Republic of the Sudan

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Republic of the Sudan

Type of Government

The government of the East African nation of the Sudan is in a transitional phase after decades of unrest and civil war. In 2005 a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the government and southern rebels mandated a period of power-sharing and local autonomy before new general elections were to be held in 2008–2009. Despite these changes, the central government continues to be an authoritarian, militantly Islamic regime with a strong pro-northern orientation.


Only slightly smaller than Alaska, Texas, and Montana combined, the vast Sudan is bordered by Egypt to the north; Libya, Chad, and the Central African Republic to the west; the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Kenya to the south; Eritrea and Ethiopia to the east; and the Red Sea to the northeast. For the most part, colonial administrators drew these borders with little regard for the region’s ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity. As a result, the independent Sudan has never been a unified nation. On the contrary, it contains an enormous variety of distinct, cohesive groups, often with widely divergent interests. Thus nomads and farmers routinely fight over water and grazing rights; neighboring tribes pursue longstanding feuds; fundamentalist Muslims contend with secular Muslims, Christians, and the followers of native African faiths; and light-skinned Arabs and dark-skinned southerners view each other with distrust and antipathy. Each one of these conflicts is dangerous in itself. When they compound and complicate each other, however, as they did for decades in southern Sudan and as they continue to do in the western region of Darfur, the result has been turmoil and bitter civil war.

In ancient times the area of the Sudan was settled by various kingdoms and tribes from the north and the south, each bringing different religions, including Christian and Islamic faiths, to the region. From 1899 to 1956, the year of its independence, the Sudan was a joint colony, or condominium, of the British and Egyptians. For most of this period, the northern and southern regions were separately administered. Provisional constitutions in 1954 and 1956 envisioned the new nation as an Islamic republic, though Christianity and native faiths, not Islam, prevailed in the south.

Government Structure

An Interim National Constitution of 2005, closely based on the peace agreement of the same year, sets out a series of complex arrangements for power-sharing and regional autonomy. Chief of state and head of government in the new Government of National Unity (GNU) is President Omar Hassan Ahmed al-Bashir (1944–), who first came to power in a military coup in June 1989. According to the 2005 arrangement, the office of first vice president must be filled by the leader of the primary rebel movement, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/SPLM). The leader of the SPLM at the time was John Garang (1945–2005), who held this office for only a few weeks before he died in a helicopter crash on August 1, 2005. His successor in the SPLM, Salva Kiir (1951–), then became first vice president. Despite fears that the sudden death of the charismatic Garang might derail the new government, Kiir’s succession went relatively smoothly. The cabinet, known as the Council of Ministers, continues to consist of presidential appointees, most of whom, unsurprisingly, belong to al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP).

Legislative powers are vested in a new bicameral body composed of a National Assembly and a Council of States. The old unicameral National Assembly was abolished. Until the elections scheduled for 2008–2009, 450 presidential appointees hold the seats of the new National Assembly. Unlike cabinet ministers, however, assembly appointments are not merely the expression of al-Bashir’s personal preferences. On the contrary, the president must follow a precise distribution formula: 234 seats (52 percent) to his own NCP, 126 (28 percent) to the SPLM, 63 (14 percent) to other northern groups, and 27 (6 percent) to other southern groups. The Council of States, meanwhile, consists of 50 members, two from each of the country’s 25 states. Apart from the five-year terms specified for both houses, details of the legislative and electoral processes are not yet finalized.

The structure and function of the judicial branch continues to be the subject of fierce debate. Powerful northern elements are still pushing for a nationwide system of sharia courts, which administer traditional Islamic law. The terms of the CPA, however, specifically exempt the southern states from sharia. In the north, however, sharia courts are to have jurisdiction over all individuals, regardless of religion. The capital of Khartoum presents special difficulties in this regard, for many southern refugees and other non-Muslims reside there. A special arrangement for the capital is therefore under discussion. In general, the legal system is a confused patchwork of sharia, English common law, and local tradition, with jurisdictional disputes a common complication in even the most routine cases. The upper courts, however, are relatively well defined, with Appeals Courts, a Supreme Court, and a special nine-member court empowered to review the constitutionality of legislation, government structure, and public policy.

Local affairs are generally handled through the twenty-five regional administrations with direction from the central government. As always, however, the south is an exception, with full autonomy for six years and its own constitution. In 2011, at the end of the autonomous period established in 2005 by the CPA, a referendum on independence is to be held. Oil revenues are split equally with the central government.

Political Parties and Factions

In addition to the NCP and SPLM, the transitional government includes members of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), a coalition of small, mostly northern groups. Other groups, often based on regional or ethnic ties, exist outside the government, and often in violent conflict with it. One of the most troubling of these is a Uganda-based group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), notorious throughout the region for kidnapping children and forcing them to take up arms. The most prominent of the opposition groups, however, are probably those fighting for greater autonomy in the enormous eastern region of Darfur. Roughly the size of France, Darfur supports a number of distinct rebel organizations, including the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/SLM). Opposing the rebels are loosely knit, government-backed militias known as the Janjaweed. The situation in Darfur is complex, with alliances shifting almost daily. In general, however, the conflict reflects long-standing animosity between darker-skinned farming peoples, represented by the rebels, and lighter-skinned nomadic peoples, represented by the militias. The extent to which the militias are acting merely as proxies for the government is a matter of debate. Al-Bashir’s administration has repeatedly said it has no control over the militias, while the rebels cite reports of fighter planes and helicopter gunships as clear evidence of government involvement. Meanwhile an estimated two hundred thousand people have died since fighting began in 2003, and there is no end in sight.

Major Events

Immediately after gaining independence in 1956, with the new nation formed as an Islamic republic but with Christianity and other religions dominating the south, fighting between north and south broke out almost immediately. The first fifteen years of Sudan’s independence were a time of constant turmoil, military rule, and periodic coups. The fighting came briefly to a halt in 1972, with the signing of a peace treaty in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, between the government and the southern rebel movement known as Anya-Nya. A new constitution was drafted the following year, and a transition to peaceful civilian rule seemed imminent. The subsequent discovery of oil in the south, however, disrupted the fragile balance of power there, with the central government of General Gaafar Nimeiri (1930–) soon deploying troops in oil-rich areas in violation of the 1972 accords. By 1983 Nimeiri’s stance had hardened further, as he did away with the treaty entirely and imposed sharia on the whole country. The south responded with a full-scale rebellion under SPLM leader John Garang. Despite several leadership changes—usually by coup—within the central government, the war dragged on for more than twenty years. By the time it ended with the CPA of 2005, the country was in shambles, and more than two million people, mostly civilians, were dead.

The Sudan’s region of Darfur constitutes another major problem for the nation. In September 2004 Colin Powell (1937–), then U.S. Secretary of State, announced that the Janjaweed’s activities in Darfur constituted genocide (the state-sponsored extermination of a racial, ethnic or cultural group). Powell’s comments provoked an angry and energetic denial from the Sudanese government, which nonetheless found itself facing increasing international pressure. The United Nations (UN), the European Union, the United States, the African Union (AU), aid organizations, and private citizens around the world demanded that President al-Bashir restrain and disarm the militias. There is some indication that al-Bashir was taken aback by the vehemence of the international outcry. He allowed the deployment of seven thousand peacekeepers from the AU and made some tentative movements toward a negotiated settlement in the area. He continues to reject proposals to replace the beleaguered and ill-equipped AU troops with a larger UN force, however, and the reputation of his government continues to slide.

Twenty-First Century

The array of structural and economic problems now facing the Sudan would challenge even the most peaceful of nations. As it is, however, Sudan’s conflicts make all other problems many times worse. Years of drought and environmental mismanagement, for example, have made millions of East Africans, including the people of Darfur, dependent on international food aid. Large-scale food delivery is never easy, even when the recipients are living in their own homes and villages. In Darfur, however, relatively few villages still exist. Hundreds have been burnt to the ground, their inhabitants—as many as two million people—driven into a barren, roadless countryside. War, in short, has turned a bad drought into a logistical and humanitarian nightmare.

Few observers are satisfied with the Sudanese government’s response to this crisis. Even the most ardent admirer of President al-Bashir must admit that the situation in Darfur has destroyed the considerable store of international good will created by the successful peace treaty of 2005. Whether the reforms envisioned by that treaty will be enough to prod al-Bashir to make further changes is a question of fundamental importance for the nation’s future.

Beswick, Stephanie. Sudan’s Blood Memory: The Legacy of War, Ethnicity and Slavery in South Sudan. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2006.

Iyob, Ruth, and Gilbert M. Khadiagala. Sudan: The Elusive Quest for Peace. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2006.

West, Deborah L., the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and the Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution. The Sudan: Saving Lives, Sustaining Peace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2006.

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Republic of the Sudan

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