Violent conflict has many causal factors, each one a strand in a complex web of causes that both individually and collectively precipitate, aggravate and prolong fighting. As individual factors, each functions within a multi-layered matrix of historic, economic and political dimensions, and is most acute where reinforced by other factors. Unequal access to resources or population pressures, for example, may not in themselves cause conflict, but may react with ethno-cultural prejudice or political manipulation to fuel fighting.
The economic development of the country’s regions has been uneven since at least the colonial era, but successive national governments since independence have deepened existing regional disparities and marginalisation by favouring northern regions when allocating development projects and investment opportunities. Foreign debt, capital flight and the deterioration of the prices of primary commodities have had economic, social and ecological implications. Unequal access to resources nationwide is also reflected at regional and local levels. All the armed groups in Sudan have stressed the importance of access to natural and social resources, expressed in terms of justice, fairness, and equitable resource-sharing and development.
With population growth, environmental degradation and drought, the scarcity of environmental resources such as cropland, fresh water, marine resources and forests is becoming more significant as a cause or catalyst of armed conflict. Environmental factors and scarcity do not lead inevitably to violent confrontation, yet in situations where the prevailing scarcity is aggravated by social and economic injustice and mismanagement, the confrontational aspect of environmental scarcity appears to predominate, as in the case of Darfur or Kordofan.
The popular assumption that violent conflicts in Africa emanate from ethnic, tribal, religious, or cultural differences is seriously flawed. Most ethnic dichotomies appear to be a consequence rather than a cause of violent conflicts. However, ethnic, religious and cultural dichotomies are potent in determining perceptions of violent conflicts by fighters on both sides, even if such factors are weak or non-existent as root causes of ‘new’ conflicts. The longer a conflict persists, the more these ethnic, religious and cultural factors come into play as a principle of political solidarity and mobilisation. In a long-standing conflict, even when the initial causes have petered out or died away, abstract, ideological ethnicity becomes an active material and social force. In Sudan, these ethnic and ideological identities have been deliberately encouraged and instrumentalised, stiffening resistance and serving as a catalyst to the internationalisation of Sudan’s wars.
Underpinning all these factors are a number of fundamental political problems. Sudan has not evolved an effective political answer to the problem of diversity and pluralism. What political scientists call an ‘organic-statist’ tendency (in which the state seeks to incorporate and control social groups) is reflected in a single-party structure combined with a fragile multi-partyism representing the interests of various groups. Tribal, sectarian, ethnic and regional interests and identifications are in effect preserved and manipulated by the political leadership, who, to consolidate their narrow social and political bases, master the logic of coalition-making and the art of managing patron-client relationships. Furthermore, short-term expediency, tactics of political support-building and self-enrichment undermine the state’s already fragile authority, ingraining the conception of public office as a source of income or ‘rents.’ This ‘rentier’ nature of public office is fully utilised by politicians, administrators and groups with vested interests in mining Sudan’s natural resources.