1950-1970: Decolonisation and Coups

The roots of the Sudanese conflict have a diverse and complex history; religious schisms between a Muslim North and Christian South are often invoked, but are not sufficiently explanations. The influence of economics, regional politics and that African bug bear of the effects of colonisation need to be addressed as well.

The North-South divide was crucial to Sudanese politics even before independence in 1956. In 1955, the Southern Army Mutiny was as a result of distrust of the North by a poorly prepared South. Northern political parties agreed to consider a federal solution to tackle the divide, while the Southern parliament representatives agreed to the declaration of independence on 1 January 1956. For the following three years Sudan was to be led by a civilian coalition of the National Unionist Party (NUP), led by Abdallah Kalil. Elections that followed in 1958 were inconclusive and saw the continued rule by a weak and increasingly divided coalition.

On 17 November 1958, Gen. Ibrahim Abboud launched a coup, backed by Umma Party (UP) leader, Sadiq al-Mahdi – who backed the coup so long as they did not stay in power for too long. The military regime lasted for six years, the first four of which were considered to be stable by international observers. The stability was a superficial one, however, coming with political oppression and the imprisonment of political dissenters. It was also particularly unsuccessful in the South.

In February 1962, the Ministry of the Interior announced the expulsion of all Christian missionaries in Southern Sudan. The government of the North saw their activities as being political as much as they were religious and anti-Northern government. By 1964 the vital question of whether the South should remain part of the North had raised its head. The new UP-led civilian government increased military operations against Southern rebels.

By this time the divide between the Arab-speaking Muslim North and the English-speaking Christian South was being highlighted. Sudan has been touted as the ethnic divide (and possible bridge) between Muslim and Christian Africa. Ali Mazrui maintained, however, that Sudan is less a bridge and more demonstration of how a chasm cannot be bridged. This mode of thought was even influenced by British colonial policies, which sought to keep both the Arabs and Muslims out of the South. The North, inevitably, sought to break the educational proselytising monopolising which Christians had enjoyed in the South.

In March 1965, the government established a conference to find a solution to the North-South divide. The conference was generally unsuccessful, but it did agree on the repatriation of refugees, freedom of religion and a training program for the South to allow its people greater participation in the army, police and civil service. A succession of changes in the leadership of the government culminated in a May 1969 coup that brought Nimeiri to power. By this time, the government took rebel movement, Anya Nya, seriously enough to use the air force to seek out and attacked rebel hideouts. Additionally, due to a Northern policy of razing villages, the number of Southern refugees rose significantly, and saw the gap between Southerners and Northern-led government for even more.

By 1968 Sudan still did not have a workable constitution and divisions over the Southern question had become even sharper. The rebellion in the South had created 55,000 refugees in Uganda, and Ethiopia was supporting the rebels while the Sudanese government was supporting Somalia in its conflict with Ethiopia. The abovementioned coup was a response to this situation of instability in which there was no constitution, sectarian interests dominated politics, a stagnant economy, and a seemingly interminable war in the South. Nimeiri claimed his government was committed to the 1964 objectives of solving the Southern issue by means of a round table conference. He sought to draw the Southern diaspora back into the fold and afford them the right to their respective customs and traditions within a united socialist Sudan; this was to be achieved by means of regional autonomy. Under this dispensation, leading Southern Communist, Joseph Garang, was appointed as Minister for southern Affairs – a source of reassurance for both sides since he was an advocate for union. In August 1969, Nimeiri toured the South, emphasising the need for peace and economic development, and the extension of the Amnesty Law of 1967 to October 1970. Immediately following this was an increase in the Southern towns as the refugees returned.