As is the case in most areas, the geography of Sudan affected its economy as well as other aspects if its development. The modern borders were established in 1922 (Figure 18) and the country contains 3 natural regions: the desert in the North, a vast semiarid region of steppes and low mountains in the central portion of the country and vast swamps and rain forest in the south. In recent decades, the expanding of the Sahara Desert, always larger during the dry season (Figure 14), affects the amount of arable land, a situation with enormous repercussions among those who use it. The two most important topographical features to historical development are the Nile River and the Red Sea, sites of trade and cultural interchange. The Nile runs the length of the eastern portion of the country. The Red Sea serves as the eastern border of northern Sudan. Settlement in proximity to both has determined access to power and wealth. Darfur is located in the western most portion of the country, far from these eastern developments. Its neighborhood is the southern Sahara and is largely affected by its proximity to Chad and Libya (Figure 22).


The western portion of the nation has always been more isolated and less affected by the impact of trade. The Riverine Sudanese, as those who live along the Nile are called, have a long tradition of assimilation and interchange that naturally accompanies economic transaction. The ports on both the Red Sea and the Nile served as the site of trade for those within the Arab, African and Mediterranean world (Figure 4). The southern portion of the country was largely isolated because of the rain forest. An active slave trade in east Africa led to incursions by non-indigenous people into the area (Figure 1). In Darfur, there are two primary means of land use: farming and herding (Figure 13). Generally those of African descent farm and those of Arab origin herd, but centuries of intermarriage and tribal exchange make these distinctions incomplete and therefore inaccurate. Differences among groups within Darfur are much more likely to reflect economic modality rather than ethnic origin. Herders and farmers lived in relative harmony, with the nomadic herders crossing farm land to get to rivers as well as using it for pasture. Groups came into conflict during times of drought as less land was available for both grazing and farming. This source of tension has been heightened in recent decades as the Sahara expands and communities compete for diminishing resources.


Sudan's economy changed little in the centuries prior to the 1950s (Figure 13). In addition to agriculture, a predominant feature of the Sudanese economy was a connection to the slave trade. This trade was controlled by those outside of Sudan although there were always local accomplices. First the Arabs, then the Ottomans and finally the Europeans prospered by selling Sudanese slaves throughout the Arab and Mediterranean world (Figure 12). A water born economy also brought riches from Sudan, including ivory, gold and other precious metals. Darfur had a subsistence agricultural economy. Self-sustaining, Darfur was not part of a national or global market. Over the centuries, nomads made their way west from the Nile River areas, the result being a mixing of peoples and cultures. Within Darfur there was always seasonal migration by herders to be near Wadis, rivers that existed only during the rainy seasons (Figure 14).

The local economy was organized around Hakura, a land grant system formalized in the 18th century during Ottoman control of the area. Rather than convey ownership, Hakura provided the foundation of local authority to tribal leaders who themselves were beholden to the central ruler based in Khartoum. The court of the Sultan granted the Hakura which entitled its holder to collect taxes from the people who resided within the area. The Hakura holder would bring his kinsmen to the area and as a result, it became an hereditary position, solidifying tribal leadership within an extended family network. Over time, tribes grew around the Hakura and indeed it was a dialectic process between tribal formation and the establishment of Hakura. An important truth of the economy of the Sudan prior to the 1950s was that mobility and distance made it difficult for distant rulers to maintain authority. Local economic leaders were also political rulers that functioned with a great deal of autonomy in the absence of a national infrastructure.


The strong ties to the land and the subsistence nature of the economy make any disruption to the established order potentially problematic. The severe drought of the early 1980s had an enormous impact, particularly on the Darfur region. The social and economic arrangement that had stood for centuries was based on the mobility of herders and their balanced interchange with farmers. With the severe drought, farmers began blocking herders from crossing their lands to reach limited water supplies or use their land for grazing. Herders were willing to fight for access and were assisted in this effort in the early to mid 1980s by the Libyan government who flooded the area with arms (Figure 22).

Libya had many reasons for providing this assistance, most notably to challenge then President Nimeiri's pro-American stance and resistance to the spread of fundamentalist Islam and pan-Arabism, major goals of Libya's leader, Moamar Qaddafi. Once weapons were present, they were available to both herders, who sought access to the land, and farmers who wanted to protect their holdings. Both groups suffered from drought and the resulting famine and believed that Nimeiri's government ignored the problems of the region, which was one of the many factors that led to his downfall in 1985. In addition to weapons, it was at this point that the Arab/African dichotomy was placed onto the herder/farmer conflict. Propaganda, largely provided by Qaddafi and later reinforced by Sudan's new president, Omar al Bashir, fueled and perpetuated a distinction that although contrary to fact, provided an easy distinction between the two groups. Low level armed conflict persisted for the next twenty years. This claim of ethnic tension as a proxy for economic differences would be one of the foundation causes for the massive conflict that would erupt in the early years of this century.


Two general problems plague the Sudanese economy. The first problem is poor management of resources, so that an overuse of traditional fuels such as wood has led to deforestation. Overgrazing, drought, and the natural expansion of the Sahara Desert have hurt the traditional economy. The government, long pre-occupied with internal strife first in the South and now in Darfur, devotes little time or energy to land conservation. The second problem is inadequate infrastructure in terms of transportation and communication outside of the northern areas of the country which prevents modernization and also contributes to the feelings of neglect on the part of those who live in those areas (Figure 20) . The abandonment of the Hakura system in the 1990s did open more land for farming and herding but it also removed a time honored system for resolving local disputes and has not been replaced with a workable means to ease tensions over access to diminishing land resources. Absent any government involvement, those with grievances have resorted to arms to resolve their conflicts.


The presence of oil in the southwest region of Sudan has brought world attention to the country. The southern portion of the nation had long been treated in a colonial manner by the powerful government based in Khartoum. Beginning in colonial times, the South has been incorporated into a political entity not of its own making. Differences, particularly in religion, made the South's inclusion unnatural. The coming of independence in 1956 did little to improve the status of this region as all leaders of the new country came from the Nile region and the Sudanese government replicated the neglectful treatment of successive colonial rulers. The largely Christian South chafed under northern rule, especially as Islamic law became entwined with state government. Civil war raged from independence until the early 1970s and resurfaced in the mid 1980s. These conflicts were particularly brutal, and led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands and displacement of four million people. Christians outside of Sudan, particularly in the United States, had been providing aid and support for the South.

Oil was discovered by the Chevron Company in the 1970s. A pipeline carrying the oil to Port Sudan on the Red Sea (Figure 19) was opened in 1999. Some western countries, including the United States, boycotted the Sudanese oil industry until its long-running civil war between those in the North and South reached an acceptable settlement. It took four years but the Naivasha Accords were finalized in 2005. In the last two years, Sudanese oil production has soared, now averaging over 400,000 barrels per day. Because very little oil is used domestically, most of what is produced is available for export. Forty percent of oil exports are bought by China who has a vested interest in protecting this enormous resource. The Sudanese Energy Ministry estimates its total oil reserves at 5 billion barrels. Concessions to this oil are owned by Sudapet (the Sudan National Petroleum Corporation), but a consortium of foreign companies was necessary to develop these resources fully. Chinese companies own 40% of the shares in this joint venture. There are also vast potential reserves in eastern portions of the nation. In addition to problems with the South, the exploration of oil reserves has been controversial and brought charges of human rights abuses against the Sudanese government. Many people have been displaced to allow for development of these resources.


1. What natural divisions exist with the Sudanese economy? What divisions have been created over historical time?

2. How did Darfur's economic situation both create and perpetuate its political position within Sudan?

3. Does the presence of oil make the country richer?

4. How have government failures/inaction translated into economic crisis?

5. How has famine and drought shaped the internal economy and politics of Darfur?

  • Flint, Julie and de Waal, Alex. Darfur: A Short History of a Long War. London: Zed Books Ltd, 2005.
  • Jok, Madut. War and Slavery in the Sudan. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
  • Prunier, Gerard. Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005.
Norman B. Leventhal Map Center (