Matters of Education

Learning Happens Everywhere

Darfur’s Past

Original Publication Date: January 2007


The area that now comprises Sudan has been populated for 60,000 years. By the eighth millennium BCE, a Neolithic culture with some contact with Egypt developed. Most records of this early period come from Egyptian sources, a dominant force in the ancient world. Both the Nile and the Red Sea served as natural connections between this area and the other key states along the Mediterranean, particularly Greece. By the first century BCE, there are records of a Nubian language and trade throughout the area. (Figure 11)

For centuries before the Common Era, Egyptian influence was profound in Nubia although cultural interchange was dialectic rather than linear. During those eras when the Egyptians formally controlled Nubia, they used a mix of Egyptian and native administrators, expecting the country to generate revenue and wealth. A fort system developed along the Nile and cities grew from these garrison towns. As Christianity spread through the Mediterranean world, traders and missionaries brought the religion to Nubia. By the 630s CE, Arab traders brought Islam and Nubian Christians were separated from those in the Mediterranean. (Figure 12) There had long been contact between Nubians and Arabs, but Islam solidified the North/South division within Nubia while simultaneously providing political unity, economic growth and educational development. These advancements were largely restricted to urban and cultural areas in the North, making those in other regions increasingly marginalized.

In many ways, Nubia developed into a feudal society, whose inhabitants assimilated a wide range of traditions. Nubians also balanced the contradiction of foreign rulers and local power. Concentric administrative entities tended to coincide with tribal jurisdiction and Khartoum served as the seat of the foreign influence. As tribal leaders and sheikhs ran local affairs, Islamic judges dealt with personal matters. Areas outside of the Nile region were largely left alone during this period. A comfort with the duality of administration extended to association with both the Arab and African worlds. Islam in Africa mutated to reflect and uphold local customs that were continually being shaped by exposure to foreign influences.


The Ottomans first came to Nubia via their conquest of Egypt in the 1500s and incorporated the area into its empire (Figure 4), relying still on the local administrators with ultimate loyalty to the Sultan. The Ottomans were largely interested in the coastal and Nile regions, and ignored the interior. As they conquered the North, the Funj took over the South and both groups participated in the now extensive slave trade. It was during this period that farming and herding were parceled out into DAR, discrete land units. Tribal distinctions in modern Sudan can be traced to this period, with a chieftain ruling over each DAR. Attention from foreign powers depended on the intrinsic wealth of the area. In the west, the Fur Tribe was given the area we now know as DARFUR. The Fur’s economic contribution consisted of slaves and ivory. This system was efficient, and allowed the Ottomans to gain influence over a wider area that they did not have to administer directly. Things remained relatively calm and stable for the next few hundred years, until Europeans became interested in the area.


European involvement in Africa was based on several factors. Although West Africa had long been important because of the slave trade in North America, East Africa became central to European interest by the mid-19th Century as a source of raw materials, markets for finished goods, and access to other colonial holdings in the Middle East and Asia. The British had crossed from the Mediterranean to gain access to its possessions in India and the Far East. Control over the area had been informal, but as Germany and other Western powers began to compete for influence (Figure 5), the British solidified its control. The Suez Canal, a testimony to improved transportation and the need for speedier access to the East, opened in 1869 (Figure 7). The Conference of Berlin, held in 1884, parceled African lands into discrete political entities under European ownership. European diplomats drew boundaries with little regard for linguistic, tribal and ethnic groupings. (Figures 10 and 17) The result was the separation of some peoples and unfortunate combination of others. Sudan was a construction of non-naturally connected groups and these boundaries and borders were still in place when independence came in 1956. (Figure 16)

The British were mostly interested in the port cities of Sudan and preferred to have as little direct involvement as possible. It was clearly an area that the British colonized and did not settle. For those who lived in the area, little changed in terms of daily life. Throughout Sudan, the British did as little as they possibly could to develop communication or transportation or an indigenous ruling class except in the northern cities and ports. The British divided its administration of Sudan. The North was run by the Arab experts from the consular and diplomatic core while the Western region was run by those with military experience in Africa. The South was always treated as a minority within the country.

In 1899, the British and Egyptians formed the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, which allowed for their joint supervision of Sudan. Although Egypt gained independence in 1922, the condominium arrangement continued in Sudan until January 1, 1956. The northern part of the country had a civilian administration with Western law and separation of Church and state. Britain provided sufficient resources in the North to facilitate its rule and brought modern transportation and communication. Sudanese in the North benefited from this relationship and gained power and wealth. This educated local elite enjoyed the privileges that decentralized indirect rule afforded them.


Darfur was technically independent during much of this time. It was ruled by a Sultanate for centuries. Darfur illustrated the geographic influence of both the Arab and African worlds of which it was a part. Islam likewise coexisted with animist traditions in the religious life of its inhabitants. The people of Darfur had a subsistence agricultural economy and was a source of slaves for foreign traders. Contact with traders throughout the centuries resulted in cultural interchange but most mixing was done by local tribes. Darfur was not covered by the original condominium arrangement in 1899. Independence was not a sign of strength but disinterest on the part of Europeans. The area had nothing Westerners wanted in terms of raw materials or geographic position.

But independence did not mean that Darfur was self-contained or even autonomous. It had certainly come under the influence of the Egyptians, Arab traders and the Ottomans, so claims that it was an independent state until 1916 are somewhat misleading. Religiously, its Muslim orientation connected it to Sudan where a religious revival occurred in the middle of the 19th century. As long as tribute was paid to successive foreign rulers, Darfur was able to maintain its technically autonomous status.

During World War One, Darfur sided with the Ottomans and at that point, the British declared a protectorate over the area, annexed Darfur to Sudan, and terminated the Darfur sultanate. (Figure 15) Daily life changed little over the next few decades and again, as long as taxes were collected, tribal leaders were able to administer the area on a local level. Once part of Sudan, particularly after Sudan’s independence in 1956, Darfur suffered the same fate as other marginalized regions and had no influence on national policies or development of economic infrastructure during this period. The only integration into the national economy was as a provider of migrant workers. Powerful when independent, the tribal leaders of Darfur had little influence within wider Sudan.


World War One raised the hopes of many colonial peoples throughout Africa and the Middle East for independence. In Sudan most of those who wished to rid themselves of colonial rule lived in the North, were highly educated and Westernized. Many Sudanese felt that only the departure of foreign rulers would allow for a centralized nation that was both Muslim and Arab, where tribal and religious leaders would share power.

Neither Britain nor Egypt would agree to a modification in the 1899 Anglo-Egyptian Condominium Agreement which placed Sudan under the joint administration of the two countries. Moreover, the British believed their presence was necessary to protect Sudan from Egyptian domination. (Figure 15) Nationalists feared the solution might be to attach northern Sudan to Egypt and southern Sudan to Uganda and Kenya. Although they settled most of their differences in the 1936 Treaty of Alliance, which set a timetable for the end of British military occupation, Britain and Egypt failed to agree on the future status of Sudan.

Following World War Two, the British agreed to transfer power. Their system of indirect rule would be modernized and incorporated into a Sudanese political system. The new Sudanese government would have responsibility in all areas except military and foreign affairs, which remained in British hands. In February 1953, the parties signed the Anglo-Egyptian accord, which allowed for a three-year transition period from Condominium rule to self-government. During the transition phase, British and Egyptian troops would withdraw from Sudan. At the end of this period, the Sudanese would decide their future status in a plebiscite conducted under international supervision. Sudan achieved independence without the rival political parties having agreed on the form and content of a permanent constitution.

The coming of independence to Sudan in 1956 revealed the incredible divisions within the country and complexities of cultural composition. Independence came with little turmoil or bloodshed, but there was also not a unifying spirit that characterizes many rebellions. For Sudan, an artificial geographic construct to begin with, the absence of a united mission was detrimental to the land and the people. Coupled with conflicting goals, poor leadership, and a divisive colonial legacy, it is not surprising that independent Sudan looked a great deal like colonial Sudan to many of its residents.


The new country had many problems and no clear mechanism for solving them. The colonial experience had created a profound division between North and South which was only reinforced by geographic factors, linguistic differences and religious affiliation. To what extent would religious law be incorporated in the new nation? Would southern Christians be bound by Sharia, Muslim law? Would claims of pan-Arabism mask distinctions and create a sense of nationalism? The British had an effective civil service. By whom would they be replaced, given the dearth of education of those who lived in the southern and western portions of the country? With whom would the country ally itself, both in its region and in the Cold War dominated era? Did it envision itself as part of Africa or the Middle East?

There was not a strong political commitment to democracy. Those who found themselves in positions of power were not prepared in the means of nation building or statecraft, because nothing in their colonial past prepared the Sudanese for such an approach. Elitism, factionalism and authoritarianism dominated Sudanese politics from the beginning. Northern Sudanese quickly replaced the British civil servants, much to the resentment of those in the South, who quickly began to agitate for provincial autonomy. Failure to gain power within the new government resulted in rebellion and protracted civil war between the South and the North from the first months after independence until the early 1970s.

The new government, based on a parliamentary model, introduced plans to expand the country’s educational, economic, and transportation sectors. To achieve these goals, Khartoum needed foreign economic and technical assistance, to which the United States made an early commitment. The prime minister formed a coalition government in February 1956, but he alienated religious leaders by supporting increasingly secular government policies. Factionalism and bribery in parliament, coupled with the government’s inability to resolve Sudan’s many social, political, and economic problems, increased popular disillusion with democratic governance. Growing popular discontent caused many antigovernment demonstrations in Khartoum. On November 17, 1958, the day parliament was to convene, a military coup occurred.


A pattern developed in successive years. There were many in Sudan who understood the enormous task before them but absent any way to construct a majority, democracy was difficult. Those times when it was tried via a multiparty system, factionalism and corruption made a rapid return to authoritarianism and military domination easy. Even when coalition governments formed, they were unable to deliver on promises.

After the military overthrow in 1958, officers assumed positions of political leadership but the economy and society remained in turmoil. They tried to suppress religious and cultural differences by promoting the Arabization of all. In 1964, a parliamentary system was instituted that had little more success. In 1969, a military coup under Nimeiri took power which lasted until the mid-1980s. Again, a few years of democratic efforts failed to achieve lasting and meaningful change, and the military rule of the current president, al Bashir began in 1989.


Darfur was officially included in Sudan in 1916. In the three generations that followed, the people of Darfur became Sudanese. As the Sudanese were attempting to construct themselves as a distinct nation, those in Darfur shared in this process, yet did so from their marginal status. They assimilated to an economic and political entity that was centered on the Nile and most concerned with divisions between its northern and southern regions. As a peripheral appendage, the people of Darfur were saddled with problems not of their own design, with little ability to participate in the solution. Many within Darfur sought to change this situation. The ineffectiveness of nonviolence unfortunately gave way to a rising rebellion in which weapons would serve as the voice of protest.


  1. What is common to each era of colonial rule in Sudan?
  2. How was local authority a constant despite a succession of foreign rulers?
  3. What generated foreign interest in Sudan?
  4. Why is it inaccurate to claim that Darfur was independent until 1916?
  5. Did the Sudanese benefit from foreign rulers?
  6. Colonial rule implies cultural interchange rather than cultural imposition. How did this distinction manifest itself for the people of Sudan?
  7. What did independence mean for the people of Sudan? Darfur?
  8. How did the absence of any real struggle to gain independence affect the new nation?
  9. Who constitutes the majority in Sudan? Why do they have such little influence?
  10. Were the people of Sudan better or worse off after independence?


Country Reports:



Daly, M.W. Imperial Sudan: The Anglo-Egyptian Condominium. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Prunier, Gerard. Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005.