Sudan: Democratic failure and military ineptitude (1956-1964)

Updated January 2011

Further tensions within the NUP over religious policy led to a split in February 1956 and breakaway People's Democratic Party (PDP) was formed with the blessing of Khatamiya leader Sayyid Ali al-Mirghani and in June the Umma Party and PDP forced the resignation of al-Azhari and the Umma Party's Secretary General Abdallah Khalil became Prime Minister, but he presided over a fractious and ineffectual coalition government (Shay & Liberman 2006, 8,9; Collins 2008, 69). The rise of the Umma Party alienated liberal and leftist intellectuals and professionals as well as the Egyptian government; the latter became involved in overt and covert machinations to destabilise and bring down the new government (Shay & Liberman 2006, 8,9). To add to these difficulties in 1957 international commodity prices collapsed and government mismanagement of administered cotton prices generated huge surpluses of unsellable cotton, export volumes and earnings plunged as did state revenue and foreign exchange reseves (Collins 2008, 69; Sidahmed 1996, 60).

Not only did the northern parties not keep their promises to the Liberal Party of a future federal arrangement, in exchange for Liberal Party support on the independence issue, Arabic was declared the only official language and Islam as the religion of the State (Collins 2008, 72; Sharkey 2008, 34, 35).In 1957, furthermore, Christian missionary schools were nationalized, Arabic was instituted as the language of instruction and a national, ie Arab orientated, curriculum was imposed; all this fueled resentment and the growing rebellion in the south (Collins 2008, 72; Sharkey 2008, 34, 35).

The elections of February 1958 were won by the coalition of the Umma Party (36% of seats) and the PDP (16% of the seats), who had formed an electoral pact (see 1958 Parliamentary election results for details). The opposition NUP was supported of the CPS and other left-wing groups, but no longer received Egyptian funding, won only 26% seats and was reduced to second place despite receiving a larger share of the vote than the Umma Party, in part due to gerrymandering when constituency delimitations were reviewed before the elections (El-Battahani 2001, 255, 256). The southern Liberal Party dominated the south and won 22% of the seats overall. Khalil remained as Prime Minister but his second government proved as divided and no more effective than the first in dealing with the spiralling conflict and violence in the south towards full scale civil war, while relations with Egypt further deteriorated into to a confrontation between the two countries over a border dispute involving oil rich territories (Shay & Liberman 2006, 8, 9; Collins 2008, 70, 71). Moreover, the economic crisis remained unaddressed and in fact deepened in 1958, while a confrontation between the government and the Sudan Workers Trade Union Federation culminated in a successful general strike that was supported by the tenant unions, students and the CPS (El-Battahani 2001, 256).

Bickering between the Umma Party and the PDP reached the point where it paralysed government functioning and Prime Minister Khalil, fearing a successful motion of no confidence in the National Assembly, urged Military Chief of Staff General Ibrahim Abboud to seize power; Abboud acquiesced reluctantly and on 17 November 1958 a military coup d'état was executed (El-Battahani 2001, 256; Collins 2008, 72). Abboud won wide support by promising to remain in power only long enough to restore economic and political stability (Ofcansky 2009, 1122; Shay & Liberman 2006, 9). A governing Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was constituted under Abboud's presidency; political party activities, strikes and demonstrations were banned, which restored a sense of calm and stability; and the root of the economic crisis was addressed by dropping administered cotton prices to international market related levels (Gutteridge 1975, 168). The last measure led to rapid rise in cotton exports, foreign exchange earnings and state revenue and the economic recovery attracted foreign investment and aid, all of which translated into rising living standards in the north (Gutteridge 1975, 168; Collins 2008, 76, 77). Increased state revenue enabled state investment in economic development, land reform and housing developments without compromising fiscal prudence (Gutteridge 1975, 168; Collins 2008, 77).

In November 1959 partisan divisions within the military between right wing officers and a minority of younger pro-Egyptian left wing officers manifested itself when the latter attempted to overthrow the government (Shay & Liberman 2006, 9, 10). The military remained conflict ridden thereafter and younger officers continued to feel excluded from positions of power because they were not affiliated with the Umma Party (Gutteridge 1975, 169). Ambitious economic developmental projects and large scale military involvement in the economy, combined with lack of expertise, oversight and accountability, led to corruption amongst senior officers and the squandering of state resources on economically unviable projects (Gutteridge 1975, 168; Shay & Liberman 2006, 10; Ofcansky 2009, 1122).

In the south the government attempted to suppress dissent and growing armed resistance by force resulting in the radicalisation of the population and the coalescence of armed rebels into a coherent guerrilla movement, the Anya-Nya, while its operations against the latter forced thousands of people to take refuge in neighbouring countries providing the Anya-Nya with a ready supply of willing recruits (Shay & Liberman 2006, 10; Collins 2008, 79, 80). The hard line military stance was simultaneously accompanied by aggressive measures aimed at converting southerners to Islam and at replacing English with Arabic, so adding fuel to the fire; in 1962 Christian missionaries were expelled while students who refused to study the Qur'an were expelled from school (Sharley 2008, 35; Collins 2008, 78, 79). By 1964 matters were reaching crisis proportions as Anya-Nya operations escalated and military morale deteriorated while Sudan's international standing, especially in Africa, plummeted (Shay & Liberman 2006, 10). Exiled southerners formed new political organisations, most notably the Sudan African National Union (SANU) under Joseph Oduho Aworu and the in 1962 and the Southern Front (SF) formed by Clement Mboro and Ezbon Mundiri in 1964 (Collins 2008, 79).

In the north government decision makers became increasingly remote and inaccessible, arrogant and dismissive of criticism or advice and its members enriched, privileged and isolated (Gutteridge 1975, 168, 169). State resources were drained by the war in the south, lost through poor investment decisions and stolen by apparatchiks, so that the economic gains made in the first two years were negated and living standards ceased to improve and even declined (Gutteridge 1975, 168, 169; Collins 2008, 77). High handed and inept management, such as that of the relocation of Nubians displaced by the rising waters of the Aswan dam, led to disaffection amongst students and intellectuals, to resistance by leftists and trade unionists and to a deeper alienation of the already disaffected junior officers (Gutteridge 1975, 1970). The Communist Party of Sudan exploited the Nubian demonstrations to rally public support, was able to organise an illegal week long railways strike in 1961 and regular student demonstrations and to win the support of tenants unions and most opposition parties (Collins 2008, 76.

When in 1964 the government appointed a Commission to investigate a solution to the war in the south it proved to be its undoing, for the announcement was treated as a tacit acknowledgement of [yet another] failure on its part (Shay & Liberman 2006, 10; Gutteridge 1975, 167). Student demonstrations, supported by civil servants working to rule, escalated into a general strike accompanied by mass, and socially broad based, demonstrations that junior officers refused to suppress; the October Revolution culminated in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces tendering its resignation to a transitional civilian government with President Abboud nominally at its head (Shay & Liberman 2006, 10; Collins 2008, 80, 81).


EL-BATTAHANI, A 2001 "Sudan: Multiparty Elections" IN Cowan, M & Laakso, L (eds) Multi-party elections in Africa, James Currey Publishers, Oxford.

COLLINS, RO 2008 A history of modern Sudan, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

GUTTERIDGE, WF 1975 Military Regimes in Africa, Methuen & Co Ltd, London.

LOBBAN, RA JR 2010 Global Security Watch - Sudan, Praeger Security International, Westport, CT.

OFCANSKY, T 2009 "Sudan : Recent History" IN Frame, I 2008 (ed) Africa South of the Sahara 2008, Routledge, 1122-1135.

SHAY, S & LIBERMAN R 2006 The Red Sea terror triangle: Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and Islamic terror, Transaction Publishers, New Jersey.

SIDAHMED, AS 1996 Politics and Islam in contemporary Sudan, St Martin's Press, New York.