The History of Sudan
Below is a brief history of Sudan. To find information other than history for Sudan then visit
the Sudan Country Page.
Sudan was a collection of small, independent kingdoms and principalities from the beginning of the Christian era until 1820-21, when Egypt conquered and unified the northern portion of the country. Historically, the pestilential swamps of the Suud discouraged expansion into the deeper south of the country. Although Egypt claimed all of the present Sudan during most of the 19th century, it was unable to establish effective control over southern Sudan, which remained an area of fragmented tribes subject to frequent attacks by slave raiders.
In 1881, a religious leader named Muhammad ibn Abdalla proclaimed himself the Mahdi, or the “expected one,” and began a religious crusade to unify the tribes in western and central Sudan. His followers took on the name “Ansars” (the followers) which they continue to use today and are associated with the single largest political grouping, the Umma Party, led by the descendant of the Mahdi, Sadiq al Mahdi. Taking advantage of conditions resulting from Ottoman-Egyptian exploitation and maladministration, the Mahdi led a nationalist revolt culminating in the fall of Khartoum in 1885. The Mahdi died shortly thereafter, but his state survived until overwhelmed by an Ango-Egyptian force under Lord Kitchener in 1898. Sudan was proclaimed a condominium in 1899 under British-Egyptian administration. While maintaining the appearance of joint administration, the British Empire formulated policies, and supplied most of the top administrators.
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. With the consent of the British and Egyptian Governments, Sudan achieved independence on January 1, 1956, under a provisional constitution. The United States was among the first foreign powers to recognize the new state. 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 sparked 17 years of civil war (1955-72).
The National Unionist Party (NUP), under Prime Minister Ismail al-Azhari, dominated the first cabinet, which was soon replaced by a coalition of conservative political forces. In 1958, following a period of economic difficulties and political maneuvering that paralyzed public administration, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Ibrahim Abboud overthrew the parliamentary regime in a bloodless coup.
Gen. Abboud did not carry out his promises to return Sudan to civilian government, however, and popular resentment against army rule led to a wave of riots and strikes in late October 1964 that forced the military to relinquish power.
The Abboud regime was followed by a provisional government until parliament elections in April 1965 led to a coalition government of the Umma and National Unionist Parties under Prime Minister Muhammad Ahmad Mahjoub. Between 1966 and 1969, Sudan had a series of governments that proved unable either to agree on a permanent constitution or to cope with problems of factionalism, economic stagnation, and ethnic dissidence. The succession of early post-independence governments were dominated by Arab Muslims who viewed Sudan as a Muslim Arab state. Indeed, the Umma/NUP proposed 1968 constitution was arguable Sudan’s first Islamic-oriented constitution.
Dissatisfaction culminated in a second military coup on May 25, 1969. The coup leader, Col. Gaafar Muhammad Nimeiri, became prime minister, and the new regime abolished parliament and outlawed all political parties.
Disputes between Marxist and non-Marxist elements within the ruling military coalition resulted in a briefly successful coup in July 1971, led by the Sudanese Communist Party. Several days later, anti-communist military elements restored Nimeiri to power.
In 1972, the Addis Ababa agreement led to a cessation of the north-south civil war and a period of cessation of the civil was and a degree of self-rule. This led to a period of ten years of hiatus in the civil war.
In 1976, the Ansars mounted a bloody but unsuccessful coup attempt. In July 1977, President Nimeiri met with Ansar leader Sadiq al-Mahdi, opening the way for reconciliation. Hundreds of political prisoners were released, and in August a general amnesty was announced for all opponents of Nimeiri’s government.
In September 1983, as part of an Islamicization campaign, President Nimeiri announced his decision to incorporate traditional Islamic punishments drawn from Shari’a (Islamic Law) into the penal code. This was controversial even among Muslim groups. After questioning Nimeiri’s credentials to Islamicize Sudan’s society, Ansar leader Sadiq al-Mahdi was placed under house arrest. On April 26, 1983, President Nimeiri declared a state of emergency, in part to ensure that Shari’a was applied more broadly. Most constitutionally guaranteed rights were suspended. In the north, emergency courts, later known as “decisive justice courts,” were established, with summary jurisdiction over criminal cases. Amputations for theft and public lashings for alcohol possession were common during the state of emergency. Southerners and other non-Muslims living in the north were also subjected to these punishments. These events, and other longstanding grievances, in part led to a resumption of the civil war that was held in abeyance since 1972, and the war continues until today.
In September 1984, President Nimeiri announced the end of the state of emergency and dismantled the emergency courts but soon promulgated a new judiciary act, which continued many of the practices of the emergency courts. Despite Nimeiri’s public assurances that the rights of non-Muslims would be respected, southerners and other non-Muslims remained deeply suspicious.
Early 1985 saw serious shortages of fuel and bread in Khartoum, a growing insurgency in the south, drought and famine, and an increasingly difficult refugee burden. In early April, during Nimeiri’s absence from the country, massive demonstrations, first triggered by price increases on bread and other staples, broke out in Khartoum.
On April 6, senior military officers led by Gen. Suwar al-Dahab mounted a coup. Among the first acts of the new government was to suspend the 1983 constitution and disband Nimeiri’s Sudan Socialist Union. A 15-member transitional military council was named, chaired by Gen. Suwar al-Dahab. In consultation with an informal conference of political parties, unions, and professional organizations known as the “Gathering,” the council appointed an interim civilian cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Dr. Al Gizouli Defalla.
Elections were held in April 1986, and a transitional military council turned over power to a civilian government as promised. The government, headed by Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi of the Umma Party, consisted of a coalition of the Umma, DUP (formerly NUP), the National Islamic Front (Hassan al-Turabi’s NIF) and several southern parties. This coalition dissolved and reformed several times over the next few years, with Sadiq al-Mahdi and his Umma party always in a central role.
During this period, the civil war intensified in lethality and the economy continued to deteriorate. When prices of basic goods were increased in 1988, riots ensued, and the price increases were cancelled. The civil war was particularly divisive (see “Civil Strife” below). When Sadiq al-Mahdi refused to approve a peace plan reached by the DUP and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in November 1988, the DUP left the government. The new government consisted essentially of the Umma and the Islamic fundamentalist NIF.
In February 1989, the army presented Sadiq with an ultimatum: he could move toward peace or be thrown out. He formed a new government with the DUP and approved the SPLA/DUP agreement. On June 30, 1989, however, military officers under then-Col. Omar Hassan al-Bashir, with NIF instigation and support, replaced the government with the Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation (RCC), a junta comprised of 15 (reduced to 12 in 1991) military officers assisted by a civilian cabinet. General al-Bashir became president and chief of state, prime minister and chief of the armed forces. Twelve years later, he continues to hold executive authority over the Khartoum government.
In March 1991, a new penal code, the Criminal Act of 1991, instituted harsh punishments nationwide, including amputations and stoning. Although the southern states are “officially” exempt from these Islamic prohibitions and penalties, the 1991 act provides for a possible future application of Islamic Law (Shari’a) in the south. In 1993, the government transferred all non-Muslim judges from the south to the north, replacing them with Muslim Judges. The introduction of Public Order Police to enforce Shari’a law resulted in the arrest and treatment under Shari’a law of southerners and other non-Muslims living in the north.
In 1955, southern resentment of northern Muslim Arab domination culminated in a mutiny among southern troops in Equatoria Province. For the next 17 years, the southern region experienced civil strife, and various southern leaders agitated for regional autonomy or outright secession.
This chronic state of insurgency against the central government was suspended in 1972 after the signing of the Addis Ababa Accords granting southern Sudan wide regional autonomy on internal matters. But a 1983 decree by President Nimeiri that declared his intention to transform Sudan into a Muslin Arab state, and divided the south into three regions and instituted Shari’a law, revived southern opposition and militant insurgency.
After the 1985 coup, the new government rescinded this decree and made other significant overtures aimed at reconciling north and south but did nor rescind the so-called September Laws of the Nimeiri regime instituting Shari’a Law. In May 1986, the Sadiq al-Mahdi government began peace negotiations with the SPLA, led by Col. John Garang de Mabior. In that year the SPLA and a number of Sudanese political parties met in Ethiopia and agreed to the “Koka Dam” declaration, which called for abolishing Islamic law and convening a constitutional conference. In 1988, the SPLA and the DUP agreed on a peace plan calling for the abolition of military pacts with Egypt and Libya, freezing of Islamic law, an end to the state of emergency, and a cease-fire. A constitutional conference would then be convened.
Following an ultimatum from the armed forces in February 1989, the Sadiq al-Mahdi government approved this peace plan and engaged in several rounds of talks with the SPLA. A constitutional conference was tentatively planned for September 1989. The military government, which took over on June 30, 1989, however, repudiated the DUP/SPLA agreement and state it wished to negotiate with the SPLA without preconditions. Negotiating sessions in August and December 1989 brought little progress.
The SPLA is in control of large areas of Equatoria, Bahr al Ghazal, and Upper Nile provinces and also operates in the southern portions of Darfur, Kordofan, and Blue Nile provinces. The government controls a number of the major southern towns and cities, including Juba, Wau, and Malakal. An informal cease-fire in May broke down in October 1989, and fighting has continued since then.
In August 1991, internal dissention among the rebels led opponents of Colonel Garang’s leadership of the SPLA to form the so-called Nasir faction of the rebel army. In September 1992, William Nyuon Bany formed a second rebel faction, and in February 1993, Kerubino Kwanyin Bol formed a third rebel faction. On April 5, 1993, the three dissident rebel factions announced a coalition of their groups called SPLA United at a press conference in Nairobi, Kenya. After 1991, the factions clashed occasionally and thus, the rebels lost much of their credibility with the West.
Since 1993, the leaders of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya have pursued a peace initiative for the Sudan under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD), but results have been mixed. Despite that record, the IGAD initiative promulgated the 1994 Declaration of Principles (DOP) that aimed to identify the essential elements necessary to a just and comprehensive peace settlement; i.e., the relationship between religion and the state, powersharing, wealthsharing, and the right of self-determination for the south. The Sudanese Government did not sign the DOP until 1997 after major battle field losses to the SPLA.
In 1995, a coalition of internal and exiled opposition parties in the north and the south created the National Democratic Alliance as an anti-government umbrella group. This development opened a northeastern front to the civil war, making it more than before a center-periphery rather than simply a north-south conflict. The SPLA, DUP, and Umma Parties were the key groups forming the NDA, along with several smaller parties and northern ethnic groups.
Also in 1997, the government signed a series of agreements with rebel factions, led by former Garang Lieutenant Riek Machar, under the banner of “Peace from Within.” These included the Khartoum, Nuba Mountains, and Fashoda agreements that ended military conflict between the government and significant rebel factions. Many of those leaders then moved to Khartoum where they assumed marginal roles in the central government, or collaborated with the government in military engagements against the SPLA. These three agreements paralleled the terms and conditions of the IGAD agreement, calling for a degree of autonomy for the south and the right of self-determination.
In July 2000, the Libyan/Egyptian Joint Initiative on the Sudan was mooted, calling for the establishment of an interim government, powersharing, constitutional reform, and new elections. Southern critics objected to the joint initiative because it neglected to address issues of the relationship between religion and the state and failed to mention the right of self-determination. It is unclear to what extent this initiative will have a significant impact on the search for peace, as some critics view it as more aimed at a resolution among northern political parties and protecting the perceived security interests of Egypt in favor of the unity of the Sudan.
In September 2001, former Senator John Danforth was designated Presidential Envoy for Peace in the Sudan. His role is to explore the prospects that the U.S. could play a useful catalytic role in the search for a just end to the civil war, and enhance humanitarian services delivery that can help reduce the suffering of the Sudanese people stemming from war related effects.
The ongoing civil war has displaced more than 4 million southerners. Some fled into southern cities, such as Juba; others trekked as far north as Khartoum and even into Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Egypt, and other neighboring countries. These people were unable to grow food or earn money to feed themselves, and malnutrition and starvation became widespread. The lack of investment in the south resulted as well in what international humanitarian organizations call a “lost generation” who lack educational opportunities, access to basic health care services, and little prospects for productive employment in the small and weak economies of the south or the north.
Following an internal outcry, the Sadiq al-Mahdi government in March 1989 agreed with the UN and donor nations (including the U.S.) on a plan called Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), under which some 100,000 tons of food was moved into both government and SPLA-held areas of the Sudan, and widespread starvation was averted. Phase II of OLS to cover 1990 was approved by both the government and the SPLA in March 1990. In 1991, Sudan faced a 2-year drought and food shortage across the entire country. The U.S., UN, and other donors attempted to mount a coordinated international relief effort in both north and south Sudan to prevent a catastrophe. However, due to Sudan’s human rights abuses and its pro-Iraqi stance during the Gulf War, many donors cut much of their aid to the Sudan. In a similar drought in 2000-01, the U.S. and the international community again responded to avert mass starvation in the Sudan. The U.S. and other donors continue to provide large amounts of humanitarian aid to all parts of the Sudan.