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; they 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 parliamentary
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 arguably
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 degree of self-rule. This led to a period of 10 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 1977 a general amnesty was announced for all opponents of
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.
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 had been in abeyance since 1972, and the war continues 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, 1985 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 the 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 canceled. 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
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. 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 Muslim 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
not 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 stated it wished to
negotiate with the SPLA without preconditions. Negotiating sessions in
August and December 1989 brought little progress. The SPLA controlled large
areas of Equatoria, Bahr al Ghazal, and Upper Nile provinces and also operated
in the southern portions of Darfur, Kordofan, and Blue Nile provinces.
The government controlled 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 dissension 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. The factions clashed occasionally, and 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 on 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--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 battlefield 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 (NDA) 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.
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 aimed 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 could
help reduce the suffering of the Sudanese people stemming from war-related
In July 2002, the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation
Movement/Army reached a historic agreement on the role of state and religion
and the right of southern Sudan to self-determination. This agreement,
known as the Machakos Protocol and named after the town in Kenya where
the peace talks were held, concluded the first round of talks sponsored
by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. The effort was mediated
by Kenyan General Lazaro Sumbeiywo. In August and November, both sides
entered negotiations on other issues, including power and wealth sharing,
but have not yet signed a formal protocol agreement. In October 2002, both
sides signed a memorandum of understanding that called for a cessation
of hostilities and unimpeded humanitarian access to all areas of the country,
and which both parties largely have respected. Peace talks resumed and
continued during 2003, with discussions regarding wealth sharing and three
contested areas. At the end of 2003 and in early 2004, humanitarian access
to the Darfur region was restricted due to the conflict, prompting the
U.S. and others in the world community to ask the parties to establish
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
and access to basic health care services, and who have little prospect
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
metric 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.