Sudan, Part I
There is increasing talk in Washington these days that something
has to be done about the disaster in Sudan. While President Bush
said during the campaign that the United States would no longer
just inject itself into every conflict in the world, in other words,
no nation-building, the plight of the Christians in southern Sudan
has drawn the support of folks all across the political spectrum,
from Kwesi Mfume to Pat Robertson. The fact that over 2
million have died in the country as a result of the civil war and
famine is something that just can''t be ignored any longer. So I
thought we''d take a look at the history of Sudan and get up to
speed on the current situation. Within months this topic could be
leading our national newscasts.
Sudan is the largest nation in Africa, about one million square
miles (roughly a third the size of the continental U.S.). If you
forget where it is on the map, just picture that Egypt straddles the
whole northern border, Ethiopia is to the east, Chad to the west,
with Congo, Uganda, and Kenya bordering the southern end of
The current battle is between the ruling Muslims in the north and
the Christians in the south. As history shows the genesis of the
conflict goes all the way back to the 6th century, when
missionaries from Egypt converted the Nubian (northern part of
Sudan) ruling classes to Coptic Christianity, which gradually
spread to the rest of the population. But in subsequent years,
Arab settlers then began to spread the teachings of Islam to the
northern territories. But the Christians in the south resisted the
Muslim teachings. The land was split. Then in 1276, Egypt
conquered Sudan but did allow the Christian faith to remain
within the Nubian territory. Over the next few centuries,
however, the Christians were forced out.
By the early 19th century, the Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali
recognized the potential in Sudan for slave raiding. Ali
commented, "You are aware that the end of all our efforts and
this experience is to procure Negroes." Many of them were then
conscripted into the Egyptian army. From that point forward the
pattern developed whereby the north would raid the south for
slaves and the two sides would then erupt into warfare. The
regime in Egypt had signed various agreements with European
powers abolishing the slave trade, but it never enforced them.
Sudan not only had bouts of civil war, but it also developed that
the people were no longer willing to be under Egyptian rule.
Enter Muhammad Ahmad.
In 1881, Ahmad announced that he was the Mahdi, "the guided
one," the divinely designated leader who would fill the world with
justice at a time ordained by God. Ahmad claimed that Allah had
sent him to cleanse Sudan and its northern Islamic community of
corruption for the purposes of creating a more pure Islamic state.
He called for a holy war, "jihad," against the rulers in Egypt who
held sway over the land, known as the Turkiyya. Ahmad''s
followers then defeated the Turkiyya, establishing a Muslim state in
1885 which occupied much of what is present-day Sudan.
Unfortunately for the Mahdi he died shortly thereafter. Left in his
place, however, was a strict Islamic regime.
Well, this new rule didn''t last long. By 1899 an Anglo-Egyptian
force reoccupied Sudan. That year the colonialists issued the
Condominium Agreement, which provided for joint rule over
the land. What was known as the Condominium government
sought to defuse tensions between the nationalistic Mahdists and
the Christians by removing the Christian missionaries to the
southern part of the country where there were few Muslims. But
this only encouraged the Christians to launch a guerrilla campaign
against the British. And then in 1906, the British effected the
literal division of Sudan when the Closed Districts Ordinance
required northern Sudanese to have visas in order to enter the
The Great Depression of the 1930s provided its own harbinger of
things to come when Sudan''s reliance on a single crop, cotton,
exposed the people more than other African states at that time.
Then after World War II, Britain negotiated with Egypt and its
claim over Sudan. Britain sided with Sudan, saying correctly that
the people would never put up with Egyptian rule. Nonetheless,
joint rule remained. And while a new constitution was drafted in
1950, southerners occupied less than 1% of the administrative
During the mid-1950s a new movement was afoot, that being the
Arab nationalism of Egypt''s Gamel Abdel Nasser. Nasser sought
to negotiate with Sudan and found that there were 3 movements
to deal with. First, those who wished for independence and a
closer link with Egypt; second, those who wished for
independence and the preservation of a link with Britain; and
third, those who spoke for the non-Muslim, non-Arab peoples of
Egypt agreed with Britain that power should be transferred from
the Anglo-Egyptian condominium to the Sudanese under
international supervision. In 1955 elections were held with
Sudanese taking control (formally in 1956) while Egypt and
Britain withdrew their forces. But revolt and civil war
commenced almost immediately in the south over the transfer of
power. It was obvious that the Arab rulers in the north would run
roughshod over the Christians.
Amid rumors that southern members of the armed forces would
be disarmed, the southerners looted northern Sudanese shops and
killed many northerners. The new government then launched a
reign of terror against the south, imprisoning and executing
thousands. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled the south to
Folks in the north weren''t exactly doing cartwheels either. There
was a military coup in 1958 and then in 1964, student riots and
labor strife led to the toppling of the military government. But
the new leadership was just as bad when it came to its southern
policy. Finally, a group of ex-military officers established a
formal guerrilla movement in the south, Anya-Nya ("snake
poison") which took control of the resistance movement. In 1967
Anya-Nya declared an autonomous south and put together a
shadow government. And in the north, the government''s inability
to resolve the north-south issue led to another military coup,
bringing into power Col. Gaafar al-Nimeiri. The year was 1969.
Nimeiri immediately set about overturning the constitutional
system. He turned to Islam to support his Arab nationalism and
broaden his base of support (as was another new Arab leader of
the time, Muammar Qaddafi of Libya). Nimeiri published a book,
"Why the Islamic Way," to serve as his people''s guidebook.
But since Nimeiri had been betrayed by Sudan''s communist party
during his accession to power, he also assumed an anticommunist,
pro-Western posture, becoming an American ally. [Later on
Nimeiri would be the only Arab leader not to break relations with
Egypt over their signing of the Camp David Accords.]
But for the Christians in the south, the change in tone at the top
was far from what they desired. While Nimeiri made an effort to
include them in the establishment of his government, they still had
memories of a period when they were subjected to slave raids
from the north, and with real power in the hands of those who
only sought to extend Islamic culture southwards, there was little
doubt that the north would ignore the south. And so the revolt
continued, soon consuming Nimeiri as Islamic groups increasingly
opposed his regime. It wasn''t hard-line enough. To save his
skin, Nimeiri imposed Islamic law, Shari''a.
The imposition of Shari''a (or Shariah) clearly discriminated
against the Christian south. It was obvious that dissent was not
to be tolerated, as well as minorities and women. A new guerrilla
movement was created and the cease-fire that had been imposed a
few years earlier was over.
Next week, Part II.
"A History of the Arab Peoples," Albert Hourani
"The Oxford History of Islam," Edited by John Esposito
"Africana," Kwame Appiah and Henry Gates, Jr.