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Poverty as a Cause of the Sudanese Civil War Research Paper

The conflict in Sudan has been influenced by various factors including religious differences, collision of ethnicities, and “negative” ethnicity, among others. Civil wars have ranged in Sudan, the largest country in Africa, by area, for the last fifty years. For reasons that are still a matter of debate amongst stakeholders, post-independence Sudan has only remained peaceful for a total of eleven years.

The populist theoreticians point to the conflict between Arabs and blacks on one side, and Christians and Muslims, on the other, as the main sources of friction that have sustained the conflict. However, even after the country was divided into North and South Sudan civil conflict has persisted. Poverty has been identified as the main contributing factor to the war in Sudan and indeed other parts of Africa. The connection between poverty and conflict has been analyzed in the West African region where “11 of the world’s 25 poorest countries are contained and is currently one of the most unstable regions of the world” (Kaufmann 2006, p. 76).

Several forums and task forces have determined that conflict is caused by a lack of economic opportunity and/or poverty. The war in Sudan has had numerous negative effects on the region including lowering life expectancy and reducing the region’s rate of development. This essay postulates the conclusion that poverty in Sudan has been the main cause of civil war.

Although the issue of the connection between poverty and war has been disputed in the past, currently there is reliable research to support this proposition. A recent academic study provided an important breakdown of how poverty rates relate to conflict. In the study, it was found that “countries with low income per capita are at increased risk of civil conflict” (Pantuliano 2006, p. 710). Also, currently available statistics reveal that countries that are in the bottom percentiles for income per capita have high short term risks of war. Put another way, the lower the income levels of the citizens are, the higher the chances of civil conflict.

The main source of income for Sudanese citizens is farming and the majority of the population depends on agro-pastoral activities. Since the late 1970s, the government has attempted to augment farming incomes by targeting high-value export crops. Unfortunately, this tactic has not had any significant impact on ordinary people. For example, the Khartoum government sought to increase the country’s foreign exchange by encouraging large-scale farming. However, the project resulted in raising revenue for large companies and the government, instead of the farmers themselves. The low rates of per capita income of the Sudanese population provide the basis for other contributory factors in the on-going civil war.

In Sudan, high levels of poverty contribute to civil conflict and the conflict itself then impacts negatively on income setting up a vicious cycle. When war broke out in Sudan, it led to the destruction of livelihoods, particularly of those in the South. All major, and even minor, developments in Southern Sudan came to a halt resulting in the economic growth of the country being disproportionately low.

Eventually, for most residents war was the only viable option in terms of livelihood. This chain of events eventually leads to an entanglement of civil war and low-income rates. For instance, as the war continued in Sudan, levels of poverty rose sharply in the three decades starting from the early 1980s (Deng 1995).

Economic experts have noted that when the progress of any economy is disrupted by war, it often takes at least ten years for normal growth to be achieved again. Sudan has experienced conflicts over the last four to five decades. This has left the resource-rich country lagging in economic development. There are clear differences between the economic progress of Sudan and neighboring countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, and Kenya. The Sudanese economy was healthier than that of some of these nations in the 1950s but since then the most significant difference between them is the continuing civil war. Other estimates indicate that war economies decline by an average of 2% each year (Collier & Hoeffler 2002).

Currently, most regions in Sudan are in a trap where poverty is responsible for keeping the conflict alive. This trap-effect became evident when in 2005, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement led to a cessation of regional conflict. In the previous year, Sudan was ranked 135 out of 178 in the global Human Developmental Index. A few years after Southern Sudan became independent, in-fighting led to war between former allies.

The abject poverty in Sudan means that most individuals, as suggested above, consider war as a solution to poverty. Former guerrillas likely found it difficult to kick-start the languishing southern economy and found it easier to resort to the familiar path of violence. The World Bank pointed out that “the chief legacy of a civil war is another war” (Stewart, Holdstock, & Jarquin 2002). Each conflict generates its group of war profiteers. In scenarios where poverty is rife, this group will trigger and maintain, a conflict where they can to keep exploiting the situation.

Another reason why poverty contributes towards conflict is that poor countries tend to have a comparatively high percentage of the population under twenty-five. In Sudan, “the median age in Sudan is 18 years, and life expectancy is 58 years compared to the United States, where the median age is 36 years, and life expectancy is 77 years” (Kaufmann 2006). In Sudan’s case, the prevalence of young people is due to a combination of high mortality rates amongst the older sections of the population and the fact that most of Africa are going through a ‘youth bulge’ phenomenon.

Demographers have also forwarded the argument that in places where resources are scarce, it is difficult for women to access family planning, and hence there is a higher number of children per household. In Sudan, the youth bulge has supplied warlords with an endless supply of soldiers. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the world was shocked by the images of child soldiers wielding weapons in the Sudan conflict. A high youth population also contributes to the poverty trap and increases its scale. Research indicates that high youth populations tend to increase the probability of conflict in poverty-stricken regions.

This argument is supported by Collier and Hoeffler (2002, p. 17) who are of the view that “poverty increases opportunities for rebellion because large numbers of youth provide a ready potential supply of rebel combatants”. The fact that very young teenagers were enlisted as soldiers in the Sudanese conflict indicates the inescapable connection between youth and conflict in the country. Whenever an economy is experiencing negative growth it finds itself unable to absorb them into the current systems. Consequently, the youth are more likely to engage in conflict. When it comes to civil conflicts, the trends indicate that, except Yugoslavia, all major civil conflicts in recent history have relied on the youth bulge (Stewart, Holdstock, & Jarquin 2002).

In Sudan, poverty has contributed to lower rates of education and this has been a major contributory factor in the conflict. As of 2009, the levels of literacy in Sudan were estimated to be approximately sixty percent. Almost all available human development indices suggest that low education enrolment levels are closely linked to high levels of poverty. Nevertheless, other factors related to levels of literacy including gender issues, culture, and religion.

For example, in “the years 2000 to 2004, while net secondary school enrolment was 92 and 91 percent for girls and boys in industrialized countries, respectively, these figures were 26 percent and 30 percent in the least developed countries” (Collier 2005, p. 65). In Sudan, the levels of secondary school enrolment have been greatly curtailed by poverty, gender issues, and conflict. Eventually, low literacy levels create a situation in which the risk of conflict rises.

A higher level of engagement in secondary-level education, however, contributes to lower instances of civil conflict. Boys were removed from regular schooling from the tender age of nine years and at the height of the conflict in Sudan the level of enrolment in secondary school for boys was at an all-time low. The relationship between low levels of education and poverty is compounded by the fact that less-educated individuals find it difficult to secure employment and earn a living. On several occasions, conflict recurred in Sudan because warring elements claimed that government employment was only given to the Arab population (Deng 1995).

However, the levels of education between the two demographics may have been the determining factor in choosing whom to employ, and not ethnicity as was claimed. A few decades ago, the same scenario occurred in Sierra Leone where most former soldiers were semi-literate.

Poverty as it applies to a country has several effects. In Sudan’s case, the perception of the country as extremely poor is because the economy is tied to natural resources. Therefore, even though the country is resource-rich, the low wages associated with the extraction of raw materials combined with a lack of diversification to create high instances of poverty. Dependence on natural resources in Sudan was a major cause of the rebellion and the subsequent split between the North and the South. In poor countries, the authorities that control the high-value resources have significant power and this creates envy among detractors (Middleton & O’Keefe 2006). This was the case for Sudanese oil wells, the control of which was the subject of envy from various centers of power in the country.


Poverty has affected almost every aspect of the conflict in Sudan. Statistics indicate that Sudan’s economic status puts the country at greater risk of civil strife than wealthier states. The country is subject to a cycle of poverty-conflict-greater poverty, creating a seemingly unbreakable continuing pattern. Poverty has contributed to a youth bulge that has been a major factor in the civil war by supplying unemployed, disaffected young people upon which warlords could draw.

Lower levels of education, combined with a lack of economic opportunity, have led many young people to enlist in military organizations which have further decreased their chances of having a normal and good quality life. The economic status of the country, with its high dependence on natural resources, fuel envy, and maintain a low wage structure that are further sources of conflict.


Collier, P 2005, Understanding Civil War: Africa, World Bank Publications, Washington.

Collier, P & Hoeffler, A 2002, ‘On the incidence of civil war in Africa’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, vol. 46, no. 1, pp. 13-28.

Deng, F 1995, War of visions: Conflict of identity in the Sudan, The Brookings Institution, Washington.

Kaufmann, C 2006, ‘Intervention in ethnic and ideological civil wars: Why one can be done and the other can’t’, Security Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 62-101.

Middleton, N & O’Keefe, P 2006, ‘Politics, history & problems of humanitarian assistance in Sudan’, Review of African Political Economy, vol. 33, no. 109, pp. 543-559.

Pantuliano, S 2006, ‘Comprehensive peace? An analysis of the evolving tension in Eastern Sudan’, Review of African Political Economy, vol. 33, no. 110, pp. 709-720.

Stewart, F, Holdstock, D & Jarquin, A 2002, ‘Root causes of violent conflict in developing countries/Commentary’, British Medical Journal, vol. 335, no. 71, pp. 342-343.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Poverty as a Cause of the Sudanese Civil War." September 1, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/poverty-as-a-cause-of-the-sudanese-civil-war/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Poverty as a Cause of the Sudanese Civil War'. 1 September.

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