An Armchair History of Sudan

What do Ted Haggard, George Clooney, William Wilberforce and Osama bin Laden have in common?
by Barry Rodriguez

MAIN timeline-imageLet me be honest. When I first decided to go to South Sudan, I had almost no understanding of its history. I rifled through my mental filing cabinet for facts about Sudan and found almost nothing but cobwebs. I had heard of the “Lost Boys,” I guess, and assumed Darfur was connected in some way, but that was about the best I could do. The fact is, I was about to spend a month in a country that I knew almost nothing about.

So I started to read. History books, biographies, countless Wikipedia pages… I began constructing a framework to help me understand the country I was about to visit. As I studied I was absolutely shocked at what I found. The interweaving causes and effects seemed almost absurd. The cast of characters – Ted Haggard, George Clooney, William Wilberforce and Osama bin Laden, to name a few – seemed almost comically impossible.

simple sudan mapBut eventually I began to develop a rough idea of the big picture. So I’d like to share a bit of what I found – my “armchair historian’s” version of the history of Sudan and South Sudan (which, by the way, were a single country until 2011).

I’ll admit right off the bat that I am only now starting to wrap my head around all of this. It is quite possible that I’ve got a few of the details wrong. So please don’t think of this as some authoritative account. Instead, see it as an invitation to a conversation: one that will hopefully help us all think about our own connection to the people and history of Sudan.

The Good ol’ Brits

Let’s start with the British, everyone’s favorite well-intentioned, meddling imperialists. In the late 1800’s, the British Empire had expanded into Sudan as an extension of their power base in Egypt. Riding on the wave of their empire-wide abolition of slavery (thanks, Mr. Wilberforce!), the Red Coats found plenty of work to do in Sudan, which had been a base for slave trading since just about forever.

gezira sheme mapBut while they were busy bringing “the light of civilization” to Khartoum, the British realized the potential gold mine they were sitting on. South of the city, where the White and Blue Nile Rivers diverge, lay a wide, flat expanse that would be perfect for the largest irrigation system the world had ever seen. Thus the Gezira Scheme was born, which by the 1950’s was producing 6% of the world’s cotton.

The only problem with this? Massive over-centralization. All of the money went straight to Khartoum. All of the development happened in Khartoum. All the country’s elite moved to, you guessed it, Khartoum. Before too long, Khartoum was a thriving, filthy-rich metropolis, while the west, east and south parts of the country were left to rot in extreme poverty.

Then religion entered the picture. To maintain their power, the British propped up rich Arab leaders in Khartoum, practically ensuring that the country’s elite would always be Muslim, despite the fact that much of the rest of the country was not. On top of this, the British intentionally provoked tensions between the Muslim north and Christian south to keep a comfortable buffer between “encroaching Islam” and Christian East Africa (e.g. Kenya & Uganda).

One example: at Sudan’s independence talks in Cairo, not a single southern official was invited. This, as you can imagine, had consequences.

Doubling Down

Sudan became an independent nation in 1956. Almost immediately, the new Arab-led government in Khartoum doubled down on the over-centralization. More wealth, power and development flooded Khartoum while the rest of the country languished. The government’s actions continued to build vast economic disparities between the rich elite and the dirt poor just-about-everyone-else.

Because their power came from the Muslim elite, the government in Khartoum wanted to earn its Islamic credentials. So, while most of the Arab world supported George H.W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Sudan’s most vocal political leader, Hassan al-Turabi, saw it as an outrage. He turned Sudan into a self-professed “state sponsor of terror” and began welcoming militant jihadists to the country.

One of these militants? Osama bin Laden. Yeah, that Osama bin Laden.

In the mid ‘90s, bin Laden moved to Sudan where he started construction companies, bought lots of land, did infrastructure development and, oh yeah, created training camps for al-Qaeda. Sudan was quickly becoming a safe haven for militant terrorist organizations.


darfur mapMeanwhile, the impoverished people of Sudan started becoming restless about the inequality brought on by the over-centralization in Khartoum. Rebel groups began rising up in the south and new political parties gathered strength in the west (Darfur), both threatening to take the wealthy elite out of power.

Not wanting to give up its control, the government began hiring militias – nicknamed the “Janjaweed” in Darfur and the “Murahaleen” in South Sudan – to use murder, rape, slavery, and indiscriminate slaughter as a way of maintaining power against the increasingly agitated parts of the country. Thus began the Darfur crisis and two brutal civil wars with what is now South Sudan.

Initially, these conflicts were masked as simple cattle raids and internal insecurity, but the actions of the Khartoum government started to catch the international eye when the number of refugees started climbing into the millions. One particularly famous group of refugees was the “Lost Boys,” tens of thousands of children who walked hundreds of miles through inhospitable terrain to reach the relative safety of refugee camps in neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya.

When word got out that there was slavery happening in South Sudan, that the north was harboring terrorists, and that Christians were being killed for their faith, Americans started taking an interest. Especially the Evangelical Church.

The Evangelical Church

Enter Ted Haggard and the National Association of Evangelicals. They began using their considerable political clout to force US politicians to focus on South Sudan. The phrase “Compassionate Conservatism” became a hallmark of this movement (a phrase that would eventually be a large part of George W. Bush’s presidential campaign).

The “Lost Boys” became a buzzword, and a program was set up to bring thousands of them to the US where they could find jobs. For the first time, South Sudan was being noticed by the West.

One of the main outcomes Evangelicals were striving for was the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which would end the civil war between north and south Sudan, create a more equitable profit-sharing scheme for oil exports and give the south the possibility of choosing independence from the north.

This was all good news for the South Sudanese, but very bad news for Darfurians in western Sudan. Here’s why. To ensure the CPA would pass quickly (and make Evangelical voters happy), American leaders had to walk on eggshells with Khartoum. On top of that, Sudan had became a treasure trove of intelligence in the “war on terror” after 9/11. American leaders didn’t want to do anything that might jeopardize the flow of information.

So, when the UN Security Council attempted to confront Sudan about its actions in the first year of the Darfur crisis, the US actually shielded Khartoum from the consequences of their brutal actions. We got what we wanted: American voters were happy. But at what cost? Over the next few years, the crisis in Darfur would claim upwards of 300,000 lives.

Enter the Celebs

But America’s thirst for national security wasn’t the only way good intentions went awry in Sudan. Once activists took up the cause of the oppressed in Darfur, even more harm was done.

Sidebox: One fascinating book that helped me make sense of the chaos was Sudan: Darfur and the Failure of an African State by Richard Cockett, Africa editor of The Economist. Click this picture to pick up a copy.

One fascinating book that helped me make sense of the chaos was Sudan: Darfur and the Failure of an African State by Richard Cockett, Africa editor of The Economist. Click this picture to pick up a copy.

As great as it was for high-profile celebrities like George Clooney, Mia Farrow and Don Cheadle to advocate for Darfur, their awareness-raising came at a cost. To make their causes understandable to the American public, activists often made the mistake of vastly oversimplifying a complex situation. They painted it as black and white. Good vs. evil.

The dollars started flowing in, but the activists’ high-flying rhetoric was undercutting the work of local diplomats at every turn. Sudan’s government paid lip service to the US, but had no intention of changing its actions.

Foreign aid brought in billions to keep the suffering people of Sudan alive. Great stuff! Except for the fact that it freed up the Khartoum government from having to feed and care for its own people. With all that extra money, they just bought new weapons and ammunition. Thus, humanitarianism ended up helping a corrupt government commit fresh atrocities.


Long story short, the CPA finally passed in 2005, giving South Sudan more autonomy and the possibility of choosing independence via a referendum in 2011 (which they subsequently did).

South Sudan was on its way to being its own country. However, because the roots of the violence with the north hadn’t been dealt with, South Sudan’s rebuilding process was broken from the start. Their new government was so worried about the north reneging on its promises that up to 70 percent of South Sudan’s pre-independence budget went to army pay and pensions, new helicopters, tanks, and small arms.

Which is why South Sudan is such a mess today. On its independence day in 2011, South Sudan was already one of the poorest, least developed nations in the world.

Not a great way to start a new nation.

Cause and Effect

Which brings us to today.

The causes and effects at play in the history of Sudan are extraordinarily complex and intertwined. Corrupt leadership, misplaced priorities, even good intentions gone awry… All of these have conspired to make Sudan and South Sudan very difficult countries to develop.

At first glance, it seems hopeless. What can possibly be done about broken systems that date back to the British Empire? If it were up to me, I’d probably just give up on the place.

It’s a good thing it’s not up to me. You see, there are people who believe in South Sudan’s future. There are Christ-followers willing to pour themselves out for the good of this fledgling nation. These people wade into the complexities of cause and effect every day, trusting that God has the power to redeem even the most difficult of pasts.

Who are they? The staff, volunteers and supporters of African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries (ALARM). These selfless leaders are willing to dedicate their lives to peace and reconciliation, leadership training and community development.

Their cause is the kingdom of God, and its effect is a world transformed.