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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.

Steve Sherman

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Map of Sudan

At a glance

Leader: President Lt-General Umar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir.

Economy: Gross national income (GNI) per capita $320 (Egypt $1,490, Britain $24,500).
Oil is newly important but agriculture remains the mainstay, with sorghum grown on 48% of the cultivated land.

Main exports: Crude oil, raw cotton, peanuts, sesame, sugar.

Monetary unit: Dinar.

People: 31.1 million (36% urban). People per square kilometre 12 (Britain 238).

Health: Infant mortality 66 per 1,000 live births (Egypt 37, Australia 6).

Environment: In the north, drought is a constant problem. In the south the ravages of war, now coupled with the effects of the oil industry, have done little to promote the environment. Both factors have produced a growing reliance on relief agencies in the last two decades.

Culture: Just over 50% are Arab; of many ethnic groups in the south the largest is the Dinka. In the south are 400,000 refugees from neighbouring nations.

Religion: Sunni Muslim 65%; Christian 6%.
Language: Arabic is the official language but the non-Arab population speaks over 100 distinct languages.

Sources: State of the World’s Children 2002; World Guide 2001/2002; information supplied by the author.

Last profiled in April 1990

star ratings

income distribution INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
There is a massive concentration of wealth in the hands of a small northern élite.
1990 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Self-sufficient in oil and some food crops; imports processed food and nearly everything else. In drought years is heavily reliant on grain imports.
1990 [image, unknown]

position of women

POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown]
Full access to education (in the north). But prevalence of traditional Muslim social relations in the north and continuing civil war are major sources of restriction. Few women in prominent positions in society. Female genital mutilation is widespread.
1990 [image, unknown]

LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Net primary-school enrolment/attendance: 40%.
1990 [image, unknown]
FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Has the trappings of a plural democracy, with an elected parliament and relatively free press. But the military decides which parties are allowed and takes all the important decisions.
1990 [image, unknown]
LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown]
56 years (Egypt 67, Canada 79).
1990 [image, unknown]
life expectancy


NI Assessment [image, unknown]
Little short of a disaster on every count, saved only by what little income the Government has left over to spend from oil-export revenues after it has paid for armaments. The major political forces, bar two, are outlawed, their leaderships in exile. Nearly all northern parties are opposed in varying degrees to the self-determination of the south. Militarily, little ever seems to change. The SPLA holds the countryside in the south, as well as some parts of the north, while the Government controls the big towns. Civilians die in great numbers.

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