There is no accurate demographic data in Sudan. Previous censuses are widely regarded as being of poor quality.
Main languages: Arabic (official), Nubian, over 100 diverse dialects of Nilotic, Nilo-Hamitic, Sudanic languages, especially in Darfur, Nuba Mountains and parts of the East.
Main religions: Sunni Islam, Christianity (mainly in the south and Khartoum)
Approximately 70 per cent of Sudan’s people are characterized as Sudanese Arabs, with a significant black African minority at 30 per cent, including Fur, Beja, Nuba and Fallata. More than 500 ethnic groups speaking more than 400 languages live within the borders of Sudan. While intermarriage and the coexistence of Arab and African peoples in Sudan over centuries has blurred ethnic boundaries to the point where distinctions are often considered impossible, ethnic boundaries have reemerged in response to decades of conflict fueled by political manipulation of identity.
Since South Sudan broke away from Sudan in 2011, approximately 97 per cent of the population adheres to Sunni Islam, although there are long established Christian minorities within the country as well as divisions between communities following different forms of Islam.
Updated June 2019
The government of Sudan has a long history, spanning some 30 years, of launching violent attacks against its own population, for example in what is now South Sudan, then in Darfur and more recently in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, with Sudanese armed forces carrying out numerous atrocities on civilian targets. While armed opposition groups also continue to mount attacks, military operations are frequently indiscriminate and sustained in part by an ideology of Arab superiority and racism towards black communities.
The country’s president, Omar al-Bashir, was re-elected following the 2015 election that was boycotted by many opposition parties – an outcome that came as little surprise, given his longstanding dominance of Sudan’s politics. However, in a surprising development, mass anti-austerity demonstrations in late 2018 led, nearly four months later, to the end of President Omar al-Bashir’s three-decade reign. It remains to be seen whether Bashir will one day be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for atrocity crimes against Darfur’s non-Arab ethnic groups. In addition to mass displacements, Bashir’s government has been accused of using rape as a weapon of war, indiscriminate bombing of civilians, destruction of villages and water supplies, as well as chemical weapons in Darfur.
A prominent mobilizing and organizing role was played by social media – banned but still accessible through virtual private networks (VPNs) – which rallied protesters around an iconic video of a young female activist that went viral globally. However, progress towards a civilian-led transitional government have been hampered, however, by the military and its brutal suppression of ongoing demonstrations with deadly force. Attacks on protestors in Khartoum in early June 2019, with at least 124 killed, hundreds of others injured and dozens subjected to sexual assault by troops and government-backed militias.
Despite Bashir’s overthrow, many areas of the country continue to be affected by conflict, including Darfur’s Jebel Marra region, where civilians have been attacked by paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the Sudanese army. Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa communities in Darfur have been in conflict with the government and its allied militias for decades. Fur and Masalit are traditional agriculturalists living throughout the region while the Zaghawa are agro-pastoralists who live primarily along the border with Chad. The conflict between various communities has continued despite repeated ceasefires as the underlying issues – in particular, disputes over cattle and arable land – have not been resolved. As a result, violence along ethnic lines, and between farmers and cattle herders, continues to occur and has resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties. Some 1.8 million people remain internally displaced in Sudan, primarily in Darfur.
The Sudanese army also continues to battle rebels in the Two Areas (South Kordofan and Blue Nile states), where the Nuba people have been fighting for autonomy from the central government in Khartoum and for full implementation of the agreements that were made under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Accord that led to the creation of South Sudan. Nuba are a conglomeration of diverse ethnic groups who have developed a joint identity based on their regional homeland and shared history of marginalization and conflict with the Sudanese state: they use the Nuba identity to distinguish themselves from communities of Bargarra and Jellaba, who they see as Arab migrants.
Nuba grievances also arise from the historical imposition of Shari’a law, which effectively undermined many aspects of Nuba culture and made life for Nuba Christians virtually impossible. The war in the Two Areas has been waged through a campaign of indiscriminate attacks on civilians, particularly aerial bombardment, and a denial of humanitarian access to this remote region. Despite some recent slowdown in the fighting throughout the region due to peace negotiations and rebel factionalization, bombings and ground attacks have continued, with coordinated attacks from local militias and state armed forces.
The decades of conflict and changes in climate have had significant impacts on Sudan’s traditional balance between pastoralist and agriculturalist communities. Conflict disrupted livestock migration routes and grazing lands, some of which were converted into farmland; farming villages were destroyed and made uninhabitable by attacks from nomadic militias. However, as the conflict zones have shifted and peace has been restored in some areas, attempts to demarcate traditional grazing areas and to negotiate new migration routes for livestock so as not to destroy crop farming areas have begun to meet with some success in areas such as North Kordofan. A project to erect marker posts highlighting pastoralists’ routes and off-limits farmland areas has enabled pastoralists to return to their livelihood without ongoing conflict with their agriculturalist neighbors. As the conflicts in Sudan continue to undermine development and basic survival for the country’s indigenous and minority groups, efforts such as these to maintain coexistence and livelihoods for even a small number of communities are critical.
All Christians and followers of other traditional religions are subject to Shari’a law and most of those convicted under its morality-based provisions belong to discriminated minorities. Conversion from Islam is a crime punishable by death. Life for converts to Christianity from Islam is made so difficult that they often flee Sudan: in a case that attracted international attention in 2014, a death sentence was handed out to a Sudanese woman, Meriam Ibrahim, on charges of apostasy after she refused to abandon her faith. Following widespread condemnation, however, she was allowed to flee the country and take refuge in the United States.
Christians continue to face intimidation from authorities, with church leaders arrested and worshippers harassed. A particular area of discrimination concerns the right to build places of worship: during 2017, for instance, two churches were destroyed and members of Evangelical congregations were forced from their homes for opposing the expropriation of their properties by the government. Statements by senior members of the Transitional Military Council in May 2019 confirming that Sudan’s legislation would continue to be informed by sharia law – a disappointment to Christians and members of other minorities who had hoped that the fall of Bashir would bring greater religious freedoms.
Sudan is located in the north-east of the continent, bordered by Egypt, the Red Sea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic, Chad, Libya and South Sudan. Away from the Nile River, most of Sudan is semi-arid plains.
From 7000 BC, farmers and herders lived along the Nile in what is now Sudan. Most settled in Nubia, known to the Egyptians as Cush. Nubian civilization reached its peak between 1750 and 1500 BCE and is thought to be the oldest civilization in sub-Saharan Africa. In the sixth century, northern Sudanese adopted Christianity.
By the mid-seventh century, Arab Muslims had conquered Egypt and raided Nubia. In the early 1500s black Muslims called Funji conquered Sudan. Meanwhile black peoples settled in central and southern Sudan, including Azande, Dinka, Nuer and Shilluk communities. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries the rulers of these increasingly Islamic Sudanese states adopted an Arab identity. When Egyptian forces penetrated what became southern Sudan after 1821 they brought in their wake northern Sudanese and European merchants. The growth in the supply of slaves led to their being used increasingly as domestic servants in northern Sudan.
Northern Sudanese generally regarded the south as part of a large labour reserve. Because southerners were needed for indentured labour this weighed against converting them to Islam, which would have ruled out their use as slaves. By the time of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, 1898–1955, the attitudes of the north towards the south had become entrenched. Regional underdevelopment increased, and by the early 1950s educated southerners believed that self-government for Sudan would not necessarily result in self-government for the south. They tried to delay independence and later proposed federation. When this was rebuffed in 1958, two years after Sudan gained independence, to many, secession seemed the only alternative. A series of post-independence civilian and military regimes failed to reconcile deep-seated differences between the south and the north. General Gaafar Muhammad an-Nimeiry seized power in 1969, and in 1972 ended a 17-year civil war by granting the south regional government and local autonomy.
Oil and Islam
During the mid-1970s, significant oil discoveries were made in the Upper Nile region of Sudan, which raised the stakes for control of the south. It also encouraged leaders in Khartoum to sharpen divide-and-rule tactics in the south, and indeed in all the country’s peripheral regions.
Nimeiry’s support for the 1979 Camp David peace accord between Egypt and Israel earned him the enmity of Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who supported Nimeiry’s enemies.
The north–south conflict resumed in 1983 when Nimeiry ended regional self-government; Libya backed the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) that had emerged under the leadership of defected Sudanese army colonel John Garang. With the outbreak of war, Nimeiry imposed Islamic law.
Nimeiry was overthrown through a popular uprising in 1985 and a civilian government assumed power in May 1986, although it failed to end the war in the south. The new government under Sadiq al Mahdi brought the National Islamic Front (NIF) into its coalition for the first time.
Following a shift in regional policy, Libya switched its allegiance from the SPLA/M to Khartoum. Al Mahdi eventually fell out with the NIF over his government’s agreement to a ceasefire with the SPLA in November 1988, and its provision for freezing the implementation of Shari’a law in the south. In June 1989 the NIF launched an Islamist coup fronted by Colonel Omar al-Bashir. For the first decade following the coup, the Islamist leader Hassan al-Turabi was the de facto leader, until he and Bashir fell out, and Turabi set up an opposition party. Turabi was detained multiple times thereafter.
The new junta – the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) – set about torturing and killing perceived opponents in the north, while banning labour unions, political parties and outlawing protests against the regime.
In 1991 government forces made gains in the civil war when the SPLA split over whether to seek a secular Sudan or full independence, and during 1991–2, the regime targeted opponents in Juba and elsewhere in the south with the same terror and fervour it had brought against its perceived northern enemies.
The NIF regime specialized in exploiting existing local ethnic and religious tensions, or instigating them, in a bid to divide opposition to its rule throughout the country. The government has survived despite deep unpopularity and chronic neglect of every region in the vast country largely due to its stoking of many proxy wars that are the fallout of its systematic assault on minority rights.
The north–south war continued unabated throughout the 1990s. The SPLA/M was dogged by splinter factions, most notably by that led by the Nuer, Riek Machar, who received support from Khartoum, which had a clear interest in encouraging southern in-fighting.
During the decade, tens of thousands of southern Sudanese were forcibly abducted in the north, while fighting displaced and killed hundreds of thousands more. From 1993 the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a regional development body, led peace efforts in Sudan, but these remained largely unsuccessful. Religious and racial targeting of southerners exacerbated a conflict that was increasingly becoming about the control of southern oil resources.
Sudan and international terrorism
During the 1990s, Khartoum supported Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, hosted Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist group, and may have supported Al Qaeda’s 1993 bombing of New York’s World Trade Centre, its 1998 bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and its attack on the USS Cole in 2000.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak likewise fingered Sudanese involvement in an attempted assassination on him in 1995. Throughout the decade, Washington aggressively sought to isolate Sudan, including through economic sanctions.
Following the 1998 embassy bombings, the US launched retaliatory strikes on an alleged chemical weapons factory in Khartoum. Mounting international pressure had already led Sudan to expel bin Laden in 1996, and, following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US, Khartoum made a strategic decision to join the so-called ‘War on Terror’ by providing Washington DC with intelligence.
The US had long provided support to the SPLA and neighbouring countries that were at odds with Khartoum. With the partial thawing of US–Sudanese relations, and under bi-partisan prodding from Congress, which had long been concerned about abuses against southerners, the White House appointed John Danforth, a respected former senator, to lead a new effort at forging a north–south peace agreement.
After 2002 peace talks in Kenya led to a breakthrough, the warring parties signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in January 2005, which brought an end to the years of war which had cost an estimated 1.5 million lives. Beyond a permanent ceasefire and an agreement on the sharing of oil revenue, most of which came from the south, the deal nominally brought the SPLA into government.
Despite the 2005 CPA, which ended the two-decades-long civil war between North and South Sudan, stable peace in the country remained elusive. Sudan failed to heed calls to address issues of identity and participation – on both a political and economic level – concerning land rights, justice and non-discrimination. On 4 March 2009, the pre-trial chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Darfur. He was the first head of state to be so charged by the ICC. In response, the government of Sudan immediately revoked the permits of 13 international humanitarian aid organizations and closed down three national organizations. The closures came without prior notice and the government.
The secession of the south and continued civil conflict
Following the on from the CPA and some years of relative peace, the population of South Sudan voted in a referendum on whether they wished to remain in Sudan or gain independence, with 98.8 per cent voting for the latter. However, while South Sudan’s independence brought an end to one dimension of the conflict, the government has continued to engage militarily elsewhere, in the process bringing widespread death and destruction. Attempts to bring fighting to an end not only in Darfur region but on other fronts where rebel groups have been engaging in conflict with government forces, such as in Blue Nile and South Kordofan regions, stalled despite a government ceasefire.
Attacks by government forces and affiliated militias against civilians in all three regions have since continued, with operations in North and Central Darfur displacing tens of thousands in recent years, a continuation of the large-scale attacks carried out by government forces in preceding years. In Blue Nile state, the conflict has also developed along ethnic lines following the emergence of divisions within the armed opposition group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North.
Following the 1989 coup, the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) immediately banned all political parties. The National Islamic Front (NIF) consolidated its power in October 1993 and changed its name to the National Congress Party (NCP); the RCC disbanded after appointing Omar al-Bashir president.
Exceptionally harsh in its treatment of opponents, the government manifested disregard for human rights on a massive scale in the relocation and ‘cleansing’ of minority populations in northern and southern Sudan. There was a re-launching of slave trading in southern and south-central Sudan, especially targeting Nuba children in the south-west.
The ruling Islamist block has held absolute power since 1989 and in March 1996 orchestrated a sham ‘election’. Through a power struggle, NIF founder and parliamentary speaker Hassan al Turabi fell out with al-Bashir. When al Turabi’s Popular National Congress Party signed a memorandum of understanding with the SPLA in 2001, he was quickly arrested. He remained a leading presence in Sudanese politics until his death in 2016, despite the fluctuations in his relationship with Bashir and the ruling party. Further elections have followed, most recently in 2015 – each time bringing Bashir
In January 2005, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed, bringing an end to decades of war between Khartoum’s rulers and the SPLA.
In 2009, President al-Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court, along with other senior government officials, for war crimes allegedly committed in the Darfur region during the long internal conflict. In this same year the North and South agreed on the terms of a referendum on southern independence. Two years later, the South voted for independence from Sudan and the nation of South Sudan came into existence. Disputes remain however over borders of disputed regions, and Darfur as well as other regions continued to face conflict. In 2014, the International Criminal Court ceased investigations into President al-Bashir in relation to crimes in Darfur, due to lack of international support.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Sudan Social Development Organization (SUDO) (UK)
Nuba Mountain Peoples Foundation
Sources and further reading
African Rights, Facing Genocide: The Nuba of Sudan, London, African Rights, September 1996.
Africa Watch, Sudan: Eradicating the Nuba, New York, Africa Watch, 1992.
Coalition for International Justice, Documenting Atrocities in Darfur, September 2004.
Flint, J. and De Waal, A., Darfur: A Short History of a Long War, London, Zed Books, 2005.
Human Rights Watch, The Copts, New York, Human Rights Watch, 1993.
Human Rights Watch, Sudan in the Name of God: Repression Continues in Northern Sudan, New York, Human Rights Watch, 1994.
Human Rights Watch, Targeting the Fur, New York, Human Rights Watch, January 2005. URL: http://hrw.org/backgrounder/africa/darfur0105/
Human Rights Watch, Entrenching Impunity: Government Responsibility for International Crimes in Darfur, New York, Human Rights Watch, December 2005.
International Crisis Group reports on Sudan 2005, 2006, 2007, URL: http://www.icg.org/
Johnson, D., The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars (African Issues), Oxford, James Currey Ltd, 2003.
Meyer, G., War and Faith in Sudan, Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans, 2005.
Mosely Lesch, A., Sudan: Contested National Identities, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1998.
Prunier, G., Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide, Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 2007.
Srinivasan, S., Minority Rights, Early Warning and Conflict Prevention: Lessons from Darfur, London, MRG, October 2006.
Sudan Tribune, ‘Navaisha accord fails to address Nuba grievances’ (statement from the Nuba Survival Foundation), 4 January 2005. URL: http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?page=imprimable&id_article=7354
Verney, P. et al., Sudan: Conflict and Minorities, London, MRG, 1995.