery of oil prompted the Sudanese government to realign its internal borders. In 1980 it created Unity state in the Greater Upper Nile region, rejiggering the boundaries of the area surrounding Bentiu so that the town and its oil fell firmly under northern control. Southern Sudanese soldiers were removed from Unity state and replaced with government troops from the north. The provincial government of the south argued that the oil was located beneath tribal land and wanted to funnel the oil south into Kenya via Lamu. Unsurprisingly, the north won out and gained complete control of the reserves.
As a result, the south was now split into three separate regions instead of one. With help from Chevron, Nimeiry lobbied the US for support while simultaneously forming bonds with Islamists led by Hassan al Turabi. In 1973, during the oil crisis, George H. W. Bush, then America’s ambassador to the UN, tipped off Nimeiry that American spy satellites had noticed potential oil deposits under the Sudd in an area between Bentiu, Malakal, and Nasir. Bush then introduced Nimeiry to some eager American oil companies. Chevron would eventually invest $880 million and drill more than 80 wells, finding oil from Kordofan to Melut and igniting a new round of conflict that would last for the next three decades.
In September 1983, the Sudanese government abolished political parties and veered toward strict Sharia law, taking a hard-line approach to the Christian and animist south. The government also abolished the Southern Autonomous Region created by the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement.
Soon afterward, Garang announced the creation of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and Army. So began the Second Sudanese Civil War.