Map of Sudan

The broad, sleepy, tree-lined colonial avenues along the bank of the Nile are redolent of long decay. The bustling centre of Khartoum, a sprawling city of close to two million people, is barely a kilometre away but the distance between the modern capital of Sudan and its colonial legacy – encompassing a timespan of 46 years since independence – is vast. In 1956 Africa’s largest country was released from the curious condominium status it had enjoyed under joint British and Egyptian rule. Old hands from the Colonial Office recall with regret how ‘the natives weren’t ready’ to run the show on their own. But if events since have done little to prove them wrong, as elsewhere on the continent the colonial administration itself must share a hefty slice of the blame. The government elected at independence was overthrown by a military junta in 1958. The second democratic government lasted from 1966 till only 1968. Ja’far Numeiri’s military government ruled from then until 1985. The third democratic regime lasted only until the coup of 1989. The military government of General Bashir has ruled the country ever since. The one dominant theme throughout this period, and the factor which lies at the heart of the country’s predicament, is the relationship of the country’s southern provinces to the northern heartland. The north, while ethnically diverse, is predominantly Muslim and Arab (at least in culture), aligned with the wider Arab world; the south is home to a myriad of ethnic groups with an educated Christian élite. The south owed its incorporation into the country to a process of conquest initiated by Egypt’s 19th-century ruler Muhammad Ali Pasha, the principal dynamic behind which was slavery. When Britain conquered the country at the end of the century, the south came with the rest. Apparently unable to figure out quite what to do about the region, the colonial administration actively discouraged its integration with the north but otherwise largely neglected it. As a result, by the time of independence, southern leaders had amply demonstrated a deep unease, at best, on behalf of the population over the prospect of being ruled by Khartoum. Discontent had turned to violence even before independence. By 1963 it had turned to civil war. The Addis Ababa Agreement signed by Numeiri with southern rebel leader Joseph Lagu in 1972 stopped the fighting but did little to address the grievances which had caused it. And when the civil war resumed in 1983 it was to continue to the present day, leaving over a million dead and many millions more displaced. The leaders and the circumstances may be different – an Islamist government in Khartoum now confronts a huge array of opposition groups, with northern factions in alliance with John Garang’s southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) – but the basic issues, although complicated since the mid-1990s by the extraction of oil, remain the same: at root, the question of self-determination for the peoples of the south, which is where the oilfields are. It is probably the oil which has kept the present regime in power for so long, bringing in both revenue and a degree of foreign support. But it has resulted in a vicious circle. A large proportion of the revenue earned from oil exports is spent on arms, which are the more easily acquired as a result of the foreign support the presence of oil has fostered. The arms are used to continue the war, which is the only means the Government (and therefore the foreign oil companies involved) have of keeping the oil flowing, given the strength of rebel forces in the oil-producing areas.

Fact file

Monetary unit
Main exports
Human Development Index
Last profiled April 1990

At a glance

Country profile: Star rating: 

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)