An image of the country's flag.

Once the largest nation in Africa, Sudan now ranks third in size after losing nearly a third of its territory to the newly created nation of South Sudan in 2011. Sudan is characterized by its varied ecologies, highly differentiated agricultural production patterns, significant sources of fresh water in the Nile River system and mineral reserves (principally petroleum). The country’s 34 million people include diverse groups with contrasting and often conflicting cultures and means of producing livelihoods.

Violent conflict over resources, revenues and aspirations has defined Sudan’s history. A civil war that lasted 20 years and killed more than 2.5 million people concluded with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 and later, in 2011, a referendum that created the newly independent state of South Sudan. While the CPA has brought a diminution in violence, conflict over political control and access to resources continues among populations in the Darfur region in the west and in the oil producing regions that straddle the country’s border with South Sudan.

The Khartoum government’s repressive appropriation of land and systemic abuse of local land rights were significant factors fueling the civil war. As part of the peace process, the Government of Sudan (GoS) and the Government of South Sudan (GoSS) recognized the need to develop land policy, land legislation, and functioning land institutions and supporting services. Unfortunately, many stipulations in the CPA, intended to address long-contested natural resource and land issues, remain unfulfilled. Land commissions at the national level and in the States of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, that were to arbitrate land disputes, recommend land policy reforms and identify a mechanism for recognizing customary land rights, have not been established. As a result, rights of access – to agricultural land for cultivation of crops and livestock production, water for irrigation, and to forest products and petroleum reserves for export revenues – continue to be contested at national, regional and local levels. In Darfur, the land commission required by the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) has been operational since 2007 and has made progress in providing information and policy recommendations to improve land governance. The Darfur Land Commission (DLC) faces considerable challenges, however, due to fiscal and technical capacity constraints and lack of coordination with other government institutions, particularly at the national level.

In the absence of a functioning and socially legitimate system to identify and enforce formal and customary land rights, tenure security has increased in the face of commercial pressures to develop agribusiness and explore for and extract oil. Under formal law, the GoS has been free to issue long-term leases to unregistered land without consulting local communities, while smallholders and pastoralists have been evicted from land and denied access to natural resources in favor of private investors, land speculators, military personnel and elites. Most of the country’s urban population – including millions of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and rural residents whose means of livelihood have been destroyed – live in informal settlements without secure rights and are vulnerable to eviction and the destruction of their residences. The failure to resolve these systemic challenges will also affect the ability of the populations of Darfur and border regions of Abyei, South Kordofan and Blue Nile to achieve long-term peace, and will complicate the resettlement process for millions of IDPs.

For Sudan to find lasting peace, issues of security and access to land and natural resources will require urgent and sustained attention.


  • Continued support for establishment of National Land Commission and State Land Commissions. Land matters and the reform of Sudan’s land administration systems were key components of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Chief among the promised reforms was the establishment of an independent National Land Commission, and State Land Commissions in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, each of which would be responsible for recommending land policy reforms and resolving historical claims over land. These reforms are specifically to include recognition of customary rights and customary land law. To date, the GoS has failed to establish the National and State Land Commissions in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. While in Darfur, the DLC has been operationalized but requires continued technical and financial support in order to improve the capacity and capabilities of the institution. Sudan’s future stability and the prevention of conflict depend on the development and implementation of comprehensive legal frameworks and governance structures for land and natural resources, of which the commissions are a key component. Donors can continue to support the establishment of the National Land Commission and South Kordofan and Blue Nile Land Commissions, and capacity development of the Darfur Land Commission. Donors can also support the creation of new or revised legal frameworks for land, water, forests and minerals that address chronic gaps and pressure points, and that establish necessary governance bodies at all levels as well as mechanisms for enforcement of rights. In addition to support for legal frameworks, donors ought to continue efforts to assist the government in creating and strengthening core institutional structures at every level, helping to create appropriate links between the institutions and the public, and designing and implementing public awareness building programs.
  • Support for recognition of customary land rights. The customary regimes that govern and inform rights to land and water – especially in the border states, the Darfur region and for pastoralists – need to be identified, documented and integrated into formal law. Donors can assist the government by continuing to collect information about customary rights, coordinating their efforts to ensure regional coverage and implementation of best practices, and by providing technical assistance and comparative knowledge on the process of integrating customary rights into formal law.
  • Support for land access and tenure security for IDPs. The rights of IDPs to land and housing and the authority over land allocation for IDPs need to be established and clarified, and the information disseminated to local governments and the population of IDPs. Donors can identify resettlement trends and regional needs to accommodate returning IDPs. Public awareness campaigns and capacity building will assist the IDP population and state and local governments in understanding land and housing rights and creating realistic plans that include recognition of the most vulnerable groups, including women, returnees, IDPs and those affected by HIV/AIDS.
  • Support urban planning and formalization of urban land rights. Rapid urbanization across Sudan has outpaced the capacity of government institutions to create and implement master plans and develop policies for upgrading and regularizing informal settlements. Donors can assist the GoS in developing appropriate strategies for urban planning and settlement upgrading. Technical assistance is needed to help draft and implement legislation and programs to regularize informal land rights, paying particular attention to vulnerable groups such as IDPs, households affected by HIV/AIDS and households headed by women and children.
  • Support for dispute resolution mechanisms and forums. Conflicts among competing groups over access to and control over land and water are common in Sudan, and the decades of war, prevalence of weapons and numbers of people with combat experience have increased the likelihood of disputes turning violent. Establishment of an effective, integrated, socially legitimate system for resolving disputes over land and other natural resources is critical to Sudan’s future. Donors can assist the government in assessing the actual and potential roles played by traditional authorities and forums and by formal legal institutions, as well as options for creating a system that integrates formal and customary components and supports local governance bodies in their implementation of laws and policies.


Once lauded for its agricultural potential, Sudan has become mired in protracted conflict that has stalled its development and caused massive population displacement. Two civil wars – fueled by competition for natural resources and the concentration of power in the northern-based central government – consumed most of the 50 years following Sudan’s independence.

The majority of Sudan is classified as arid land, with more than one-third of the country classified as desert. Most of the desert regions of Sudan are undeveloped and support low- intensity pastoralism and isolated oasis communities. The Nile riverine strip is the exception, supporting significant agricultural activity that has been enhanced by irrigation schemes. Sudan’s population of 34 million is approximately 60% rural. Khartoum, the capital, has an estimated 5–7 million residents, including 1–1.2 million IDPs. In 2012, Sudan had an estimated GDP of US $51 billion. Agriculture accounted for 31% of the GDP, industry for 24% and services for 45%. The oil sector’s contribution to GDP has been approximately 15% in recent years. Revenue from oil is expected to drop significantly, however, given that 75% of the oil reserves are located in what is now South Sudan.

Formal law, including Islamic law, governs land access and tenure security. Formal law provides that all unregistered land – which comprises 90% of the country’s land – is owned by the government. Customary land tenure systems exist throughout Sudan but are not formally recognized by the government. In urban areas, state ownership of land predominates, and the government allocates land through formal leases. Informal leases between individuals remain common in communities and informal settlements that have not been subjected to government allocation of lands. Eviction, demolition and relocation of communities have been common in Khartoum as the government asserts control over land to implement its urban planning strategy. In many rural areas throughout the country, customary institutions manage land use and allocation. Land tenure insecurity has resulted from government-sanctioned evictions, which remain legal under formal law, as well as the GoS’s failure to recognize customary rights.

In much of Sudan, Shari’a law governs property rights in the event of marriage, divorce and death. Land rights tend to be retained by male family members, and women’s land rights are highly insecure. The basis for this discrimination for the denial of women’s rights to land appears to be grounded in customary law as opposed to religious law.

Despite the formal end to the war, and the secession of South Sudan, hostilities between the Sudan and what is now South Sudan continue, particularly over oil. Most of the oil reserves are in South Sudan, while Sudan possesses the pipelines and refineries necessary for export. This has led to frequent disputes between the two nations over revenue- sharing. Conflict also continues to erupt in the border regions of Abyei, South Kordofan and Blue Nile, as well as in Darfur and Eastern Sudan. Disputes over control of the border states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile have led to extensive violence. The prevalence of land mines and the large number of displaced persons have resulted in vast areas of land going unused. Areas of concentrated population (including IDP camps and informal settlements) and areas under ecological pressure have become degraded from overgrazing, deforestation and rapid unplanned urbanization. Farming is encroaching on forests and rangelands. The return of displaced people to parts of the country has caused conflicts over land rights. Half of all returning internally displaced and refugee households are female-headed, and women’s land rights are highly insecure. The authority of the customary institutions historically responsible for resolving land disputes has weakened, and land commissions called for in the CPA have yet to be formed.

Sudan has significant freshwater resources, primarily from the Nile River system. For centuries farmers have used the waters of the Nile for irrigation, taking advantage of numerous tributaries and annual flooding. Annual water withdrawals are used almost entirely for agriculture, including irrigation and livestock uses. The Constitution provides that all subterranean, surface and water resources are public property. Water rights are primarily a matter of state and local legislation in Sudan. However, Sudan’s use of water in the Nile Basin is subject to international agreements and obligations related to its membership in the Nile Basin Initiative. Under customary law, community members have a right of access to land and water. Competition over water resources is a common cause of local conflict, especially in areas where resources are limited. Sudan lost a significant portion of its forests with the secession of South Sudan. Forests and woodlands outside of Sudan’s official forest reserves are threatened by expanding agriculture and urbanization or are unsustainably exploited to meet the country’s energy needs. The Forests and Renewable Natural Resources Act of 2002 (FRNRA) governs forest rights and the use and management of forest resources in Sudan. Forest tenure types include forest reserves (federal, state and institutional), community forests, private forests (including corporate forests) and protected areas.

The secession of South Sudan resulted in the loss of more than 75% of the country’s oil reserves. As a result, Sudan is now seeking to expand its oil and gas production. However, continuing conflict makes it more difficult to attract foreign investment in the oil and gas industry.

Published / Updated: May 2013