The coming of independence to Sudan in 1956 revealed the incredible divisions within the country and complexities of cultural composition. Independence came with little turmoil or bloodshed, but there was also not a unifying spirit that characterizes many rebellions. For Sudan, an artificial geographic construct to begin with, the absence of a united mission was detrimental to the land and the people. Coupled with conflicting goals, poor leadership, and a divisive colonial legacy, it is not surprising that independent Sudan looked a great deal like colonial Sudan to many of its residents.


World War One raised the hopes of many colonial peoples throughout Africa and the Middle East for independence. In Sudan most of those who wished to rid themselves of colonial rule lived in the North, were highly educated and Westernized. Many Sudanese felt that only the departure of foreign rulers would allow for a centralized nation that was both Muslim and Arab, where tribal and religious leaders would share power.

Neither Britain nor Egypt would agree to a modification in the 1899 Anglo-Egyptian Condominium Agreement which placed Sudan under the joint administration of the two countries. Moreover, the British believed their presence was necessary to protect Sudan from Egyptian domination.

(Figure 15)Nationalists feared the solution might be to attach northern Sudan to Egypt and southern Sudan to Uganda and Kenya. Although they settled most of their differences in the 1936 Treaty of Alliance, which set a timetable for the end of British military occupation, Britain and Egypt failed to agree on the future status of Sudan.

Following World War Two, the British agreed to transfer power. Their system of indirect rule would be modernized and incorporated into a Sudanese political system. The new Sudanese government would have responsibility in all areas except military and foreign affairs, which remained in British hands. In February 1953, the parties signed the Anglo-Egyptian accord, which allowed for a three-year transition period from Condominium rule to self- government. During the transition phase, British and Egyptian troops would withdraw from Sudan. At the end of this period, the Sudanese would decide their future status in a plebiscite conducted under international supervision. Sudan achieved independence without the rival political parties having agreed on the form and content of a permanent constitution.


The new country had many problems and no clear mechanism for solving them. The colonial experience had created a profound division between North and South which was only reinforced by geographic factors, linguistic differences and religious affiliation. To what extent would religious law be incorporated in the new nation? Would southern Christians be bound by Sharia, Muslim law? Would claims of pan-Arabism mask distinctions and create a sense of nationalism? The British had an effective civil service. By whom would they be replaced, given the dearth of education of those who lived in the southern and western portions of the country? With whom would the country ally itself, both in its region and in the Cold War dominated era? Did it envision itself as part of Africa or the Middle East?

There was not a strong political commitment to democracy. Those who found themselves in positions of power were not prepared in the means of nation building or statecraft, because nothing in their colonial past prepared the Sudanese for such an approach. Elitism, factionalism and authoritarianism dominated Sudanese politics from the beginning. Northern Sudanese quickly replaced the British civil servants, much to the resentment of those in the South, who quickly began to agitate for provincial autonomy. Failure to gain power within the new government resulted in rebellion and protracted civil war between the South and the North from the first months after independence until the early 1970s.

The new government, based on a parliamentary model, introduced plans to expand the country's educational, economic, and transportation sectors. To achieve these goals, Khartoum needed foreign economic and technical assistance, to which the United States made an early commitment. The prime minister formed a coalition government in February 1956, but he alienated religious leaders by supporting increasingly secular government policies. Factionalism and bribery in parliament, coupled with the government's inability to resolve Sudan's many social, political, and economic problems, increased popular disillusion with democratic governance. Growing popular discontent caused many antigovernment demonstrations in Khartoum. On November 17, 1958, the day parliament was to convene, a military coup occurred.


A pattern developed in successive years. There were many in Sudan who understood the enormous task before them but absent any way to construct a majority, democracy was difficult. Those times when it was tried via a multiparty system, factionalism and corruption made a rapid return to authoritarianism and military domination easy. Even when coalition governments formed, they were unable to deliver on promises.

After the military overthrow in 1958, officers assumed positions of political leadership but the economy and society remained in turmoil. They tried to suppress religious and cultural differences by promoting the Arabization of all. In 1964, a parliamentary system was instituted that had little more success. In 1969, a military coup under Nimeiri took power which lasted until the mid-1980s. Again, a few years of democratic efforts failed to achieve lasting and meaningful change, and the military rule of the current president, al Bashir began in 1989.


Darfur was officially included in Sudan in 1916. In the three generations that followed, the people of Darfur became Sudanese. As the Sudanese were attempting to construct themselves as a distinct nation, those in Darfur shared in this process, yet did so from their marginal status. They assimilated to an economic and political entity that was centered on the Nile and most concerned with divisions between its northern and southern regions. As a peripheral appendage, the people of Darfur were saddled with problems not of their own design, with little ability to participate in the solution. Many within Darfur sought to change this situation. The ineffectiveness of nonviolence unfortunately gave way to a rising rebellion in which weapons would serve as the voice of protest.


1. What did independence mean for the people of Sudan? Darfur?

2. How did the absence of any real struggle to gain independence affect the new nation?

3. Who constitutes the majority in Sudan? Why do they have such little influence?

4. Were the people of Sudan better or worse off after independence?

  • Daly, M.W. Imperial Sudan: The Anglo-Egyptian Condominium. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • Prunier, Gerard. Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005.
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