Sudan was under Anglo-Egyptian rule during 1898–1956. It declared its independence in 1956, but a succession of coups from 1958 on, together with a wide economic and cultural gap dividing northern and southern Sudan, fomented instability in the country, which led to an ongoing civil war. Throughout much of the Cold War, Sudan's foreign policy vacillated between alliance with the West and East, depending on which faction was in control at any given time. Beginning with the so-called Condominium Agreements of 1899, Sudan was jointly administrated by Britain and Egypt. But a 1924 mutiny in the Egyptian Army compelled the British to evacuate Egyptian personnel from Sudan.
The Sudanese nationalist movement was somewhat fragmented and was associated with two rival religious sects: the Ashigga Party, later the National Unionist Party (NUP), allied with the Khatmiyya sect; and the Umma Party, or Independence Front (IF), connected with the Mahdiyya sect. The former called for unity with Egypt, whereas the latter called for complete independence. Two other independence movements, secular in nature, were the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) and Sudan's Labor Union.
In 1953, Great Britain and Egypt granted Sudan self-rule, phased in over a three-year period. Parliamentary elections resulted in a victory for the NUP, and its leader, Ismail al-Azhari, became the first Sudanese prime minister in January 1954. The NUP soon reversed its policy, however, and strove for independence, which was decided on 19 December 1955 by a unanimous parliamentary vote. Independence went into effect on 1 January 1956.
The issue of north-south relations in Sudan, with the Muslim north more developed and the non-Muslim south ruled as a separate entity, soon became a sticking point after independence. Anxieties about the prospects of Muslim domination and demands for a federal system resulted in riots in southern Sudan. In August 1955, the Equatorial Corps composed of southerners mutinied in Torit, killing several hundred northern traders and government officials.
Although the southern revolt was repressed, civil war soon erupted, lasting from 1955 to 1972. The deteriorating internal situation urged Prime Minister Abdallah Khalil to invite General Ibrahim Abboud, the commander of the army, to take control of the government in November 1958. The resultant military junta ended parliamentary rule and granted power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Political parties were dissolved, the constitution was suspended, trade unions were abolished, and strikes were outlawed. But in October 1964, following a series of popular uprisings, a transitional government comprised of representatives from all parties including the SCP and the Muslim Brotherhood replaced the Abboud regime.
The spring 1965 elections brought to power a coalition of the UP and NUP with Muhammed Ahmed Mahgoub as prime minister and Ismail al-Azhari as president of the Supreme Council of State. After Mahgoub's resignation in 1966, Sadiq al-Mahdi was elected prime minister.
The al-Mahdi government was overthrown in a bloodless coup led by Colonel Gaafar Muhammad Nimeri in May 1969, leading to the adoption of socialist policies, one-party rule by the Sudanese Socialist Union (SSU), closer relations with the Eastern bloc, and support for the Palestinian cause.
The Tripoli Charter of 27 December 1969, concluded by Nimeri, Muammar Qadhafi, and Anwar Sadat, established a union among Sudan, Libya, and Egypt. Announcement of this in the Sudan led to a coup against Nimeri that ousted him from power. Three days later, with widespread popular support, he returned to power and won the 1971 elections.
In 1972, Nimeri signed the Addis Ababa Agreement with southern rebels that granted regional autonomy for southern Sudan. The Addis Ababa peace agreement also signaled a rapprochement between Sudan and Ethiopia that would not survive Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie's fall in 1974, as Sudan was soon pressured by various Arab states to renew its support for the Eritreans in the ongoing Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict.
Leaders of the traditional Sudanese parties, excluded from involvement in politics, in 1974 organized a National Front (NF) to oppose the regime. On several occasions the NF staged abortive efforts to overthrow Nimeri. He continued to receive support from Libya, Ethiopia, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, as early as 1971, those opposed to Nimeri had also organized the Southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), later the Sudan People's Liberation Movement. In October 1982, Egypt and Sudan signed a charter of political and economic integration. However, Sudan's deep and seemingly intractable economic problems did not improve.
Nimeri's failure to respect the Addis Ababa Agreement and the introduction of traditional Islamic law, the Sharia, and martial law in 1983 led to the resumption of the civil war led by the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the military arm of the SPLM. The disastrous economic situation increased dependence on the West, especially the United States, and brought the bloodless coup in April 1985 in which Lieutenant General Abd al-Rahman Mohammed Swar al-Dahab took control of Sudan through a Transnational Military Council (TMC). He also sought to improve relations with the Soviet Union, Ethiopia, and Libya. In response to the coup, the SPLA declared a cease-fire while at the same time demanding aid for the southern regions and the abolition of the Sharia.
In accordance with General Swar's promise, general elections occurred in April 1986, and parliamentary democracy was restored. A coalition government, headed by al-Sadiq al-Mahdi of the Umma party, ruled the country for the next three years. Although a 1988 agreement ending the civil war was supposed to stabilize Sudan, on 30 June 1989 General 'Umar Hasan Ahmed al-Bashir, supported by the National Islamic Front (NIF), led a bloodless coup and formed a fifteen-member Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation (RCC). His primary aim was to end the southern rebellion by force. However, the ongoing civil war that claimed nearly 1.5 million people during 1983–1997 showed just how difficult this task would be.
Johnson, Douglas H. The Root Causes of Sudan's Civil Wars. Oxford, UK: International African Institute, 2003.; Petterson, D. Inside Sudan. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2003.; Voll, John O., ed. Sudan: State and Society in Crisis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.