Majority Rule/Minority Rights: Country Studies — Sudan

Sudan Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Not Free; Freedom Ranking 7; Political Rights: 7; Civil Rights: 7.



Since gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1956, Sudan has been governed mostly by dictatorships and has endured numerous brutal civil wars. For decades, the dominant Arabic government in the north has attempted to impose its “Islamic order” on the whole country, a policy that triggered a vicious civil war with the largely animist and Christian south. An international peace agreement signed in January 2005 ended the main north-south civil war and resulted in the creation of an independent South Sudan in July 2011. Rebellion, however, spread to the southern regions of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, where continued conflict has displaced two million people. Separately, in the western Darfur region, government-sponsored violence against non-Arab black Muslims and animists beginning in 2004 has killed an estimated 400,000 to 450,000 persons and forcibly displaced another 2.5 million individuals from their homes. In 2009, the International Criminal Court issued its first arrest warrant of a sitting leader of government, President Omar al-Bashir, on charges of being co-responsible for crimes against humanity in Darfur; in 2010, it added the charge of genocide.

Omar al-Bashir has ruled Sudan as president since seizing power in a coup in 1989. Since 1999, he has exerted absolute control over its political, military, economic and religious institutions. In 2015, Bashir was re-elected president and his National Congress Party gained most seats in parliament in controlled elections boycotted by the national opposition. Freedom House ranks Sudan regularly among its “worst of the worst,” with the lowest scores of 7 in political freedoms and 7 in civil liberties.

Following the separation of South Sudan, the country is now the second largest on the African continent in area, at 1.9 million square kilometers. With a current population of 40 million, Sudan’s dominant culture and language is Arabic. Still, it has one of Africa's most diverse populations. The main cleavages are ethnic (39 percent of the population is Arabic and 52 percent is black African) and religious (70 percent is Muslim, 25 percent animist or indigenous belief, and 5 percent Christian). There are also 70 language groups and 600 distinct ethnic groups, including several whose traditional territories span the Sudan-South Sudan, with the Nuba being the largest. Sudan’s economy relies largely on oil production and foreign investment from China and Russia. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), nominal GDP places Sudan 68th in the world in 2014 (at $75 billion in total output), but Sudan’s per capita Gross National Income is ranked 130th ($2,194 per annum), among the continent's poorest countries. Sudan is ranked 170th out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Survey.


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

Known in ancient history as Nubia, Sudan was ruled by three Kushite kingdoms from 2500 BC to AD 300. Greatly influenced by Pharaonic Egypt to its north, the Kushite kings of Napta built the famous Nubian pyramids and, for a time, managed to conquer Egypt. After the demise of the last Kushite kingdom, three distinct Christian kingdoms developed along different lengths of the Nile, although much of the population retained its indigenous animist beliefs. Attempts to spread Islam in the seventh century AD were at first rebuffed, but Arab colonization over the centuries made Islam the dominant religion in Sudan's northern territory. Christian Nubia in the south maintained its independence until the 13th century, but northern rule spread across the region as royal Nubians and Muslim Arabs intermarried. Northern Nubia was claimed by Egypt, then under Ottoman rule, and incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. Southern Nubia, in the meantime divided into various sultanates and tribal kingdoms, which later joined in a loose confederation. Sultans who ruled over the Darfur region made this area one of the largest centers for slave trading in the Arab world.

A Washington, D.C. protest against genocide in Darfur.

Egyptian and British Rule

In 1820–21, northern Sudan, which had re-established its own rule, was again conquered by the Egyptian Ottoman potentate, but he could not gain effective control over the south’s and west’s tribal leaders and slave traders. When the British Empire took control of Egypt (following Napoleon’s brief reign), British governors unsuccessfully attempted to halt the increasingly lucrative slave trade. In the mid-19th century, unstable political conditions and an ensuing economic crisis gave rise to an insurrection by the Arab messianic leader, Muhammad ibn Abdallah (known as the Mahdi or "the expected one"). Abdallah occupied Khartoum, the northern regional capital, and established a republic based on Islamic law. The Mahdi state collapsed in 1898 after Great Britain retook Khartoum. In 1899, all of Sudan was placed under joint British-Egyptian authority. In the 1920s, however, north and south were again separated when the British governor instituted different official languages and imposed internal passport controls for travel between the two regions.

Independence and Civil War                                    

During World War II, the Sudan Defense Force fought with the Allies against the Axis powers. After the war, the British initiated a self-government process for Sudan designed to end colonial rule. Independence was declared in 1956, with Khartoum as the capital. The British favored the government in the mostly Arab north, where its colonial administration had been concentrated, and the north dominated the new independent country’s institutions. A group of southern army officers, calling itself the Anyanya movement, rebelled against the northern authorities and waged an armed struggle against the government until 1972, when a peace agreement between the warring sides was signed and a ten-year period of peace was established. But unification attempts failed when Gaafar Muhammad Nimeiri, a former army officer in power since 1969, suspended autonomy in the south in 1982. He declared Sudan an Islamic state and imposed Sharia (Islamic law) throughout the country under what were called the September Laws. Nimeiri was overthrown in 1985 and a moderate Islamic party gained power, but his religious policies remained in place. A southern rebellion representing the mostly black African population resumed the same year with the formation of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA).

The Long Rule of General Omar

After a brief period of civilian rule, Lieutenant General Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir seized power in 1989 and has ruled Sudan ever since. For ten years, he governed as president through a joint military-civilian regime in alliance with the Islamist leader Hassan al-Turabi, who led Bashir's National Congress Party.  As Turabi, who was allied with extreme jihadist movements (including al-Qaeda), began to challenge the dominant position of Bashir, the latter had him fired from his party post and arrested in 1999. With the National Congress Party under Bashir’s full control, he organized patently unfree elections in 2000 and became the country’s undisputed leader. The NCP claimed 85 percent of the 340 seats in the National Legislature. Opposition parties, including Turabi's newly formed Popular National Congress, were barred from campaigning.

Throughout this period, the national government carried out a ruthless military campaign against the SPLA rebellion in the south. While both sides were accused of violating the rules of war, the government engaged in widespread atrocities, including the use of indiscriminate warfare and scorched earth policies that resulted in famine. These deliberate practices caused at least two million deaths and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of others.

John Garang

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement

Following Turabi's dismissal, the Sudan government moved away from its alliance with al-Qaeda, and Bashir attempted to restore relations with Western countries. Acknowledging that the decades-long civil war had resulted in a stalemate, he allowed a US-led international peace negotiation process that resulted in a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 with the SPLA and its political arm, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (or SPLM). Non-SPLA parties and groups were excluded from the agreement. An interim constitution provided autonomy for the southern region and a joint National Unity Government, with Bashir as president and the leader of the SPLA/M, John Garang, who favored continued unity of the country, as vice president. Garang, however, was soon killed in a helicopter crash under unclear circumstances, and Garang was replaced by the SPLA’s more radical deputy leader, Salva Kiir, who favored independence for south Sudan.

Majority Rule, Minority Rights

Sudan is an example of extreme dictatorship in which neither the majority rule, nor the rights of the minority are respected. Indeed, the country has never experienced genuine democracy, either before or after independence. Through coup d’états, military officers have exercised political power for most of the country’s history since 1956, with only brief periods of civilian rule. From before independence, Muslim Arabs in the north of the country have dominated much of the country’s political, economic and social life and since independence the country’s authoritarian leaders have severely repressed both political opposition and ethnic and religious minority groups. Omar al-Bashir has been the dominant leader since overthrowing the last civilian government in 1989 and he has had sole control of the governing party and all governing institutions since 1999. Bashir’s rule has been marked by the brutal use of military force against rebellions and severe repression, including the routine jailing of political rivals, the wholesale restriction of human rights, control over the media and elections, religious and ethnic discrimination, and the imposition of an “Islamic Order” governed by a strict interpretation of Sharia law. After failing to suppress the rebellion of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army in the south, Bashir’s government signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement that led to the independence of South Sudan, one quarter of the country’s original territory. At the same time, since 2003, the government has acted ruthlessly towards the black African Muslim population in Darfur, which has resulted in indictments of Bashir and other officials by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity and genocide. Since South Sudan’s independence, the Sudan government in Khartoum has also acted to repress rebellions in remaining southern regions and to prevent the Abyei region from joining South Sudan.

The Interim Constitution and South Sudan

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which was signed in 2005 between the national government and the SPLA, ended the major north-south conflict. It also established an interim constitution that enabled Bashir and the NCP to continue to dominate the military, the national government, and parliament, although the SPLM had representation in each. The CPA also gave the SPLM control over the Autonomous Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS) and its parliament to the exclusion of other parties and groups. Instead of establishing interim political institutions through free elections, both the national and autonomous governments and parliaments were filled by appointment. The NCP was given a majority of 52 percent of the seats in the national parliament and a large majority of government posts, with elections scheduled only by 2009.

While other aspects of the CPA were observed, the multi-party national and regional elections scheduled in the agreement were delayed and finally held only in April 2010. There was an appearance of a multi-party contest (24 political parties participated), but the elections were marred by intimidation, manipulation of the voter rolls, and fraud — the outcome was thus never in doubt. It was clear Bashir never intended to allow a free ballot or actual majority rule. He was elected to another five-year term as president with a reported 68 percent of the vote (the SPLM candidate received 22 percent). Bashir’s National Congress Party took 73 percent of the seats in the national assembly. Meanwhile, the SPLM established a similar dominance over the autonomous Government of South Sudan. Kiir was elected president with 93 percent of the vote and the SPLM took 87 percent of seats in the regional parliament. According to the CPA, a referendum on independence of South Sudan was held in 2011. By then, any hope of maintaining a unified country had vanished. Ninety-nine percent of voters in the south voted in favor of an independent South Sudan.

The Genocide in Darfur

As Bashir’s government was taking part in international negotiations to broker an agreement with the SPLA, it was also directing a ruthless campaign of mass murder and dislocation of black Muslims in the western region of Darfur beginning in 2003. The perpetrators of this campaign were not regular army units but a government-backed militia, called janjaweed, comprised of “Arabized” black Muslims fully loyal to the Arab Muslim government. During their raids on villages, the janjaweed militia groups targeted young males for extermination and women of child-bearing age for mass rape. Between 400,000 and 450,000 people were killed and at least 2.5 million others displaced, many to refugee camps in Chad. Most of the murder and displacement took place in 2003-06, but the violence has continued over time. Troops from the African National Union and later UN peacekeeping forces have been largely ineffective in preventing targeted violence against the Darfur population.  The UN has continuously criticized the Sudanese government for its internal policies, its war practices toward the south, and the mass killings in Darfur.

The UN has continuously criticized the Sudanese government for its internal policies, its war practices in the south, and the mass killings in Darfur. The deliberate and targeted killing, raping, and displacement of Darfurians was declared an act of genocide by many governments, including that of the US. Due to the objections of the Russian and Chinese governments, which have developed extensive investments and trade with Sudan, the UN Security Council did not determine Darfur a case of genocide but it did refer the issue to the International Criminal Court (ICC). In 2009, the ICC issued its first arrest warrant of a sitting leader of government, President Omar al-Bashir, on charges of being criminally responsible as an indirect co-perpetrator in crimes against humanity. In 2010, the Court amended the indictment to include the charge of genocide. Defense Minister Abdelrahim Mohammed Hussein was also formally charged with the same crimes and a warrant issued for his arrest in 2012.

The US government declared the policy of the Sudanese government genocide in 2004, but no serious consequences were tied to the declaration, in part due to the policy of pursuing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement to resolve the north-south conflict with the SPLA. In 2006, a UN- and US-sponsored agreement was also signed between the Sudan government and one of the rebel groups in Darfur, but the agreement foundered when other rebel groups refused to accept it. Indeed, shortly after the signing, fighting in Darfur intensified.

Current Issues

In February 2013, a new UN initiative brought hope of a possible accord in Darfur. Two of the main rebel groups in Darfur, the Justice and Equality Movement and the Liberation and Justice Movement, joined in signing a new peace document with the national government (the “Doha Agreement”). The Sudan government, however, violated the agreement in reaction to further rebellion by groups that did not sign the agreement. The janjaweed militias were reactivated and in the first six months of 2014, approximately 500,000 people were again displaced in the western region. The violence has been ongoing through 2015. Darfurians living in Khartoum are also targeted for repression. In one example, 25 individuals were arrested in retaliation for an ambush in Darfur. In another incident, 125 women from Darfur were arrested and fined for allegedly wearing tight clothes (women are required to obscure their bodies in their dress according to Sharia law). In March 2014, police fired on a funeral procession in Khartoum for a student who had been killed in a police attack. The student had been participating in a peaceful demonstration held earlier in the month to protest the upsurge of violence against civilians in Darfur.

Other peaceful protests in Khartoum in recent years have met with use of force and indiscriminate arrests by police. During student-led protests in 2012 student leaders were arrested and dormitories burned.  In September 2013, police used automatic weapons to attack peaceful protests in Khartoum and other cities in response to the government’s decision to end fuel subsidies. Human rights organizations put the number of killed at between 170 and 200, including at least 15 children.

There remain many sources of tension in the country. For one, nearly one million southerners remaining in Sudan after the secession of South Sudan were stripped of their citizenship with the enactment of the “Sudan Nationality Act.”  In Abyei, a southern region, inhabitants were set to vote on a referendum to join South Sudan as set forth in the CPA, but the Sudanese and South Sudanese governments could not agree on a framework for the vote. When regional authorities prepared to carry out the referendum in 2014, the Sudan government sent in a large military contingent to prevent any ballot from taking place. After the troops pulled out, however, citizens themselves carried out an unofficial referendum that was criticized by the governments of both Sudan and South Sudan.

Meanwhile, the military has acted harshly against rebellions in the South Khordofan and Blue Nile regions in the south and east, both of which object to the Islamic Order. In South Sudan itself a major conflict has emerged between the dominant Kiir government and dissenting regions resulting in a serious humanitarian crisis. Although soon after independence South Sudan and Sudan engaged in military confrontations, the two governments came to agreements in late 2012 and 2013 over the transiting of oil resources, protection of oil fields, and non-interference across borders.

In 2014, armed groups active in South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and Darfur regions formed the Sudan Revolutionary Front to unite their political demands. Civil society groups from Sudan have asserted their own voices in expressing growing disenchantment with human rights violations and to push constitutional reform.  A Declaration of Guiding Principles for Constitution Making was adopted in July 2013 at a general conference of civil society organizations held in Kenya. A “New Dawn Charter,” based on similar guiding principles, joined together the Sudan Revolutionary Front, political parties in exile, and several civic and youth groups (see link in Resources). Engaging in civic and political activity within Sudan, however, remains difficult. All NGOs must register with the Humanitarian Assistance Commission (HAC) and the law places various prohibitions on all civic and political activities and the media.

After making major changes to his government to deal with dissidents in his own ruling party, Bashir announced that he would step down as president after the completion of his term and announced a reform plan that included a “national dialogue” to replace the 2005 interim constitution, still in effect. The National Dialogue, which included several political parties and civic groups, led nowhere and most participants withdrew complaining that the government had stalled the negotiations (only the Popular Congress Party of Turabi, now reconciled with the NCP, remained). In October 2014, Bashir, reneging on his promise to resign, accepted the nomination of the NCP to run for president and he scheduled parliamentary and presidential elections for April 2015. Political and civic opposition groups issued a new common document in December 2014 declaring a boycott of the elections and calling for resumption of the national dialogue on a new constitution based on democratic principles and the formal recognition of Sudan as a multi-ethnic society. Their demands were ignored. In April 2015, Bashir was “re-elected” to a new five-year term with a reported 93 percent of the vote, while the NCP claimed 84 percent of the vote and three-quarters of the seats in the national assembly. Political, ethnic, and religious repression has continued.

International pressure on the Sudan government has remained mostly ineffective on all human and minority rights issues, including Darfur. Although Omar al-Bashir’s travels are constrained, appeals by the International Criminal Court to have countries he travels to arrest and transport him to The Hague in accordance with its international warrant have not been heeded. In part this is due to the objection of the African National Union and Non-Aligned Movement that the Court is biased against Africa; in part, the Sudan government is protected by Russia and China, which have extensive oil investments and trading arrangements with the government.