Sudan History

The modern history of Sudan has been marked by bloodshed and political instability. In 1874, the Egyptians completed a 50-year campaign to bring the nomads of the area under their control. In 1881, Muhammad Ahmad, known as the Mahdi, led a successful Muslim separatist uprising. His forces trapped legendary British general Charles Gordon in the capital, Khartoum, in 1884. Commanders of a British relief force appealed to Canada for boatmen to help transport their army up the Nile, and 386 Canadian volunteers took part in Canada’s first overseas military action. But that expedition was unsuccessful — two days before its arrival at Khartoum, Gordon was killed when the Sudanese captured the city.

The Mahdi was finally overthrown in 1899 by another Anglo-Egyptian army. Britain, in partnership with Egypt, then ruled Sudan for the first half of the 20th century. In 1956 the independent Republic of the Sudan was proclaimed. Since then, Sudan has been buffeted by unrest. Attempts by the country’s Muslim majority to subjugate the non-Muslim population of the south have resulted in civil conflict — from 1963 to 1971, and from the mid-1980s to 2005.


Even before the independence of South Sudan, Sudan was divided into two general parts — the mostly Arabic north, with its capital Khartoum, and the largely black tribes of the south. The term “Sudan” itself means “land of the blacks” in Arabic. Though regional conflicts have been numerous in the nation for centuries, recent decades have also seen a resurgence of slavery in the borderland areas between the north and south. This region is known as the province of Bahr El Ghazal. The group specifically targeted by the armed raids for the taking of slaves was the black Dinka population of this province.


Human rights injustices take place in the midst of a civil war. Limited in personnel and finances, the army of the government of Sudan worked in conjunction with tribal militia groups in order to conduct their military campaigns. Frequently operating with government troops, these militias, in light of no pay from the government itself, were encouraged to seize whatever booty they could grab while raiding Dinka villages of the south. Cattle, grain, and ultimately, women and children were taken by these militia groups as compensation for their participation in the northern war effort. These militia groups also received logistical and technical support from the official army, thereby exposing the government of Sudan as co-perpetrators in the taking of slaves and other human rights abuses.

Numerous observers of the Sudan injustices cite the ongoing conflict between the Islamic north and the Animist/Christian south as the primary cause of the conflict, but the situation is decidedly more complicated than this. Numerous human rights groups have interviewed escaped or freed slaves who have witnessed helicopter gunship attacks on villages and innocent civilians. Women and children who were taken into captivity were often treated brutally because they were seen as infidels, people outside of Islamic law. Most were denied their ethnic rights, and the practice of their own language and religion. Forced conversion to Islam and the changing of historic names to Islamic ones is a commonly held practice. Sexual injustices such as rape and genital mutilation on Dinka women were often justified on the basis of Islamic supremacy and entitlement.


The National Islamic Front, which leads the Sudanese government, took power from a democratically elected government in 1989. In order to maintain its hold on the reigns of power, it has attempted to form a delicate coalition between the nation’s military forces and the Islamic fundamentalist movement. Though the current president, General Omar el-Bashir, has attempted certain reforms at secularizing the state, he has nevertheless reigned over a northern government determined to destabilize the various tribes of the south, thereby keeping them from power. But in this he has critics even in the north and within his own government. Many see his heavy hand as ostracizing the nation of Sudan within the international community. Slavery is abhorrent to the more moderate Muslims in Sudan. While international pressure has been brought to bear on the government, Khartoum continues to turn a blind eye to the practices of it own military and militia. The current president’s attempts to find a growing acceptance within the world community have been hampered by the half-hearted manner in which the Sudanese government has said it will deal with slavery, bombings and forced displacements. Opposition parties are tolerated in the north but are provided little opportunity to truly impact the public dialogue.

Oil Development

Most of the resources necessary for a vibrant economy are in the south of Sudan. This was one reason why the official government of the north was determined to wage a military campaign against the southern tribes. Water, cattle, minerals, grain — all these and much more are readily available in the south. But it was the discovery of oil resources in the south that had an escalating effect on the war. Companies such as Canada’s own Talisman Oil Company have assisted the northern government in taking oil out of south and using the revenues provided to purchase more weapons. In fact, it is the presence of oil and the revenues it provides that has given the northern government a clear advantage in the conflict. This has also had the effect of permitting the government to feel more self-sufficient and therefore more bold in its war policy. That the oil is coming from the south with none of the revenues being disbursed in the southern regions is a clear cause for international concern. As southern tribes are cleared out of the oilfield regions by northern forces, hundreds of thousands are being displaced, thereby adding to the already heavy demands placed on southern communities.

Peace Initiatives

The ongoing conflict in Sudan has been the target of numerous peace initiatives through the years. Yet each of these has failed, mostly through government intransigence. Most of these efforts have named the eradication of slavery, free access to needy areas and ceasefires as things that must be part any equitable peaceful solution. While the government of Sudan has provided conditional assent, at no point have their words turned out to be more than lipservice.  However, all that changed on January 9, 2005 as the the northern government signed a comprehensive peace deal with the leaders of south Sudan, ushering in a six-year period of nation building and cooperation. This led to the referendum in January of 2011, in which over 97% of the South Sudanese voted in favour of independence. On July 9, 2011, the Republic of South Sudan celebrated its independence as it officially became a new, separate nation.