Sudan: A Historical Perspective

Man has lived in the Sudan for at least nine million years and the valley of the Nile which wanders more than 4,000 miles from the lakes of Central Africa to the Mediterranean may well he the cradle of civilisation rather than the Euphrates. About four centuries before Christ the Ox-driven water wheel which still plays a vital role in the country’s economy, was introduced to the Sudan. At the same time came camels, brought with them by the Persians when Cambyses invaded Egypt in 525 BC.

Homer knew of the Sudan and his countrymen visited it, to barter cloth, wine and trinkets for gum arabic, spices and slaves. Nero sent a reconnaissance expedition far up the river but the commander’s experience with the “sudd” (Arabic for obstruction), a vast and impenetrable papyrus swamp in the southern Sudan, dissuaded the emperor from any thought of conquest. During the reign of Justinian, many Sudanese kingdoms were converted to Christianity and churches dotted the sweep of the Nile until the spread of Islam in the XVIth century.

Modern Sudanese history owes much to Napoleon. It was the victory in 1797, at the battle of the Pyramids which shook the power of the Mamelukes, the Caucasian ruling class of Egypt, and paved the way for the rise to power of the Albenian soldier of fortune Muhammad Mi.

Muhammad Mi sent his third son Ismail at the head of 10,000 men across the desert and, by 1821, all of north and central Sudan was his. For the first time, the Sudan- the name means “Land of Blacks” – began to take shape as a political entity.

Salvation was to come from the desert. Muhammad Ahmad, the son of a Dongola boat-builder, was born in 1844. He grew into a soft-spoken mystic and soon retired to Aba Island, 150 miles south of Khartoum, to live the life of a religious recluse, proclaiming himself in 1881 to be the Mahdi, the second great prophet. The tribes of the west rallied to the Mahdi’s call for a war against the infidels and despots and, early in 1884, the Mahdi was master of all Sudan save Khartoum.

Britain, who meanwhile had moved into Egypt, resolved that the Sudan could not be held, and sent General Charles Gordon to evacuate Khartoum. No man could have been more ill-fitted for the job, and after 317 days the Mahdi’s dervish hordes overran the city’s defences and razed Khartoum.

Five months after the fall of Khartoum, the Mahdi died of typhus; he was succeeded by Khalifa Abdallah. Hardly had he come to power when the Sudan was plunged in a series of civil wars. In September 1898 the Anglo-Egyptian force led by General Herbert Kitchener met the Khalifa’s 60,000 warriors on an open plain outside Omdurman, the new Sudanese city built across the Nile. Khalifa’s casualties comprised 10,800 killed and 16.000 wounded, and Kitchener entered Omdurman as a conqueror.

On January 19, 1899 Britain and Egypt signed a condominium agreement under which the Sudan was to be administered jointly. In the twelve ensuing years, the Sudan’s revenue had increased seventeen fold, its expenditure tripled, and its budget reached a balanced state which was to be maintained until 1960. Mounting Egyptian nationalism in the period after World War I culminated in 1924 in the assassination in the streets of Cairo of Sir Lee Stack, Governor – General of the Sudan; British reaction resulted in the expulsion of all Egyptian officials from the Sudan.

After the Anglo-Egyptian “entente” of 1936. a few Egyptians were allowed to return to the country in minor posts. But the signing of the 1936 agreement stimulated Sudanese nationalists who objected both to the return of the Egyptians and to the fact that other nations were deciding their destiny. Expression of this feeling was seen in the formation of the Graduates’ Congress, under the leadership of Ismail al-Azhari.

By 1945, two political parties had emerged. The National Unionist Party led by al-Azhari, demanded union of the Sudan and Egypt; it had the support of Sayed Sir Ali al- Mirghani, head of a powerful religious sect. The Umma Party, backed by Sayed Sir Abdur-Rahman al-Mahdi demanded unqualified independence and no links with Egypt.


Khartoum-1905On February 12, 1953, Britain and Egypt signed an accord ending the condominium arrangement and agreeing to grant Sudan self government within three years. The agreement also provided for a senate for the Sudan, a Council of Ministers, and a House of Representatives, elections to which was to be supervised by an international commission.

The elections, which were held during November and December 1953, resulted in victory for the NUP, and its leader, Ismail al-Aihari, became the Sudan’s first Prime Minister in January 1954. The replacement of British and Egyptian officers in the Sudanese civil service by Sudanese nationals followed rapidly.

On December 19, 1955, the Parliament voted unanimously that the Sudan should become “a fully independent sovereign state”. British and Egyptian troops left the country on January 1, 1956; the same day a five-man Council of State was appointed to take over the powers of the governor general until a new constitution was agreed.

Two years, later, on 17 November 1958 a bloodless army coup led by General Ibrahim Abboud toppled the Government of al-Azhari. On his assuming power, General Abboud declared that he would rule through a thirteen member army junta and that democracy was being suspended in the Sudan in the name of “honesty and integrity”.

In 1966, Sadik al-Mahdi, the 30 year old president of the Umma party, took over as Prime Minister. Internally the security situation in the southern Sudan continued to cause anxiety; successive Prime Ministers visited the South in April and October but neither threats nor blandishments succeeded in curbing the rebels.

The Ministry for Southern Affairs sought to restore normal life to those parts of the southern provinces under government control, but there was little or no security in Equatoria Province and the armed forces launched a major offensive against the rebel camps there in October 1970.

The war ended officially in March 1972, when Colonel Numeiry signed a peace pact with Major-General Lagu, the Leader of the Anya-Nya rebels in the south.

In July 1976, President Numeiry survived the most serious threat so far to his eight-year-old regime. A coup attempt, masterminded by former finance minister Hussein alHindi and former prime minister Sadik al-Mahdi, both in exile, involved the infiltration of some 2,000 heavily armed civilians into Khartoum and Omdurman. The rebels caused much destruction, including the immobilizing of Sudan’s Air Force on the ground.

Retribution was quick and severe, 98 were executed for their part in the plot, and several hundred were imprisoned. The July coup attempt brought Sudan closer to its two most powerful neighbors. A mutual defence pact was signed with Egypt immediately after the attempt, and this was followed by tripartite talks with Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Industrial unrest in Sudan in 1981 included a national strike by the country’s 43,000 railway and river transport workers in early June in support of a pay claim. After the SSU secretariat had on June 14 condemned the strike as politically motivated and as a “conspiracy directed from abroad”. On June 16, President Numeiry ordered the security forces to arrest the “saboteurs” responsible for the strike and decreed new measures to ban work stoppages and to bring all trade unions under the closer “supervision” of the SSU (Sudan Socialist Union).

Since 1971 Sudan has moved from close friendship with the USSR towards firmer lies with the West and the Arab world. This new direction in external relations has been matched by a change in internal economic policy. Nationalization of private and foreign-owned businesses was reversed in 1973 with many confiscated businesses being returned to private ownership.

President Jaafer Mohammed al-Numeiry announced on Sept.8, 1983 that the penal code had been revised in order to link it “organically and spiritually” with Islamic Law (Sharia). Theft, adultery, murder and related offences would hence forth be judged according to the Koran, and alcohol and gambling were both prohibited; non-Moslems, however, would be exempt from Koranic penalties except when convicted of murder or theft.

The inauguration of the new code was marked by a ceremony in the capital, Khartoum, on Sept.23, presided over by President Numeiry, in which stocks of alcohol were dumped in the river Nile. The introduction of the new code followed a thorough reform of the judicial system announced by President Numeiry in June 1983.

Schools in Khartoum were closed on Aug.28 1983 following student protests concerning social conditions in the capital, which had suffered a series of power cuts throughout August. A strike by doctors began on March 1, 1984, in protest over low pay and the deteriorating situation in the health service. All 2,000 of the country’s doctors tendered their resignation on March 8 to be effective from March24. The government rejected the resignations, however, and declared the doctors’ union to be illegal. The union was subsequently reinstated.

when a rising tide of refugees briefly provoked rioting in the city of Port Sudan in 1982, Sudanese President Gaafar Numeiry came under mounting pressure from some members of his government to close his nation’s borders. Numeiry would have none of it. During a climatic Cabinet debate on the issue, he dramatically invoked the ancient Arab tradition of hospitality toward strangers. They are the guests of Sudan”, he said.

By February 1985 there were about 1 million refugees in the country, and their number could swell beyond 2 million, in 1986, according to relief officials. A spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees has described the situation as rapidly becoming “a disaster of major proportions”.

By March 1985, some 500 metric tons of relief goods have been airlifted into Eastern Sudan on flights financed or provided by the United States of America, Sweden and by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Items delivered include 20,000 tents, 83,000 blankets, 19,000 water containers, 7 water tanks, 6 water storage tanks (50,000 litre capacity), 61,000 doses of oral rehydration salts, disinfectants, 10 emergency relief kits (to cover the needs of 100,000 persons for three months), refrigerators for medicines, 100,000 doses of measles vaccine 3 500 drums of fuel, 65 tons of high protein energy foods, 3 pre-fabricated warehouses and 10 additional vehicles. Further items have been made available in kind, particularly by agencies currently working in Sudan.

On the basis of the present caseload estimates, the United Nations high Commissioner for Refugees’s financial requirements (other than basic food) for the relief program amounted as of 11 January 1985 to US$ 14,526,000.

One of President Numeiry’s trickiest political problems has been the arrival among the refugees of Ethiopian Jews, called Falashas (the Amharic word for strangers). The remnants of an ancient tribe that has kept alive Jewish religious practices, these Ethiopians became the object of a secret evacuation by Israel, code-named Operation Moses. According to various estimates, between 3,000 and 7,000 of them reached Israel before word of the rescue operation leaked out. Numeiry, whose government is a member of the Arab League and has no diplomatic relations with Israel, was embarrassed by the spotlight on Sudan co-operation in the re-settlement and ordered the airlift cut off. That left several thousand Falashas still in Sudan, many with relatives in Israel.

Numeiry quickly came under intense pressure from Western governments to find a way to help the Falashas on humanitarian grounds. In February 1985 a senior Sudanese official got in touch with the refugee commission in Geneva to discuss its possible role in evacuating the Falashas. One major setback to the program is the fact that the Falasha refugees in Sudan have blended into the anonymity of the camps and are sharing in the tragic fate of its occupants.

Once regarded as the potential bread basket of the Arab world, Sudan has in four years gone from being an exporter to an importer of its sorghum, a grain like staple crop. Through a combination of bad weather and overgrazing of arable land production fell from 3.4 million tons in 1981 to 1.3 million tons in 1984. The result has been bread shortages throughout the country, even in the capital of Khartoum.

In the troubled southern Sudan, an almost two-year old guerrilla war waged by the members of the Southern Sudan People’s liberation Army has spread from the Upper Nile and Bahr El Ghazal regions to Equatoria. The rebels, who are mostly Christians and animists, have chafed under domination for years and especially object to the Islamic law imposed by Numeiry in 1983.

Their major victory has so far been to interrupt, by killing, or by capturing non-Sudanese workers, two major economic projects: oil fields under exploration by Chevron Oil Co., and the Jonglei Canal in southern Sudan.

Washington has kept a scrupulously correct distance from any involvement in the insurgency problem. This is despite the fact that it views the Sudan as a strategically important nation, both as protector of the southern flank of Egypt its primary Arab ally, and as a possible staging ground for any military operations mounted to protect the Middle East’s oil fields.

In early 1985 discontent with Numeiry’s regime had been growing and in April while in visit to the USA, he was deposed in a military coup led by Lt. Gen. Swar Al Dahab, who after a period, passed the reigns of government to civilian rule, headed by Sadiq Al Mahdi. Again in 1988 and early 1989 following farther discontent in the country and within the military, another bloodless coup d’etat took place on June 30, 1989 led by Brig. Omar Hassan ‘Ahmed El Bashir who formed a 15 member Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation. Head of State, Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, he quickly dismantled civilian rule, constitution was suspended, and the National Assembly and all political institutions were dissolved. In mid October 1993 Brig. Omar Hassan Ahmed El Bashir dissolved the Revolutionary Command Council; and on October 30 announced the formation of a new government. Further changes took place until the last reshuffle in the Cabinet in December 1996.



A time line overview of big and small events in the history of Sudan.

Please note: the current situation in Sudan is EXTREMELY complicated and this outline of the historic background can not give the full image. The page is only an attempt of a general overview and still under construction!


1820: Sudan is conquered by Turkey and Egypt.

1881: Rebellion against the Turkish-Egyptian administration.

1882: The British invade Sudan.

1885: An Islamic state is founded in Sudan.

1899: Sudan is governed by British-Egyptian rule.

1955: Revolt and start of the civil war.


1956: Sudan gains independence.

1958: A military coup takes place in Sudan. The civilian government is removed.

1962: The civil war breaks out in the southern (mainly Christian/African) parts of Sudan.

October 1964: People of Sudan rebels. The military junta falls after a communist general strike. A national government is formed.

May 1969: New military coup placing Jaafar Numeiri at power.

1971: Leaders of the communist party are executed for attempting a coup against Numeiri.

1972: A peace agreement is signed in Addis Ababa. The southern Sudan achieves partly self-governance.


1978: Large findings of oil are made in Bentiu, southern Sudan. The oil becomes an important factor in the strife between North and South.

1983: Numieri introduces the Islamic Sharia law to Sudan leading to a new breakout of the civil war in the Christian south. In the south the forces are led by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) under command by John Garang.

1985: President Numieri is removed from power in a military coup.

1986: A civilian government is made in an effort to restore peace after general elections.

1989: Al-Bashir and his Islamic Front (NIC) takes power in a military coup.

1995: The Sudanese government are accused of being part of an attempt on the life of Egyptian prime minister Mubarak. UN decides on sanctions against Sudan.


1998: USA launches a missile attack on a chemical plant in Khartoum assumed to develop chemical weapons possibly in coorporation with the Al’Qaeeda terror network. Civilians are killed in the attack. The Sudanese government denies any link to terror and chemical weapons.

1998: A new constitution in Sudan.

1999: The president dissolves the national assembly and declares state of emergency.

1999: Sudan start an export of oil assisted by China, Canada, Sweden and other countries.

2001: An internal struggle in thegovernment, leads to the arrest of an ideological leader who were making peace attempts with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA)

March 2001: Hunger and famine in Sudan affects 3 million people.

May 2001: A Danish pilot flying for the International Red Cross is attacked and killed when delivering aid in southern Sudan. All flights in the area are temporarily stopped.

June 2001: Peace negotiations breaks down in Nairobi, Kenya.

August 2001: The Nile river floods leaving thousands homeless in Sudan.

September 2001: the UN lifts on sanctions against Sudan to support ongoing peace negotiations.

October 2001: Following the New York terror attacks, USA puts new sanctions on Sudan due to accusations of Sudan’s involvment with iInternational terrorism.

During 2001: More than 14,550 slaves are freed after pressure from human rights groups.


January 2002: A ceasefire between government forces and the SPLM are finally agreed upon.

July 20th 2002: the government and SPLA signs a protocol to end the civil war.

July 27th 2002: President al-Bashir meets for the first time with SPLA leader John Garang. Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has arranged the meeting. The war in Sudan is also having huge impact on the northen Uganda.

July 31st 2002: Government attacks SPLA again.

October 2002: The ceasefire is confirmed again, but remains very uncertain. Pecae negations still continues during the next years.

February 2003: The 2 rebelgroups representing the African population in Darfur starts a rebellion against the government as protest against neglection and suppression.

December 2003: Progress is made in the peace negotiations. The negotiations are mainly focused on sharing the important oil-ressources.


January 2004: Government army strikes down on uprising in Darfur region in the Western Sudan. More than 100,000 people seeks refuge in Chad.

May 26th 2004: A historic peace agreement is signed, but the situation in Darfur remains unchanged and extremely critical.

January 9th 2005 : In Nairobi the government and rebels signs the last parts of the peace treaty for Southern Sudan. All fighting in Africa’s longest civil war is expected to end in January 2005, but the peace agreement still doesn’t cover the Darfur region. More than 1.5 million people lost their homes since the conflict in Darfur broke out early 2003.

March 15th 2005: United Nations Security Council agrees to send 10,000 peace keeping soldiers to Southern Sudan. Again the descision does not cover the Darfur region.

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