Archive:  Sudan before 2011

Early History | Colonial times: Turkiyya, Mahdiyya and the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium | Independence | Omar al-Bashir | Building southern Sudan | Crisis in Darfur | Modern Sudan | Resources

Africa; map; Sudan;

Early History

Sudan is unique among the countries about which Resolution:Possible has conducted summary research in that it has the most information available regarding its pre-colonial history. This is primarily due to the country’s intimate connection to Egypt, which has seen a wealth of its own history preserved through time. The slaving empires of north Africa gradually expanded southward into the territory of Nubia (covering much of present-day northern Sudan).

Sudan is, however, a country of impressive size and diversity of cultures. A Nubian kingdom reigned over the Nile River, north of the confluence of Blue and White, for many centuries until overtaken by the Funj sultanate (sometimes alternatively referred as Sennar sultanate) around the year 1500. To the west, the last of the Fur dynasties – the Keira sultanate – controlled an equally large area of land at this time. To the south lay dozens of smaller collections of peoples – the Azande, the Bongo, the Dinka and numerous pastoralist Baggara, to name but a few. To the east was, and is today, Ethiopia.

Although many pre-colonial stories exist, the history of the territory we now call Sudan is commonly considered to have begun in the year 1820 with the invasion of Muhammad Ali, or Ali Pasha, a Turk who governed Egypt on behalf of the Ottoman empire and who wished to expand his reign south and capitalise on the wealth of the various Sudanese territories.

Colonial times – Turkiyya

The age of Turco-Egyptian Sudan, or Turkiyya, was an era of Egyptian southward expansion in which many established Sudanese kingdoms were suppressed by the invading forces and local governments were pulled into a centralised system of rule. During this time, the Khedive, or Viceroy, of Egypt reigned supreme but relied upon a structured network of administrators to carry out basic duties of regional governance. The legal system was built on Sharia Law; a Governor General was in charge of all military and civilian affairs; Egyptians held mid-level civil service posts and lower levels were filled by local (Sudanese) officials. Nearly all top-level regional administration was conducted by British army officers with links to the Egyptian army.

Under Turkiyya, the Sudan essentially functioned as an economic branch of its Egyptian parent state, and the primary sources of income it provided were agriculture, ivory and slaves. A complex trade network was already in place linking north Africa with southern Europe and the Middle East, and copper was the dominant currency at the time. It was equal in value to silver or gold, by contemporary European standards, and kept prices stable. The lands just to the south, which would ultimately comprise today’s South Sudan, possessed rich soils that were ideal for cash crops such as cotton and vast ranges home to elephants whose ivory tusks were incredibly valuable then as now. Slaves were captured during raids into black Africa, which began in Nubia and continued to drive further and further south. Collectively, these commodities were transported north to Khartoum and then to Cairo where their export funded the Turkiyya administration.

Eventually, the reigning Khedive Ismail decided to annex the southern territory: he commissioned the famed explorer to Uganda, Sir Samuel Baker, to claim the region of Equatoria. This was achieved in 1870 and Baker served as the first governor of the new province of Equatoria, which at that time extended over parts of eastern Bahr al-Ghazal and into Uganda, giving Egypt direct access to Lake Albert. Baker was a staunch abolitionist, however, and thus morally opposed to much of the economic activity for which his province was intended. He promoted agriculture instead, and he pressured the Khedive to cease Egypt’s role in the slave trade.

In 1856, just south of the Fur sultanate to the west, a capable businessman named al-Zubeir Rahma Mansur began a thriving trade of ivory and slaves. His small personal empire became an economic force, and in time both the Fur and the Egyptians felt threatened by his growing power. After a failed attempt to subdue him militarily in 1874, Egypt opted instead to incorporate the full territory into Sudan and appoint al-Zubeir as governor of Bahr al-Ghazal. Whilst this had an obvious political and economic benefit to Egyptian Sudan, it also inadvertently condoned the slave trade by not interfering. Khedive Ismail’s efforts to suppress the trade were halfhearted at best – which has often been attributed to al-Zubeir’s position as the prominent slave provider for Cairo, and indeed for the Khedive himself.

In 1877, General Charles ‘Chinese’ Gordon retired as governor of Equatoria (a position he had inherited from Baker) and was promoted to Governor General of the Sudan. His administration introduced the most profound change to the region as he was also the first fully autonomous governor general. Gordon strove to administer justly, according to British rules, which meant a sincere attempt to crush the slave trade, and also to balance Sudan’s finances to counter Khedive Ismail’s financial irresponsibility. Before stepping down in 1881, Gordon had generally stabilised Sudan’s economy. However, the combination of Egypt’s heavy debt to foreign powers (especially France and Britain) as well as the enemies created during Gordon’s campaign against the slave trade created conditions ripe for rebellion amongst those hardest hit: the slave traders.

photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad


Gordon’s campaign against the slave trade was political and economic, but was handled above all militarily. He repeatedly battled with slavers in Bahr al-Ghazal and disrupted their networks of sourcing and trafficking. This won him few friends among the western Sudanese, who viewed his tactics as an affront to their very cultural livelihood.

On 29 June 1881, a Muslim spiritual leader named Muhammed Ahmad declared himself the ‘Mahdi’* or messianic saviour of the Islamic faith. He gained significant support from the slighted slavers and various southern Sudanese tired of colonial rule, and built a jihadist movement that vowed to oust the British and establish a true form of Sudanese leadership. The result was several years of fighting between the Mahdists and the Anglo-Egyptian forces as the Mahdiyya made their way towards Khartoum. Although the Mahdi himself died in 1885, the movement as a whole was ultimately successful and his successor, Abdallahi ibn Muhammed or the Khalifa, ruled in his stead.

The Khalifa was likewise intent on expanding Mahdist Sudan and invaded Ethiopia to the east to gain territory. In 1898, Britain sent Field Marshal Lord Kitchener to Sudan to reclaim control of until the governor general seat and dispose of the Khalifa. He would be joined by Charles Gordon, who was called back by the crown and who would lose his life in the final Battle of Omdurman that restored Britain to Sudan’s leadership in 1898.

* (not to be confused with the similarly spelled southern Sudanese ethnic group, the Madi)

Colonial times – Anglo-Egyptian Condominium

Following the fall of Mahdiyya, in 1899, Egypt and Britain signed a new agreement outlining the terms of a condominium rule, through which the region was nominally subject to both countries’ influence and decisions. In practice, however, Britain treated Sudan as its own sovereign territory and tried desperately to assert its administration as distinct from the Mahdiyya and even from Egypt. Meanwhile, British control continued to expand as Darfur became an official province of Sudan in 1916.

When Britain approved Egypt’s declaration of independence in 1922, the status of Sudan remained unclear; it was only in 1924 with the assassination of the Governor General that Britain ordered all Egyptian military and civil servants out of Sudan. Britain governed through indigenous leaders, applying European technology and British law to the north of the region, but claiming that the South was not “ready for exposure” and should therefore “develop along indigenous lines.”  Finances were controlled by a small group of Arabs while Christian missionaries provided limited social services. Northerners could not live or work in the South and vice-versa; a 1930 directive said blacks should be considered a distinct people from northern Muslims. Some allege that this inciting of tensions between the two regions was done with the ultimate aim of uniting South Sudan with British East Africa (what we know as Kenya today) in the future.

However, in 1953 the Self-Determination Agreement was negotiated with Britain, stating that all except military and foreign affairs would be handled by the Sudanese government itself. The transition to independence  had begun.


On 1 January 1956, Sudan became an independent republic under Ismail al-Azhari, a member of the National Unionist Party involved in the struggle for Sudanese independence since the early 1940s. However, the celebration did not last for long as the nascent country had already descended into civil war between north and south.

Historically hostile towards British rule, al-Azhari rapidly replaced British officers with northern Sudanese, which southerners felt as denying them government representation and therefore an antagonistic move. Furthermore, the government’s decision to sell cotton (the staple export of the south) at a price above world market lowered sales; Egypt’s partial embargo on Sudan further damaged the economy; and import restrictions to aid depleted foreign exchange reserves. The country was in a state of political and economic turmoil which was already turning violent.

A group of southern students and independence fighters from the battles of the 1950s formed the Anyanya Movement, which was the lead separatist group fighting oppression of the Sudanese government. A military coup overthrew the al-Azhari in November 1958, and a series of unsuccessful Islamic military coalitions followed. The First Sudanese Civil War waged on, with both northern and southern military groups divided by ethnic factions that no leader managed to unite.

In 1969, Gaafar Nimeiry (also commonly spelled Jaafar Nimeiri) staged a successful coup and promptly outlawed political parties. Nimeiry was a member of the Sudan Socialist Union – originally a socialist pan-Arabist with great respect for the policies of Egypt’s Nasser. The southern region re-named itself the Nile Republic and the many fighting factions unified at long last under Joseph Lagu in 1971. The Southern Sudan Liberation Movement (SSLM) was born. With a singular command structure in place, resolution was finally a possibility and mediation efforts led to the signing of the Addis Ababa Agreement on March 27th 1972.

The agreement established autonomy for southern Sudan and allowed for a regional president; southern representation in the national government; equal representation in the Sudanese military, including its command structure; and it pronounced Arabic as the official national language, even though in the southern provinces English was far more commonly spoken.

However, the agreement failed to solve all problems. Although the 1970s were relatively calm and many major development projects were begun, Nimeiry’s rule nevertheless resulted in food shortages and increased military rule in government. Beginning in 1976, several unsuccessful coup attempts were staged against Nimeiry, who declared a state of emergency.

In 1983, Nimeiry renounced the autonomy of southern Sudan and implemented nationwide Sharia Law, which resulted in a southern call to arms. John Garang, an eleven-year military officer from the south, was sent to quell the rebellion; instead, Garang adopted leadership of the movement, forming the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). This marked the beginning of the Second Sudanese Civil War.

Nimeiry was rapidly losing his hold on power as the co-ordinated fighting of the SPLA clashed with the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and rising costs of food, gasoline, and transport paralysed the country economically. In 1989, Omar al-Bashir staged a military coup and assumed leadership of Sudan.

Omar al-Bashir

Al Bashir’s career has never veered from the military – he first joined the Sudan Military Academy in Khartoum at 16; fought in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War; was military attaché in the UAE; was garrison commander and head of the armoured parachute brigade in Khartoum; and served as minister of defence from 1989 to 1993.

After assuming Nimeiry’s seat as Prime Minister, al-Bashir’s coup against Sadiq al-Mahdi, known as the ‘Salvation Revolution’, allegedly aimed to block a peace treaty with John Garang’s SPLA in June 1989. He ruled as head of the Revolutionary Command Council until 1993, at which point it appointed him president and then dissolved itself. By 1991 Al-Bashir had again dissolved political parties and trade unions, consolidating all state power in himself.

Al-Bashir’s rule has been fraught with controversy, most notably over his policies towards Darfur. He became one of the first ten people indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and his arrest warrant cites ten counts against him, including war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Building southern Sudan

In 2002, the SPLA and the Khartoum government signed the Machakos Protocol on a six-month renewable ceasefire, granting Southern Sudan the right to self-determination after six years. In 2005, a more permanent solution was reached as the government and the SPLA signed the Sudan Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Apart from establishing a mission for 10,000 UN peacekeepers to maintain order between the two regions, the terms of the CPA focused on the promised self-determination of southern Sudan.

National elections would be held in 2009 for South Sudan’s transitional, autonomous government. A popular referendum would be held in early 2011 to determine the status of southern independence. Finally, as the north-south conflict was at its tensest regarding economic and boundary issues, the CPA guaranteed a system of resource-sharing between both sides.

John Garang was sworn in as the first president of southern Sudan and first vice president of Sudan. His rule was short-lived, however, as he died mysteriously after only a few months in office. He was succeeded by a coalition of southern rivals – Salva Kiir Mayardiit, who became president, and Riek Machar, who became vice president.

Crisis in Darfur

Darfur was an independent state until the mid-19th century, when the ruling Keira dynasty was taken over by the Ottoman Empire. Control over Fur lands changed hands several times until they were finally absorbed into Anglo-Egyptian Sudan in 1916. Neglected by its rulers, by 1935 Darfur still had only four schools, no maternity clinic, no railways and no major roads. Darfur had been used as recruiting ground throughout various wars. Many soldiers fighting for the Khartoum government against the South came from Darfur, and Gaddafi used the region as a military base for the wars he waged in Chad.

When groups in Darfur launched a rebellion in August 2003, Bashir enlisted the Janjaweed Arab militia, consisting of fighters recruited mainly from Arab nomadic tribes, demobilised soldiers and criminal elements, to manage the unrest. He simultaneously ensured the blocking of aid and relief shipments to the region, which resulted in the displacement of over two million people and hundreds of thousands of deaths, although precise figures remain unknown. According to medical studies conducted in 2010, over 80% of deaths were likely due to disease. In 2004, an African Union mission was allowed in and it promptly set up a ceasefire commission. Despite political resolution with the southern states in 2005, violence in Darfur continued. The AU mission was eventually replaced by a joint AU-UN mission in 2008. Peacekeepers remain in the Darfur states today and the threat of renewed violence remains.

Modern Sudan

South Sudan

In January 2011, the planned referendum from the 2005 CPA took place and 99.57% of the polled Southern Sudanese population voted for secession. On July 9th, South Sudan officially gained independence from the North and became the world’s newest nation, significantly reducing Sudan’s territory. Sudan changed its name to the Republic of the Sudan.

Southern independence has brought with it many complications and today the two countries are constantly on the brink of war. Neither the system of resource profit-sharing nor the international border between north and south had been finalised prior to independence, and neither side is willing to compromise.  The disputed regions on the border continue to suffer from violent clashes between the two national armies as well as non-governmental armed groups.

President al-Bashir continues to face difficulties among his political peers as well. The outstanding ICC warrants for his arrest have repeatedly caused him difficulties when attempting to travel abroad. ICC member states have an obligation to arrest any indicted individual on their sovereign territory, but none has taken the steps to do so. Several countries have denied Bashir a visa to enter, however, and Bashir was forced to flee South Africa in 2015 whilst local courts deliberated the nation’s jurisdiction to arrest a sitting head of state of a foreign country. (They ultimately determined it was within their right to do so, by which point Bashir had already left.)


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