Last Updated: Monday, 30 November 2015, 08:01 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Sudan

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date May 2009
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Sudan, May 2009, available at: [accessed 30 November 2015]
Comments In October 2015, MRG revised its World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. For the most part, overview texts were not themselves updated, but the previous 'Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples' rubric was replaced throughout with links to the relevant minority-specific reports, and a 'Resources' section was added. Refworld entries have been updated accordingly.
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Last updated: May 2009


Sudan is the largest country in Africa. Located in the north-east of the continent, it is bordered by Egypt, the Red Sea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic, Chad and Libya. Away from the Nile River, most of Sudan is comprised of semi-arid plains, though the south is more lush.


From 7000 BC, farmers and herders lived along the Nile in what is now Sudan. Most settled in Nubia, known to the Egyptians as Cush. Nubian civilization reached its peak between 1750 and 1500 BCE and is thought to be the oldest civilization in sub-Saharan Africa. In the sixth century, northern Sudanese adopted Christianity.

By the mid-seventh century, Arab Muslims had conquered Egypt and raided Nubia. In the early 1500s black African Muslims called Funji conquered Sudan. Meanwhile black Africans settled in central and southern Sudan, including Azande, Dinka, Nuer and Shilluk people. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries the rulers of these increasingly Islamic Sudanese states adopted an Arab identity. When Egyptian forces penetrated southern Sudan after 1821 they brought in their wake northern Sudanese and European merchants. The growth in the supply of slaves led to their being used increasingly as domestic servants in northern Sudan.

Northern Sudanese generally regarded the south as part of a large labour reserve. Because southerners were needed for indentured labour this weighed against converting them to Islam, which would have ruled out their use as slaves. By the time of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, 1898-1955, the attitudes of the north towards the south had become entrenched. Regional underdevelopment increased, and by the early 1950s educated southerners believed that self-government for Sudan would not necessarily result in self-government for the south. They tried to delay independence and later proposed federation. When this was rebuffed in 1958, two years after Sudan gained independence, to many, secession seemed the only alternative. A series of post-independence civilian and military regimes failed to reconcile deep-seated differences between the south and the north. General Nimeiry seized power in 1969, and in 1972 ended a 17-year civil war by granting the south regional government and local autonomy.

Oil and Islam

During the mid-1970s, significant oil discoveries were made in the Upper Nile region of Sudan, which raised the stakes for control of the south. It also encouraged leaders in Khartoum to sharpen divide-and-rule tactics in the south, and indeed in all of the country's peripheral regions.

Nimeiry's support for the 1979 Camp David peace accord between Egypt and Israel earned him the enmity of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, who supported Nimeiry's enemies.

The north-south conflict resumed in 1983 when Nimeiry ended regional self-government; Libya backed the southern Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) that had emerged under the leadership of defected Sudanese army colonel John Garang. With the outbreak of war, Nimeiry imposed Islamic law.

Nimeiry was overthrown through a popular uprising in 1985 and a civilian government assumed power in May 1986, although it failed to end the war in the south. The new government under Sadiq al Mahdi brought the National Islamic Front (NIF) into its coalition for the first time.

Following a shift in policy on the Middle East, Libya switched its allegiance from the SPLA/M to Khartoum. Al Mahdi eventually fell out with the NIF over his government's agreement to a ceasefire with the SPLA in November 1988, and its provision freezing the implementation of Sharia law in the south. In June 1989 the NIF launched an Islamist coup fronted by Colonel Omar al Bashir.

The new junta - the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) - set about torturing and killing perceived opponents in the north, while banning labour unions, political parties and outlawing protests against the regime.

In 1991 government forces made gains in the civil war when the SPLA split over whether to seek a secular Sudan or full independence, and during 1991-2, the regime targeted opponents in Juba and elsewhere in the south with the same terror and fervour it had brought against its perceived northern enemies.

The NIF regime specialized in exploiting existing local ethnic and religious tensions, or instigating them, in a bid to divide opposition to its rule throughout the country. The government has survived despite deep unpopularity and chronic neglect of every region in the vast country largely due to its stoking of many proxy wars that are the fallout of its systematic assault on minority rights.

North-south war

The north-south war continued unabated throughout the 1990s. The SPLA/M was dogged by splinter factions, most notably by that led by the Nuer, Riek Machar, who received support from Khartoum, which had a clear interest in encouraging southern in-fighting.

During the decade, tens of thousands of southern Sudanese were taken into slavery in the north, while fighting displaced and killed hundreds of thousands more. From 1993 the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a regional development body, led peace efforts in Sudan, but these remained in a rut. Religious and racial targeting of southerners exacerbated a conflict that was increasingly becoming about the control of southern oil resources.

Sudan and international terrorism

During the 1990s, Khartoum supported Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, hosted Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist group, and may have supported Al Qaeda's 1993 bombing of New York's World Trade Centre, the 1998 bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000.

Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak likewise fingered Sudanese involvement in an attempted assassination on him in 1995. Throughout the decade, Washington aggressively sought to isolate Sudan, including through economic sanctions.

Following the 1998 embassy bombings, the US launched retaliatory strikes on an alleged chemical weapons factory in Khartoum. Mounting international pressure had already led Sudan to expel bin Laden in 1996, and, following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US, Khartoum made a strategic decision to join the 'global war on terror' by providing Washington with intelligence.

US interventions

The US had long provided support to the SPLA and neighbouring countries that were at odds with Khartoum. With the partial thawing of US-Sudanese relations, and under bi-partisan prodding from Congress, which had long been concerned about abuses against southerners, the White House appointed John Danforth, a respected former senator, to lead a new effort at forging a north-south peace agreement.

The warring parties signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in January 2005, which brought an end to years of war and cost an estimated 1.5 million lives. Beyond a permanent ceasefire and an agreement on the sharing of oil revenue, most of which comes from the south, the deal nominally brought the SPLA into government.


There is no accurate demographic data in Sudan. Previous censuses are widely regarded as being of poor quality. A new census is due to be held in January 2008 - but has already been delayed and may yet be again. However, what is clear that Sudan is home to an immense range of peoples - according to one estimate, more than 56 ethnic and almost 600 sub-ethnic groups.

Main languages: Arabic (official), Nubian, over 100 diverse dialects of Nilotic, Nilo-Hamitic, Sudanic languages, especially in the south, Darfur, Nuba Mountains and parts of the East. These include Dinka, Azande, Nuer, Fur, Shilluk and many Nuban languages. English is widely spoken, especially in the south.

Main religions: Sunni Islam, indigenous beliefs (mainly in the south), Christianity (mainly in the south and Khartoum)

Western Nilotes - Anuak, Dinka, Nuer and Shilluk - are the largest Sudanese linguistic group. Predominantly pastoral, they traditionally lived in southern Sudan, occupying parts of southern Kordofan and White Nile province. Further south in Equatoria are Eastern Nilotes, including Azande, Latuka, Madi, Moru, Taposa and Turkana.

Nuer and their associated subgroup, Atuot, are, after the Dinka, among the most numerous groups in southern Sudan. A Nilotic people, they are seasonally migrating pastoralists. Cattle are fundamental to the social structure: a profound measure of wealth, status and personal influence. Cattle are used to pay debts, fines and bride prices, although this latter practice is in decline, and are also central to religious and artistic culture.

Relatively homogeneous in language and culture but without political centralization or formal regional integration, Nuer are divided into a number of independent tribes organized into clans, lineages and age groups. Nuer had a strong history of resistance to British control in the twentieth century. In recent decades, the Nuer have suffered from internecine conflict; a key leader, Riek Machar, took many Nuer with him when he switched sides from the Sudanese Peoples' Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) to join forces with Khartoum government, although subsequently he returned.

Nubians (not to be confused with Nuba) are descendants of the hunter-gathering culture near the site of modern Khartoum, c. 4000 BC, with much admixture from the Egyptian population to the north. Nubians have a very long history linked to the rise of agriculture, ancient states and urbanism, which parallels their association with ancient Egypt. Nubia was a source of gold, slaves, cattle skins, ivory, ebony, ostrich feathers, gum and incense which played a very important role in the basic accumulation of Egyptian wealth and power. When the Nubian kingdom was defeated by the Axumite kingdom it reorganized as three Christian kingdoms. This delayed the arrival of Islam until the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Some Nubians fled to remote locations in Darfur and Kordofan; other groups stayed in Nubia, retaining a tradition of religious scholarship and teaching.


Following the 1989 coup, the RCC immediately banned all political parties. The NIF consolidated its power in October 1993 and changed its name to the National Congress Party (NCP); the RCC disbanded after appointing al Bashir president.

Exceptionally harsh in its treatment of opponents, the government manifested disregard for human rights on a massive scale in the relocation and 'cleansing' of minority populations in northern and southern Sudan. There was a re-launching of slave trading in southern and south- central Sudan, especially targeting Nuba children in the south-west.

The ruling Islamist cabal has held absolute power since 1989 and in March 1996 orchestrated a sham 'election'. Through a power struggle, NIF founder and parliamentary speaker Hassan al Turabi fell out with al Bashir. When al Turabi's Popular National Congress Party signed a memorandum of understanding with the SPLA in 2001, he was quickly arrested. He remains a leading presence in Sudanese politics despite the fluctuations in his relationship with al Bashir and the ruling party.

In January 2005, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed, bringing an end to decades of war between Khartoum's rulers and the SPLA. It is a complex agreement, covering security arrangements, boundary demarcation, governance, oil revenues and religion. A government of national unity was formed, but the key guarantee is a 2011 referendum on southern independence.

In the meantime, the South is ruled under the autonomous SPLM-led Government of South Sudan. (GoSS). The agreement is far from perfect. From a minority point of view, one of the major difficulties has been that it guarantees a majority of northern government positions and parliamentary seats to the NCP ahead of elections, effectively entrenching power of ruling clique, while the same guarantee is extended to the SPLM in the South, at the expense of smaller opposition groups.

Similarly, the deal does not address the festering conflicts in Sudan's other regions, such as Darfur and the east, and the growing instability in the north and Kordofan, while the potential for conflict in Nuba Mountains and in the transitional area of Abyei remains high.

But, despite its drawbacks, the agreement is a major step towards transforming traditional power structures in Sudan. For minorities, it offers the possibility of participating in government and choice of government. A census is due (although it has already been much postponed) and in 2009 elections are to be held across the country.

However, no agreement has been made on the type of electoral system to be used and nor have the present discussions been transparent, as the ICG (International Crisis Group) reports (July 2007). This could be of great importance to Sudan's non-dominant communities because, as an MRG study on electoral systems around the world, showed in 2006, the type of system chosen, can greatly affect the representation of minorities in legislatures.

Logically, the CPA weakens the power of the ruling clique, and may eventually lead to the loss of the south altogether. It is not surprising, therefore, that the NCP has dragged its feet over implementation. In July 2007, the verdict of the ICG in July 2007 was that the agreement was 'in danger of collapse' due to 'government sabotage and international neglect'.

Equally, the SPLM leadership has concentrated on southern problems, rather than using its presence in government to push for solutions on the national level. With the death of veteran leader John Garang in a helicopter crash in 2005, supporters within the movement of his vision of a 'New Sudan' based on equality and justice, and built around a devolved, federal system, have been weakened.

Fears have been expressed too, that the SPLM government is dominated by the Dinka tribe, and is not inclusive enough of other groups. But many Dinkas argue that the 'myth of the Dinka war' has been propagated by Khartoum as a way to divide the tribes of the south. In the years running up to the peace deal being signed, Garang had successfully negotiated the return of two key southern leaders, a Nuer and Shilluk, who had split with him in 1991 and joined forces with the north. Riek Machar and Lam Akol now hold top positions in the southern and national governments respectively.

But, it is clear that if Salva Kiir's government is to be considered genuinely inclusive, then it must make efforts to include representatives of other tribes. According to the ICG, reshuffles in 2007 pointed the other way, with a prominent number of Bahr el Ghazal Dinkas appointed to high positions in Salva Kiir's administration and armed forces.

In July 2008, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) requested that a panel of judges approve a warrant for the arrest of President al Bashir on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity and war crimes for his alleged role in the Darfur conflict. Al Bashir attempted to rally the country in defiance of the charges whilst also seeking support among African and Arab leaders to oppose the move. In the UN Security Council, Libya and South Africa sought approval of a draft resolution that, in accordance the ICC's statute, would delay the ICC judges' consideration of the prosecutor's request for one year. Although some western diplomats and analysts were worried that charges against al Bashir could increase his grip on power and undermine prospects for peace, western countries opposed the effort in the Security Council to delay the prosecution. Other diplomats and analysts believed that the charges could eventually weaken Bashir and provide the international community with new leverage over Khartoum in ending the atrocities in Darfur.



Minority based and advocacy organisations

Mutawinat Group Sudan

Sudan Organization Against Torture, Sudan/UK

Sudanese Women's Association in Nairobi

Sudanese Women's Civil Society Network for Peace

Sudan Social Development Organization (SUDO), Sudan

Youth Community Development Agency South Sudan

Sources and further reading

African Rights, Facing Genocide: The Nuba of Sudan, London, African Rights, September 1996.

Africa Watch, Sudan: Eradicating the Nuba, New York, Africa Watch, 1992.

Coalition for International Justice, Documenting Atrocities in Darfur, September 2004.

Flint, J. and De Waal, A., Darfur: A Short History of a Long War, London, Zed Books, 2005.

Human Rights Watch, The Copts, New York, Human Rights Watch, 1993.

Human Rights Watch, Sudan in the Name of God: Repression Continues in Northern Sudan, New York, Human Rights Watch, 1994.

Human Rights Watch, Targeting the Fur, New York, Human Rights Watch, January 2005. URL:

Human Rights Watch, Entrenching Impunity: Government Responsibility for International Crimes in Darfur, New York, Human Rights Watch, December 2005.

International Crisis Group reports on Sudan 2005, 2006, 2007, URL:

Johnson, D., The Root Causes of Sudan's Civil Wars (African Issues), Oxford, James Currey Ltd, 2003.

Meyer, G., War and Faith in Sudan, Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans, 2005.

Mosely Lesch, A., Sudan: Contested National Identities, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1998.

Prunier, G., Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide, Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 2007.

Srinivasan, S., Minority Rights, Early Warning and Conflict Prevention: Lessons from Darfur, London, MRG, October 2006.

Sudan Tribune, 'Navaisha accord fails to address Nuba grievances' (statement from the Nuba Survival Foundation), 4 January 2005. URL: page=imprimable&id_article=7354

Verney, P. et al., Sudan: Conflict and Minorities, London, MRG, 1995.

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