Sudanese Civil War Uses Hunger as a Weapon Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The success of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in its thirty-year conflict with the army of the Republic of the Sudan led the government of Sudan to obstruct and withhold famine relief.

Summary of Event

Upon the arrival of the dry season in the southern Sudan in October, 1987, it became clear that a massive disaster was imminent because of the lack of rainfall during the May-October growing season. The harvest was the poorest in almost one hundred years, and more than ten thousand Dinka, mostly women and children from the Bahr al-Ghazal, moved northward in late 1987 to seek famine relief. The Dinka were closely associated with the African insurgent movement known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which in 1987 had achieved considerable military success in the south over the army of the Republic of the Sudan. Civil wars;Sudan Famine;Sudan Sudan People’s Liberation Army[Sudan Peoples Liberation Army] Racial and ethnic conflict;Sudan Sudan;civil war [kw]Sudanese Civil War Uses Hunger as a Weapon (1988) [kw]Civil War Uses Hunger as a Weapon, Sudanese (1988) [kw]War Uses Hunger as a Weapon, Sudanese Civil (1988) [kw]Hunger as a Weapon, Sudanese Civil War Uses (1988) Civil wars;Sudan Famine;Sudan Sudan People’s Liberation Army[Sudan Peoples Liberation Army] Racial and ethnic conflict;Sudan Sudan;civil war [g]Africa;1988: Sudanese Civil War Uses Hunger as a Weapon[06720] [g]Sudan;1988: Sudanese Civil War Uses Hunger as a Weapon[06720] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;1988: Sudanese Civil War Uses Hunger as a Weapon[06720] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1988: Sudanese Civil War Uses Hunger as a Weapon[06720] Mahdi, Sadiq al- Wolpe, Howard Leland, Mickey Taft, Julia Vadala Muniere, Charles La

Unable to defeat the Dinka-dominated SPLA on the field of battle, the Sudan government found it more effective to destroy the opposition by denying food aid to them when they were experiencing famine conditions and at the same time arming the Dinka’s traditional enemies with automatic weapons. The Dinka who had sought refuge in the towns of Meiram and Abyei found that nongovernmental organizations such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Red Cross were frustrated by government officials. The indigenous relief organizations—the Islamic African Relief Agency and the Islamic society al-Da’awal Islamiya—were closely associated with the government in Khartoum and provided little assistance to the displaced Dinka, who were largely Christian. These groups were discouraged from providing help by government officials in the southern Sudan who were losing control of the countryside.

Sudanese boys suffering from severe malnutrition in 1998. Wars, political instability, and recurrent droughts have made famine an ever-present threat in Africa, particularly the arid northern regions.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Despite the obstruction of the government and the Islamic relief societies, various donor agencies established the Western Relief Operation Western Relief Operation (WRO) in an attempt to support relief efforts in the western Sudan. The United States Agency for International Development United States Agency for International Development (USAID) released to the Sudan government’s Relief and Rehabilitation Commission £S14.7 million to help pay for food transport to the southern Sudanese, but these funds had no fiscal relevance outside the Sudan because the Sudanese pound was externally worthless. Several nongovernmental agencies, including World Vision and Lutheran World Service, were expelled from the Sudan for continuing their humanitarian efforts. Given the attitude of the government in Khartoum, the principal Sudan government aid agency, the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (Sudan) demonstrated little interest in relieving the famine conditions that were escalating during the winter of 1987-1988 in the southern Sudan.

Market prices sharply increased in the southern towns and reached unprecedented heights by January, 1988. The government made no effort to facilitate the flow of information or famine relief aid into the southern Sudan despite the predictions of various donor agencies that thousands of Sudanese deaths would result without prompt action. The government of Sadiq al-Mahdi was apprised that there were serious food shortages in the southern Sudan brought about by drought, locusts, and, of course, the civil war. The price of sorghum in the Bahr al-Ghazal province rose to twenty times the amount in Khartoum.

The southern Sudanese, particularly the Dinka, fled to the north and were looted by the Murahaleen, Murahaleen the newly armed Arab Baqqara militias who were traditional enemies of the Dinka south of the Bahr el Arab. The Murahaleen had been armed by the government of the Sudan on the advice of General Burma Nasr, Nasr, Burma former governor of Bahr al-Ghazal, whose forces had been consistently defeated by the Africans of the SPLA. The combination of crop failure and the Murahaleen raiders resulted in the death by violence and starvation of tens of thousands of Nilotes (people from the Nile region), mostly Dinka. The Dinka fled in two directions. One group, consisting of women and children seeking food and shelter, went north. The other, young males, fled to the east, into Ethiopia, to join the SPLA. Many perished during the long march.

The Red Cross, the Red Crescent, and USAID were quietly discouraged from participating in famine relief, leaving that to the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, the official relief agency of the Sudan government. The Sudan government was not about to restrain the militias, which it had armed, in their depredations among the northern Nilotes, nor were the ambassadors of the Western governments, despite pressure from nongovernmental organizations and private voluntary organizations, about to anger the government of the Sudan.

The acting governor of the Bahr al-Ghazal, Darius Bashir, Bashir, Darius constantly informed Sadiq al-Mahdi of the serious situation in the province and particularly in its capital, Wau, urging the prime minister to send food by any means available. In Khartoum, however, there was little sense of urgency on the part of the government or diplomats that a crisis was looming in the southern Sudan. The Sudan government, through its Commission on Rehabilitation and Relief, was in no hurry to provide supplies for those the government regarded as “rebels, bandits, and terrorists.”

By February, 1988, the situation in Wau had been somewhat alleviated by the arrival of 167 tons of food aid, carried by a convoy sponsored by World Vision World Vision despite the group’s official expulsion from the Sudan. It was the last food to be received in Wau for many months to come. To the east, in Upper Nile province, food supplies had virtually vanished except in Malakal, the capital of the Upper Nile, which had received twenty-four hundred metric tons of cereals in March, 1987. Most of the cereal, however, was handed over to the army and to merchants and transport personnel. The relief agencies still operating in Malakal had little to offer those who were starving. The army consumed much of the food aid, and the merchants generally hoarded stocks with the goal of driving up prices and thus their profits. The transport personnel were well fed.

The result in the Upper Nile was similar to that in the Bahr al-Ghazal. Thousands of Nilotes from the Upper Nile moved north in search of food. The Relief and Rehabilitation Commission reported that more than thirty thousand had arrived in Kosti by the end of February, 1988. They were greeted as a source of cheap labor, and many became essentially slaves in order to earn enough to live. Ironically, most of the food aid supplied by Western donors and private voluntary organizations, some sixty thousand tons, had been moving westward into Kordofan and Darfur, while nothing was being done for the displaced southern Sudanese. Kordofan and Darfur were the Muslim heartland of the Umma Party, whose leader was Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi. It was no coincidence that he would use his influence with the donor agencies to send food aid to his people rather than to his enemies in the southern Sudan.

Farther south, in the Equatoria province, the situation was more localized but just as tragic. Displaced persons seeking food swarmed into the major towns of Yei and Juba in ever-increasing numbers. They expected to find not only food but also safety in the violent conflict between the armed forces of the Sudan army and its militia and the African insurgents of the SPLA. The flight of starving people to the principal centers in Equatoria was accelerated by the continuous victories of the SPLA. In March, 1988, the situation in Sudan was characterized by thousands of people moving northward into Darfur, Kordofan, and Khartoum, eastward by the tens of thousands to Ethiopia, and southward from the Equatoria province into the towns of Juba and Yei. By April, 1988, more than one-quarter million southern Sudanese, many described as walking skeletons, arrived in the refugee camps established in Ethiopia and administered by the SPLA. Refugees;Sudanese This huge flow of refugees into the Ethiopian camps at Itang, Dimma, and Fugnido overwhelmed the facilities of the SPLA and private voluntary organizations.

It is not known exactly how many perished on the eastward trek from the Bahr al-Ghazal to Ethiopia. Many who survived the long march died from lack of food and medical supplies in the refugee camps. There were conflicts as to whether the limited amount of food supplies should go to the local people or to the refugees walking into Ethiopia, who by June numbered more than 10,000 southern Sudanese per month. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees which was providing the major source of funds for these refugee settlements in Ethiopia, was overwhelmed by the numbers of the destitute. In late 1988, the Organization of African Unity delegation visiting the Fugnido camp found that of the 43,000 refugees there, 60 percent were orphans under the age of twelve who had lost their parents to famine or civil war. By the end of the year, the British minister for overseas development, Christopher Patten, Patten, Christopher estimated that more than 700,000 southern Sudanese had arrived in Ethiopia and an equal number had died en route.


The U.S. government’s reaction to this calamity was extremely mild, as the State Department did not wish to antagonize the government of Sudan. In late February, 1988, congressional leaders Howard Wolpe (member of the House Subcommittee on Africa), Ted Kennedy, Kennedy, Ted Mickey Leland (chair of the House Select Committee on Hunger), and Paul Simon Simon, Paul (U.S. senator) (member of the Senate Subcommittee on Africa) all signed a joint letter to both Sadiq al-Mahdi, the Sudanese prime minister, and John Garang, Garang, John leader of the SPLA, condemning the unconscionable attitude of Sudan’s government in refusing to allow donor agencies to provide food aid to those stricken in the southern Sudan.

A strident report appeared in the British press in February, 1988, when twenty Oxfam International trucks were commandeered by the Sudan army for combat against the SPLA. As the British government had just announced an additional twenty million pounds sterling in foreign aid to be added to the twenty million pounds already pledged for famine relief, this incident created an embarrassment. The trucks were immediately returned, but the efforts of the donor agencies were severely curtailed.

By May, reports in the Western press described the situation in the southern Sudan as desperate. Continuous pressure was placed on Sadiq al-Mahdi, but these pleas were studiously ignored. The donor agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and private volunteer organizations were well aware of the impending disaster in the southern Sudan. By April there were more than 150,000 displaced people in Aweil alone, and, with no relief food in the whole region of the Bahr al-Ghazal, the starving began to die in large numbers. The Sudan government remained unmoved by reports from the south and frustrated any attempts by the donor missions to ship food into the northern Bahr al-Ghazal, which was torn by violence and ravaged by famine.

Finally, under pressure from Western governments, Sadiq al-Mahdi agreed in June that he would guarantee the safety of the personnel of the International Red Cross who sought to make a survey of the famine needs in the south. These officials reported a mortality rate of thirty-five deaths per thousand per month in Safaha alone, compared with eight per thousand in the Ethiopian refugee camps. Adding to the misery were plagues of locusts that descended on the few crops that had survived the drought.

The donor agencies found their allocations were curtailed by the reluctance to release local currency from their counterpart fund accounts (PL480 accounts, in which aid from the United States is converted to local currency, worthless on the world money markets but useful internally for a variety of assistance purposes). Sudanese trucking companies would not honor contracts with donor agencies unless they were reviewed with the promise of higher prices. There were interminable and complex negotiations over food aid and how to transport it, with most of the aid efforts mired in bureaucracy while the southern Sudanese starved.

Food began to arrive in August. Most of it was allocated to the army, with the remainder confiscated by merchants in Meiram. The international community, led by Julia Vadala Taft of USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, pleaded for direct intervention. Reports from donor agencies of high mortality rates in regions from the Bahr al-Ghazal to Kordofan brought Charles La Muniere, United Nations disaster relief coordinator, to Khartoum. The Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance supplied one million dollars and released grain stored in the Sudan. It reached some of the stricken areas before the dry season in October, November, and December. Despite this relief, the number of southern Sudanese who died has been estimated as high as 500,000; other estimates place the figure between 260,000 and 300,000. By December, 1988, food supplies were moving southward, but they were too little and too late. Civil wars;Sudan Famine;Sudan Sudan People’s Liberation Army[Sudan Peoples Liberation Army] Racial and ethnic conflict;Sudan Sudan;civil war

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holt, P. M., and M. W. Daly. A History of the Sudan: From the Coming of Islam to the Present Day. 5th ed. New York: Longman, 2000. Invaluable resource on Sudanese history for students and general readers. Contains a chapter on the Sudanese civil war. Includes maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jok, Jok Madut. War and Slavery in the Sudan. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. Examines the slave trade during Sudan’s civil war. Includes maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kebbede, Girma, ed. Sudan’s Predicament: Civil War, Displacement, and Ecological Degradation. London: Ashgate, 1999. Collection of essays examines the causes of the civil war in Sudan. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Ballance, Edgar. Sudan: Civil War and Terrorism, 1956-1999. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Gives a thorough account of the history of war in the Sudan since 1956. Includes maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Department of State. World Refugee Report. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1987. Official U.S. government report describes the numbers and condition of refugees in the southern Sudan.

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