Sudan, in northeast Africa, is the largest country on the continent, measuring about one-fourth the size of the United States. Its neighbors are Chad and the Central African Republic on the west, Egypt and Libya on the north, Ethiopia and Eritrea on the east, and Kenya, Uganda, and Democratic Republic of the Congo on the south. The Red Sea washes about 500 mi of the eastern coast. It is traversed from north to south by the Nile, all of whose great tributaries are partly or entirely within its borders.
What is now northern Sudan was in ancient times the kingdom of Nubia, which came under Egyptian rule after 2600 B.C. An Egyptian and Nubian civilization called Kush flourished until A.D. 350. Missionaries converted the region to Christianity in the 6th century, but an influx of Muslim Arabs, who had already conquered Egypt, eventually controlled the area and replaced Christianity with Islam. During the 1500s a people called the Funj conquered much of Sudan, and several other black African groups settled in the south, including the Dinka, Shilluk, Nuer, and Azande. Egyptians again conquered Sudan in 1874, and after Britain occupied Egypt in 1882, it took over Sudan in 1898, ruling the country in conjunction with Egypt. It was known as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan between 1898 and 1955.
The 20th century saw the growth of Sudanese nationalism, and in 1953 Egypt and Britain granted Sudan self-government. Independence was proclaimed on Jan. 1, 1956. Since independence, Sudan has been ruled by a series of unstable parliamentary governments and military regimes. Under Maj. Gen. Gaafar Mohamed Nimeiri, Sudan instituted fundamentalist Islamic law in 1983. This exacerbated the rift between the Arab north, the seat of the government, and the black African animists and Christians in the south. Differences in language, religion, ethnicity, and political power erupted in an unending civil war between government forces, strongly influenced by the National Islamic Front (NIF) and the southern rebels, whose most influential faction is the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). Human rights violations, religious persecution, and allegations that Sudan had been a safe haven for terrorists isolated the country from most of the international community. In 1995, the UN imposed sanctions against it.
On Aug. 20, 1998, the United States launched cruise missiles that destroyed a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility in Khartoum which allegedly manufactured chemical weapons. The U.S. contended that the Sudanese factory was financed by Islamic militant Osama bin Laden.
Since 1999 international attention has been focused on evidence that slavery is widespread throughout Sudan. Arab raiders from the north of the country have enslaved thousands of southerners, who are black. The Dinka people have been the hardest-hit. Some sources point out that the raids intensified in the 1980s along with the civil war between north and south.
Ever since Lt. Gen. Omar Bashir's military coup in 1989, the de facto ruler of Sudan had been Hassan el-Turabi, a cleric and political leader who is a major figure in the pan-Arabic Islamic fundamentalist resurgence. In 1999, however, Bashir ousted Turabi and placed him under house arrest. (He was freed in Oct. 2003.) Since then Bashir has made overtures to the West, and in Sept. 2001, the UN lifted its six-year-old sanctions. The U.S., however, still officially considers Sudan a terrorist state.
A cease-fire was declared between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in July 2002. During peace talks, which continued through 2003, the government agreed to a power-sharing government for six years, to be followed by a referendum on self-determination for the south. Fighting on both sides continued throughout the peace negotiations. In May 2004, a deal between the government and the SPLA was signed, ending 20 years of brutal civil war that resulted in the deaths of 2 million people.
Just as Sudan's civil war seemed to be coming to an end, another war intensified in the northwestern Darfur region. After the government quelled a rebellion in Darfur in Jan. 2004, it allowed pro-government militias called the Janjaweed to carry out massacres against black villagers and rebel groups in the region. These Arab militias, believed to have been armed by the government, have killed between 200,000 and 300,000 civilians and displaced more than 1 million. While the war in the south was fought against black Christians and animists, the Darfur conflict is being fought against black Muslims. Although the international community has reacted with alarm to the humanitarian disaster—unmistakably the world's worst—it has been ineffective in persuading the Sudanese government to rein in the Janjaweed. Despite the EU and the U.S. describing the killing as genocide, and despite a UN Security Council resolution demanding that Sudan stop the Arab militias, the killing continued throughout 2005.
On Jan. 9, 2005, after three years of negotiations, the peace deal between the southern rebels, led by John Garang of the SPLA, and the Khartoum government to end the two-decades-long civil war was signed, giving roughly half of Sudan's oil wealth to the south, as well as nearly complete autonomy and the right to secede after six years. But just two weeks after Garang was sworn in as first vice president as part of the power-sharing agreement, he was killed in a helicopter crash during bad weather. Rioting erupted in Khartoum, killing nearly 100. Garang's deputy, Salva Kiir, was quickly sworn in as the new vice president, and both north and south vowed that the peace agreement would hold.
In 2006, the slaughter in Darfur escalated, and the Khartoum government remained defiantly indifferent to the international communities' calls to stop the violence. The 7,000 African Union (AU) peacekeepers deployed to Darfur proved too small and ill equipped a force to prevent much of it. A fragile peace deal in May 2006 was signed between the Sudanese government and the main Darfur rebel group; two smaller rebel groups, however, refused to sign. The UN reported that there has in fact been a dramatic upsurge in the violence since the agreement. The Sudanese government reneged on essential elements of the accord, including the plan to disarm the militias and allow a UN peacekeeping force into the region to replace the modest AU force. Khartoum eventually agreed to allow the modest AU force to remain in the country until the end of 2006, but rejected a hybrid AU-UN peacekeeping force entering the country.