Sudan is a vast country, the largest in Africa and as large as the United States east of the Mississippi river. Its 25 million people are divided among 19 major ethnic groups and 597 subgroups. [1] Arabic is the official language, the mother tongue of the majority of Sudanese; English is the language of the educated in the south. But Sudanese citizens speak more than 100 other languages, most of which have several dialects. [2] The northern third of Sudan is desert, the central region is arid, with open savannas and plains, and the south is tropical forest. Mountains in the east, south and west feed their waters into the Nile river. Large areas of Sudan are virtually uninhabited; only some 5 percent of the land is cultivated. [3] Drought and war have pushed large numbers of people to migrate to the cities, but the country’s economic potential lies largely in agriculture. Sudan’s people include some of the poorest in Africa, but also some very wealthy millionaires.

Ethnicity and Religion

Those Sudanese who identify themselves as Arab (not an ethnic group but a category which includes many different groups, such as the Juhayna and Ja‘aliyyin) are estimated at 50-60 percent. The largest ethnic groups are the Dinka (12 percent), Beja (7 percent) and West Africans (6 percent). These figures are only estimates; the only census that recorded ethnicity was taken in 1956. An estimated 60-65 percent of Sudanese are Muslim, about 4 percent are Christian (although their influence in the south is greater than their numbers would suggest), and the remainder (mainly in the south) practice traditional beliefs. [4]

Arab vs. African, Muslim vs. non-Muslim — these ethnic and religious differences alone do not explain the tensions that underlie Sudan’s ongoing civil war. It is because these ethnic and religious cleavages often coincide with the divide between rich and poor, powerful and weak, that they become explosive. It is generally true that those Sudanese who speak Arabic and are Muslim and share a culture derived from the Northern riverine area (an Arab and Nubian region) have dominated state and economic power from the northern capital city, Khartoum. [5] Those who practice traditional or Christian beliefs, and live in the south, have largely been excluded from the centers of power and wealth, although the south has its own stratification of rich and poor, powerful and weak.

Ethnic identity may not actually coincide with ethnicity — that is, a Sudanese who considers him or herself Arab and speaks Arabic may not in fact be of Arab racial descent. As one Sudanese intellectual put it, “Our fathers were Arabs, but our mothers were Africans,” which is literally the case for many Sudanese. [6] Identity may be more important than actual racial descent, which is likely to be mixed. It is possible to join the dominant class by adopting its culture, religion and language even if one’s ethnic background is not Arab or Nubian. [7] Many “Arab” northerners are racially indistinguishable from “African” southerners.

Arabization and Islamization

How did it come about that Arabic-speaking Muslims predominate in northern Sudan and non-Arabic-speaking non-Muslims predominate in the south? Part of the answer is simply that the north is closer to Egypt and the Persian Gulf, and thus had centuries of contact and intermarriage with Arab nomads and traders. Egypt had long considered Sudan to be its “backyard,” an area it sought to keep under its influence. Over the centuries, Islam spread to northern and western Sudan, a process which facilitated the adoption of Arab culture, or Arabization. Southern cultures and religions seemed more impervious to Islam, [8] although there was some conversion.

Many southerners first encountered Muslims and Arabs when they came south as slave traders. In 1822 alone, for instance, raiders captured and enslaved some 30,000 southerners. Slavery was outlawed in 1898. [9] Not coincidentally, slaves became Muslims and absorbed Arab culture, and many retained these identities after being freed.

A second part of the answer has to do with Sudan’s colonial past. In 1899, British military forces finally conquered the territory that would become Sudan, and together with British-controlled Egypt formed a “condominium” to rule it, giving a distinctly Arab and Muslim cast to the centers of state power. Christian missionaries continued to operate in the south, and reinforced the southerners’ resentment of slavery and mistrust of northerners and Muslims.

After World War I, British authorities deliberately set about creating a “Closed District” in the southern area, planning to attach it to British colonial East Africa. They banned Arab traders from the south, which had the effect of inhibiting the spread of Islam there. Christian missionaries carved out areas of influence in the south (Catholics in Bahr al-Ghazal, Protestants in the Upper Nile and Equatoria); Arabic was prohibited and English encouraged. Because missionary schools were virtually the only schools in the south, many of the children of the southern elites received a Christian education. [10]

At the close of World War II, the British, believing that the south could not be economically viable without attachment to the north, reversed the policy of north/south separation in preparation for eventual independence of a united Sudan. [11] Islam was no longer discouraged in the south; Arabic was taught and became the official language of government administration. Southern fear of northern dominance touched off the first civil war in 1955. Today, many southerners remain suspicious of northerners, and northerners of the dominant class retain a superior or even racist attitude toward southerners. Several factors, though, promote unity across these lines of division: Southerners often have common interests with northern secularists, and the less privileged in the north and west have common interests with southerners vis-à-vis the power structure in Khartoum.

The Civil Wars

Civil war has been an enduring fact of life in Sudan. Rebellion in the south began in 1955, five months before independence, with a mutiny of southern troops against northern officers. This conflict quickly escalated into civil war. Fighting intensified in the 1960s in response to persistent northern efforts to Arabize the South, and continued until 1972, when the military regime headed by Ja‘far Numayri, which seized power in 1969, agreed to grant the south a measure of self-rule.

Two factors set off the second civil war in 1983. That May, Numayri divided the south into three separate regions, in effect abrogating the 1972 agreement ending the first civil war. Southerners resisted this reimposition of northern dominance. Then, in September, Numayri unilaterally imposed Islamic law on the entire country. Opposition to these laws intensified the conflict, and the war continues to the present. The main opposition group is the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), and its military force, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).

Although the first civil war was a separatist struggle, the SPLM/A is committed to a unified Sudan. It demands the convening of a constitutional conference at which representatives of all parties and groups would agree on a formula for ruling Sudan. The SPLA’s call for a constitutional convention has been endorsed since 1989 by all northern political parties except the National Islamic Front, which rejects the SPLA demand that Islamic law be suspended as a precondition for the conference.

The SPLM/A is led by John Garang, a Christian Dinka from the south. Garang joined the Sudanese army in 1972 after fighting against it in the first civil war. He was sent for military training in the US at Ft. Benning, Georgia, and later got a Ph.D. in economics from Iowa State University. In 1983, Lt. Col. Garang joined a mutiny of southern Sudanese troops, whom he then helped mold into the SPLA. [12] The SPLA has much support in the south and among the marginalized and secularists in the north. It now controls 95 percent of the territory of the south; government forces hold only the capital city, Juba, and three other towns.

The fighting has taken place in the three southern provinces plus the southern edges of Darfur, Kordofan and Blue Nile. Thousands have seen family members or friends killed or tortured and their livestock or their food and seed stocks looted (by both sides) and then faced starvation during times of drought. Hundreds of thousands have fled the fighting and are living in miserable encampments outside Khartoum and in other cities and towns. [13]

Arab/African, Muslim/non-Muslim divisions are intertwined in the reasons for the civil war, but the root cause is unequal distribution of power between the dominant north and the marginalized southern, western and eastern regions, and the resulting unequal development of these regions. Perhaps the simplest way to state the key to the conflict is: Who decides what it means to be Sudanese? Is it the powerful, northern, Arab/Muslim elite? Or should all Sudanese, regardless of ethnic background or religion, participate in shaping the nation and benefit from its economic development?

Democracy and Military Rule

Of the 35 years since independence in 1956, Sudan has been under military rule for 25. In the five multi-party elections since independence, no party has ever won a majority. Sudanese democracy, then, has been marked by a series of weak, coalition governments. The armed forces, representing themselves as an “impartial national institution,” overthrew democratically elected governments, banned political parties, and held power from 1958-1964 under Gen. Ibrahim ‘Abboud, from 1969-1985 under Gen. Ja‘far Numayri, and since 1989 under Lt. Gen. Omar al-Bashir. Al-Bashir, who overthrew an elected government on June 30, 1989, had a background typical of his fellow army officers — training in Egypt and the US, service in the south fighting the civil war. The coup preempted a meeting on July 4, 1989, which was to finalize plans for a September 18 peace conference. This conference might have made real progress on ending the civil war. In the two years since the Bashir regime took power, it has become evident that the coup was fully backed and perhaps inspired by the political organization of the Sudanese Islamic fundamentalists, the National Islamic Front (NIF). The NIF is adamantly opposed to the SPLA formula which would allow all Sudanese, particularly non-Muslim southerners, to have a voice in ruling the country.

On taking power, the Bashir regime formed a Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation (RCC) of 15 military officers. The RCC banned all political parties, trade unions and the free press, and imprisoned hundreds of political opponents. The RCC also began to implement many aspects of the NIF’s program. Within 18 months, it fired 20,000 government employees, including judges, army officers, university teachers and workers, and replaced many of them with NIF members and supporters. The RCC deliberately suppressed early information about drought and crop failures that have now put 9 million Sudanese at risk of starvation. [14] The regime has held on to power mainly through its highly repressive security apparatus.

Sudanese Political Forces

The NIF is the political coalition of Sudan’s Islamists, most notably the Muslim Brothers. The Brothers have a long history in Sudan, remaining underground during the 1950s and emerging in 1964. In the early 1970s, many teachers in rural western Sudan were Muslim Brothers, who spread the movement among their students. These students went on to universities in Khartoum, where they have dominated student political life. [15]

After 1977, when Ja‘far Numayri offered limited shared rule to the Muslim Brothers, the movement dramatically increased its influence. Numayri’s government appointed Islamists to teach “Islamic ideology and instruction” classes to top army officers, [16] and government tax breaks and special concessions enabled the NIF to consolidate a strong economic base through so-called Islamic banks. (Islamic banks do not charge or pay interest, which is forbidden by the Qur’an, but make substantial profits through obligatory joint ventures with businesses to which they loan money.) The NIF now controls or dominates major sectors of the economy, including banking, building materials, transport and media. [17]

The NIF wants an Islamic state in Sudan and full implementation of shari‘a, or Islamic law. The NIF has pushed other parties to take public stands in favor of implementing shari‘a, and labels those who call for a secular government “atheists” or anti-Islamic. [18] The NIF’s support is strongest in urban areas; its leaders are intellectuals, academics, lawyers and doctors. Some traders, financiers, landowners and military officers who have benefited economically from their association also belong. The rank and file is mainly students, lower-ranking army officers, low-level public sector employees, shopkeepers and petty traders.

Despite the army’s claim to represent a purely national interest, most of its officers originate among the northern riverine peoples, and have developed economic interests in landowning and trading. Rank-and-file soldiers, by contrast, are predominantly (perhaps 75 percent) black African, from southern and western Sudan. [19] The army has been weakened by a series of mutinies and desertions by southern Sudanese soldiers and officers, many of whom have joined the SPLA.

Since al-Bashir took power in 1989, the regime has expanded the militias known as the Popular Defense Forces (PDF). The government claims the PDF has 100,000 members, through they are poorly trained compared to the regular army of about 70,000. The PDF absorbed and legitimized various tribal militias and then opened its ranks to members of the National Islamic Front.

The dominant traditional political parties in Sudan draw their support from the members of two Muslim religious groups, the Khatmiyya and the Ansar.

The Khatmiyya, a Sufi order whose spiritual guide is hereditary in the Mirghani family, is perhaps the most tightly controlled and most politically powerful Sufi group in Sudan. It supports the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has its strongest base in eastern and northern Sudan. The DUP represents the interests of professionals and export-import traders, and traditionally has had close ties with Egypt. [20]

The Ansar, led by the al-Mahdi family, is heir to the legacy of a Muslim fundamentalist movement which rebelled against Turko-Egyptian occupation in 1881 and ruled Sudan until 1898. In 1984 the Ansar claimed a following of 4 million. [21] The movement’s political party is the Umma (Nation) Party, a conservative force that has cooperated with the National Islamic Front. (Umma leader Sadiq al-Mahdi’s brother-in-law is Hassan al-Turabi of the NIF.) The Ansar tends to represent the economic interests of large-scale mechanized farmers in the farming areas of the west and in the Gezira region between the Blue and White Niles. [22]

In the post-independence period, these rival sectarian parties have dominated Sudanese politics; they were either senior or junior partners in all coalition governments since independence, or prominent in the opposition. Neither was a truly national party. Both find their strongest support in rural areas, where their dominance is assured through a mixture of “tradition, ideology, political organization and patronage.” [23]

Non-Sectarian Groups

The Sudanese Communist Party was once the most powerful communist party in Africa, and one of the strongest in the Arab world. It developed in 1946 among university students and became active in the trade union movement in the 1950s, [24] until it was banned in 1966. When Ja‘far Numayri took power in 1969, the Communist party backed his regime, but after it refused to join Numayri’s one-party system, and some communists backed a coup against him in 1971, Numayri executed many of its leaders and drove its members underground or into exile. The party still has members in the lower ranks of the army and in its traditional stronghold, the trade union movement, but it is a much weakened political force. [25]

The Republican Brothers was founded by Mahmud Taha in 1963 and led by him until Numayri executed him for apostasy in 1985. It is a Muslim reformist group that opposed the imposition of shari‘a in 1983 as a “perversion of Islam.” The Republicans support ending the civil war with “a political solution through peaceful negotiations — based on the complete equality of all citizens, irrespective of race, religion and sex.” [26] Their support is strongest among intellectuals. The loss of their leader seriously weakened the Republican Brothers, always a small movement.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is a unique coalition of northern and southern Sudanese forces opposed to the current military regime. Formed in October 1989, it now includes the DUP, the Umma, the SPLM/SPLA, the Sudanese Communist Party, trade unions and several professional associations. Significantly, Gen. Fathi Ahmad ‘Ali, commander-in-chief of the army until the Bashir coup, and two of his senior officers joined the NDA in June 1990, and in September issued a call to Sudanese soldiers to stop fighting the civil war.

Author’s Note: This primer relies extensively on a number of excellent sources, noted below, and was much improved by the comments and corrections of those who read earlier drafts: Ali Abdalla Abbas, Benaiah Yongo-Bure, Khalid Duran, Eric Hooglund and Ann Lesch.


[1] Charles Gurdon, Sudan at the Crossroads (Cambridgeshire: Middle East and North African Studies Press, Ltd., 1984), p. 9.
[2] Harold D. Nelson, ed., Sudan: A Country Study (Washington, DC: The American University, Foreign Area Studies, 1982), p. xiv.
[3] World Resources, 1990-1991 (Washington, DC: World Resources Institute, 1990), calculated from Table 17.1, p. 268.
[4] See The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Middle East and North Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 416-417; Country Study, pp. 87-99; and Gurdon, p. 9.
[5] Alex de Waal, War in Sudan: An Analysis of Conflict (London: Peace in Sudan Group, June 1990), p. 13.
[6] Khalid Duran, “The Centrifugal Forces of Religion in Sudanese Politics,” Orient 26/4 (1985), p. 585.
[7] De Waal, p. 13.
[8] M. W. Daly, “Islam, Secularism and Ethnic Identity in the Sudan,” in Gustavo Benavides and M. W. Daly, eds., Religion and Political Power (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1989), p. 85.
[9] Gurdon, p. 11.
[10] Gurdon, pp. 10-12.
[11] Gurdon, p. 12.
[12] Gurdon, pp. 92-93; Peter Woodward, Sudan, 1898-1989: The Unstable State (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1990), p. 162.
[13] See Mark Duffield, “Absolute Distress: Structural Causes of Hunger in Sudan,” Middle East Report 166 (September-October 1990).
[14] Article 19, “Freedom of Expression and Information in Sudan,” July 1991, pp. 19-20; Bread for the World, news release, July 19, 1991, citing a USAID figure.
[15] Gurdon, pp. 68-69.
[16] Abdullahi A. An-Na‘im and Peter N. Kok, Fundamentalism and Militarism: A Report on the Root Causes of Human Rights Violations in the Sudan (New York and Washington, DC: The Fund for Peace, February 1991), p. 8.
[17] De Waal, p. 6.
[18] An-Na‘im and Kok, p. 25.
[19] Duran, p. 592; de Waal, p. 4.
[20] An-Na‘im and Kok, p. 5; Gurdon, pp. 13, 117.
[21] Gurdon, p. 116.
[22] An-Na‘im and Kok, p. 5.
[23] De Waal, p. 5.
[24] Country Study, p. xxiii.
[25] Gurdon, pp. 113-114.
[26] Duran, pp. 579-580, 584.

How to cite this article:

Martha Wenger "Sudan: Politics and Society," Middle East Report 172 (September/October 1991).

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