“”Many Sudanese young people are well educated. But the economy is unstable, so everyone is affected, educated and not educated. You find the drivers of tuk-tuk [taxis] are engineers, accountants, very educated people - but they cannot find jobs and they need to boost their income any way they can.
|—Maisson Hassan, Sudanese man who holds a degree in nuclear physics.|
The Republic of the Sudan, also potentially known as North Sudan, is a large, arid nation in northeastern Africa. Sudan's predominant religion is Islam, and its official languages are Arabic and English. Like any large country in Africa, it has several distinct ethnic areas within it, and its borders were chiefly the work of the British Empire's colonists. Before the secession of South Sudan in 2011, the country's chief problem was that it was mostly split between two halves: an arid and Arab north, culturally akin to nearby Egypt, and a swampy south populated by black Africans. The country's capital is Khartoum.
The British handed Sudan independence in 1953, and a brutal civil war erupted almost immediately between the north and the south. In 1972, the Khartoum government finally agreed to allow the southerners autonomy. It didn't last. Sudan used the lull in the violence to start oil explorations, and everybody abruptly realized that almost all of Sudan's oil was in the south. The government cracked down again in 1983 to get a piece of that black gold, sparking a continuation of the civil war.
In 1989, Sudan experienced its worst development yet, as it fell under a military dictatorship led by the monster Omar al-Bashir. Attempting to restore order to the south, Bashir ordered government-sponsored Islamist militias called the Janjaweed into the region to brutalize anyone who didn't look Arab. When other non-Arab groups seemed likely to rise up along the eastern coastline and in the Darfur region, the Bashir regime responded with overwhelming brutality. By 2005, Western observers started using the word genocide to describe what was happening. Bashir was formally indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2010.
Amid oil concerns and international condemnation, the Bashir government finally struck an agreement to end the violence in the south. This agreement eventually culminated in 2011 when South Sudan held a referendum and declared independence. War in the Darfur, however, continues.
Bashir eventually fell from power in 2019. He left behind a hopelessly poor country still mired in various internal conflicts. The various civil wars in Sudan left millions dead and displaced. Some civil wars are still ongoing, most notably the atrocity-laden one in Darfur.
The United States State Department maintains a Level 3 Travel Advisory on Sudan, warning US citizens of the high risks of crime, terrorism, civil unrest, kidnapping, and armed conflict. US government employees also have to obtain special permission to venture outside of Khartoum, so it's harder for them to render aid in the case of trouble.
About its name
Sudan is another African country cursed with an inaccurate name due to colonialism. It takes its name from a Sub-Saharan geographical region mainly limited to Western Africa, meaning that the Republic of the Sudan has barely any Sudan. The name "Sudan" derives from the Arabic bilād as-sūdān (بلاد السود), or "the lands of the Blacks", referring to West Africa and northern Central Africa.
Not that it's terribly relevant to Sudan the country, but Sudan the region is characterized by its wide-open fields of dry hay. It's a transition zone between the Sahelian dry desert climate and the dense humid equatorial rainforest further south.
Sudan has been home to humans for at least 60,000 years, and the people there developed a sedentary culture based on fishing in the Nile and building structures from mud bricks. Northern Sudan's earliest historical record comes from Ancient Egyptian sources; these sources describe thousands of years of stable trade with the so-called region of "Cush" or "Kush". During its New Kingdom period, Egypt incorporated northern Sudan as one of its provinces.
Following Egypt's decline and eventual downfall, black Nubian peoples from Sudan were able to fill in the power vacuum. They established the Kingdom of Kush, centered around the powerful city-state of Napata. Kush became a major regional power, and Kushite pharaohs even ruled Egypt for a time. Nubian civilization persisted until about the Fourth Century CE.
Medieval Christian era
After the fall of Kush, three successor states rose to seek its succession. These successor kingdoms gradually converted to Christianity under the influence of the Greek Byzantine Empire, completing around 540 CE. The emergence of Christianity made Sudan a place for trade and knowledge to flow from the rest of the world.
Of course, the Middle East was not destined to remain Christian. After the rise of the Prophet Muhammad and the subsequent Islamic conquests, Christian Sudan found itself under attack from Arab invaders. The Nubians successfully resisted the invasion, winning battles in 640 and again in 652, forcing the Arabs to agree to a non-aggression pact to end the wars.
Despite achieving victory, the Nubians became increasingly influenced by their Muslim neighbors. Their culture, previously described as "Afro-Byzantine", became more and more Arabic. Rather atypically for such cultures, Nubian women held high social status equal to men in many cases. Women had access to education, could own, buy and sell land and often used their wealth to endow churches and church paintings. Most significant, royal succession was matrilineal, with the son of the king's sister being the rightful heir.
The process of Arabization and Islamization was slow but occurred nonetheless. The non-aggression treaties negotiated with the Nubians gave Arabs a privileged position in the region, allowing them to slowly convert it. Provisions of the treaties allowed Arabs to buy land from Nubians, build markets in Nubian towns to facilitate the exchange of grain and slaves, travel through Nubia to reach Mecca, and freely travel through ports along trade routes. Nubians and Arabs freely intermingled, and acceptance of Islam began to occur. Forced conversions, although likely not unheard of, were very rare. Islam penetrated the area over a long time through intermarriage and contacts with Arab merchants and settlers. Exemption from taxation in regions under Muslim rule also proved a powerful incentive for conversion. The Christian kingdoms of Nubia, meanwhile, eventually fell. This was not due to conquest but simply since intermarriage had become so commonplace that Muslim heirs took over the thrones.
Although having converted to Islam, the various kingdoms of Nubia did not allow themselves to be subsumed by a larger Islamic power. The Nubians resisted encroachments from the various Egyptian caliphs, the Egyptian Mamluks regime, and finally, the Ottoman Empire. This period of independence lasted until the Nineteenth Century.
One of the factors that historically made Egypt significant was the Nile River. Realizing this, Egypt had, around 1820 or so, invaded Sudan to seize control of the waterway in its entirety. Egyptian rule over Sudan was extremely destructive; the government imposed high taxation, devastated Sudan's economy with harsh trade controls, and kidnapped large numbers of Sudanese to serve as slaves. During this period, the market town of Khartoum became the center of Egyptian activity in Sudan, and Egyptian administrators relied on Arabic-speaking locals to help administer the conquered realm.
During the harsh Egyptian occupation, many Sudanese responded by beginning to adopt a radical new sect of Islam. Called "Mahdism", the sect's followers believed that a "Redeemer" of Islam would appear to rid the world of evil and prepare for Judgement Day. This individual would be titled the Mahdi. In 1881, a Sudanese Islamic cleric, Muhammad Ahmad, proclaimed himself the Mahdi and took advantage of decades of Sudanese resentment against Egypt to declare a holy war and raise an army. Ahmad denounced the Egyptians as heretics, claiming that their supposed decadence had led them down the path to impiousness. He also argued that Sudan's enforced poverty had made it stronger and more true to the Islamic faith.
Although the Mahdist Revolt was a major problem for Egypt, the Egyptians soon got a powerful new ally. In 1882, the British Empire used gunboat diplomacy to force Egypt into becoming an imperial protectorate. Although that was really shitty behavior, the British did live up to their oath of aiding Egypt. British troops entered Sudan with the intent of helping to put down the Islamist rebels.
The war started off poorly for the British, as their Egyptian subjects lost a battle at El Obeid in November 1883 before seeing much of western Sudan wholly overrun. To salvage things, British General Charles Gordon unilaterally decided to embark on a mission to defend the Egyptian-controlled city of Khartoum. This was a foolish thing to do, and the Mahdi's forces busted into the city in 1885 and killed Gordon.
The disaster in Sudan led to a shift of power from the Liberals to the Tories. The new Tory government decided that this would be a good opportunity to extend British colonial rule "from Cape to Cairo". However, international political concerns led the British to plan the operation using Egyptian forces rather than their own. In 1898, the British were able to retake Khartoum and destroy the Mahdi's army. Thus in control of Sudan, the British Empire declared it a jointly administered territory, or "Condominium", between itself and its Egyptian subject state.
After taking control of Sudan, the British made it their official policy to encourage tribal and religious divisions among its people to ensure that Sudan could never assemble a united anti-colonial revolt. The British also slowly edged Egypt out of the deal, taking almost sole control of Sudan by 1924.
From the beginning, there was a marked difference between British rule in the north and British rule in the south. In the north, the British embarked on various modernization efforts to link infrastructure with the more developed Egypt, and the northern Muslims were thus more cooperative as a result. By contrast, the British were disinterested in the swampy south, so they left it to rot, thus drawing the anger of the slighted locals. Significant anti-colonial resistance continued until about 1906.
Luckily for the Sudanese, they were relatively isolated from the outbreak of World War I due to their geographical position. They were shielded from the war by Egypt to the north and Kenya to the south. However, they were not lucky enough to avoid action in World War II, as fascist Italy had a large border along Sudan's east through the Italian-occupied territories of Eritrea and Ethiopia. In 1940, Italy invaded Sudan, making the British nervous that they could potentially lose control of the entire colony. Additionally, the Italian advance threatened Egypt's southern border at a time when this could not be afforded. A large military buildup in Kenya scared the Italians off, and British and Sudanese troops invaded and occupied the Italian eastern African holdings.
Like most other African colonies, Sudan's bargaining position was greatly strengthened after the war. While the British were ready to negotiate, the Egyptian monarchy still considered it a matter of nationalist pride that Egypt controlled Sudan. However, the monarchy was overthrown in 1952. Egypt's new leadership decided that it was more important to get the British out of Africa than to continue Egyptian domination of Sudan. Sudan became a free nation in 1956.
First Sudanese Civil War
Things went south very quickly after independence. The racial, religious, and tribal tensions the British had deliberately exacerbated for decades boiled over once the British were gone. An open civil war began in 1955, even before Sudan had proclaimed its independence. Hostilities began when many southern members of Sudan's armed forces revolted after the government put a southerner on trial and then uncovered a telegram urging northern administrators to crack down on the south. The real underlying causes, of course, were the irreconcilable differences between the north and the south. The north was an Arab-dominated region culturally identified with Egypt and North Africa, while the southerners were black Africans who didn't follow Islam. It's hardly surprising that the civil war kicked off so quickly.
The South Sudanese lacked the power to fight an actual military conflict, so they settled in to fight a guerrilla war of resistance. The southerners were the first side to recruit child soldiers. The Sudanese government, for its part, was unable to put down the rebellion. This created a political crisis in Khartoum, and Sudan's fledgling republic fell to a series of coups. Although immediately caused by the war, these coups also found their roots in the Cold War, as Sudanese military officers and leaders disagreed with each other over which side to take.
In 1958, Ibrahim Abboud, previously Sudan's chief military officer, launched a coup against his own government and established a rightist military dictatorship to end, in his words, "the state of degeneration, chaos, and instability of the country." Abboud disbanded the cabinet, parliament, and State Council of Sudan, banned political parties, and suspended the constitution. In 1964, fed-up student radicals in Khartoum began a grassroots protest and resistance movement, which resulted in the downfall of Abboud and the beginning of an Islamist democratic period. This is, amusingly, remembered as Sudan's "October Revolution". That wasn't the end of things. Sudan got hit again by a coup in 1969 by Col. Gaafar Nimeiry, who established a socialist military dictatorship. Then, in a typical show of leftist infighting, a communist coup took place in 1971, which was promptly defeated by a loyalist counter-coup.
For those keeping track, that's five different unplanned changes in government. Damn. Due to the constant political instability, the Sudanese government was perpetually unable to crush the rebel forces in the south. In contrast, the various southern militias managed to unite under one banner, the Southern Sudan Liberation Movement (SSLM).
Once back in the saddle in Khartoum, Nimeiry reversed many of his policies, denouncing socialism and inviting foreign investors into Sudan. He also decided it was about time to open negotiations with the SSLM. Negotiations produced the Addis Ababa Agreement, in which the southerners agreed to disarm and end their rebellion in exchange for regional autonomy.
This first civil war resulted in about 500,000 deaths.
Discovery of oil (uh-oh)
As often happens, the possibility of peaceful co-existence was shattered by the discovery of a valued natural resource. In this case, it was oil. In 1974, Sudan's dictator Nimeiry decided to do some forward-thinking and prepare Sudan's economy for the postwar period. To this end, he negotiated with the United States Chevron Corporation and granted them contracts to conduct mineral exploration across the country. Initial explorations were unsuccessful, as they were all conducted outside of southern Sudan. However, on behalf of Chevron, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, a certain George H. W. Bush, provided the Sudanese government with satellite images indicating black gold in the south.
Sure enough, Chevron went south and stumbled across a shitload of oil fields. The Sudanese government started handing out licenses to drill, and oil production began in earnest, conducted by various international corporations.
Of course, the government ran into a severe problem. The Addis Ababa Agreement, which ended the last civil war, promised South Sudan a big chunk of any proceeds from mineral discoveries in their land. You'll note on the map that most of the oil was found in the south. Southerners got really nervous about that, as the Sudanese government had a track record of arbitrarily redrawing internal borders to exclude South Sudan from mineral resources. Sure enough, the Sudanese government quickly cleared people away from the oil fields, often by force. Additionally, plans to export the oil called for a pipeline heading north to Port Sudan; the southerners, for their part, wanted to ensure that they got a fair piece of the pie by sending oil south to ship through Kenya's Mombasa port.
Of course, this all could have been resolved with negotiation. Sudan, however, was not interested in negotiation. In 1983, the government tore up the Addis Ababa Agreement and revoked South Sudan's autonomous status. The government then imposed Sharia law across the entire region, subjecting the majority non-Muslim population to harsh government control over their lives. It was a blatant cash grab, and it naturally pissed off the southerners.
Beginning of the Second Sudanese Civil War
After the 1983 crackdown, South Sudanese almost immediately rebelled and formed the Southern Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA). As in the first civil war, both sides started recruiting child soldiers, although the southerners relied on this much more heavily. To combat the southerners, Sudan's government organized and armed a militia group called the muraheleen, who proceeded to massacre people, burn farms, and steal cattle. They rode around on horses, meaning they could strike quickly and be gone in minutes. The militias also routinely kidnapped children and sold them into slavery in Libya.
However, there was a ray of hope in 1985 as the Nimeiry regime fell to a coup. In May 1986, the new Khartoum government led by Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi rescinded Nimeiry's harsh decrees and opened negotiations with the rebels. Amid the deteriorating conditions and the loss of their sponsor, the Chevron Corporation pulled out of the country. In February 1989, both sides agreed on a cease-fire and participated in a peace process.
Then everything went to hell.
The Bashir regime
Intensifying wartime brutality
Before peace could set in, Sudan's government suffered yet another coup in June 1989. It was led by Col. Omar al-Bashir, who will be featured as the villain for most of this article. Under Bashir's leadership, Sudan doubled down on its efforts to use militias to displace southerners and regain access to those precious oil fields.
Amid the Bashir regime's initial success at retaking the oil fields, the Arakis Energy Corporation, a Canadian oil company, filled in the gap left behind by Chevron. The company had trouble funding its ventures, so in 1996 it sold itself to various investors from China, Malaysia, and Sudan, who formed a consortium called the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC). The GNPOC then agreed in 1997 to build a giant pipeline from the south to Port Sudan. In 1999, the Greater Nile Oil Pipeline completed construction, and it's still operated today by the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), a 40% stakeholder in GNPOC.
During this period, to help oil production come back online, the national government started to step up its displacement policies. The government and its puppet militias set about on a spree of rape and murder. Things weren't much better as the Bashir regime set about trying to stamp out anyone suspected of civil dissent. Thousands of people were rounded up and taken to military prisons to be tortured for information and then executed.
The war resulted in millions of southerners being displaced, starved, and deprived of education and health care, with almost two million deaths.
End of the war with South Sudan
Eventually, international condemnation became severe enough to threaten Sudan's international standing and ability to trade oil. The United Nations started to call on Bashir to end the war and stop blocking humanitarian aid. In 1997, US President Bill Clinton signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Sudan, including a comprehensive trade embargo and the seizure of Sudanese government assets abroad. With his government increasingly isolated, Bashir eventually had no choice but to cave on South Sudan.
Peace talks proceeded productively in 2003, and in 2005, both sides agreed to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. This pact granted South Sudan autonomy for six years, during which it would prepare for an independence referendum. Sure enough, in 2011, South Sudan voted Leave and then left. However, this agreement was far from the end of Sudan's problems.
Beginning of the Darfur War and genocide
Darfur is the name given to the big desert chunk of western Sudan that borders Chad. Although theoretically the same culture type as Khartoum, the central government couldn't resist meddling in their affairs based on racism. Since 1968, Sudanese politicians had attempted to create separate factions of "Africans" and "Arabs" in the western area of Darfur, a difficult task as the population was substantially intermarried and could not be distinguished by skin tone. It got to the point where non-Arab groups in Darfur accused the government of subjecting them to an apartheid regime.
War began in 2003 when the Darfur Liberation Front started attacking police stations, army outposts, and military convoys. The government retaliated with a massive air and land assault on the rebel stronghold in the Marrah Mountains.
Things started to worsen when the Sudanese government decided to use one of its old tactics to deal with the Darfur rebels: arming and unleashing local militia groups. This time, the militia was called the "Janjaweed", and it was comprised mainly of nomadic Arabs from the Central Sahara, already radicalized by conflicts in Chad and Libya. Like their predecessors, the Janjaweed rode on horses to make rapid strikes against both armed targets and civilians. A typical Janjaweed raid would open with an attack by the Sudanese air force, with helicopter gunships or air bombers targeting civilian settlements. Then mounted Janjaweed would sweep into the area, killing and mutilating the men, raping the women, and killing or kidnapping the children. After that, the Janjaweed would ensure that no one could ever return to the village by salting the fields, burning crops and homes, looting everything of value, and poisoning wells. It was an extremely nasty and highly effective method of ethnic cleansing.
Despite international condemnation, the conflict is intractable. Since 2003, 480,000 people have been murdered. The Sudanese government seems to have little ability to stop the Janjaweed, even if they wanted to. The United States, for its part, gave a shit about Darfur during the 2004 U.S. presidential election, when both candidates called out Sudan's actions as genocide. However, the US stopped giving shits once the election was over. On a somewhat brighter note, the International Criminal Court in 2009 issued an arrest warrant for Omar al-Bashir, hoping to bring him in on the charge of genocide. This is the first ICC indictment against a sitting world leader.
On 19 December 2018, massive protests began after a government decision to triple the price of goods when the country was suffering an acute shortage of foreign currency and inflation of 70 percent. The regime responded by shooting and arresting many people, as you might expect. After several months of sustained protests, Bashir finally got a taste of his own medicine when the Sudanese military arrested Bashir and removed him from office. The protesters were jubilant until they heard that Sudan was now under the leadership of some military council led by a rando named Ibn Auf. Ibn Auf then stepped down amid protests against him, less than 48 hours after he replaced Bashir.
The "Transitional Military Council" then used Janjaweed forces to massacre almost 150 people in the streets of Khartoum and had their bodies tossed in the Nile. After that show of brutality basically shattered any public goodwill towards the military, the Council realized its days were done. It signed itself out of existence and agreed to set Sudan on a still-ongoing process to reestablish democracy. Only to be halted when the former Chairman current General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan staged a military coup and seized power in 2021.
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