The political process in Sudan is complex and complicated. Problems seem insurmountable and solutions inadequate. Absent the foundations for democracy, authoritarianism has provided order if not fulfillment of the promise of self-rule. Circumstances of history and outside influence continue to shape Sudanese politics and during much of its fifty year history, military rule has provided the political structure of the country. While the recent crisis in Darfur has brought world attention, much of the political turmoil is longstanding and intractable. An equally disruptive reality is that old systems that maintained order, particularly on the local level, have been obliterated by the national government, and no mechanism to resolve local conflict has replaced them, resulting in much turmoil in daily life.


Sudanese politics is rife with seemingly insurmountable problems, but major tensions stem from internal divisions, the role of religion and regional pressures. Sudan is a nation divided along many fault lines, with some differences used as proxies for underlying separations. These divisions are proclaimed and exploited for political gain without being addressed. Likewise, claims of unity along religious or ethnic lines are dubious and do not reflect the reality of the Sudanese experience. From independence, Sudan's leaders had to incorporate different tribes, religions, languages and cultures into a single political entity.

(Figure 16) and (Figure 17)Opposing views regarding the separation of Church and State and the amount of formal connection to those in the Arab and African worlds also affected this process.

The reality was that the political elite in Khartoum tended to exclude all but those who were Muslim and Arabic. Even within the Arab realm, distinctions were drawn between those in the East and the rest of the nation. These Riverine Arabs, as the Eastern elite is known, deemed others inferior, although they invoked their common Arabic origins to provide a cover of unity in conflict with the Christian South. In Sudanese politics, both Arab and non-Arabs were excluded from the political center in Khartoum. While the crisis in Darfur underscores an absence of concern for Sudanese of African origin, there seems to be little concern for distant Arab tribes as well.

From independence, the role of Sharia, Muslim law, has been a contentious issue in Sudanese politics. Islam, allowing for variations by time and place, has deep roots and informs daily life. As a result, it is an irresistible tool for politicians who have advocated everything in the spectrum from secularism to fundamentalism. Islam provides a useful cover to mask the enormous economic and cultural differences among the Sudanese people. In recent years, a general revival of fundamentalist Islam throughout the Arab world has allowed Sudan's leaders to use Islam in a militant way and resulted in their alliances with other nations and groups that share this approach.

This system of regional alliance has been neither smooth nor without great cost. During the regime of President Nimeiri, from 1969 to 1984, his pro-American position alienated many in the Muslim and Arab world who hoped for more regional unity. The Cold War tension between the United States and the former Soviet Union compounded these problems, with many in the region taking on the mantle of surrogate combatant to the two global superpowers.


For those who had hoped for an Islamic state based on a parliamentary model in which minority rights would be protected, 50 years of Sudanese politics has been frustrating. The government in Khartoum IGNORES, DIVIDES, or INFLAMES its opposition in equal measure. Popular will is easily swayed and even those who support the elite are easily distracted by fear of losing their status or being beholden to outside interests and standards. In many ways, the "authoritarianism with privileges" of the colonial system has merely been transferred to the Sudanese. One large difference is the role and rule of local authorities, largely obliterated in recent decades but not replaced with any substantive form of leadership that can address local problems. In this arena of incomplete transfer, armed militias flourish with little to check their impact.

This tendency to ignore problems has been a recurrent approach by the national government in Khartoum. For example, the horrific drought of the early 1980s in the Darfur region led to upheaval in a long standing economic and social equilibrium in which farmers and herders co-existed and shared resources. With diminishing arable lands and the infusion of weapons from Libya, economic conflict quickly devolved into armed warfare. Then President Nimeiri's response of denial and/or avoidance left little room for solution. What resources his government did have were directed towards renewed civil war with the South.

The national government also used the time honored and effective strategy of dividing its opposition, or creating false dichotomies to avoid addressing the real problem. Again, referring to the drought of the 1980s, what was essentially a conflict between economic modalities was quickly subsumed into proclaimed ethnic hostilities between Africans and Arabs. Although the latter distinction was factually inaccurate, it served to distract the participants from the real source of the conflict and what might have been plausible solutions had the government chosen to commit its limited resources to addressing the problem.

In fairness to Nimeiri's regime, he was aided in this misleading ethnic explanation by rampant propaganda from neighboring Libya (Figure 22), whose leader, Moamar Qaddafi, hoped to create an Arab belt throughout the region and fueled the ongoing conflict with weapons, words, and wealth. Likewise, this strategy of claiming Arab supremacy and defending against assaults on this same elite has long been the approach of the national government to protect the power of the Riverine Arabs, essentially a minority, against the complex ethnic mosaic that is Sudan. This ploy had been effectively used against the South for decades where Khartoum promoted the legitimacy of Arab domination. This tendency of the elite to inflame and distract the Sudanese people from underlying economic problems and opportunity has enabled successive regimes to maintain political power while delivering little actual growth and development for the nation.

Although Nimeiri was removed from power in 1984, his successor, al Bashir has increasingly played on the ethnic fears of his elite to maintain power and continually restrict the rights of those outside of his core constituency. By promoting an increasingly fundamentalist Islamic view, he availed himself of an elite project that never gained legitimacy outside of students, intellectual and military circles. Sudan's hard line party, the National Islamic Front, gave asylum to terrorists and made enemies with the West. To quote a recent article by George Packer in The New Yorker: "And so an ethnically and religiously mixed African country with an egalitarian brand of Sufism as its dominant form of Islam was mobilized by intellectuals and soldiers to create a militaristic, ideologically extreme state whose main achievements were civil war, famine, slavery and mass death."(1) Bashir's government used this method of empowering local militias to squash legitimate rebellion in both the South and in Darfur. This tactic does not stem from ideology but expedience as the most successful way to keep this artificial construction known as Sudan under rule by a minority.

(1) George Packer, "Letter from Sudan: The Moderate Martyr," The New Yorker, September 11, 2006, p. 67.


A government restructuring in the mid 1990s divided Darfur into three administrative regions (Figure 18). The Fur, whose tribal leaders had been a dominant force in the area, were now weakened throughout the region that they had dominated for centuries. In general, Bashir's government lessened the authority of all tribal leaders throughout Sudan and created new positions to assume these administrative tasks and filled them with Arabs supportive of the regime in Khartoum. Informal systems, that had previously been a foundation of the society to resolve conflicts, were crippled by these changes. The government did not eliminate Hakura, the land grant system in place since the 18th century and the economic foundation of the tribal system throughout the country. The result was a divided and confused system of local administration with recognized authority now absent in many situations.

This confusion of authority hierarchy was just one of the many causes of rebel activity which began in earnest in 2001. Members of Fur and Zaghawa tribes felt marginalized in their inability to gain access to power in the national government. They watched as their region was taxed and asked to provide soldiers for the ongoing civil war with the South, while they were denied roads, schools and hospitals. Despite a series of conferences that produced hollow promises, they realized the unwillingness of Bashir's government to either address these problems or include Darfur's representatives in the process of solution. At first, their rebellion took the form of civil disobedience and refusal to pay taxes, but the desire to be included in national politics led to the formation of two rebel groups, the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), who waged a series of successful attacks on military installations, the most successful being at al-Fashir in Marc, 2003.

At this point the government did not articulate a policy towards Darfur but simply resorted to what had been an effective method of dealing with the South, which was a counter-insurgency. They supported local Arab militias, known collectively as the Janjaweed, with weapons, air power, money and impunity. Clearly the motivation to the militias was the notion that all tactics would be accepted and any spoils would be theirs to keep. The government did the best it could to conceal these activities, not wanting to derail the delicate negotiations with the South because the opening of its vast oil resources to the West, particularly the United States, were contingent upon ending this conflict.

When news of the massive deaths and dislocation in Darfur surfaced in the West (Figure 20), Khartoum claimed that they were simply dealing with internal rebellion and had no intention of negotiating with those who took arms against the state. As the humanitarian crisis grew, Bashir's government did everything in its power to prevent Western aid and media from coming into its country. The Sudanese government behaved as it did in so many instances by resorting to division and/or inflammatory policies. The militias in Darfur were an expediency that was easily cloaked in the mission of jihad, provided one would recognize the rebels as the infidels that they were, despite their Muslim heritage. By setting up two largely imagined and constructed communities against one another, Bashir legitimized his government's actions within the radical Islamic world. By claiming to the West that it was merely age-old tribal conflicts, he avoided the objective assessment that Darfur was truly a civil war run amok. Clearly, the Darfur problem did not result from any neglect or failure on the part of Khartoum, but was the result of animosities that long preceded Bashir's regime.


1. Are events in Darfur unique or simply 'business as usual' in Sudan?

2. How have Sudanese leaders copied their colonial predecessors?

3. How has President Bashir used Western tactics to defend his actions?

4. Why has Islam become increasingly important in Sudanese politics?

  • Burr, J. M. Africa's Thirty Years' War: Chad, Libya, and the Sudan, 1963-1993. Boulder: Westview Press, 1994.
  • Flint, Julie and de Waal, Alex. Darfur: A Short History of a Long War. London: Zed Books Ltd., 2005.
  • Khalid, Mansour. The Government They Deserve: The Role of the Elites in Sudan's Political Evolution. London: Kegan Paul International, 1990.
  • Packer, George. "Letter from Sudan: The Moderate Martyr." The New Yorker. September 11, 2006.
  • Power, Samantha. "Dying in Darfur."The New Yorker. August 30, 2004.
  • Prunier, Gerard. Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005.
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