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Modern History of Sudan

Modern Sudan is situated on the site of the ancient civilization of Nubia, which predates Pharaonic Egypt. Sudan achieved independence in 1956, but the south, disappointed by the rejection of its demands for autonomy, revolted and the country sank into a bitter civil war that lasted 16 years.


Sudan has been at war with itself for more than three quarters of its existence. Since independence, protracted conflict rooted in deep cultural and religious differences retarded Sudan’s economic and political development and forced massive internal displacement of its people.

The 20th century saw the growth of Sudanese nationalism, and in 1953 Egypt and Britain granted Sudan self-government. Independence was proclaimed on Jan. 1, 1956. Since independence, Sudan has been ruled by a series of unstable parliamentary governments and military regimes.

Northerners, who have traditionally controlled the country, have sought to unify it along the lines of Arabism and Islam despite the opposition of non-Muslims, southerners, and marginalized peoples in the west and east. The resultant civil strife affected Sudan’s neighbors, as they alternately sheltered fleeing refugees or served as operating bases for rebel movements.

After World War I, Sudanese nationalism, which favored either independence or union with Egypt, gathered popular support.

The Road to Independence

As World War II approached, the SDF assumed the mission of guarding Sudan's frontier with Italian East Africa (present-day Ethiopia). During the summer of 1940, Italian forces invaded Sudan at several points and captured Kassala. However, the SDF prevented a further advance on Port Sudan. In January 1941, the SDF, expanded to 20,000 troops, retook Kassala and participated in the British offensive that routed the Italians in Eritrea and liberated Ethiopia. Some Sudanese units later contributed to the British Eighth Army's North Africa victory.

In the immediate postwar years, the condominium government made a number of significant changes. In 1942 the Graduates' General Conference, a quasi-nationalist movement formed by educated Sudanese, presented the government with a memorandum that demanded a pledge of self-determination after the war to be preceded by abolition of the "closed door" ordinances, an end to the separate curriculum in southern schools, and an increase in the number of Sudanese in the civil service.

The governor general refused to accept the memorandum but agreed to a government supervised transformation of indirect rule into a modernized system of local government. Sir Douglas Newbold, governor of Kurdufan Province in the 1930s and later the executive council's civil secretary, advised the establishment of parliamentary government and the administrative unification of north and south.

In 1948, over Egyptian objections, Britain authorized the partially elected consultative Legislative Assembly representing both regions to supersede the advisory executive council.

The pro-Egyptian NUP boycotted the 1948 Legislative Assembly elections. As a result, pro-independence groups dominated the Legislative Assembly. In 1952 leaders of the Umma-dominated legislature negotiated the Self-Determination Agreement with Britain.

The legislators then enacted a constitution that provided for a prime minister and council of ministers responsible to a bicameral parliament. The new Sudanese government would have responsibility in all areas except military and foreign affairs, which remained in the British governor general's hands. Cairo, which demanded recognition of Egyptian sovereignty over Sudan, repudiated the condominium agreement in protest and declared its reigning monarch, Faruk, king of Sudan.

After seizing power in Egypt and overthrowing the Faruk monarchy in late 1952, Colonel Muhammad Naguib broke the deadlock on the problem of Egyptian sovereignty over Sudan. Cairo previously had linked discussions on Sudan's status to an agreement on the evacuation of British troops from the Suez Canal.

Naguib separated the two issues and accepted the right of Sudanese self-determination. In February 1953, London and Cairo signed an Anglo-Egyptian accord, which allowed for a three-year transition period from condominium rule to self-government. During the transition phase, British and Egyptian troops would withdraw from Sudan.

At the end of this period, the Sudanese would decide their future status in a plebiscite conducted under international supervision. Naguib's concession seemed justified when parliamentary elections held at the end of 1952 gave a majority to the pro-Egyptian NUP, which had called for an eventual union with Egypt. In January 1954, a new government emerged under NUP leader Ismail al Azhari.

Recognizing the inevitable, Britain signed a self-determination agreement with Sudan in 1952, followed by the Anglo-Egyptian accord in 1953 that set up a three-year transition period to self-government. Sudan proclaimed its independence January 1, 1956.

Sudan Gains Independence

In February 1953, the United Kingdom and Egypt concluded an agreement providing for Sudanese self-government and self-determination. The transitional period toward independence began with the inauguration of the first parliament in 1954.

The Azhari government temporarily halted progress toward self-determination for Sudan, hoping to promote unity with Egypt. Although his pro-Egyptian NUP had won a majority in the 1953 parliamentary elections, Azhari realized that popular opinion had shifted against union with Egypt. As a result, Azhari, who had been the major spokesman for the "unity of the Nile Valley," reversed the NUP's stand and supported Sudanese independence.

On December 19, 1955, the Sudanese parliament, under Azhari's leadership, unanimously adopted a declaration of independence. With the consent of the British and Egyptian Governments, Sudan achieved independence on January 1, 1956, under a provisional constitution.  Azhari called for the withdrawal of foreign troops and requested the condominium powers to sponsor a plebiscite in advance of the scheduled date.

The new constitution was silent on two crucial issues for southern leaders - the secular or Islamic character of the state and its federal or unitary structure. However, the Arab-led Khartoum government reneged on promises to southerners to create a federal system, which led to a mutiny by southern army officers that launched 17 years of civil war (1955-72).Civil War in Sudan:

Refugees and Rebel Movements:

Since independence, Sudan has experienced almost constant ethnic and religious strife that has penetrated all the states bordering it. These countries have provided shelter to fleeing refugees or have served as operating bases for rebel movements. The civil strife has retarded Sudan’s economic and political development as well as forced massive internal displacement of its people.

The country had two short-lived civilian coalition governments before a coup in November 1958 brought in a military regime under Ibrahim Abbud and a collective body known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

In a forerunner of things to come, General Ibrahim Abboud summarily dismissed the winners of the first post-independence elections. Ever since, war in the south, flirtations with democracy and military coups have been regular features of the Sudanese political landscape.

In 1969 Colonel Jaafar Nimeiri assumed power and succeeded in holding it for 16 years, surviving several coup attempts and making numerous twists and turns in policy to outflank opponents and keep aid donors happy. Most importantly, by signing the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement to grant the southern provinces a measure of autonomy, he quelled the civil war for more than a decade.

Nimeiri Creates a Powerbase

Already lacking support from the Muslim parties he had chased from power, Colonel Gaafar Muhammad Nimeiri could no longer count on the communist faction. Having alienated the right and the left, Nimeiri turned to the south as a way of expanding his limited powerbase. He pursued peace initiatives with Sudan’s hostile neighbors, Ethiopia and Uganda, signing agreements that committed each signatory to withdraw support for the other’s rebel movements.

Negotiations With the Rebels

Nimeiri then initiated negotiations with the southern rebels and signed an agreement in Addis Ababa in 1972 that granted a measure of autonomy to the south. Southern support helped him put down two coup attempts, one initiated by officers from the western regions of Darfur and Kordofan who wanted for their region the same privileges granted to the south.

Islamic Backlash

However, the Addis Ababa Agreement had no support from either the secularist or Islamic northern parties. Nimeiri concluded that their lack of support was more threatening to his regime than lack of support from the south so he announced a policy of national reconciliation with all the religious opposition forces. These parties did not feel bound to observe an agreement they perceived as an obstacle to furthering an Islamist state. The scales against the peace agreement were tipped in 1979 when Chevron discovered oil in the south.

Nimeiri Begins a Campaign of Islamicization

Northern pressure built to abrogate those provisions of the peace treaty granting financial autonomy to the south. Ultimately in 1983, Nimeiri abolished the southern region, declared Arabic the official language of the south (instead of English) and transferred control of southern armed forces to the central government. This was effectively a unilateral abrogation of the 1972 peace treaty.

In 1983, pressure from Islamic parties led Nimeiri to scrap the autonomy accord and imposed sharia, or Islamic law, over the whole country. The effect on the non-Muslim southern population was entirely predictable, and hostilities recommenced almost immediately. Army commander John Garang deserted to form the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement and Army (SPLM/A) which quickly took control of much of the south.

A Second Civil War Erupts

The second Sudan civil war effectively began in January 1983 when southern soldiers mutinied rather than follow orders transferring them to the north.

Nimeiri OverthrownIn April 1985, while out of the country, Nimeiri was overthrown by a popular uprising in Khartoum provoked by a collapsing economy, the war in the south, and political repression. Gen. Suwar al-Dahab headed the transitional government. One of its first acts was to suspend the 1983 constitution and disband Nimeiri’s Sudan Socialist Union.

In July 1989 power was seized by the current president, Lieutenant General Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir. However, Hassan al-Turabi, the fundamentalist leader of the National Islamic Front (NIF), was widely seen as the man holding the real power. The government's brand of belligerent fundamentalism, border disputes with half its neighbours and possible complicity in a 1995 assassination attempt on Egypt's president initially cost Sudan all its regional friends.

Enforcing Islamic Control on the South

Elections were held in April 1986, and a civilian government took over after the April 1986 elections. There were tentative moves towards negotiating peace with the south. However, any proposal to exempt the south from Islamic law was unacceptable to those who supported Arabic supremacy. In 1989, an Islamic army faction, led by General Umar al-Bashir mounted a coup and installed the National Islamic Front. The new government’s commitment to the Islamic cause intensified the north-south conflict.

Popular Backlash

Meanwhile, the period of the 1990s saw a growing sense of alienation in the western and eastern regions of Sudan from the Arab center. The rulers in Khartoum were seen as less and less responsive to the concerns and grievances of both Muslim and non-Muslim populations across the country. Alienation from the "Arab" center caused various groups to grow sympathetic to the southern rebels led by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).

In August 1998 US missiles slammed into a Khartoum pharmaceuticals factory erroneously linked to Osama bin Laden and the Iraqi chemical weapons programme; relations between the American and Sudanese governments have been strained ever since, with sanctions almost constantly in force.

The year 1999 was something of a watershed in Sudanese politics: in December, just when the country's domestic and international situation seemed to be improving, President al-Bashir dissolved parliament, suspended the constitution and imposed a three-month state of emergency, all as part of an internal power struggle with Al-Turabi.

The subsequent elections in December 2000 were boycotted by opposition parties, giving al-Bashir an easy win, and in 2001 Al-Turabi and several members of his party were arrested after signing an agreement with the SPLM/A. In the meantime, countless rounds of southern peace talks in Kenya had failed, the government was accused of forcibly depopulating potential oilfields, and the death toll from the fighting and the resulting humanitarian disaster reached almost two million.

From the end of 2001 Sudan's general situation seemed to be on the mend. The economy was stabilised, several ceasefire agreements were signed in the south and demarcation discussions on the various troublesome borders were continuing.

Its policy toward the south was to pursue the war against the rebels while trying to manipulate them by highlighting tribal divisions. Ultimately, this policy resulted in the rebels’ uniting under the leadership of Colonel John Garang. During this period, the rebels also enjoyed support from Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Uganda. The Bashir Government’s "Pan-Islamic" foreign policy, which provided support for neighboring radical Islamist groups, was partly responsible for this support for the rebels.

Last Updated on Monday 4th August 2008