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Sudan - Introduction

Since ancient times the Sudan has been an arena for interaction between the cultural traditions of Africa and those of the Mediterranean world. In recent centuries Islam and the Arabic language have achieved ascendancy in many northern parts of the country, while older African languages and cultures predominate in the south.


Sudan is the largest and one of the most diverse countries in Africa, home to deserts, mountain ranges, swamps and rain forests.

The name Sudan derives from the Arabic expression bilad as-Sudan (“land of the blacks”), by which medieval Arab geographers referred to the settled African countries that began at the southern edge of the Sahara.

It emerged from a two-decade civil war between the mainly Muslim north and the Animist and Christian south, only to see fighting break out in the western region of Darfur in early 2003. Sudan has been at war with itself for more than three quarters of its existence. This protracted conflict is rooted in the cultural and religious divides that characterize the country. 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 north-south civil war is said to have cost the lives of 1.5 million people. In Darfur, The UN says more than two million people have fled their homes and more than 200,000 have been killed. UN Security Council approves a resolution authorising a 26,000-strong force for Darfur in July, 2007. Sudan says it will co-operate with the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID).

Throughout its history the Sudan has been divided between its Arab heritage, identified with northern Sudan, and its African heritages to the south. The two groups are divided along linguistic, religious, racial, and economic lines, and the cleavage has generated ethnic tensions and clashes. Moreover, the geographical isolation of Sudan's southern African peoples has prevented them from participating fully in the country's political, economic, and social life.

Sudan’s population is one of the most diverse on the African continent. There are two distinct major cultures--"Arab" and black African--with hundreds of ethnic and tribal subdivisions and language groups, which make effective collaboration among them a major political challenge.

Imperial Britain acknowledged the north-south division by establishing separate administrations for the two regions. Independent Sudan further reinforced this cleavage by treating African southerners as a minority group.

Another major factor that has affected Sudan's evolution is the country's relationship with Egypt. As early as the eighth millennium B.C., there was contact between Sudan and Egypt. Modern relations between the two countries began in 1820, when an Egyptian army under Ottoman command invaded Sudan. In the years following this invasion, Egypt expanded its area of control in Sudan down the Red Sea coast and toward East Africa's Great Lakes region.

The sixty-four-year period of Egyptian rule, which ended in 1885, left a deep mark on Sudan's political and economic systems. The emergence of the Anglo-Egyptian condominium in 1899 reinforced the links between Cairo and Khartoum. After Sudan gained independence in 1956, Egypt continued to exert influence over developments in Sudan.

Similarly, the period of British control (1899-1955) has had a lasting impact on Sudan. In addition to pacifying and uniting the country, Britain sought to modernize Sudan by using technology to facilitate economic development and by establishing democratic institutions to end authoritarian rule. Even in 1991, many of Sudan's political and economic institutions owed their existence to the British.

Lastly, Sudan's postindependence history has been shaped largely by the southern civil war. This conflict has retarded the country's social and economic development, encouraged political instability, and led to an endless cycle of weak and ineffective military and civilian governments. The conflict appeared likely to continue to affect Sudan's people and institutions for the rest of the twentieth century.

The country has had numerous changes in government since independence in 1956. Successive regimes found it difficult to win general acceptance from the country's diverse political constituencies, a situation symbolized by the lack of a formal constitution until 1973.

Decades of fighting have left Sudan's infrastructure in tatters. With the return of millions of displaced southerners, there is a pressing need for reconstruction.

An early conflict arose between those northern leaders who hoped to impose unity upon the nation through the vigorous extension of Islamic law and culture to all parts of the country and those who opposed this policy; the latter included the majority of southerners and those northerners who favoured a secular government.

From independence until 1972 there prevailed a costly and divisive civil war, fought largely in the south but punctuated by violent incidents in the capital. The Addis Ababa Agreement of 1972 ended the conflict only temporarily, and in 1983 the civil war resumed.

By this time the comparative lack of economic development in the south had become a new source of regional grievance, and northern leaders' continuing attempts to Islamize the Sudanese legal system proved an even more potent source of discord. The failure in the 1970s of an array of costly development projects in commercial agriculture left the national economy stagnant and debt-ridden. As a result, many Sudanese began to experience a significant decline in living standards in the late 1970s that has continued to the present.

Southern rebels said they were battling oppression and marginalisation. After two years of bargaining, they signed a comprehensive peace deal with the government to end the civil war in January 2005.

The economic dividends of peace could be great. Sudan has large areas of cultivatable land, as well as gold and cotton. Its oil reserves are ripe for further exploitation.

Large parts of the country continue to rely on an agricultural and pastoral subsistence economy, but commercial agriculture - together with more limited mining and industrial development - plays a central role in the northern districts and in the national economy as a whole.

The northern states of the large country cover most of the Sudan and include most of the urban centers. Most of the 22 million Sudanese who live in this region are Arabic-speaking Muslims, though the majority also uses a non-Arabic mother tongue - e.g., Nubian, Beja, Fur, Nuban, Ingessana, etc.

Among these are several distinct tribal groups: the Kababish of northern Kordofan, a camel-raising people; the Ja’alin and Shaigiyya groups of settled tribes along the rivers; the semi-nomadic Baggara of Kordofan and Darfur; the Hamitic Beja in the Red Sea area and Nubians of the northern Nile areas, some of whom have been resettled on the Atbara River; and the Nuba of southern Kordofan and Fur in the western reaches of the country.

The southern region has a population of around 6 million and a predominantly rural, subsistence economy. Except for a ten-year hiatus, southern Sudan has been embroiled in conflict, resulting in major destruction and displacement since independence. More than 2 million people have died, and more than 4 million are internally displaced or have become refugees as a result of the civil war and war-related impacts. The southern Sudanese practice mainly indigenous traditional beliefs, although Christian missionaries have converted some.

The south also contains many tribal groups and many more languages than are used in the north. The Dinka - whose population is estimated at more than 1 million - is the largest of the many black African tribes of the Sudan. Along with the Shilluk and the Nuer, they are among the Nilotic tribes. The Azande, Bor, and Jo Luo are "Sudanic" tribes in the west, and the Acholi and Lotuhu live in the extreme south, extending into Uganda.

In 2006, Sudan’s population reached an estimated 41 million. A new census is planned for 2007. The population of metropolitan Khartoum (including Khartoum, Omdurman, and North Khartoum) is growing rapidly and ranges from 6-7 million, including around 2 million internally displaced persons from the former southern war zone as well as western and eastern regions affected by drought, conflict, and marginalization. In Darfur, there are an estimated 1.8 million internally displaced persons and another 220,000 refugees in neighboring Chad--200,000 in 12 camps and 20,000 in the border area.

Arabic is the official language and Islam is the religion of the state, but the country has a large non-Arabic speaking and non-Muslim population which has rejected attempts by the government in Khartoum to impose Islamic Sharia law on the country as a whole.

President Omar al-Bashir has been locked in a power struggle with Hassan al-Turabi, his former mentor and the main ideologue of Sudan's Islamist government. Since 2001 Mr Turabi has spent periods in detention and has been accused, but not tried, over an alleged coup plot.

Sudan also has faced large refugee influxes from neighboring countries, primarily Ethiopia and Chad. Armed conflict, poor transport infrastructure, and lack of government support have chronically obstructed the provision of humanitarian assistance to affected populations.

Last Updated on Monday 4th August 2008