There is a longstanding war between the Islamist central government and its southern warlord and militia allies, and the rebel Sudan Peoples= Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) in southern Sudan and the central Nuba Mountains. The war was extended to eastern Sudan in 1995, and is about many issues, including regional independence or autonomy, whether the central government should be a secular or Islamic state, control of valuable southern resources including oil and the waters of the Nile, political participation in government, and human rights abuses.
The government forces include the troops of its regular army, militias, and allied southern warlords. The SPLM/A rebels draw heavily on Dinka fighters, but also include other southerners and marginalized people from other regions outside the south, such as the Nuba Mountains. Bahr El Ghazal is at the center of the 1998 famine and is the heartland of the Dinka, the largest ethnic group in Sudan.
Starvation has become a promiscuous weapon of this war, as forces of both sides use hunger as a means to achieve military goals: the government, through the use of militias and soldiers, attempts to control, displace, or to annihilate the civilian population believed to support the rebels, and the SPLA attempts to starve southern garrison towns into surrender through years-long sieges and attacks on overland and river transport. Both sides divert food (relief and other) for their own commercial or survival needs as well.
In 1988, the use of starvation as a weapon of war killed thousands, estimated as high as 250,000, in Bahr El Ghazal and adjacent areas. The 1998 famine in Bahr El Ghazal by July 1998 put at risk of starvation approximately one million people.
In 1988 as in 1998, famine was a consequence of both government design and rebel tactics. The government=s arming and mobilization of ethnic militia on its behalf, including defecting former rebel leaders, was instrumental in both campaigns. The government=s support for militia raised from ethnic groups that had been rivals of the Dinka appeared to offer a way to win the war at minimum economic and political cost while making responsibility for abuses committed Adeniable,@ attributing them to Aancient tribal animosities.@ When Dinka warlords were recruited to support the government against the Dinka population of Bahr El Ghazal, their abuses, too, would be attributed to actions and personalities beyond the government=s control.
A scholar of the 1988 famine concluded that Athe arming and encouragement of militia attacks, though it directly created famine, represented a solution rather than a problem for successive governments in Khartoum.@1 These governments were facing several pressures. Mounting international debt and economic recession, deepened by the war, prevented access to oil deposits and the building of the Jonglei Canal to capture Nile water that would otherwise evaporate. At the same time, the war required substantial security spending. Politically, the government needed to accommodate the Baggara (well armed, discontented, and capable of becoming a dangerous anti-government force), while it faced pressures from a growing Islamist movement. The militia strategy appeared to offer a way to win the war at minimum cost, and it remains unchanged today. Because it pits southerners against each other and neighbor against neighbor, it makes the likelihood of establishing a lasting peace remote.
There are also famines in 1998 in Western Upper Nile and in the central Nuba Mountains induced by the same military tactics. In the Nuba Mountains, through local Nuba militias known as nafir al shaabi, the government uses starvation tactics to force the civilians living in rebel areas into Apeace camps@ in government garrison towns. Consequently its forces not only loot or burn animals and foodstuffs and burn houses, but also impose a strict siege or blockade of the rebel areas, preventing any relief or even ordinary commerce from reaching the approximately 400,000 civilians there.
In Western Upper Nile, the same starvation tactics are employed, but not in pursuit of victory over the rebels. In that Nuer area, two government-aligned Nuer militias are fighting each other for political and military control of the state where the valuable oil fields are located, in order to benefit from the current extraction efforts there. The government has already contracted out rights to the oil to a foreign consortium, and pumping as well as refinery and pipeline construction in the north are underway on an accelerated basis.
The preconditions for the famine in Bahr El Ghazal were established through raids on Dinka communities by regular army troops, muraheleen, and other militias. They conducted sustained campaigns targeting civilian communities, robbing them of their livelihoods (cattle and grain), abducting women and children for slavery purposes, and killing the men who got in the way.
Obstruction of relief deliveries by the government exacerbated the suffering resulting from attacks on the civilian communities. Diversion of relief in Bahr El Ghazal by the SPLA and the local chiefs also played a role in prolonging the suffering.
1 David Keen, The Benefits of Famine: A Political Economy of Famine and Relief in Southwestern Sudan, 1983-1989 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 92.