The Republic of Sudan is a large country in northeastern Africa. Sudan shares borders with Egypt, Libya, Chad, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. The climate in Sudan is arid with several deserts, including the Nubian desert in the north and the Libyan desert in the West. Access to potable water remains a challenge for many inhabitants. The main water source in Sudan is the Nile, which originates in Sudan at the meeting of the White Nile and the Blue Nile and then flows northward to Egypt.
The name Sudan means “blacks” and it comes from the centuries-old Arab designation of the area as “bilad al-sudan,” or “the land of the blacks,” in reference to the dark-skinned inhabitants. The term sudan was considered pejorative until it was reclaimed in the twentieth century by anti-imperialist nationalists.
Sudan is an arid country with little arable land. The country is considered a desert, with the most southern areas being considered Savannas. There is no great temperature variation in any region of Sudan, and the entire country has very little rainfall. The country is also very warm on average. The lowest recorded temperature in the country was taken in Khartoum, a northeast region, and it was 42.8 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius).
Sudan was once the home to a number of powerful African kingdoms. The first, the Kingdom of Kush, was founded around 1500 BCE, although sources differ on the exact date. In the eighth century BCE, the Kushite kings conquered Egypt and established Egypt’s twenty-fifth dynasty, also known as the Nubian dynasty. The pyramids that still remain in Meroe, the capital of Kush, testify to the Egyptian influence on the kingdom. Between the third century BCE and the third century CE, Kush was controlled primarily by female rulers who bore the title of “Candace.” One notable queen, Amanirenas, engaged in protracted battles with Augustus Caesar, who had recently conquered Egypt. She was eventually able to negotiate favorable terms with Caesar. The Kingdom of Kush was eventually defeated by the Kingdom of Aksum, whose land covered modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea, in the third century CE.
Between 638 and 641, the Arab Rashidun Caliphate invaded and conquered Egypt. In the following years, the Arabs attempted to conquer Nubia but were defeated, making the Nubians one of the only groups in the region to resist Arab rule. They established a non-aggression pact that included mass gift exchanges. The proximity and friendly relationship allowed for the cultures to mix, leading to heavy Arab influence on the Nubian people.
From the mid 8th century to the 11th century, Christianity flourished in Nubia. The state was heavily organized and centralized, mirroring the earlier Byzantine empire. This period of Sudanese history has been described as the “Afro-Byzantine” period, due to the similarities between the Nubian government and the Byzantines. Arts and music became more refined in this era. Cave paintings became more creative and prominent. The Nubians develop their own alphabet based on the Coptic alphabet which was a mix of Greek, Coptic, and Arabic letters. Women benefitted from high levels of education, high social status, and the ability to buy and sell land.
The Funj Sultanate ruled much of Sudan, and parts of Ethiopia and Eritrea from 1504 until 1820. Very early on, the sultans converted to Islam and, although the Sudanese had been exposed to Islam as early as the seventh century through Egypt, they played an important role in the Islamization of the population.
In 1820-21, the northern part of the country was invaded by the Ottoman Empire, which set up a Turco-Egyptian administration. In 1881, a popular revolt against the foreign government sprung to life, led by Muhammad Ahmed. Ahmed claimed that he was the Mahdi, a messianic figure from the Islamic apocalyptic tradition. The governor-general of Sudan at the time, Charles Gordon, was an Englishman appointed by the Egyptian government. When the Mahdi’s revolution successfully conquered the capital city of Khartoum and beheaded Gordon, an outcry went up in England.
The Mahdist government lasted for eighteen years before the British returned. They defeated the Mahdi’s successor, Khalifa Abdullahi, and set up a joint British-Egyptian rule. The British governed Sudan as two separate states, a northern state, and a southern state. The British incorporated Sudanese forces in World War II in the East Africa Campaign against the Italians. After the war, tensions grew as the British established the Jewish state of Israel in the Levant and halted the migration of Arab Muslims to the region. In 1952, Egypt gained complete independence from the British, which galvanized Sudanese independence movements. Egypt abandoned its claims of sovereignty over Sudan in an effort to help the state gain its independence. As tensions grew and it became financially harder for the British to govern Sudan, the northern and southern territories of Sudan were granted an independence vote.
Sudan gained its independence in 1955 in the postwar wave of anti-imperialism. There was no agreed-upon, permanent constitution. Instead, popularly elected representatives and appointed Senators elected a five-person Supreme Council who then appointed a Prime Minister. Isma’il Alazhari was the first Prime Minister of Sudan. Despite independence, Sudan was still mired with other problems. Corruption plagued the government and stalled any negotiations for a permanent constitution. Factionalism between the north and south, as well as between secularists and Islamists divided the country, and Sudan relied on the export of cotton to sustain its economy. The government established when the British left lasted three years before being deposed by a military coup.
In 1958, two senior generals, Ibrahim Abboud and Ahmad Abd al-Wahad led a military coup against the government. Abboud assumed control and promised to fix problems with Egpyt, settle the dispute over the status of the Nile River, fix the economy. He banned political parties as he stated they were only a vehicle of personal ambition, and not beneficial to the country. Initially, the economy boomed with treaties with Egypt about the Nile and the successful marketing of cotton, but dissent within the military weakened its rule. Several coup attempts were made against the Abboud government but none were successful. The military enjoyed complete power within the government, upsetting many civilians. Abboud’s downfall was his plan to “Arabize” the south, upsetting many civilians. In October 1964, riot police attacked a lecture at Khartoum University about the answer to solving north-south relations. This sparked national protests and strikes are known as the October 1964 revolution. The protests ultimately led to Abboud abandoning the military government and a transitional civilian government assumed control.
During all of this political unrest, a civil war between the Muslim north and the Christian south erupted. From 1955-1972 the two sides fought each other, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people and the eradication of many local tribes. To the North, the Southerners were seen as defiant and challenging rule in Khartoum, as well as resenting policies carried over from the British administration. To the South, politicians felt barred from political participation and also felt persecuted on ethnic and religious grounds. The war ended in 1972 with the Addis Ababa Agreement. For a brief period after the war, the two sides were able to reconcile some of their differences and also established a few Souther institutions such as their own law enforcement and legal systems. However, the South was still barred from creating its own military and still was under autonomy from Khartoum.
Following years of general stability and democratic rule, worsening economic conditions, mainly lowering commodity prices, led to economic hardship for many Sudanese people. A few coup attempts from the military had failed, but in 1989, a coup by general Omar al-Bashir was successful. Bashir led a bloodless military coup and became the chairman of the transitional government, the Revolutionary Command Centre for National Salvation (RCC). In 1993, he appointed himself president. Three years later, he ran for the position unopposed and was elected. He was re-elected multiple times. Al-Bashir was an Islamist, and he established sharia rule when he came to power, a decision that was unpopular with Christians and followers of indigenous religions. Bashir and his Islamist government invited Osama bin Laden into the country. After attacks in the region by bin Laden and al-Qaeda, Sudan was sanctioned and put on the “State-Sponsored Terrorism” list by the United States. Bashir jailed dissenters and cracked down on anti-government groups.
The International Criminal Court has issued warrants for al-Bashir’s arrest in 2009 and 2010. He is accused of crimes against humanity for his government’s actions during the civil war in Darfur. The ICC prosecutor argued that al-Bashir “masterminded and implemented a plan to destroy” several non-Arab ethnic groups in western Sudan. He is also accused of leading the army to attack civilians in several cities and helping nomadic militias attack ethnic groups.
During this time, the Second Sudanese Civil War broke out. Many atrocities occurred, including the use of child soldiers, slavery, and ethnic cleansing. The war led to two million deaths alone in the south. In 2005, an UN-brokered peace agreement led to the establishment of an autonomous southern state for six years, followed by a referendum vote. The vote was successful, and South Sudan became an official country in 2011.
In 2018, massive protests erupted against Omar al-Bashir and his government. The protest was sparked by a steep rise in prices of food and other goods amongst rising inflation. Bashir refused to step down, uniting a coalition of opposition groups against his regime. This prompted mass arrests and executions of opposition forces and leaders. The protest continued until April 2019, when a massive sit-in in front of the Sudanese Armed Forces compound led top military generals to declare a state of emergency and arrest Bashir. The protests came to an end when the civilian coalition, the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) agreed with Transitional Military Council (TMC), led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. However, in October/November 2021 tensions rose again as the TMC was set to hand over power to the civilian government, led by Abdulla Hamdok. In November, Hamdok was arrested, and the TMC suspended the civilian government. There was no judicial system set, so no institution could rule on the legality of the TMC’s coup of the civilian government. On November 21, 2021, Hamdok was reinstated as Prime Minister following national strikes and protests.
Following the ousting of Omar al-Bashir after his 30-year reign, Sudan is currently on a path to permanent, sustained democracy. In July 2019, months after Bashir’s arrest, the TMC and FFC agreed to a 39-month transitional period, culminating with popular elections in 2022. The two sides signed a political agreement in July 2019, establishing a draft constitution. The agreement established the following: an 11-person Sovereignty Council of which six members were civilians and five were military officials, the military side would lead the Council for the first 21 months and the civilian side would assume control for the following 18 months leading up to the elections, a council of minister appointed by the civilian side, a ban on any Sovereignty Council members from running in the democratic elections, a legislative council, and establishing transitional judicial mechanisms.
The Transitional Legislative Council was established three months after the signing of the political agreement between the FFC and the TMC. Two-thirds of the legislature was to be from the FFC coalition, while the remaining third would be from groups that fell outside the broad scope of the FFC. 40% of the transitional legislatures are to be women. There is a hard cap on 300 members, and members of Bashir’s National Congress were barred from political participation. Anyone over 21 that does not have a serious criminal record is eligible to run for the legislature.
There has yet to be an agreed-upon judicial system in place due to disagreements from each side of the Sovereignty Council. Following the 2021 coup, Hamdok and other FFC officials have been reinstated, but popular dissent against the military for their role in promoting the coup has led to increasing political tension. Gen. al-Burhan has publicly stated he is still in favor of the upcoming democratic elections and hopes to keep political and social stability in Sudan in the year leading up to the elections.
INTERNATIONAL & REGIONAL ISSUES
The long-running civil war in Darfur, which began in 2003, has resulted in the displacement of nearly two million Darfuris and the deaths of tens of thousands more, according to the UN. The conflict in Darfur has traditionally been explained as an ethnic dispute between Arabs and non-Arabs. However, Arab in this context means belonging to ethnic groups that speak Arabic and claim Arabic ancestry. Both sides of the conflict are Black Africans and most everyone involved is Muslim.
Darfur is in the west of Sudan. The conflict there is distinct from the conflict with South Sudan, which led to that country’s secession in 2011. In 2019, as part of the draft constitution, the TMC and FFC stipulated that the Darfur Conflict was to be settled within six months of the declaration. In August 2020, a comprehensive peace treaty was signed by armed factions and the Sovereignty Council in Juba, South Sudan. Representatives from Darfur were promised representation in the cabinet, as well as three seats on the Sovereignty Council. Fighting remains present in West Darfur despite the treaty.
There are more than 610, 000 Sudanese refugees in Chad, Ethiopia, C.A.R., Egypt, Kenya, and South Sudan; at the same time, Sudan hosts around 507,000 refugees, most from South Sudan (CIA, 2017).
Sudanese Foreign Relations
Al Bashir’s government traditionally had an antagonistic relationship with the United States. However, that may be changing; in 2017, President Donald Trump lifted much of the economic sanctions that the US had maintained against Sudan since 1997. It remains to be seen how the new civilian government will settle tensions in the country, but after the 2021 coup, the United States froze all funding to the transitional government and transitioned to funding NGOs and foreign groups instead. Congress has announced that it is constantly evaluating the situation in Sudan and will continue to donate to NGOs that support democracy and a peaceful transition.
Khartoum has also recently utilized its strategic geographic position to strengthen its relationships with many European states. Although the EU still technically maintains sanctions against Sudan, it has indirectly funneled around $131 million into the country in exchange for the Sudanese government’s efforts to staunch the flow of refugees, many of whom cross through Sudan on their way to Europe.
Although Sudan traditionally supported Iran in the longstanding Saudi-Iranian rivalry, it has recently switched sides. For years, Iran and Sudan, both persona non grata in the West, have been allies, but the Saudi willingness to invest billions in an economically weak Sudan has tipped the scales in their favor. Khartoum cut ties with Tehran in 2016 and has continued to send troops to fight with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
Ethiopian Rift: Border and GERD
In December 2020, the Sudanese government in Khartoum evicted thousands of Ethiopian farmers from the border area known as the al-Fashaga borderland. This land is considered the breadbasket for Tigray, and other western regions of Ethiopia. In response, Ethiopia deployed troops and militias to the border resulting in deadly clashes between the two countries’ security forces. Sudan claims sovereignty over the fertile border farmland based on pre-colonial maps of the region. Since 2007, the two countries have jointly cultivated the land without conflict and have pledged to eventually draw up official borders. There are fears that small firefights and clashes could develop into an even larger conflict, threatening an already unstable region of Africa. Ethiopia is entrenched in a civil war between the government and Tigrayian rebels that has brought instability and violence to the region. At any moment the standoff and minor battles could develop into a deadly border war between the two African nations.
In the backdrop of this border conflict is the broader issue of the Grand Ethiopian Rennasaince Dam (GERD). This damn is a massive development project taken on by the Ethiopian government to construct a dam on the Blue Nile to provide water and energy for Ethiopia. However, Ethiopia’s neighbors, Egypt and Sudan, both of which are downstream from Ethiopia have major issues with the dam’s construction. Sudan and Egypt want a formal deal that will allow for data sharing, limits on stored water, and transparency with Ethiopia about the environmental impacts that the dam brings. There is still no deal. In response to Ethiopia’s lack of cooperation, Sudan and Egypt have conducted joint military drills to show that they are ready to use military force to stop the dam’s construction without a deal. Sudan has called the dam a “direct threat to Sudan” without a deal.
International & Regional Issues Resources
Most of the population — 80 percent of the labor force, according to the CIA factbook — earns their living through agriculture. Sudan’s most important agricultural product is Gum Arabic; it produces between 75 and 80 percent of the total world output. It also grows cotton, sugar, millet, wheat, and more.
The secession of South Sudan in 2011 struck a serious blow to the Sudanese economy, stopping three-quarters of total oil production and consequently reducing the availability of foreign currency. The Sudanese pound was formally devalued in 2012, and the currency’s loss of value has continued steadily since, as has massive inflation. In 2018, the country has been facing serious cash shortage problems, with many banks and ATMs simply running out of money. The government has imposed strict withdrawal restrictions. Currently, at 68 percent, Sudan has one of the highest inflation rates in the world. The spike in inflations has coincided with steeply rising prices of most goods, including everyday food items, adding up to an economic crisis.
The problems with oil production and the value of the pound are exacerbated by conflict in various regions of the country and a lack of infrastructure for supporting industry. All in all, there is a serious economic crisis in Sudan. Although exact numbers are not known, the CIA estimates that in 2017, the unemployment rate was 19.6 percent. In 2014, the World Bank estimated that half of the population lives below the poverty line.
Sudan has an estimated population of 37,345,935, around 70 percent of whom are Sudanese Arab, meaning that they are Arab-speaking and claim descent from Arab lines, and the rest belong primarily to non-Arab African ethnic groups, including Nubian, Ta Bedawie, and Fur ( (2017, CIA). The official languages are Arabic and English, but other languages, such as Nubian, are still spoken. The vast majority are Sunni Muslim, although there is a small Christian minority.
According to the World Health Organization, life expectancy at birth is 63 for men and 67 for women. The population is quite young; the median age is 19, and 41 percent of the population is under 15.
Despite education in Sudan being free and compulsory from ages 6 to 13, only about 60% of eligible citizens attend school. The number dips dramatically with age from 76 percent of children attending primary school to 28 percent attending secondary school. UNICEF suggests several reasons for the lack of enrollment: government funding might not fully cover costs so parent associations might ask for fees or families might need to purchase uniforms and textbooks. Another issue is the lack of school buildings in western Sudan. Many of these have been destroyed during the years of civil war and often the regional government does not have the funds to replace them. Additionally, gender can be an obstacle; long walks to school might be unsafe for girls and some schools do not provide adequate access to water and sanitation facilities so girls sometimes lose significant instruction time monthly and therefore fall behind. There is also the problem of the labor foregone when girls are at school rather than helping their families. According to UNESCO, 65.81 percent of Sudanese people between 15 and 24 years are literate, compared to only 24.27 percent of those over 65.
Most Sudanese are Sunni Muslims. Historically, Sufism has hugely influenced much of the country’s experience of Islam. Sufism is a dimension of Islam that emphasizes personal connection to God and learning through devotion to one’s teachers. The impact of this philosophy on Sudan can be seen in the domes that dot the country, saints’ tombs that often draw visitors and supplicants. Mahmud El Zain claims that Sufism entered Sudan in the early sixteenth century under the Funj sultanate. There are many, many Sufi sects still in existence in Sudan, including the influential Tijaniyya and Khatmiyya sects.
More recently, the influence of Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism has affected Sudanese Islam. Many young Sudanese men, like men in other nearby countries, have been traveling to Saudi for work since the 1970s. Additionally, Saudi cultural institutions, such as banks and Saudi-funded schools, have become commonplace in Sudan. This has resulted in clear changes, such as the unacceptability of public consumption of alcohol and the adoption of the hijab (Bernal, 1994).
CULTURE & SOCIETY
The staple Sudanese food is a stew called mulah, served with kisra or ‘aseeda. Kisra is a very thin bread, made from durra or wheat. ‘Aseeda is a porridge-like food made of wheat flour or corn. There are a variety of stews, made from combinations of meat, tomatoes, peanut butter, yogurt, and more.
Different areas of the country have regional specialties, such as the wheat flour gourassa in the north, the Ethiopian-influenced banana paste moukhbaza in the east, and the use of the cereal, dukhun, in the west.
Modern Sudanese cuisine is heavily influenced by Arab and other Mediterranean cultures, which entered the country through trade and settlers during the Turco-Egyptian period. Mediterranean dishes now commonly served in Sudan include things like meatballs, pastries, and stuffed peppers.
Additional Reading: And in Sudan, A Famished Food Culture – read about the cultural effects of the recent spike in food prices
Women traditionally wear a garment called the tobe. The tobe is a long single piece of fabric that is wrapped around the body and draped over the head in a couple of different styles. Tiyab (the plural of tobe) can be in almost any color and can be made out of a variety of fabrics, depending on the occasion for which it is to be worn. Oftentimes, Indian saris are purchased and slightly trimmed to make tiyab for formal outfits. Tiyab are also sold in the Gulf and are often brought back to Sudan from there. Most brides wear red and gold tiyab for at least part of the wedding festivities.
In the capital, most unmarried young women do not wear tiyab, and instead opt for long skirts and blouses, the Saudi-style abaya (long, loose dress, primarily in black), or Western clothing.
Traditional dress for a man is a long loose robe called a jalaabiya, normally in white. This is worn with a turban or skullcap. Like their female counterparts, many men choose to wear Western clothes, especially in the capital, and save the jalaaleeb for special occasions.
Additional Reading: ‘Khartoum at Night’ Looks at Sudanese History through Fashion
Music is a central element of Sudanese social life. It can often be gendered. For example, one popular genre is called aghani al banat, or “girls’ songs.” Many of these songs do not have known composers/lyricists and are sung and re-sung in different permutations by different singers. Such songs play a crucial role in wedding celebrations during which songs will be sung to praise either the bride and groom or both (listen to an example here). Thematically, these songs often deal with love and marriage, although the sometimes very sassy narrators can subvert classical romantic tropes. Aghani al banat is most often accompanied by the daloka, a traditional Sudanese drum. Contemporary male singers sometimes sing traditional girls’ songs. Often, they do not change the gender of the narrator and sing from a female perspective (listen to an example here).
Another important genre of Sudanese music is the songs of the haqeeba. These songs, written in the early to mid-twentieth century, are still widely respected today as examples of beautiful poetry. The haqeeba style grew out of madeeh, Sufi songs in praise of the Prophet. The haqeeba singers followed many of the rhythmic structures and rhyme patterns of madeeh, but they sang of romantic, rather than religious, love. The name of the genre, haqeeba, literally means “bag,” and it was named after a radio presenter who famously selected songs from his bag of music. Haqeeba music is still performed today, both in covers of the original songs and in more modern remixed productions.
Additional Reading: Born In Sudan, Based In Brooklyn. A Singer Remixes Her Identities
In the north of Sudan, one can still see the remains of the ancient Kingdom of Kush. The capital of the kingdom, Meroe, contains many pyramids built to house the bodies of royals after their deaths. The Meroe pyramids are the best preserved of the more than 200 pyramids in Sudan. People in Sudan continued to build pyramids for about 800 years after their northern neighbors in Egypt stopped the practice. The pyramids have been battered by looters; notably, Giuseppe Ferlini, a nineteenth century Italian explorer, took the tops off of 40 pyramids in his quest for treasure. He carried off the things he found to Italian and German museums.
Additional Reading: Pictures of Sudan’s Forgotten Pyramids
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Radio Dabanga is a project of the Radio Darfur Network, a coalition of Sudanese journalists and international (media) development organizations, supported by a consortium of international donors, humanitarian community organisations and local NGOs. Radio Dabanga is conceived, operated and facilitated by Free Press Unlimited in the Netherlands.