In order to understand the current crisis in Darfur, it is important to look at a broader picture of the country’s people and its history. The Sudanese national identity is difficult to define. The country is populated by a multitude of diverse tribes, while its people speak over a hundred languages.
A great deal of tension has arisen between the two predominant cultures (Arabic-speaking Black Africans and non-Arabic speaking Black Africans) because of the difference in language and way of life. Arabic-speaking Muslims live in the northern region of the country, comprised of mostly urban centers, while the majority of Sudanese in the south practice traditional, or tribal, beliefs (as well as a small number who practice Christianity). The south, which is mostly rural, is more ethnically diverse and has been distinctly less prosperous than the north. War has left this region with little infrastructure. More than two million people have died, and more than four million have been displaced because of the civil war.
The First Sudanese Civil War began in 1955, and was the first of many conflicts between the north and south regions of the Sudan. The main issue of the war was the south’s demand for more regional autonomy. Throughout seventeen years the war resulted in half a million casualties, and when a peace was officially agreed upon in 1972, in Addis Ababa, the south was granted autonomy. Yet this agreement did little to dispel the real tensions between the two regions, and the Second Sudanese Civil War, which began in 1983, was actually a continuation of the First than a completely separate conflict.
In 1956, a year after the First Civil War began, the Sudan gained its independence from British-Egyptian rule, and since then has fluctuated between military and democratic rule. General Ibrahim Abbud came to power through a coup in 1958. Throughout his rule there was unrest in the south because of his support of the spread of Islam. Abbud eventually stepped down as a result of increased resistance in the south, and a civilian caretaker government took control in 1964.
The caretaker government lasted a mere five years before it was overthrown by yet another coup, this time led by Colonel Gaafar Mohamed Al-Nimeiri, a socialist. It was during his rule that the First Civil War ended. He enjoyed an eleven-year period of relative peace, until he tried strengthening his grip on power by canceling the grant of autonomy for the south, among other things.
Tensions between the north and south escalated into the Second Sudanese Civil War; 1955 to 2005 is sometimes considered one war with a peace period of eleven years in between two violent phases. The same issues of southern autonomy predominated in second as well. Under the influence of Hassan Al Turabi, the leader of the National Islamic Front and the Muslim Brotherhood, Nimeiri introduced Shari’a rule (Islamic law) in the same year, which further alienated the south, the majority of whom were not Muslim.