A Brief History of Sudan’s Conflicts

Sudan’s ceaseless conflicts have been interpreted from many different angles. The best possible explanation, however, is that country’s colonial history.

Sudan, Africa’s largest country (i.e. until the recent secession of the South) and home to one of the greatest empires on the continent has come to symbolize conflict. The two most prominent of these conflicts are the Darfur crisis in the western part of the country and the struggle between the North and the South. This North-South struggle which culminated in a referendum that allowed for the South to split from the North marks the latest addition to the geopolitical landscape of Africa.

Until the recent referendum, the Darfur crisis dominated international headlines as the atrocities in Darfur, blamed entire on the Khartoum g government were roundly condemned as genocide especially by the western media and campaigners. However, the truth about Sudan’s conflicts, which is hardly told, dates back to the colonial period.

Colonial Roots of Sudan’s Conflicts

The Aljazeera documentary titled of January 5, 2011, titled “Sudan: History of a Broken Land” presents a good historical insight into the persistent chaos in Sudan. Its strength lies especially in the fact that it contains testimonies by the key figures in the various conflicts during and after colonial rule. In all of these testimonies, accusing fingers point to the Britain the former colonizer.

While acknowledging the role of Britain in establishing a strong civil service in Sudan Joseph Lagu, former Sudanese Vice President, lamented that this alongside other colonial privileges provided more benefit to the North rather than the South, saying “they did very little in the South.” Out of 800 civil service posts bequeathed by the British just four were given to Southerners.

The Seeds of Separation in British Sudan

It was under British colonial rule that the seeds of the North-South divide were sown in the Sudan. “It is the British to blame” says Abdul Al-Mubarak of the University of Khartoum, because they wanted the south to be a separate entity.

The time bomb for ethnic and religious conflict in Sudan was created in 1922 when the British colonial administration restricted the movement of Northerners beyond the 10th parallel of latitude and Southerners beyond the 8th. This was the role of British colonialism in the partition of Sudan. Frantz Fanon, the anti-colonial activist and writer could not be further from the truth in decrying colonialism as “separatist.”

Aftermath of British Rule in Sudan

British colonialism successfully created all they conditions necessary for conflict in Sudan. It exploited the religious divide between the North and the South, transforming the South into a paradise for Christian missionaries while the North remained predominantly Muslim. “They should have allowed a natural intercourse to take place,” says Sadiq Al Madi, “but they didn’t.”

Economic and political neglect of the South, which was a major feature of British colonialism throughout Africa – as see for example in British Southern Cameroons, was another recipe for conflict in Sudan. The marginalization of the South led to the creation of the “anyanya” rebellion by Joseph Lagu, a struggle that was later taken up by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) formed in 1983.

Sudan’s return to military rule in 1958, barely two years after independence was enough indication that the roots of chaos were too deep in this former British colony. The struggle for power has remained a defining feature of Sudan’s political life alongside recurrent conflicts both of which are fuelled today by great power interest in the oil-rich country.


  • Aljazeera. “Sudan: History of a Broken Land.” January 2011.
  • Djimeli, Alexandre T. Darfur, Au-dela de la guerre

brief history of sudan


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