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Devolution in Sudan

Devolution in Sudan

South Sudan is in many ways an American creation, carved out of war-torn Sudan in a [2011] referendum largely orchestrated by the United States, its fragile institutions nurtured with billions of dollars in American aid.1

After more than a decade since independence, we are sorry to say that the tragic story of devolution in Sudan does not yet have a happy ending. Buckle your seatbelt for a rough ride through over 60 years of nearly constant war afflicting the peoples of southern Sudan and learn more about the causes and problems.

Devolution in Sudan: Definition

In general, devolution refers to the installation of certain central powers of the government in geographic regions allowing self-government or autonomy. Devolution has been moderately successful in Spain, Belgium, Nigeria, Canada, and the UK, though still rife with tension. During referendums, regions such as Catalonia, Quebec, and Scotland have seen 40% or more of their populations vote in favor of secession (complete separation), but these places have not achieved independence. While fragmentation of these states remains a risk, they are far from the disintegration of states such as the USSR, Yugoslavia, and Sudan.

Devolution in Sudan: the multi-phase process whereby the country of Sudan gradually granted autonomy to its southern region in response to ethnic separatist wars from 1955 to 2005. Southern Sudan was granted autonomy in 1972 and again in 2005. Decentralization ended in 2011 with an independence referendum, and Sudan disintegrated into two independent countries. The new nation of South Sudan proved ungovernable and collapsed into civil war until peace accords created a new federalist system to attempt to devolve power to the states. There is still substantial pressure to devolve power to over 30 proposed ethnic states.

Causes of Devolution in Sudan

A brief history lesson best explains the causes of devolutionary pressures in Sudan.

Northern Sudan vs. Southern Sudan

Until independence in 1956, Sudan was a condominium of the UK and Egypt known as Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. In other words, both countries ruled it. The 728,000-square-mile country, the largest in Africa, had a Muslim Arab-dominated north and a southern region populated by many Nilotic ethnic groups who practiced Christianity and traditional religions.

The colonial regime neglected the south because it was pretty tricky to access due to the vast swamps of the Sudd along the White Nile. As a result, the north, with its capital at Khartoum, became the focus of economic and social development before independence. The South had almost no roads, schools, hospitals, or other infrastructure at independence.

The period from 1955 to 2005 was defined by two major civil wars, the First Sudanese Civil War ending in 1972 and the Second Sudanese Civil War from 1983 to 2005. The Southern Sudan Autonomous Region lasted from 1972-1983, a first and unsuccessful attempt at devolution.

The Anyanya separatist rebels in the first war, and the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement in the second, fought the Sudanese government. They were comprised of Dinka, Nuer, and other ethnicities. For several decades, the US supplied weapons and training to southern rebels, including the near-legendary guerrilla leader John Garang who died in 2005.

On January 9, 2005, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (Naivasha Agreement) between the north and south came into effect, with numerous conditions providing progressively more autonomy and self-governance in southern Sudan. However, with another war, famine, and genocide happening in Darfur (western Sudan), most international observers focused there and neglected the south. The Autonomous Government of South Sudan existed from 2005-2011, but there was little advancement in its political and economic modernization.

Conflict in Darfur, a region comprising most of western Sudan, began in the 1980s and peaked in the 2000s, with genocide and war killing hundreds of thousands and displacing millions of refugees. As with southern Sudan, the issue pits Arab groups against non-Arab groups; the Arab groups include Janjaweed militias that carried out many atrocities. Devolution involving greater autonomy from Khartoum but stopping short of independence is also occurring here; the region continues to see widespread intra-tribal violence.

South Sudan

In 2011, more than 98% of southern Sudanese voted in a referendum for complete independence from Sudan, which took effect the same year. South Sudan remains the world's youngest country. Though rebel militias from Sudan have been involved in South Sudan, the government in Khartoum has not directly engaged in any further aggressive actions in the south; UN peacekeepers patrol the most conflictive border regions.

Devolution in sudan, south Sudan map, StudySmarterFig. 1 - South Sudan map

Sadly, political infighting between followers of the President (Salva Kiir) and the Vice President (Riek Machar) resulted in the near-total collapse of the new country. In just seven years, 400,000 people were killed, 4 million became refugees (in a country of between 11 and 13 million), and various genocides and ethnic cleansings occurred. Mass rapes, multiple massacres of civilians, slavery, and the world's highest number of child soldiers contributed to what many observers called the worst human rights situation in the world in modern times. The international community and global media largely ignored the war, partly because aid workers and journalists were targeted, making it difficult to get the word out.

In 2020, Kiir and Machar reconciled, and a federal provisional unity government was formed.

From 1955 to 2020, around 2.5 million people, mostly civilians, were killed in southern Sudan.

Devolution in sudan, south Sudan IDPs, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Camp for Internally Displaced Persons in South Sudan, 2014

Root Causes of Conflict and Separatism

The following seemingly intractable situations led to the multiple attempts at peaceful devolution that have followed rounds of bloodshed.

Racism and Discrimination

Before 2005, a major issue was the racism and discrimination of Arab peoples of the north toward Black peoples of the south. Harsh treatment of southerners during colonial times, by both Egypt and the UK, contributed to this historical legacy, with the south seen as "primitive" and "savage" and nearly wholly neglected as a result. Khartoum was founded as a slave market in 1821 and served as a key location for the trans-shipment of enslaved Black people from the south into the Arab world. Arab slave traders continued to raid the south into the 2000s, and Janjaweed militias from Darfur purportedly continue to engage in this process.

Devolution in sudan, slavery, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Arab slave traders enslaving Black people in southern Sudan in the early 1900s

Ethnoreligious Diversity

Before 2011, the main fault lines were between Arab Muslims and non-Arab Christians/animists. However, in the 2000s, genocidal violence among groups of the same religion and within ethnic groups was often a factor. Animosities between South Sudan's 70 ethnic groups have certainly been a component of devolutionary pressures, including pre-2020 attempts to carve out more than 30 ethnic states in South Sudan. Still, they are not the sole cause of unrest.

Ineffective Governance

Like pre-2011 Sudan, the two post-2011 countries are weak states. Poor infrastructure makes governing Sudan's vast and complicated geography highly problematic. Despite a predominantly rural population, Sudan and South Sudan have focused most development efforts in large urban areas - Khartoum, Omdurman, Juba (the capital of South Sudan), El Obeida, Port Sudan, etc.

Oil and Outside Interests

South Sudan has one of Africa's largest oil reserves. This fact alone made it of great interest during the Cold War.

Devolution in sudan, concessions map, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Oil and natural gas concessions and pipelines in 2004

As the South became dependent on US military and development aid, the North became increasingly allied with the forces of Islamic extremism, to the extent that the government in Khartoum was quite close to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in the 1990s.

In a controversial 1998 missile attack, the administration of US president Clinton bombed the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory, claiming that it was a cover for the production of a chemical weapon known as VX.

In the 21st century, Sudan has become a strong ally of China and Russia, who back its refusal to support any consideration of the secession of Darfur. Since 2019, Khartoum has seen coups and a nascent democracy movement.

Devolution in Sudan Facts

The following facts are essential for a deeper understanding of how devolution is working in South Sudan:

Support for diversity: South Sudan accepts all indigenous languages as official, uses English as the language of instruction and Arabic as a working language, and as it moves to associate more closely with East Africa, it is beginning to favor Swahili over Arabic.

Bountiful resources: South Sudan is blessed with abundant natural resources, including fertile soil, oil, and many other minerals. With some of the greatest wild game spectacles in the world, it has great potential for ecotourism.

Underdevelopment: Despite the above, South Sudan remains one of the world's least developed countries. It has the world's highest maternal mortality ratio (% of mothers who die at birth) and is in the top ten in infant mortality and low life expectancy. At the same time, only a third of the population can read and write. There are less than 150 miles of paved roads in the entire country, which is almost the size of Texas.

Failing Economy: With almost all employees in the primary sector, South Sudan imports nearly everything it needs and relies on oil exports for almost all government revenue. The majority of the population subsists on almost no cash income.

Devolution in Sudan Example

On the border between Sudan and South Sudan is the Abyei Area, a condominium between the two countries, governed jointly and patrolled by UN peacekeepers. It has been this way since 2011. A referendum has been continually postponed; residents of Abyei would theoretically vote to decide which country they wanted to join.

Devolution in sudan, Abyei map, StudySmarterFig. 5 - Abyei Area in light green at bottom center

The main problem is that Abyei is oil rich. Neither country wants to relinquish its claim as a result. Because of Abyei's strategic importance, any move to break the gridlock could result in a war between the two countries or further conflict in South Sudan as warring ethnic groups vie for control of critical resources.

Devolution in Sudan Problems

In the long-term, socioeconomic underdevelopment has been a significant factor preventing devolution from resulting in a successful solution to the region's problems.

Other problems include:

  • Tribal animosities based on cattle ranching (South Sudan has millions of cattle) and between pastoralists and farmers have led to different ethnic militias fighting over herds, agriculture, and land rights;

  • South Sudan is awash in weapons, long-lasting leftovers from past civil wars, and available for new conflicts;

  • Child soldiers: 19,000 were active in the 2010s civil war, and now that relative peace has returned, little attention has been paid to their reintegration into society;

  • Millions of Internally Displaced Persons and refugees in other countries;

  • The post-2020 process of forming a federal system was delayed by COVID and has been marked by continuing episodes of violence and a constant threat of a return to the "norm"—civil war.

It is highly possible that decades of trauma from the nearly unimaginable levels of violence that people have suffered have made true peace and reconciliation close to impossible.

Devolution in Sudan - Key takeaways

  • Southern Sudan is Black, whereas northern Sudan is Arab; the south is Christian and animist while the north is Muslim; racism, discrimination, and underdevelopment led the south to fight the north from 1955 to 2005 in two civil wars.
  • Devolution was a strategy wherein the north allowed the south autonomy; in 2011, the south voted to secede and form South Sudan.
  • South Sudan dissolved into a civil war involving ethnic hostilities; a federal system has been created that allows a degree of self-government for South Sudan's states
  • The disintegration of Sudan involved 2.5 million deaths, over 4 million refugees, and one of the worst human rights disasters of modern times.


  1. Landler, M. "The US is facing hard choices in South Sudan." New York Times. Jan 3, 2014.

Frequently Asked Questions about Devolution in Sudan

Devolutionary pressures that had granted autonomy to southern Sudan in the 2000s led to a referendum in 2011 in which over 98% of the population of South Sudan voted to secede and form their own country.

There were many problems in Sudan, but two main issues were long-term animosity between the Arab North and the Christian and animist South, and two civil wars between the two areas from 1955 to 2005.

South Sudan wanted to be a Black-ruled country free from the racism and discrimination of the Arab-run central government in Khartoum, with which it had been at war for most of the period 1955-2005.

The central government in Khartoum cooperated with the autonomous government of Southern Sudan and after the referendum was held in 2011 that favored independence by 98%, the country split into two.

The conflict in Sudan started in 1955, just before independence.

Final Devolution in Sudan Quiz


(True or False) Slavery is no longer a problem in Sudan/South Sudan.

Show answer


False. Militias such as the Janjaweed from Darfur were engaging in slave raids in the 21st century, and the practice likely continues.

Show question


(True or False) Once Arab presence was removed from South Sudan, everyone got along.

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False. The South Sudan Civil War involved warfare between non-Arab ethnic groups.

Show question


The Abyei Area is still a condominium because of the presence of which natural resource?

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Show question


Despite ______ and ______, South Sudan still suffers from _______ and _______

Show answer


support for diversity; bountiful resources; underdevelopment; failing economy.

Show question


Which languages in South Sudan are official?

Show answer


All languages are official.

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Which of the following has NOT been in conflict in South Sudan?

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Arabs and Jews

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Which country is seen as the creator of South Sudan?

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Show question


The number of war dead in Sudan and South Sudan from 1955 to the present is around _______

Show answer


2.5 million

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South Sudan is almost the physical area of what US state?

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