A Brief History of Sudan - Part 1

Early History of the Region:

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. However, neither the Egyptian nor the Mahdist state (1883-1898) had any effective control of the southern region outside of a few garrisons. Southern Sudan remained an area of fragmented tribes, subject to frequent attacks by slave raiders.

The Mahdi's Crusade:

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 a descendant of the Mahdi, Sadiq al Mahdi.

Anglo-Egyptian Response:

Taking advantage of dissatisfaction 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 invading Anglo-Egyptian force under Lord Kitchener in 1898. While nominally administered jointly by Egypt and Britain, Britain exercised control, formulated policies, and supplied most of the top administrators.

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. With the consent of the British and Egyptian Governments, Sudan achieved independence on January 1, 1956, under a provisional constitution.

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:

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.

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.

General Ibrahim Abboud Persecutes the South:

In 1958, General Ibrahim Abboud seized power and pursued a policy of Arabization and Islamization in the south that strengthened southern opposition. General Abboud was overthrown in 1964 and a civilian caretaker government assumed control. Southern leaders eventually divided into two factions, those who advocated a federal solution and those who argued for self-determination, a euphemism for secession since it was assumed the south would vote for independence if given the choice.

Enforcing Islamization in Sudan:

Until 1969, there was a succession of governments that proved unable either to agree on a permanent constitution or to cope with problems of factionalism, economic stagnation, and ethnic dissidence. These regimes were dominated by "Arab" Muslims who asserted their Arab-Islamic agenda and refused any kind of self-determination for southern Sudan.

Colonel Nimeiri Takes Power:

In May 1969, a group of communist and socialist officers led by Colonel Gaafar Muhammad Nimeiri, seized power. A month after coming to power, Nimeiri proclaimed socialism (instead of Islamism) for the country and outlined a policy of granting autonomy to the south. Numeiri in turn was the target of a coup attempt by communist members of the government. It failed and Numeiri ordered a massive purge of communists. This alienated the Soviet Union, which withdrew its support.

Next: A Brief History of Sudan - Part 2, A Brief History of Sudan - Part 3

(Text from Public Domain material, US Department of State Background Notes.)