Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA)

About the Instability in Sudan

With the exception of a fragile peace established by negotiations between southern Sudanese insurgents (the Anya Nya) and the Sudan government at Addis Ababa in 1972, and lasting until the resumption of the conflict in 1983, southern Sudan has been a battlefield. The north-south distinction and the hostility between the two regions of Sudan is grounded in religious conflict as well as a conflict between peoples of differing culture and language. The language and culture of the north are based on Arabic and the Islamic faith, whereas the south has its own diverse, mostly non-Arabic languages and cultures – with few exceptions non-Muslim, and its religious character was indigenous (traditional or Christian).

Sudan People's Liberation Army
Sudan People’s Liberation Army

The origins of the civil war in the south date back to the 1950s. On August 18, 1955, the Equatoria Corps, a military unit composed of southerners, mutinied at Torit. Rather than surrender to Sudanese government authorities, many mutineers disappeared into hiding with their weapons, marking the beginning of the first war in southern Sudan. By the late 1960s, the war had resulted in the deaths of about 500,000 people. Several hundred thousand more southerners hid in the forests or escaped to refugee camps in neighboring countries. By 1969 the rebels had developed foreign contacts to obtain weapons and supplies. Israel, for example, trained Anya Nya recruits and shipped weapons via Ethiopia and Uganda to the rebels. Anya Nya also purchased arms from Congolese rebels. Government operations against the rebels declined after the 1969 coup, and ended with the Addis Ababa accords of 1972 which guaranteed autonomy for the southern region.

The civil war resumed in 1983 when President Nimeiri imposed Shari’a law, and has resulted in the death of more than 1.5 million Sudanese since through 1997. The principal insurgent faction is the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), a body created by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). The SPLA was formed in 1983 when Lieutenant Colonel John Garang of the SPAF was sent to quell a mutiny in Bor of 500 southern troops who were resisting orders to be rotated to the north. Instead of ending the mutiny, Garang encouraged mutinies in other garrisons and set himself at the head of the rebellion against the Khartoum government. Garang, a Dinka born into a Christian family, had studied at Grinnell College, Iowa, and later returned to the United States to take a company commanders’ course at Fort Benning, Georgia, and again to earn advanced economics degrees at Iowa State University. By 1986 the SPLA was estimated to have 12,500 adherents organized into twelve battalions and equipped with small arms and a few mortars. By 1989 the SPLA’s strength had reached 20,000 to 30,000; by 1991 it was estimated at 50,000 to 60,000.

About Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) & Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM)

Sudan People's Liberation Army
Sudan People’s Liberation Army

The SPLA was created in 1983 as the armed wing of the SPLM (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement) at the start of the Sudanese the civil war. This armed conflict was as a reaction against the decision of general Numeiry to impose the Sharia to the whole population of Sudan.

The SPLA regroups the Christian and animist opposition movements of South Sudan fighting against the Arab and Islamic government of Khartoum. Although the majority of its members belong to the Dinka tribe, they do not claim to fight for the secession of the south but for a secular and democratic Sudan.

The army is led by John Garang, a Christian from Dinka origin. He used to be to be colonel in the Sudanese army and is a personal friend of the Ugandan president Museveni (both were students at Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam University in the 1960s).

In 1991 Garang’s second-in-command, Riak Machar, made an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow him and caused a split within the movement. The government took advantage of this coup and made new allies among SPLA dissidents, including Mr Machar.

In 1995, the SPLA had almost been driven out Soudan. It managed however to survive by democratising its organisation and by external help from Uganda and perhaps from Eritrea and Ethiopia. Despite denials by American diplomats, the United States is also helping the SPLA via neighbouring countries (in 1996, military aid worth 20 millions $ was given to Sudan’s neighbours).

Since 1997, SPLA controls a region larger than France where it is de facto setting up an embryonic state known to the rebels as “New Sudan”.

On 21 April 1997 the Sudanese government tentatively signed a peace agreement with five SPLA dissident groups. This agreement provided for a referendum on autodetermination to be held within four years and the creation of a Coordination Council which should govern the South until the referendum. In August 1997 Riak Machar was named president of the Coordination Council. In exchange, the Southern factions merged into the South Soudan Defense Forces to wage war against the SPLA. The SPLA and the NDA (National Democratic Alliance, a federation of Northern opposition forces, based in Asmara-Eritrea) denounced this separate agreement as a betrayal and made an alliance under the military command of John Garang.

Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA) (AFP/Marco Longari)
Fanzikiri men blow traditional musical instruments while a soldier stands by during a SPLA (Sudan People Liberation Army) rally in the Blue Nile region town of Kurmuk along the Sudanese side of the Sudan-Ethiopia border.

Under the auspices of IGAD (Intergovernmental Autorithy for Development composed of Djibouti, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Sudan) the Sudanese government and the SPLA finally accepted in May 1998 the principle of a referendum on autodetermination under international supervision. One of the remaining problems is that the South Sudan as envisaged by the SPLA – roughly a third of the present Sudan – includes most of the areas with oil reserves (the Bentiu and Muglad oilfields) while the borders drafted by the government are much more confined.

Source:,, SPLM Today (the official web site of the SPLM/A), Sudan Tribune,, South Sudan Online: ReliefWeb