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The Colonial and Post Colonial History of Sudan

The Democratic Republic of the Sudan is the largest but least known of the MENA countries [1]. It’s size and substantial economic potential have been obscured by endless conflicts in the region – but in 2020, Sudan’s moral and democratic innovations have been brought to light in the aftermath of Omar al-Bashir’s overthrow in 2019. Mr. al-Bashir has ruled since 1989, and it was massive street protests that disrupted his brutal rule.

At the time of the Turco-Egyptian conquest, Sudan was divided into several small Muslim states and a number of tribal territories where primitive communal economic and social relations ultimately prevailed. This conquest was extremely brutal, and it exacted a heavy toll from the people and tribes of Sudan.

The impact of Turco-Egyptian colonial rule on Sudan was simply disastrous – as the subsistence economy was distorted as whole regions were depopulated and slave raids were prominent.

In addition to entrenching a foreign group of exploiters within the Sudan, colonial rule fragmented existing agricultural or pastoral communities and created new groups of privileged and oppressed in both urban and rural areas.

In 1881-1898, Sudan saw a rise of nationalism and the Mahdia. At this time, British creditors had imposed economic restrictions on Egypt in the late 1870s – and this thereby weakened Turco-Egyptian control of the Sudan. In 1880-82, the small military garrisons were reduced in size and several military units disbanded even as taxation increased.

In 1881, a popular uprising led by the religious/political movement Mahdist movement threw off Turco-Egyptian rule. In a series of raids and battles in 1881-84, the Mahdist forces captured almost all the Egyptian garrisons and smashed the Turco-Egyptian forces. The Mahdists were supported by peasants, nomads, slaves and artisans, who formed guerilla detachments which attacked government posts and tax collectors.

The religious/political overtones and ethos of Sudanese resistance is recognized in Islamic history and culture. The rise of the Mahdist movement created the initial basis for relentless political and economic conflict between the two major Sudanese tariqas (religious brotherhoods) that colors much of subsequent Sudanese colonial and post-colonial history.

The end of the 18th century saw a revival of Islam in the growth of tariqas, which usually developed as a cult around a religious leader who also had economic functions in the local communities.

The Mahdist state, throughout its short life, was persistently attacked and provoked by external enemies on all sides. It fought the Turco-Egyptian army in 1885-86 and again in 1891 along the Red Sea coast; the Ethiopians and the Darfur Sultan between 1887-89; rebellions in Kordofan and Darfur in 1891; the British-supported Italians from Ethiopia in 1893-94; and the Belgians in the southern region in 1894.

In the context of rapid imperialist advances and consolidation throughout all of Africa during this period, Sudan became the focus for British and French forces racing to control the interior regions of Africa bordering on their colonies. By 1896, the British and French governments both dispatched expeditions to seize control of the Nile headwaters.

Following the occupation of Egypt in 1881, the British opposed Egyptian requests to mount a military campaign to regain control of Sudan, not wanting Egypt to incur expenses that would endanger repayment of debts to European financiers.

The British decision in 1895 to reconquer Sudan with Egyptian troops and financing reflected the British need to consolidate colonial control and prevent advances by other powers that would endanger their investments in Africa, including Egypt.

After this, the British began demolishing frameworks with Sudanese societies. The British continued to implement direct administration and discontinued educational expansion in Northern Sudan. Schools were downgraded and the little money in the colonial budget for education went almost solely to missionary schools in the South.

During the 1930s, nationalist elements formed study groups in Khartoum and Omdurman to discuss cultural and literary approaches to gaining Sudanese independence. Cultural and literary societies, as in other colonial societies, flourished as avenues of legal political expressions, and nationalistic poems frequently found their way into daily newspapers in northern cities.

In the mid 1940s, the small but strategically placed Sudanese working class began to express itself politically for the first time – and it was almost solely made up of transport and communication workers.

The British, fearing the development of an independent trade union movement, sponsored “works committee” that focused on improving productivity rather than wage demands.

The British hoped to create a carefully controlled workers movement concerned only with limited economic, not political, issues. They hoped that such a movement would not oppose their neo-colonial control in the eventuality of independence.

In the postcolonial period in Sudanese history, the country saw a mixture of civilian and military rule from 1956–1964. During the first three years of Sudanese independence, declining cotton prices on the world market revealed the vulnerability of Sudan’s dependency on a monocultural economy to external market pressures.

The dominant political paradigm at this time is what form Sudanese independence will take. The Umma supported independence within some form of the British commonwealth. The NUP backed Sudanese self-rule as part of a Sudanese-Egyptian federation.

The British sought to delay self-rule long enough to allow them to influence the structure of post-colonial institutions to preserve economic interests. Only the Ansar and the Umma participated in the new British-sponsored “representative” bodies set up to plan gradual steps towards self-rule.

The Ashiqqa and the NUP boycotted these bodies until after July 1952, when the Egyptian revolution put an end to Anglo-Egyptian maneuvering and catalyzed a speedy agreement between Egyptian and Sudanese political groups on Sudan’s right to self-rule.

Since its political independence in 1956, Sudan has witnessed the rise of armed ethnic conflict and regional protest movements that have resulted in great human suffering and the largest number of refugees and displaced peoples in Africa [2].

These protest movements have challenged the legitimacy of the Independent Sudanese state, led by Arabized and Islamized elites at the pinnacle of power, to extend and define citizenship rights and responsibilities.

In Darfur, Southern Kordofan, and Blue Nile, these movements not only currently demanding equal citizenship rights, but they are also demanding recognition of special rights including claims to land, autonomous government, and the maintenance of ethno-national identities – thus opening up a debate about what citizenship entails, particularly in a multicultural context; how the current state reconciles competing claims of citizenship; and what kinds of viable institutional mechanisms are required for an effective relationships between the state, its citizens, and local power structures.

Similar to many former European colonies in Africa, the official history of Sudan has been written mainly by Europeans – and this European colonial discourse theorizes that African history, unlike European history, was a product of external influences. As a result, the histories and identities of African societies were imagined and represented in opposition of those of Europe.

The rich precolonial social and political histories of African communities were either ignored or misrepresented as prehistoric vestiges of “darkness”. Medieval Arab writers and later Europeans shared the same perspective about the history of Africa. Both of these entities presented the peoples of Sudan as comprising two different racial, cultural, historical, and regional categories.

People of northern Sudan have been seen as “oriental”, while people of southern Sudan have been presented as “people without history”. Northern Sudanese were deemed “Arab,” Muslim, and civilized, whereas southern Sudanese were considered “black,” heathen, and primitive. These geographical, racial, and cultural identities were, however, products of historical processes, namely, slavery and colonialism.

The reality on the ground is that it does not make sense to take the “North” – “South” or “African” – “Arab” dichotomies as our units of analysis for studying the vast and diverse country of Sudan. Neither the people of the North nor those of the South constitute a distinct cultural and racial group with a distinct history can be taken as an objective of inquiry.

These racial and ethnic identities are political ones produced through specific discourses and practices. Scholarship on Sudan has simply accepted the “North” and the “South” as fundamentally distinct, absolute, and different from each other.

This scholarship claims that the northern region possesses a degree of cultural and political unity marked by the Islamic religion and Arab race. Yet many ethnic groups in northern Sudan, including the Fur and the Nuba in the west and the Beja in the east, were only marginally influenced by Arabization and Islamization. The Nubians, though Arabized, retained their language. This ethnic and religious diversity is not only unique to Sudan, it’s applicable to the African continent as a whole.

Current day Sudan is ripe with democratic potential – as the military leaders and civilian protestors who ousted the repressive regime of Omar al-Bashir and his National Congress Party (NCP) in 2019 are uneasy partners in a transnational government that – if successful – will be replaced by an elected government in 2020.

Civic space is slowly opening to individuals and opposition parties, but security personnel associated with the abuses of the old regime remain influential, and their commitment to political freedoms and civil liberty remains sketchy at best [3].

Mr. al-Bashir has played a crucial role in the history of contemporary Sudan. He came to power in a Coup d’état in 1989, was overthrown by the military in April, after a protest movement beginning in December 2018 placed growing pressure of government.

The military initially attempted to rule without the input of civilian protestors, who originally demonstrated against rising commodity prices and pervasive economic hardship calling for Mr. al-Bashir’s resignation.

Security forces killed 127 protestors in the capital of Khartoum in June, sparking a backlash that forced the short-lived junta to include civilian leaders in a new transitional government as part of a power-sharing agreement reached in August.

Many of Sudan’s problems with democratization are by and large due to Mr. al-Bashir and his party. The electoral process is almost non-existence and political institutions are malnourished.

There is a concerning lack of political pluralism and participation. Government is not efficient nor functioning, and Mr. al-Bashir and his party are by and large to blame for this.

Successive governments in Sudan have neglected populations living in the periphery of the country. The current day transitional government of Sudan is making progress on human rights and democracy, but there is still much more to be done.

Sources [1] Collins, Carole. "Colonialism and Class Struggle in Sudan." MERIP Reports, no. 46 (1976): 3-20. doi:10.2307/3010898. [2] Idris, Amir. "Rethinking Identity, Citizenship, and Violence in Sudan." International Journal of Middle East Studies 44, no. 2 (2012): 324-26. [3] Sudan. From:


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