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The Sudan (from the Arabic for "Land of the Blacks" ) is a bridge between the Arab cultures of the north, and the African cultures to the south. The north of the united countrywas Muslim and Arabic speaking; the South is mostly non-Muslim and inhabited by people speaking many non-Arabic languages, mostly belonging to the Nilotic group. (click on Borders)

The connection of the Sudan with Egypt dates from ancient time when the culture of the Pharaohs passed up the Nile and was practiced by the kings of Meroe in the neighborhood of modern Khartoum. From there its influence passed as far south as the lake country of East Africa.

There was at one period a dynasty of Nubian pharaohs who ruled the whole of Egypt and northern Sudan.

In more modern times Islam passed up the Nile from Egypt as the Nubians of upper Egypt were converted from Christianity. Northern Sudan became Arabic-speaking, though the people remained notably blacker than Egyptians.

Ottoman or Khedival period
When Egypt came under the control of the Turkish general Mehmet Ali (actually an Albanian) in 1811, he tried to exert control over the whole Nile valley. In practice this amounted to appointing a governor in Khartoum who had little influence to the south. But he had conquered the north.

Slave trade
The Arabs of the north treated the south as a source of slaves. Their slaving parties reached as far south as what is now northern Uganda. This has colored the southerners' attitude to the northerners who ruled Sudan since independence. Slavery has been reported again.

British interest in Sudan began when Britain took control of Egypt in 1879. From 1877 the governor of the Egyptian Sudan was in fact British - General Charles Gordon - until 1880.

The Mahdi
The opposition to foreign control was expressed through the rise to power of a religious leader Mohammed Ahmed ibn Abdullah (the same names as the Prophet) who proclaimed himself El Mahdi (the expected Successor to Mohammed or restorer of original Islam at the end of time) in 1881. Several restorers or reformers of Islam have proclaimed themselves with this title - for example the founder of the Fatimite Khalifate which ruled Egypt for a period in the 10th century. The Sudanese Mahdi became an important military leader who drove out or killed the Egyptian government officials and its European military leaders, including Gordon. He captured Khartoum in 1885.

Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (the Condominium)
A British force led by Kitchener (with Winston Churchill as a reporter) reconquered the country from the Mahdists in 1898. This inaugurated a period in which a British colonial service ruled Sudan in the name of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium. As Egypt itself was a British protectorate the Egyptian interest was exercised through British officials. This interest was mainly concerned with water supplies in the Nile. The British by this time controlled the whole Nile valley, except for Ethiopia, and were able to plan the use of the waters in a way that had never been possible before, or since. One result has been the Owen Falls Dam in Uganda where Lake Victoria flows into the White Nile. This was intended partly to control the lake as a huge reservoir as well as to generate electricity. Other dams were planned for the mouth of Lake Albert but never built.

Independence came in 1954 as a result of disagreements with Egypt, by then in its post-colonial phase after Nasser had taken power.

Military rule and war with the southerners
The problem of the Sudan is that it is not inhabited only by Arabs. There are a number of other peoples some of whom have been somewhat arabized, that is they use Arabic as well as their own languages, others who have not been arabized at all. The last group are those in the southern provinces who speak Nilotic languages and either practice their ancestral religion or are Christians. These have resisted both learning Arabic and becoming Muslims or obeying Islamic law. Their affinities are with similar peoples in Uganda. During the colonial period the British allowed Christian missionaries to work in the south but discouraged Muslim missionaries. Many observers believe that the south should have been separated entirely from the north.

The adoption by the most recent military government (from 1989) of Muslim fundamentalist policies seems likely to alienate still further the southerners. It also supported Iraq in the Kuwait war and is friendly with the Libyan regime.

There are reports that slavery has revived and people from the Dinka and Shilluk groups are being enslaved by northerners as they flee away from the famine and civil war of the south.

As with the rest of the Sahel there have been serious droughts in 1990 and there are signs of serious famine. Many refugees have fled to Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. The government assists terrorists in Uganda (Lord's Resistance Army).

The horrors of southern Sudan remained unknown to the rest of the world, mainly because it was not easily accessible to tv crews.

In the latter part of 2003 and in 2004 talks apparently resulted in a resolution of the war and an agreement to split the oil revenues between the north and the south. Many people will hope that this agreement works.

This led to an Autonomous Region of Southern Sudan. The death of John Garang, made Vice President of Sudan shortly before, the long term leader of the Southern Guerrillas, and the expected President of the new Region, makes this agreement doubtful.

There was a referendum in 2011 on independence for a new state of South Sudan which came into being.

However, there have been reports of fighting continuing in the southwest (Darfur province, neighboring on Chad and the Central African Republic) where the government forces (disguised as Arab militias) seem to be trying to massacre the non-Arab population and is practicing ethnic cleansing. There are reports that this may be to clear the land of people for oil exploitation.

The chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has applied to the judges for an arrest warrant for Omar el-Bashir, the President of Sudan, accusing him of genocide in ordering the atrocities in Darfur.

Skirmishes on the borders of the two new states have continued in 2012. Will these develop into full scale war?



many Nilotic languages

languages of other families







Since independence from Britain and Egypt there has been a series of military regimes with short lived civilian governments.

At present there is a military regime composed of Islamic fundamentalists headed by General Bashir which came to power in a coup in summer 1989. There have been reports of great brutality, putting it in the same category as such regimes as Syria and BaĠathist Iraq.

The war with the southerners has been the most important political problem as it absorbed the whole of the national wealth and was essentially unwinnable.

The only stable political solution would be some kind of self-government and autonomy for the peoples of the south. In the long run a general boundary change in Africa might join southern Sudan to northern Uganda to form a new state - ?Equatoria. But up till now the discussion of frontiers has been forbidden by the OAU because no country would remain unchanged once this question were opened.

The leader of the extremist Islamic party, National Islamic Front , Hassan al Tourabi seemed at onem time to be the strongest person though he had no official position. His influence seems to have declined in recent times.

The 2004 agreement gave the southern leader a vice presidency of the Sudan, while presiding over the Government of Southern Sudan, with a degree of autonomy.

At the time many hoped this would end the war, and allow development in the south (and in the north too, if it does not have to waste the revenues on war).

John Garang, the southern leader was killed in a helicopter crash in August 2005. Will new leaders carry on with the agreement?

The Darfur region also has oil, but as the people have been removed, the Arab dominated government hopes there will be no secession.

Elections were held in April 2010. Were they free? A referendum on secession was held on 9 January 2011. The government threatened to cancel it if the southerners boycott the national elections, as they have threatened to do. The southerners voted for an independent new state - to be called South Sudan.

BBC report on Sudan

Interesting reading

I.M.Holt - A Modern History of the Sudan (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) 1961

A History of the Sudan: From the Coming of Islam to the Present Day

JulieFlint & Alex de Waal

Darfur: A New History of a Long War

Omar el-Bashir's billions
The Four Feathers
(1939) about the conquest of the Sudan and the heroism of the "Officer Class". Preposterous plot but good for atmosphere.







The economy is affected by the war and incompetent governments. The policy of employing every university graduate in the civil service deprived the private sector of the educated people and caused bureaucratic paralysis. The war required most of the national income.

The British developed an area between the two rivers (The Gezira - Island) as a huge cotton growing area. This continues to be the most important export crop.

Famine is frequent in the south because the fighting prevents people planting crops. Refugees fleeing from the fighting into towns often cannot find food. Juba in the south was frequently under siege and impossible to supply even by air. (Now it is the capital of the new state of South Sudan.)

Oil has been discovered in the northern part of the south. It cannot easily be developed as long as the war continues. It is not believed to represent a large oil province, but exploration is also difficult at present. (Sudan has proven oil reserves of over one billion barrels and prospects of an additional one to four billion barrels.). After southern independence oil revenues are supposed to be shared 50% to each new state. However, all the oil has to be exported via northern pipelines to Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

Oil contracts have been signed for the Darfur region - after the inhabitants have been chased off their lands. The oil will mostly be exported to China.







Droughts, especially in the north, suggest climatic change may be under way. It is still too soon to know whether they are part of what has been normal variation or whether the frequency represents new climatic conditions caused by atmospheric changes.

Recurrent famines are the result. The war may be the result of northerners trying to expand into the South, displacing the southerners, in order to exploit new lands.

In 1991 it was reported that there was a serious famine in all parts of the country, possibly the worst famine of the 20th century may be occurring, with an estimated 9 million people in danger of starvation. It has been reported that aid donors have been unable to send aid due to the nature of the regime which denied that there was a famine until after it could have been prevented.

The Jonglei canal was planned to drain the southern Nile marshes, known as the Sudd. This would have produced huge ecological and social effects. The Southern revolt prevented the completion of this canal. Perhaps peace will see it completed. If so, there may be serious damage to the whole region's climate.

Egypt is interested in the flow of water in the Nile and might well act if Sudan, like Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania showed any plans to extract more water from the river than it is allowed by the 1929 Nile Water Agreement negotiated when Britain controlled the whole Nile watershed (except for Ethiopia).






Human Rights

One of the six worst countries for human rights abuse along with:




North Korea


Reports of attempted forced conversion of Christians to Islam. Also enslavement of African southerners by Arabs, as well as attempted genocide. In Darfur there are reports of government supplied militias, the Janjaweed, who act as death squads against the Darfuris.

Local southern people were being evicted from their traditional lands to accommodate oil development and clear the space around to prevent attacks during oil development.

Replaced by attacks against the border people of South Sudan.

Climate effects

The Darfur war may already be a result of climate change, as the lands to the north may be becoming drier.

Last revised1 15/06/12

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