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Majority Rule/Minority Rights: Country Studies - Sudan

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 7 Political Rights, 7 Civil Rights (Not Free)


Sudan is the largest country in area on the African continent and the 10th largest in the world. Despite recent discoveries of oil reserves and the daily export of 400,000 billion barrels of oil, Sudan is also one of the continent's poorest countries, with a GNI ranking of 162 with $810, and a PPP of $2,160, ranking it 171. Sudan has one of Africa's richest and most complex cultural histories, incorporating ancient, animist, Christian, Arab, Egyptian, and other influences. Today, Sudan, dominated by the Muslim north, is ranked as having one of the most repressive governments in the world (see Freedom House report).

For most of its history following independence in 1956, the country has suffered a series of brutal civil wars. For decades, the dominant Islamic government in the northern part of the country has attempted to unify the country under Arabic and Islamic values, inflaming war with the animist and Christian south. An agreement signed in January 2005 brokered by international parties after years of peace talks brought an end to the north-south dispute and included a number of agreements, including one to share in oil revenues. But separate government-sponsored violence in the Darfur region against black ethnic groups has resulted in an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 killed and 1.5 to 2 million persons forcibly displaced, many to refugee camps in Chad, prompting calls for UN intervention to end genocide.


Early History: The Succession of African, Christian, and Islamic Kingdoms

Known in ancient history as Nubia, Sudan was ruled by three successive Kushite kingdoms from 2500 BC to 300 AD. Greatly influenced by the Pharaonic Egyptian empires to its north, the kings of Napta defeated the late Pharaonic kingdom and built the famous Nubian pyramids. After the last Kushite kingdom of Meroe, three Christian kingdoms appeared along different lengths of the Nile. Several attempts by the Arabs to spread Islam in the seventh century AD were rebuffed, but over the centuries, Islam moved into Sudan's northern territory through slow colonization by Arabs. Christian Nubia maintained its independence until the 13th century, but as royal Nubians and Muslim Arabs intermarried, Islam gradually became the dominant religion in the region. Northern Nubia was claimed by Egypt, which itself was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. Southern Nubia, in the meantime, developed into a loose confederation of sultanates and tribal warlords. The sultans who ruled over the Darfur area dominated in the slave trade, and Sudan became one of the largest centers for the slave trade in the Arab world.

Protest to save Darfur

Egyptian and British Rule

In 1820–21, the northern Sudan was conquered by the Egyptian Ottoman. Egypt also laid claim to southern Sudan, where it established the province of Equatoria, but it failed to gain effective control over tribal leaders and slave raiders. When Egypt came under control of the British Empire, the legal slave trade, which had become increasingly profitable, was abolished, and many British governors unsuccessfully attempted to halt the trade. British interest in Egyptian affairs, the persistent slave trade, disgruntled former army members, and oppressive taxes created an unstable atmosphere. An ensuing economic crisis became the vehicle for an Arab messianist named Muhammad ibn Abdallah, known as the Mahdi ("the expected one"), who led an insurrection that overtook Khartoum and established a republic based on Islamic law. Khartoum was retaken by Great Britain in 1898 and the Mahdi state collapsed. In 1899, Egyptian rule in Sudan was established under joint British-Egyptian authority; the governor-general of Sudan was a joint appointment, with Great Britain as the ultimate authority. In the 1920s, however, the British governor established closed districts ordinances, travel bans, and required passports for traveling between the north and the south. Establishing different official languages for north and south further separated the two parts of Sudan.

Independence and Civil War

After World War II, the British initiated a self-government process for Sudan. Sudan gained independence in 1956. Contrary to promises made to southern leaders, the British decided to base the new government in the Arab north, where its colonial administration had been concentrated. A group of southern army officers rebelled against the northern government, which rejected its promises for a federal government. The Anyanya movement, named after a southern Sudanese poison, led an armed struggle against the government until 1972, when a peace agreement between the warring sides was signed. Unification attempts were shaky, and in 1983, Gaafar Muhammad Nimeiri, a former army officer who had been elected president, sought to consolidate his power base by suspending autonomy in the south, declaring Sudan an Islamic state, and imposing Sharia (Islamic law) as the basis for law throughout the country. Despite the controversy and resentment over Sharia, after Nimeiri was overthrown in 1985, his policies, called the September Laws, remained in place. The rebellion of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) resumed.

Omar el-Bashir
The Long Rule of General Omar

Lieutenant General Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir seized power in 1989 and ruled until 1999 through a joint military-civilian regime in alliance with the Islamist leader Hassan al-Turabi, who led al-Bashir's National Congress Party. But after breaking with his main ally, Hassan al-Turabi, and then arresting him, al-Bashir fabricated new elections that were fully dominated by his own National Congress Party (which claimed 85 percent of the 340 seats). Other parties, including al-Turabi's, were barred from campaigning and boycotted the election.

Omar al-Bashir's rule, during both periods, has been marked by the brutal use of force against rebellions; the routine jailing of political opponents and rivals; the wholesale restriction of basic human rights; total control of the media; and the strict interpretation of Sharia. Following the dismissal of al-Turabi from the government and the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, however, Sudan has moved away from its close alliance with al-Qaeda and other extreme jihaddist movements and attempted to restore relations with Western countries, as well as accepted International Monetary Fund (IMF)-imposed austerity measures.

Majority Rule, Minority Rights

Sudan's population of 40 million is highly diverse, with 600 distinct ethnic groups and 400 recognized languages. The main cleavages are between Arabic (39 percent) and black African (52 percent) and between Muslim (70 percent), animist or indigenous belief (25 percent), and Christian (5 percent). There are also language and ethnic groups that often cross borders, the Nuba being the most numerous.

Lack of Constitutional Protections

Sudan's constitution does not establish a democratic government and fails to protect either individual liberties or minority rights. Since independence, the central government in Khartoum has been dominated by the northern Arab and Muslim community. This has meant the dominance of Muslims and Arabic speakers in all major government institutions, from the military to the courts. Changes in the constitution made Sudan an Islamic state and also made Arabic the sole official language. All of these conditions have led to rebellions by the predominantly Christian and animist southern and western regions.

Violations of War Against Rebellions

During the ongoing civil war against the south, the government engaged in widespread human rights violations and violations of normal practices of war, including scorched earth policies that created intentional conditions of famine, causing at least two million mainly civilian deaths and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of others. In general, the central government has acted to prevent any possibility of national reconciliation, and the central government represses any opponents and dissidents that question the central leader, al-Bashir.

John Garang
International Intervention for the South

In late 2001, U.S. senator John Danforth was appointed as a presidential peace envoy and led a number of fact-finding missions to the Sudan. Based upon Senator Danforth's suggestions, an international team led by Kenya and aided by the United States, Great Britain, and Norway eventually helped successfully set the terms with the government for peace negotiations with the south. Although the negotiations proceeded at a slow pace, the government continued to participate in the process, mainly due to international pressure. An agreement called the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was reached in early 2005 between the Sudanese government and John Garang, the leader of the SPLA, the main rebellion army, in which al-Bashir became president and Garang became vice president.. The agreement provided an interim autonomy period of six years for the south, after which separation could be considered through a referendum. Garang died suddenly in a mysterious plane crash soon thereafter, prompting conspiracy accusations and rioting in Khartoum, which led to the deaths of 100 people. Although his successor, Salva Kiir, is known as being more radical, Kiir has continued his support for the agreement.


The brutal government response to a new insurrection in the Darfur region has further isolated Sudan from the international community and reversed gains made by the peace agreement with the south.

The brutal government response to a new insurrection in the Darfur region has further isolated Sudan from the international community and reversed gains made by the peace agreement with the
Government forces and the janjaweed, a government-backed militia comprised of Arabized black African Muslims, have targeted ethnic black African communities supporting rebel groups demanding regional autonomy, and indiscriminately burned villages and swept people from their homes. During their raids, the militias have exterminated young males and carried out mass rapes of women, killing between 200,000 and 400,000 people and displacing at least two million others. This deliberate targeting of ethnic groups for killing, raping, and expulsion has been termed genocide by the United States and many other governments, but UN mechanisms for ending genocide have not been put in place. In 2006, a UN- and U.S.-sponsored agreement between the Sudan government and one of the main rebel groups was signed, the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA). Unfortunately, the DPA did not succeed in ending the rebellion of armed splinter factions or the attacks by the janjaweed; shortly after the signing, fighting intensified, led by rebel groups who had refused to sign. Peacekeeping African National Union troops have been unable to prevent further killings.

International Interventions

While international intervention to resolve the rebellion in the South has generally succeeded, it has had limited impact in dealing with the conflict in Darfur. In 2003, the Sudanese government agreed to allow the presence of 3,500 troops from the African National Union; however, they have been largely ineffective against the militias or non-uniformed government forces. Despite the presence of peacekeeping troops in the Darfur region, war broke out in 2005 between Sudan and neighboring Chad over simmering tensions over the number of refugees streaming into Chad and the ineffective control over continuing clashes between Chadian and Sudanese militias. In 2004, the U.S. declared the policy of the Sudanese government genocide, but no application of policy attended the declaration. The UN has continuously criticized the Sudanese government for its internal policies, its war practices toward the south, and its genocide in Darfur, but its efforts to press Sudan to allow a more comprehensive military force led by the UN to protect Darfurians has been rebuffed by the Sudanese government.