History of Sudan: 100 Years in brief
19th century 1920s and 1930s 1940s-1956 1956-69 1969-1980s

19th century
For most of the 19th century Sudan was an outpost of the Turco-Egyptian empire. Its inland boundaries were indistinct: southern Sudan - where most of the oil is - was used as a source of slaves and other commodities such as ivory and ostrich feathers. The vast southern and western territory was regarded by the Arabic-speaking Muslims of the Nile Valley around Khartoum as Dar al-Harib, or the place of war, in contrast to their civilised Dar as-Salaam, the place of peace. This perception continues to the present day.

A short-lived period of independence known as the Mahdiyya followed the Sudanese Mahdi's siege of Khartoum and defeat of the British General Gordon, who had attempted reforms as the envoy of Egypt. When British forces led by Kitchener "reconquered" Sudan, Britain began a period of joint condominium rule with Egypt in which the south and west were "pacified" at the dawn of the 20th century.


1920s and 1930s
In the 1920s and 1930s the British administration closed off southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan, in a policy of separate development where English and Christianity were encouraged in contrast with the Arabic and Islam of the north. Ostensibly introduced to eliminate slavery and other exploitation, this policy isolated the communities of the south from outside trade at a time of rapid development in the north. After the Second World War, as independence loomed and the closed districts reopened, southerners and Nuba were unprepared for the political bargaining that followed. Options for linking Southern Sudan with Uganda were dropped in favour of the status quo - a united Sudan.


In the run-up to Sudan's independence in 1956, the civil service and administration were placed increasingly in Sudanese hands, with a predominance of Northern Sudanese since educated Southerners were rare. Feeling short-changed and aggrieved, separatist Southerners began an initially low-intensity civil war aimed at establishing an independent South.


1956-69 First Civil War / After Independence
Independent Sudan's first Prime Minister, Ismail al-Azhari, lasted two years: a pattern of alternating chaotic civilian governments and military regimes was being established. The first dictator, General Abboud, confident of a military solution, escalated the civil war in the early 1960s but was brought down by a civilian uprising in October 1964. The war continued through five years of haphazard civilian rule dominated by arguments between Islamic sectarian parties, during which Sadiq al-Mahdi won and lost the position of Prime Minister at the precocious age of 36.


When Colonel Jaafar Nimeiri seized power in May 1969 he was regarded as progressive and secular, respected by southerners as well as northerners because of his no-nonsense military background. Nimeiri achieved what the civilians did not: a peace agreement was signed in Addis Ababa in 1972, guaranteeing autonomy for the south.

Nimeiri presided over a period in which Sudan was regarded first as a potential agricultural breadbasket for the Arab world, and then as a source of oil wealth for the first time. However, the breadbasket vision crumbled as investors saw their projects mired in bureaucracy or foundering in their own impracticality: few survived in recognisable form. The impact of the 1970s OPEC oil price shocks on the Sudanese economy was equally damaging.

When Chevron began work in Sudan in 1975, Nimeiri amended his 1972 Oil Exploration Act to give his Minister of Energy complete authority to reach agreements with foreign companies.

The discovery of oil in Sudan came when the "breadbasket" dream was beginning to fade, and enabled Nimeiri to continue forecasting a brighter tomorrow as the economy worsened.

Shifting politically to the religious right, Nimeiri embarked on reconciliation initiatives with some of his former opponents. With Sadiq al-Mahdi's Umma party success was shortlived, but with Dr Hassan al-Turabi and his National Islamic Front the outcome was the imposition of a harsh interpretation of Islamic sharia law in 1983.