Religion has always played a significant role in shaping the destiny of civilisations, often acting as a powerful force that moulds societies and influences their course of history. The ancient land of Sudan, nestled along the banks of the mighty Nile River, stands as a testament to the transformative power of religious change. In this paper, I look into the tumultuous period of religious wars that swept across Sudan, tracing the path from ancient pagan beliefs to the dominance of Christianity, and eventually to the rise of Islam.
The religious landscape of Sudan was initially characterised by diverse pagan beliefs, with indigenous traditions rooted deeply in the hearts and minds of the Sudanese people. These polytheistic faiths revolved around a pantheon of deities, reflecting the cultural richness and spiritual practices of the region. However, as the tides of history shifted, these ancient gods would soon find themselves challenged by the rise of new religious ideologies.
Caption: A depiction of the British square at the Battle of Abu Klea, during the Mahdist War, 1885.
Attribution: William Barnes Wollen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Battle_of_Abu_Klea,_William_Barnes_Wollen.jpg
The first significant turning point came with the arrival of Christianity in the Sudanese Nile basin around the 6th century AD. In the early medieval age, the powerful Kingdom of Kush, which had long stood as a bastion of pagan belief, experienced the influence of Christian missionaries and a gradual shift towards Christianity. This led to significant changes in the religious landscape of the region. Christian kingdoms such as the Kingdom of Makuria and the Kingdom of Alodia emerged separately, contributing to the spread and establishment of Christianity in the region. The old pagan gods gradually lost prominence as the Christian faith gained fervour and organisational strength.
Picture Caption: Sudan combines the lands of several ancient kingdoms.
Attribution: Directorate of Intelligence, United States Central Intelligence Agency, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Su-map.png
The Christianisation of Sudan, however, was not without its own share of conflict. The Crusades, launched by Western powers seeking to reclaim the Holy Land, left an indelible mark on the Sudanese lands. The Christian kingdoms in Sudan became embroiled in a struggle for survival against external threats, and internal divisions within their ranks threatened to unravel their new-found unity. These challenges set the stage for the next chapter in Sudan’s religious evolution.
By the beginning of the 16th century, Islam began to make its presence felt on the Sudanese shores. Invading from Egypt and the Red Sea, the influence of Islam permeated the region, bringing with it a different set of beliefs, practices, and social structures.
The arrival of Islam sparked intense insurgencies within the territory of Old Kush itself, as some embraced the new faith while others fiercely clung to their Christian heritage. The peaceful island in the Nile, just above the Second Cataract, in the region of Aswan, became a crucible where these conflicting forces clashed and shaped the future of Sudan.
A change was inevitable and a necessary force in the religious history of ancient Sudan. As different faiths jostled for dominance, power struggles emerged, and societies were forced to grapple with profound ideological shifts. The religious wars that engulfed Sudan, driven by the passions of priests, kings, and queens, became a manifestation of the deep-rooted connection between religion and power.
Key Events and Developments
Sudan, located in northeastern Africa, has a rich and complex history that stretches back to ancient times. Here is an overview of key events and developments in Sudan’s history:
- Ancient Nubia: The region that encompasses present-day Sudan was part of the ancient kingdom of Nubia. Nubia flourished along the Nile River and interacted with ancient Egypt, engaging in trade and cultural exchange. Nubia developed its own distinct civilisation and kingdoms, with notable centres like Kerma and Napata.
Kingdom of Kush:
- Rise of the Kingdom of Kush: The Kingdom of Kush emerged in the northern parts of Sudan, succeeding the declining kingdom of Kerma. It grew in power and influence, conquering Egypt and ruling as the 25th Dynasty (also known as the Nubian Dynasty) from around 760 BC to 656 BC.
- Napatan and Meroitic Periods: The Kushite capital shifted from Napata to Meroë, and during this time, the kingdom experienced significant cultural and artistic development. The Meroitic script, a unique writing system, emerged, and trade networks expanded.
Roman and Byzantine Influence:
- Roman Rule: In the 1st century BC, the Roman Empire extended its control over parts of Sudan, particularly in the northern region. The Romans established administrative centres and forts, and their presence influenced trade and cultural exchange in the area.
- Byzantine Era: After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantines took control of Sudan’s northern areas. The Kingdom of Nobatia centred in the region of Dongola, emerged as a Christian kingdom under Byzantine influence.
Islamic Influence and Arabisation:
- Arab Conquests: In the 7th century AD, Arab Muslims began expanding into Sudan, bringing Islam to the region. The Arab conquests resulted in the Arabisation of Sudan, with Arabic becoming a dominant language and Islam influencing the culture and governance.
- Nubian Christian Kingdoms: Despite Islamic expansion, Nubian Christian kingdoms continued to exist in parts of Sudan, particularly in the central and southern regions. The Kingdom of Alodia and the Makuria and Nobadia regions maintained their Christian identities and traded with neighbouring states.
Turkiyah and Mahdiyyah:
- Turkiyah (or Turkish) Period: In the 19th century, Egypt’s influence extended into Sudan as part of the Turkiyah period. Sudan came under Egyptian rule, and there were efforts to modernise the region through infrastructure projects such as the construction of the Sudanese railroad.
- Mahdiyyah and British Rule: In the late 19th century, Sudan experienced a revolt led by Muhammad Ahmad, (in full: Muhammad Ahmad bin Abdullah bin Fahal), known as the Mahdi. The Mahdiyyah movement sought to establish an Islamic state, and the Mahdi’s forces successfully captured Khartoum. However, the Mahdi’s rule was short-lived as British forces, led by General Herbert Kitchener, recaptured Sudan and established British colonial rule.
Independence and Modern Sudan:
- Independence: Sudan gained independence from British colonial rule on 1st January 1956. However, the country faced challenges as it tried to establish a stable government and address ethnic and regional tensions.
- Civil Wars: Sudan experienced two prolonged civil wars, one between the north and South from 1955 to 1972 and another from 1983 to 2005. These conflicts were primarily driven by political, ethnic, and religious differences, particularly between the Arab-Muslim North and the predominantly African-Christian and animist South.
- South Sudan Independence: Following the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, South Sudan seceded from Sudan in 2011, becoming an independent nation. However, Sudan faced further internal conflicts, such as the Darfur crisis.
Nobatia and the other Christian Nubian kingdoms.
Attribution: SimonP, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christian_Nubia.png
Throughout its history, Sudan has been shaped by diverse influences, including ancient civilisations, Islamic traditions, Arabisation, and colonial rule. The country has been working towards unity, stability and peace, with ongoing efforts to address political, economic, and social challenges.
The Byzantine Empire
A few words of explanation about the Byzantine Empire, which I mentioned above, may be useful at this juncture. The Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, emerged from the division of the Roman Empire in the 4th century AD. Following the death of Emperor Theodosius I in 395 CE, the empire was divided between his two sons, Arcadius and Honorius. Arcadius became the ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire, which eventually became known as the Byzantine Empire.
The Byzantine Empire continued the Roman legacy in the Eastern Mediterranean region, with its capital initially in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). The Byzantines maintained a distinct cultural, political, and religious identity, blending Roman traditions with influences from Greek, Persian, and Christian traditions.
The Byzantine Empire endured for over a millennium, with its peak influence during the reign of Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century. The empire faced numerous challenges, including invasions from groups such as the Sassanids, Arabs, Bulgarians, and Crusaders. Despite these challenges, the Byzantines preserved and transmitted classical knowledge, advanced trade and played a significant role in shaping the medieval and Byzantine civilisations.
The Byzantine Empire finally came to an end in 1453 when the capital city of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, marking the transition from the Byzantine period to the Ottoman Empire.
Ancestry and Ethnicity
The people in Sudan have diverse ancestral backgrounds. Various indigenous African ethnic groups have inhabited the region for thousands of years, such as the Nubians, Cushites, and Nilotic tribes.
The population of Sudan is composed of numerous ethnic groups, each with its own distinct cultural traditions, languages, and historical backgrounds. Some of the major groups are:
- Arab and Arabised African ethnic groups comprise a significant portion of Sudan’s population. The Arab influence in Sudan dates back to ancient times, as the region served as a crucial trade hub connecting North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Over the centuries, Arab tribes migrated to Sudan and intermixed with indigenous African populations. The Arabised African groups are those that have adopted Arab culture, language (Arabic), and customs while retaining some aspects of their African heritage.
- The majority ethnic group in Sudan is the Sudanese Arabs, who inhabit various regions across the country, particularly in the northern and central areas. They are descendants of Arab tribes and have played a significant role in shaping Sudan’s culture, politics, and society.
Apart from the Arab and Arabised African populations, Sudan is home to numerous non-Arab African ethnic groups. These groups are collectively known as “African Sudanese” or “African tribes” and represent a diverse range of cultures, languages, and traditions.
Some of the major African ethnic groups in Sudan include:
- Nubians: The Nubians have a rich history and are concentrated in northern Sudan along the Nile River. They have their own distinct language, Nubian, and have significantly contributed to Sudanese culture and heritage.
- Fur: The Fur people reside mainly in the western region of Darfur. They have a distinct language and are known for their agricultural practices and craftsmanship.
- Beja: The Beja ethnic group inhabits the eastern parts of Sudan, primarily in the Red Sea Hills and the Red Sea state. They have their own language and are traditionally nomadic pastoralists, although some have adopted sedentary lifestyles.
- Dinka: The Dinka people are one of the largest ethnic groups in South Sudan, with a significant presence in Sudan as well. They are primarily pastoralists and occupy the regions along the Nile and Bahr el Ghazal, a region of northwestern South Sudan. Its name came from the river Bahr el Ghazal.
- Nuer: The Nuer ethnic group is closely related to the Dinka and primarily inhabits the eastern regions of South Sudan, with some communities also present in Sudan. They are known for their cattle herding and have a unique language and cultural practices.
- Zaghawa: The Zaghawa people reside primarily in the western region of Darfur and neighbouring Chad. They have their own language and are known for their long history as pastoralists and traders.
The Sudanese population is not limited to these ethnic groups alone, as there are numerous smaller ethnic communities that contribute to the multicultural fabric of the country.
The ethnic diversity in Sudan has been both a source of strength and, at times, a challenge, as it has intersected with political, social, and economic dynamics throughout the country’s history. Recognising and respecting this diversity is crucial for fostering unity and building a harmonious society in Sudan.
South Sudan and Sudan
Before the independence of South Sudan in 2011, the entire country was known as Sudan. After a referendum, South Sudan voted to secede from Sudan and became independent on 9th July 2011. Following the secession of South Sudan, the remaining portion of the country retained the name Sudan. Therefore, no official administrative division called “North Sudan” is distinct from the country as a whole.
Picture Caption: US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with South Sudan President Salva Kiir, 26 May 2013.
Attribution: US Department of State, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Secretary_Kerry_Meets_With_South_Sudan_President_Kiir_(3).jpg
The difference between South Sudan and Sudan is primarily cultural and ethnic. South Sudan has a larger presence of Nilotic tribes with a predominantly Christian population, while Sudan has a more diverse population with a significant Arab influence and a predominantly Muslim population.
The conversion of Sudanese people from indigenous religions to Christianity occurred over several centuries. Christianity began to spread in Sudan as early as the 6th century, and the conversion process continued over time.
Various factors and individuals, including Christian missionaries from different countries, such as Egypt, Byzantium, and Ethiopia facilitated the conversion of Sudanese people to Christianity. Missionaries played a significant role in introducing and spreading Christianity in Sudan.
The spread of Christianity in Sudan began during the 6th century AD, with the arrival of missionaries from various regions. Several factors contributed to the initial introduction and subsequent growth of Christianity in Sudan.
One significant influence was the Byzantine Empire, which had embraced Christianity as its official religion. The Byzantines sought to expand their influence and establish Christian communities in the Nile Valley. As a result, Byzantine missionaries, including monks and clergy, embarked on missions to Sudan to spread the Christian faith.
Additionally, the Ethiopian Kingdom of Aksum (located in present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea) played a pivotal role in the early spread of Christianity in Sudan. Aksum, a Christian kingdom, had extensive trade and cultural ties with Sudan, particularly in the northern regions. Ethiopian Christians and missionaries travelled to Sudan, bringing with them their religious beliefs and practices.
The Coptic Church of Alexandria spearheaded another significant missionary effort in Sudan. The Coptic Church, one of the oldest Christian denominations in the world, sent missionaries to Sudan to evangelise and establish Christian communities. These missionaries, primarily from Egypt, played a crucial role in the spread of Christianity, particularly in the northern parts of Sudan.
The reasons behind the Christianisation of Sudan were multifaceted:
- For the Byzantines, the spread of Christianity in Sudan was part of their broader geopolitical and religious agenda. They aimed to solidify their influence in the region and establish a network of Christian communities that would align with Byzantine interests.
- The Ethiopian Kingdom of Aksum, with its close ties to Sudan, sought to expand its religious and cultural influence beyond its borders. Christianisation was seen as a means to strengthen their connections and establish a common religious identity with the Sudanese population.
Trying to understand the motivations and perspectives of individual missionaries is difficult. Some missionaries genuinely believed in the transformative power of Christianity and sought to bring salvation and spiritual guidance to the Sudanese people. Others may have been driven by political or religious ambitions, aiming to increase their respective religious communities’ size and influence.
Over time, the Christian faith took root in Sudan, particularly in the northern regions along the Nile. Christian kingdoms, such as the Kingdom of Makuria and the Kingdom of Alodia, emerged in Sudan, with rulers adopting Christianity as their state religion. Churches, monasteries, and Christian institutions were established, contributing to the growth and consolidation of the Christian presence in Sudan.
The process of Christianisation in Sudan was gradual and intertwined with the social, political, and cultural dynamics of the time. It left a lasting impact on the religious landscape of the region, shaping the history and identity of Sudanese Christianity.
Arabisation is the process by which Arab culture, language (Arabic), and customs spread and influenced non-Arab populations. In the context of Sudan, Arabisation began during the medieval period and continued over time. It involved the adoption of Arabic language and culture by various Sudanese groups, including indigenous African tribes.
Arabs arrived in Sudan during different periods of history. The Arab migration to Sudan started around the 12th century, and further Arabisation took place during the 15th to 16th centuries when the Funj Sultanate ruled parts of Sudan.
Various factors attracted Arab migrants to Sudan, including trade routes, fertile lands, and opportunities for economic and political expansion. Additionally, some Arab groups migrated due to conflict or seeking new territories.
Sudan’s Arabisation was primarily promoted by Arab traders, religious scholars, and intermarriage between Arab immigrants and local populations. Arab traders, travelling along the ancient trade routes that crisscrossed the region, brought with them not only goods but also their language and culture. Through interactions and intermingling with local communities, the Arabic language gradually permeated Sudanese society.
The spread of Islam played a significant role in facilitating the process of Arabisation. Islam, which emerged in the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century, spread rapidly across North Africa and the Nile Valley. Arab Muslims, including traders, scholars, and Sufi missionaries, arrived in Sudan to spread their faith. As Islam became the dominant religion, the Arabic language gained prominence as the language of religious texts, scholarship, and administration.
The conversion from Christianity to Islam occurred over an extended period and varied among different regions and communities in Sudan. The conversion was not necessarily enforced but often happened voluntarily, driven by various factors.
For some individuals and communities, converting to Islam provided social, economic, and political advantages. Embracing Islam allowed them to establish ties with Arab traders and ruling elites, opening doors to trade networks and enhancing social standing. Additionally, conversion to Islam provided access to Islamic education and scholarship, which held prestige and offered opportunities for upward mobility.
Intermarriage between Arab immigrants and local populations also contributed to the spread of Islam and Arabisation. Through these unions, cultural and linguistic exchanges occurred, with the Arabic language being adopted by succeeding generations.
It is important to note that Arabisation was not a uniform or homogeneous phenomenon. Different regions in Sudan experienced varying degrees of Arabisation, and some areas retained their distinct African languages, cultures, and identities. In some cases, Arabisation was resisted, particularly by communities that fiercely held onto their non-Arab African heritage and languages.
As for the origins of the Arabs who settled in Sudan, they came from various regions. Some Arab immigrants arrived from neighbouring countries, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, while others came from more distant Arab regions. The motivations for choosing Sudan were often driven by economic opportunities, trade routes, and the fertile lands along the Nile River.
It is essential to approach the topic of Arabisation in Sudan with sensitivity, as it has been a subject of historical and cultural complexity. The Arabisation process, while influential, did not erase the diverse ethnic and cultural identities of Sudanese communities but rather became intertwined with them, shaping the multicultural fabric of the country.
How were the British involved?
The British became involved in Sudan during the 19th and early 20th centuries. They sought to control the Nile River and secure their interests in the region. Initially, the British sought to protect their trade routes to India, but they later established formal colonial rule in Sudan. British involvement increased with the Mahdist War (1881-1899) and continued until South Sudan gained independence in 1956.
The British involvement in Sudan was driven by their strategic interests in controlling the Nile River and safeguarding their imperial ambitions in the region.
Anglo-Egyptian Condominium (1899-1956):
In 1899, the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium agreement was signed between Britain and Egypt, establishing joint British-Egyptian rule over Sudan. This agreement followed the reconquest of Sudan by British and Egyptian forces during the Mahdist War (1881-1899), which saw the defeat of the Mahdist movement. Under the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, Sudan was effectively under British control, with British administrators holding key positions and overseeing governance, infrastructure development, and economic activities. The British saw Sudan as a crucial link in their imperial interests, particularly in securing the Nile River as a lifeline for transportation and trade, as well as a potential route to their colonies in East Africa and beyond.
Governor-Generals and Administrators:
- Sir Reginald Wingate (acting 1899-1916) was appointed as the first British Governor-General of Sudan. He played a pivotal role in stabilising and administering Sudan during its early years under British rule, focusing on economic development, infrastructure, and suppressing rebellions.
- Sir Lee Stack (acting 1917-1924) succeeded Wingate as Governor-General and continued efforts to modernise Sudan, including initiatives in education, healthcare, and agriculture.
- Sir Geoffrey Archer (acting 1924-1926) served as Governor-General, overseeing administrative and economic reforms during his tenure.
- Other prominent administrators during this period included Sir John Maffey, Sir Stewart Symes, and Sir Harold MacMichael.
Major General Gordon of Khartoum:
Charles George Gordon, commonly known as Gordon of Khartoum, played a significant role in Sudan during the late 19th century. Gordon was a British army officer and administrator who was appointed as Governor-General of Sudan in 1877. His role in Sudan was marked by his efforts to maintain stability, promote reforms, and confront challenges such as slavery and the influence of the Mahdist movement. Some key aspects of Gordon’s role include:
- Governor-General of Sudan: Gordon was appointed as Governor-General of Sudan by the Egyptian government in 1877. His primary objective was to implement reforms and address the political and social issues in the region.
- Anti-Slavery Efforts: One of Gordon’s key missions in Sudan was to combat the slave trade. He implemented measures to disrupt slave caravans, enforce anti-slavery laws, and promote the liberation of slaves.
- Efforts to Suppress the Mahdist Movement: The Mahdist movement, led by Muhammad Ahmad, sought to expel foreign powers from Sudan and establish an Islamic state. Gordon was tasked with suppressing the rebellion and maintaining British and Egyptian control in the region.
- Siege of Khartoum: During his time in Sudan, Gordon found himself besieged in the city of Khartoum by Mahdist forces. Despite the efforts of the British government to rescue him, Khartoum fell to the Mahdists in January 1885, and Gordon was killed.
Picture Caption: General Gordon’s Last Stand, by George W. Joy.
Attribution: George W. Joy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:General_Gordon%27s_Last_Stand.jpg
Gordon’s role in Sudan remains a subject of historical debate and interpretation. While some view him as a heroic figure who fought against slavery and advocated for reforms, others criticise his handling of the situation and argue that his actions contributed to the fall of Khartoum. Nevertheless, his presence in Sudan and his ultimate fate at Khartoum had a significant impact on Sudanese and British history.
Construction of the Sudan Railway (1896-1930s):
The Sudan Railway was a vital infrastructure project initiated by the British to connect Sudan’s interior with the Red Sea coast. Construction began in 1896, intending to use transportation of goods and troops and ensure British control over trade routes. The railway played a crucial role in facilitating the movement of goods, including exports of Sudanese cotton and imports for British industries. It also supported the British military presence in the region.
Picture Caption: Khartoum Light Railway, ca. 1910
Attribution: Unknown photographer, probably published by G. N. Morhig, The English Pharmacy, Khartoum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Khartoum_Light_Railway_0-4-2_steam_locomotive_No_6_(Orenstein_%26_Koppel_D_2220_of_1907).jpg
Mahdist Revolt and the Battle of Omdurman (1898):
The Mahdist Revolt, led by Muhammad Ahmad, sought to expel foreign powers, including the British and Egyptians, from Sudan. The revolt posed a significant challenge to British interests in the region.
In 1898, the decisive Battle of Omdurman took place, where British and Egyptian forces, led by General Horatio Kitchener (1st Earl Kitchener 1850-1916), defeated the Mahdists, marking a turning point in British control over Sudan.
What Happened in 1956?
The year 1956 is connected to the Suez Crisis, which strained the relationship between Britain and Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser. However, the year 1956 is also significant for Sudan because it marks the year when Sudan gained its independence from Britain. While the Suez Crisis and Sudan’s independence were separate events, they occurred in close proximity and were part of the broader historical context of decolonisation in Africa and the Middle East.
The 2005 Peace Agreement
The peace agreement that was agreed upon but later broken refers to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in 2005 between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). This agreement aimed to end the long-standing civil war between the North and the South and granted South Sudan a referendum for independence. However, conflicts erupted again in 2013, leading to the formation of the independent nation of South Sudan in 2011.
The failure of the 2005 Peace Agreement in Sudan and the subsequent conflicts that erupted in 2013 involved a complex web of factors, and assigning blame solely to one party would be an oversimplification. It is essential to understand the broader context and dynamics that contributed to the agreement’s failure. Some of the key factors that played a role were:
- Implementation Challenges: The 2005 Peace Agreement between the Sudanese government in the North and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) aimed to address the root causes of the long-standing civil war between the North and the South. However, implementing the agreement’s provisions, such as power-sharing arrangements, wealth-sharing, and security arrangements, proved to be challenging. Disagreements, delays, and mistrust hindered the effective implementation of the agreement.
- Oil Resources and Economic Disparities: Control over oil resources in Sudan has been a significant point of contention. The South, which has substantial oil reserves, sought to ensure equitable sharing of oil revenues. However, disagreements over oil revenue sharing and economic disparities between the North and the South created tensions and contributed to the fragility of the peace agreement.
- Political Rivalries and Power Struggles: Political rivalries and power struggles within both the Northern and Southern political establishments were major factors in the peace agreement’s breakdown. Disagreements over power-sharing, control of resources, and governance structures intensified tensions and undermined the agreement’s sustainability.
- Ethnic and Tribal Divisions: Sudan is a diverse country with numerous ethnic and tribal groups, and underlying ethnic tensions and divisions played a role in the conflict’s escalation. Ethnic-based violence and competition for resources exacerbated the fragile peace process, leading to renewed hostilities.
- Weak Institutions and Governance: Sudan, as a whole, has faced significant challenges in building strong institutions and effective governance systems. Weak institutional capacity, corruption, and a lack of trust in the government institutions hampered the peace agreement’s implementation and contributed to its failure.
Responsibility for the failure of the peace agreement and the subsequent conflicts cannot be solely attributed to one party. The Sudanese government, the SPLM/A, political leaders, and external actors all had a role to play. Each party had its own interests, grievances, and challenges that contributed to the breakdown of the agreement.
Descent into Crisis
Over the past two decades, Sudan has faced significant challenges and experienced a deterioration in various aspects of governance, stability, and security. The country has faced protracted conflicts, humanitarian crises, political instability, and economic difficulties. Key factors at play in Sudan’s descent into failure are:
- Darfur Conflict and Humanitarian Crisis: The Darfur conflict, which emerged in 2003, was a major turning point in Sudan’s recent history. The conflict involved armed rebel groups fighting against the Sudanese government, and the government’s response included the use of proxy militias known as the Janjaweed. The conflict resulted in widespread violence, displacement, and human rights abuses. While the conflict did not meet the legal definition of genocide, it did involve atrocities and crimes against humanity, with hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions displaced.
- Political Instability and Authoritarian Rule: Sudan experienced long periods of authoritarian rule under President Omar al-Bashir, who came to power through a military coup in 1989. Al-Bashir’s regime was characterised by repressive tactics, human rights violations, economic mismanagement, and corruption. The lack of political freedoms, suppression of dissent, and failure to address grievances contributed to social discontent and unrest.
- Economic Challenges and Mismanagement: Sudan faced significant economic challenges, including high inflation, budget deficits, and a lack of diversification. The economic mismanagement by the government, coupled with the impact of conflicts and sanctions, resulted in a deteriorating economy, high unemployment rates, and limited access to basic services for many Sudanese citizens.
- Regional Conflicts and Fragmentation: Sudan’s conflicts extended beyond Darfur, with ongoing tensions in regions such as South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and the eastern states. These conflicts were driven by various factors, including political marginalisation, ethnic and religious divisions, competition over resources, and historical grievances. The presence of multiple conflicts further strained the country’s stability and contributed to its overall failure.
- International Sanctions and Isolation: Sudan faced international isolation and sanctions, particularly due to its association with state-sponsored violence and human rights abuses. The international community, including the United States and the European Union, imposed sanctions on Sudan, which further hindered the country’s economic development and contributed to its isolation on the global stage.
- Transition and Fragile Governance: Following the ousting of President al-Bashir in 2019, Sudan embarked on a transitional period with hopes for democratic reforms and stability. However, the transitional civilian-led government faced immense challenges in addressing the deep-rooted issues inherited from the previous regime, managing competing interests, and implementing comprehensive reforms.
It is important to note that while Sudan has faced significant challenges, it is also a diverse country with resilient communities, a rich cultural heritage, and a potential for positive transformation. The recent political developments, including the formation of a transitional government and ongoing peace negotiations, provide an opportunity for Sudan to address its failures and work towards a more inclusive, stable, and prosperous future.
Recent Developments: a Summary
Sudan has undergone significant changes in recent years. In 2019, a popular uprising led to the removal of President Omar al-Bashir, who had ruled for nearly three decades. Sudan is now in a transitional period, with ongoing efforts to establish democratic governance and address economic and social challenges.
The Sudanese revolution of 2019 marked a significant turning point in Sudan’s history and resulted in the ousting of President Omar al-Bashir, who had ruled the country for nearly three decades. The revolution was a culmination of years of grievances against al-Bashir’s authoritarian rule, economic mismanagement, corruption, and human rights abuses. Here are key aspects of the revolution and its impact:
- Non-violent Uprising: The 2019 Sudanese revolution was largely characterised by non-violent protests and civil disobedience. Sudanese citizens from various segments of society, including students, professionals, women’s groups, and activists, came together under the umbrella of the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) to demand political change and social justice. Inspired by earlier civic revolutions, such as the Arab Spring uprisings, the Sudanese protesters drew upon the tactics and practices of non-violent resistance. They organised sit-ins, marches, strikes, and other forms of civil disobedience to challenge the regime’s authority and convey their demands for a democratic transition.
- Precedents and Adaptation: The Sudanese revolution drew upon the precedents of earlier civic revolutions, particularly the 1964 October Revolution and the 1985 Sudanese Revolution. Both these uprisings had successfully overthrown military regimes in Sudan. The protesters in 2019 adapted their strategies and tactics to the specific challenges posed by the al-Bashir regime. They emphasised unity, inclusivity, and peaceful resistance to build a broad-based movement that transcended ethnic, religious, and regional divides.
- Role of Social Media and Youth: Social media platforms, particularly Twitter and Facebook, played a crucial role in mobilising and organising the protests. Activists used these platforms to disseminate information, coordinate actions, and amplify their voices. The youth, in particular, played a significant role in driving the revolution, leveraging their digital literacy and social media skills.
- Sustained Protests and Pressure: The revolution was marked by sustained protests and unwavering determination. Demonstrations took place in various cities across Sudan, with the epicentre being the sit-in outside the military headquarters in Khartoum. The sit-in continued for months, serving as a powerful symbol of resistance and a focal point for the movement.
- Military Intervention and Transitional Government: The sustained protests and mounting pressure eventually led to a turning point in April 2019 when the military intervened and ousted President al-Bashir from power. A Transitional Military Council (TMC) assumed control, but the protesters continued to demand a civilian-led government. After protracted negotiations and intense public pressure, an agreement was reached between the protesters and the military. This agreement led to the establishment a joint civilian-military Sovereign Council to govern the country during the transitional period. A civilian-led government headed by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, was installed in August 2019.
- Challenges of the Transition: The transitional civilian-led government faced numerous challenges. These included navigating power-sharing dynamics with the military, addressing the economic crisis inherited from the al-Bashir era, managing various factions within the protest movement, and addressing demands for justice and accountability for past human rights abuses.
The transition in Sudan remains a work in progress, with ongoing efforts to address these challenges and pave the way for democratic reforms, sustainable peace, and inclusive governance. The Sudanese revolution of 2019 demonstrated the power of non-violent resistance and collective action in challenging entrenched authoritarian regimes. The peaceful nature of the uprising resonated with historical precedents of civic revolutions in Sudan, while the adaptation of strategies to the specific context allowed the protesters to challenge the al-Bashir regime effectively.
However, the transition period that followed the revolution was marked by ongoing challenges and complexities. The civilian-led transitional government faced obstacles in implementing reforms and addressing the revolution’s demands. Some of the key challenges include:
- Power-Sharing Dynamics: The transition involved a delicate power-sharing arrangement between the civilian and military factions. Negotiating the division of power and decision-making authority between the two sides posed challenges and led to tensions at various points during the transitional period.
- Economic Crisis: The transitional government inherited a severe economic crisis characterised by high inflation, a shortage of basic goods, and a struggling economy. Addressing economic challenges and implementing reforms to stabilise the economy became a pressing issue for the transitional government.
- Internal Divisions and Fragmentation: Within the protest movement itself, there were various factions and groups with different priorities and visions for Sudan’s future. Balancing these diverse interests and maintaining unity within the movement posed challenges to the transitional government’s ability to implement reforms effectively.
- Security Concerns and Armed Conflict: Armed conflicts continued to persist in some regions of Sudan, such as Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile. Ensuring security and stability in these conflict-affected areas remained a significant challenge for the transitional government.
- Justice and Accountability: Demands for justice and accountability for past human rights abuses during the al-Bashir regime remained a crucial issue. Balancing the pursuit of justice with the need for stability and reconciliation posed challenges for the transitional government.
It is important to note that the transitional period in Sudan is still ongoing, and efforts are being made to address these challenges. The success of the revolution in ousting President al-Bashir demonstrated the power of non-violent resistance, but the road to achieving lasting democratic reforms and stability remains complex and requires sustained efforts from all stakeholders in Sudan.
Charges against Omar al-Bashir
Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, its former President, faced charges by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged crimes committed during his time in power. In 2009 and 2010, the ICC issued two arrest warrants against him for several counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in relation to the conflict in Darfur.
The charges against al-Bashir stemmed from his alleged role in orchestrating a campaign of violence against ethnic groups in Darfur, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the displacement of millions. The ICC accused al-Bashir of overseeing a deliberate campaign of destruction, including murder, torture, rape, and forced displacement.
However, it is important to note that Sudan, as a non-state party to the Rome Statute (the treaty establishing the ICC), initially did not recognise the court’s jurisdiction and refused to cooperate in the arrest and extradition of al-Bashir. Consequently, al-Bashir was not apprehended or transferred to the ICC to face trial during his presidency.
Since al-Bashir’s ousting in 2019, there have been ongoing discussions regarding his potential prosecution. Sudan’s transitional government, which took power after the revolution, has expressed willingness to cooperate with the ICC and has indicated its commitment to ensuring justice for the victims of the conflicts. The transitional government has emphasised its intention to address past human rights abuses and hold those responsible to be accountable under the law.
In February 2020, Sudan’s government took a significant step by agreeing to hand over al-Bashir to the ICC to face trial for the charges against him. However, the actual extradition process has not yet occurred, and the legal proceedings are still pending.
The ICC’s charges against al-Bashir represent an important step towards accountability and justice for the victims of the conflict in Darfur. However, the resolution of these charges and the full pursuit of justice will depend on the cooperation of Sudan’s transitional government, the international community’s support, and the effective functioning of the legal processes involved.
The International Criminal Court has issued a Report reflecting the activities pursued by the Office of the Prosecutor (“OTP” or “Office”) concerning the situation in Darfur over the reporting period of August 2022 to January 2023.
The period of history referenced in “The Peacekeeping Failure in South Sudan: The UN, Bias and the Peacekeeper’s Mind” by Mark Millar is a significant chapter in the tumultuous journey of South Sudan. It was a time marked by both hope and despair as the country’s struggle for independence and subsequent internal conflicts unfolded.
The Amazon review of the book aptly captures the stark contrast between the early days of South Sudan’s quest for self-determination and the devastating realities that followed. When the war started in South Sudan, the Beatles were just starting out, and the moon landing was but a pipedream.
The history of South Sudan’s war can be traced back to a series of complex factors, including ethnic tensions, political grievances, and economic disparities, ultimately leading to the eruption of violence. Following decades of marginalisation and oppression under the Sudanese government, the people of South Sudan were determined to break free from their shackles and establish an independent nation.
In 2011, South Sudan achieved its long-awaited independence, becoming the world’s newest country. The birth of the nation was hailed as a triumph, a testament to the resilience and determination of its people. However, the celebrations were short-lived, as internal power struggles and ethnic divisions quickly surfaced, plunging the young nation into a protracted and brutal civil war.
The conflict in South Sudan witnessed the devastating loss of lives, the displacement of millions, and the breakdown of societal structures. It became Africa’s longest war as rival factions and armed groups vied for control, perpetuating a cycle of violence and bloodshed. The consequences of this conflict were profound, tearing at the social fabric of the nation and exacerbating humanitarian crises.
Millions of South Sudanese suffered unimaginable hardships as the country plunged further into chaos. Humanitarian organisations and peacekeepers faced tremendous challenges in providing aid and maintaining stability amid the escalating violence. The United Nations, tasked with peacekeeping efforts, found itself grappling with complex dynamics, including allegations of bias, resource limitations, and the formidable task of navigating a highly volatile situation.
Overall, this period in South Sudan’s history represents a tragic chapter characterised by dashed hopes, shattered dreams of nation-building, and the immense human suffering that ensued. It is a stark reminder of the challenges inherent in establishing and maintaining peace in complex, post-conflict environments and the urgent need for effective international interventions and support to prevent such devastating outcomes.
The 2019 Sudanese revolution represented a significant moment in Sudan’s history, bringing down a long-standing authoritarian regime through non-violent means. The revolution drew upon historical precedents of civic revolutions, adapted strategies to the challenges of the al-Bashir regime, and showcased the determination and resilience of the Sudanese people in demanding political change and social justice.
Picture Caption: A South Sudanese girl at Independence festivities
Attribution: USAID Africa Bureau, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_South_Sudanese_girl_at_independence_festivities_(5926735716).jpg
Sources and Further Reading
Videos and Film:
- A history of modern Sudan The Economist, at: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6fbllf
- Religion in Sudan 1800-2022, at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i1j1ov45aH8
- Extract: Sudan: Race and Religion in Civil War, at: https://s3.amazonaws.com/berkley-center/130801BCSudanRaceReligionCivilWar.pdf
- The Peacekeeping Failure in South Sudan: The UN, Bias and the Peacekeeper’s Mind, by Mark Millar, 8 Sep 2022, published by Zed Books. available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Peacekeeping-Failure-South-Sudan-Peacekeepers/dp/1350273848/
- Revolutionary Sudan: The Challenges of Democracy After Autocracy, by Khalid Mustafa Medani, 14 Dec 2023, published by C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Revolutionary-Sudan-Challenges-Democracy-Autocracy/dp/1787384039/
- South Sudan: From Colonial Neglect to National Misrule, by Lam Akol, 12 Oct 2023, published by Nomad Publishing, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/South-Sudan-Colonial-Neglect-National/dp/1914325338/
- The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan, by Winston Churchill, 15 Mar 2007, published by Dover Publications Inc., available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/River-War-Account-Reconquest-Sudan/dp/0486447855/
- When Peace Kills Politics: International Intervention and Unending Wars in the Sudans, by Sharath Srinivasan, 15 Apr 2021, published by C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/When-Peace-Kills-Politics-International/dp/1849048312/
- Gladstone, Gordon and the Sudan Wars: The Battle Over Imperial Intervention in the Victorian Age, by Fergus Nicoll, 30 Apr 2013, published by Pen & Sword Military, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Gladstone-Gordon-Sudan-Wars-Intervention/dp/1781591822/
- Jihad! Battle for The Sudan, Paperback, by Ian Colquhoun (Author), 19 April 2013, published by Lulu.com, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jihad-Battle-Sudan-Ian-Colquhoun/dp/1300951591/
- A History of the Sudan: From the Coming of Islam to the Present Day, by P.M. Holt, 15 Aug 2017, published by Routledge, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/History-Sudan-Coming-Islam-Present/dp/1138432199/
- A History of the Arabs in the Sudan: And Some Account of the People who Preceded them and of the Tribes Inhabiting Dárfūr: (Volume I), by H. A. MacMichael, 23 Feb 2019, published by Alpha Editions. available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/History-Arabs-Sudan-Preceded-Inhabiting/dp/935360138X/
- South Sudan: The Untold Story – From Independence to Civil War, by Hilde F. Johnson, 30 Jun 2016, published by I B Tauris, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/South-Sudan-Untold-Story-Independence/dp/178453644X/
- Sudan: Death of a Dream, by Graham Thomas and Roy Jenkins, 30 Apr 1990, published by Darf Publishers Ltd, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sudan-Death-Dream-Graham-Thomas/dp/1850772169
- The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars – Old Wars and New Wars (African Issues (Paperback)): Old Wars and New Wars [Expanded 3rd Edition], by Dr Douglas H Johnson, 18 Nov 2016, published by James Currey, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Root-Causes-Sudans-Civil-Wars/dp/1847011519/
- First Raise a Flag: How South Sudan Won the Longest War but Lost the Peace, by Peter Martell, 13 Sep 2018, published by C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/First-Raise-Flag-South-Longest/dp/1849049599/
- A History of Modern Sudan, by Robert Collins, 29 May 2008, published by Cambridge University Press, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/History-Modern-Sudan-Robert-Collins/dp/0521674956/
- Breaking Sudan: The Search for Peace, by Jok Madut Jok, 11 Apr 2017, published by Oneworld Publications, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Breaking-Sudan-Search-Jok-Madut/dp/1786070030/
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End Notes and Explanations
- Source: Compiled from research using information at the sources stated throughout the text, together with information provided by machine-generated artificial intelligence at: bing.com [chat] and https://chat.openai.com ↑
- Source: https://www.britannica.com/place/Sudan/Religion ↑
- Explanation: The early medieval age, also known as the Early Middle Ages or the Early Medieval Period, refers to the period roughly between the 5th and 10th centuries AD. It follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire and precedes the High Middle Ages. ↑
- Explanation: The Kingdom of Kush also known as the Kushite Empire, or simply Kush, was an ancient kingdom in Nubia, centred along the Nile Valley in what is now northern Sudan and southern Egypt. Source and further information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_Kush ↑
- Explanation: Makuria was a Christian Nubian kingdom located in what is today Northern Sudan and Southern Egypt. Makuria originally covered the area along the Nile River from the Third Cataract to somewhere south of Abu Hamad as well as parts of northern Kordofan. Its capital was Dongola (Old Nubian: Tungul), and the kingdom is sometimes known by the name of its capital. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Makuria ↑
- Explanation: Alodia, also known as Alwa was a medieval kingdom in what is now central and southern Sudan, founded sometime after the ancient kingdom of Kush fell, around 350 AD. Its capital was the city of Soba, located near modern-day Khartoum at the confluence of the Blue and White Nile rivers. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alodia ↑
- Explanation: The Cataracts of the Nile are shallow lengths (or whitewater rapids) of the Nile river, between Khartoum and Aswan, where the surface of the water is broken by many small boulders and stones jutting out of the river bed, as well as many rocky islets. In some places, these stretches are punctuated by whitewater, while in others the water flow is smoother but still shallow. The Second Cataract is located between the cities of Aswan in Egypt and Wadi Halfa in Sudan, was the region where clashes took place and influenced the future of Sudan. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cataracts_of_the_Nile ↑
- Explanation: Nobatia or Nobadia was a late antique kingdom in Lower Nubia. Together with the two other Nubian kingdoms, Makuria and Alodia, it succeeded the kingdom of Kush. After its establishment in around 400, Nobadia gradually expanded by defeating the Blemmyes in the north and incorporating the territory between the second and third Nile cataract in the south. In 543, it converted to Coptic Christianity. It would then be annexed by Makuria, under unknown circumstances, during the 7th century. The kingdom of Nobatia had been founded in the former Meroitic province of Akine, which comprised large parts of Lower Nubia and is speculated to have been autonomous already before the ultimate fall of the Meroitic kingdom in the mid-4th century. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nobatia ↑
- Explanation: The Mahdist State, also known as Mahdist Sudan or the Sudanese Mahdiyya, was a state based on a religious and political movement launched in 1881 by Muhammad Ahmad bin Abdullah (later Muhammad al-Mahdi) against the Khedivate of Egypt, which had ruled the Sudan since 1821. After four years of struggle, the Mahdist rebels overthrew the Ottoman-Egyptian administration and established their own “Islamic and national” government with its capital in Omdurman. Thus, from 1885 the Mahdist government maintained sovereignty and control over the Sudanese territories until its existence was terminated by the Anglo-Egyptian forces in 1898. Mohammed Ahmed al-Mahdi enlisted the people of Sudan in what he declared a jihad against the administration that was based in Khartoum, which was dominated by Egyptians and Turks. The Khartoum government initially dismissed the Mahdi’s revolution; he defeated two expeditions sent to capture him in the course of a year. The Mahdi’s power increased, and his call spread throughout the Sudan, with his movement becoming known as the Ansar. During the same period, the ‘Urabi revolution broke out in Egypt, with the British occupying the country in 1882. Britain appointed Charles Gordon as General-Governor of Sudan. Months after his arrival in Khartoum and after several battles with the Mahdi rebels, Mahdist forces captured Khartoum, and Gordon was killed in his palace. The Mahdi did not live long after this victory, and his successor Abdallahi ibn Muhammad consolidated the new state, with administrative and judiciary systems based on their interpretation of Islamic law. The indigenous Nubian Coptic Christians who composed a substantial portion of the country’s population, were forced to convert to Islam. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahdist_State ↑
- Explanation: The War in Darfur, also nicknamed the Land Cruiser War, was a major armed conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan that began in February 2003 when the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebel groups began fighting against the government of Sudan, which they accused of oppressing Darfur’s non-Arab population. The government responded to attacks by carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Darfur’s non-Arabs. This resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the indictment of Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_in_Darfur ↑
- Explanation: The Nilotic peoples are people indigenous to the Nile Valley who speak Nilotic languages. They inhabit South Sudan, Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania. Among these are the Burun-speaking peoples, Karo peoples, Luo peoples, Ateker peoples, Kalenjin peoples, Datooga, Dinka, Nuer, Atwot, Lotuko, and the Maa-speaking peoples. The Nilotes constitute the majority of the population in South Sudan, an area that is believed to be their original point of dispersal. After the Bantu peoples, they constitute the second-most numerous group of peoples inhabiting the African Great Lakes region around the East African Rift. They make up a notable part of the population of southwestern Ethiopia as well. Nilotic peoples numbered 7 million in the late 20th century.The Nilotic peoples primarily adhere to Christianity and traditional faiths, including the Dinka religion. Some Nilotic peoples also adhere to Islam. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nilotic_peoples ↑
- Explanation: The Funj Sultanate, also known as Funjistan, Sultanate of Sennar (after its capital Sennar) or Blue Sultanate due to the traditional Sudanese convention of referring to black people as blue was a monarchy in what is now Sudan, northwestern Eritrea and western Ethiopia. Founded in 1504 by the Funj people, it quickly converted to Islam, although this embrace was only nominal. Until a more orthodox Islam took hold in the 18th century, the state remained an “African empire with a Muslim façade“. It reached its peak in the late 17th century, but declined and eventually fell apart in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1821, the last sultan, greatly reduced in power, surrendered to the Ottoman Egyptian invasion without a fight. Christian Nubia, represented by the two medieval kingdoms of Makuria and Alodia, began to decline in the 12th century. By 1365 Makuria had virtually collapsed and was reduced to a petty kingdom restricted to Lower Nubia, until finally disappearing c. 150 years later. The fate of Alodia is less clear. It has been suggested that it collapsed already as early as the 12th century or shortly after, as archaeology suggests that in this period, Soba ceased to be used as its capital. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funj_Sultanate ↑
- See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sudanese_Revolution ↑
- See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_in_Darfur ↑
- See: Report Of The Prosecutor Of The International Criminal Court To The United Nations Security Council. Source: https://www.icc-cpi.int/sites/default/files/2023-01/20230125-report-darfur-eng.pdf ↑