Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Sudan: Democracy and Military Coups (1958 – 1983)

Sudan Democracy Independence
Sudan’s independence, the flag was raised on 1 January 1956 by PM Ismail Alazhari and opposition leader Mohamed Ahmed Almahjoub. Photo Sudan Films Unit / Flickr.


The first independent Sudanese government was short-lived: the military took power in a coup after only two years of liberal democracy. The first independent government faced complicated issues— such as the liquidation of the Condominium and the constitution problem. Lack of a new post-independence constitution resulted in the country continuing to be ruled by the autonomy constitution of the British administration of 1953, albeit with minor amendments.

The mutiny in the south was also an issue along with economic problems resulting from agricultural schemes and the loss of the Egyptian financial support which was a part of the condominium agreement, the issue of American economic aid, which was strongly opposed by the by left-wing trade unions as violating the post-colonial non-alignment policy, and ideological conflicts between the various political parties.

Political parties failed to find a constitutional solution to ruling the country. The Southern parties demanded a federation. The government also reneged on their promises to Southerners to give them a share of offices in the Sudanisation of the military and civil services, which were to replace the British colonial administration. Only six of 800 senior offices were granted to Southerners.

The Azhari government lost support in parliament, and a new government, led by the Umma Party, took power. The new cabinet faced a frontier crisis with Egypt, in Halayib, as well as broad opposition to proposed American aid, in the context of the Cold War. The maneuvers of the Unionist Party to assume power again led the Umma prime minister to hand power to the military.

The 1958 Military Coup

The coup was led by General Ibrahim Aboud on 17 November 1958. The government suspended the constitution and banned political parties. The military government concentrated on enacting laws for the local government as a step towards a constitution, instead of actually drafting a new constitution. This was never done. The regime had no solution for the Southern problem except preaching the defeat of the insurgents.

Some Southerners were appointed to leading positions. Meanwhile, the Southern opposition was active abroad and proposed federalism to solve the problem. The war flared up, and in July 1963 the Anyanya movement appeared, led by Joseph Lago, who favoured secession. The regime continued the war and accepted no proposal for a solution.

The military government tried to address the issue of development, accepting American aid and adopting a ten-year plan. A new agreement on the Nile waters was reached with Egypt in 1959, under which Egypt not only recognized but also appeared to be reconciled to an independent Sudan. Sudan’s share of the Nile water was increased.

The opposition political parties called for the restoration of democracy. The opposition finally succeeded in overthrowing the military regime through a popular uprising in October 1964. General Aboud resigned and dissolved the Higher Council of the Armed Forces. An interim government was formed to serve under the provisional constitution of 1956.

The Second Democracy 1965-69

Radical professionals and workers, who demanded deep socio-economic reforms to strengthen democracy, led the victory over the military regime. Political parties returned and competed in elections, which the transitional government held in April and May 1965. A coalition government headed by a leading Umma politician, Muhammad Ahmad Mahjoub, was formed in June 1965.

New forces appeared during the election, such as the regional parties of the Bija Congress and the Union of the Nuba Mountains. At the same time, the Umma party split, one faction being led by Sadig al-Mahdi, great-grandson of the Mahdi, the other by his uncle Al Hadi al-Mahdi, while the unionists united to form the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Sadig became prime minister in 1966, through an alliance with a faction of the unionists known as the National Unionist Party, which had broken away from the DUP. The most important issues of this period were the war in the South, the dissolution of the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) and the dismissal of its members from the parliament, the dispute over the constitution, and the deterioration of the economy.

The Second Military Coup 1969-85

A group of young officers led by Colonel Gaafar Mohamed el-Numeiri seized the government on 25 May 1969. A Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) was formed under Numeiri’s chairmanship. The RCC suspended the Transitional Constitution, banned political parties, and arrested some politicians.

A new government was formed to implement RCC policy directives. Nine members of the cabinet were alleged communists.

Traditional forces, led by the Ansar, demanded a return to democratic government, the exclusion of communists from power, and an end to RCC rule. In March 1970, fighting erupted between the regime and the Ansar, with about 3,000 people dying in the conflict.

Soon afterward, Numeiri moved against the SCP. In March 1971, he placed trade unions under government control. He banned students’, women’s, and professional organizations affiliated with the communists.

On 19 July 1971, the SCP launched a coup against Numeiri, led by Major Hashim al-Atta. The coup failed, and Atta was arrested. Numeiri ordered the arrest of hundreds of communists and subsequently executed the secretary of the SCP and some civilians and military leaders.

A provisional constitution, adopted in August 1971, provided for a presidential form of government to replace the RCC. Numeiri was elected president for a six-year term.

In 1971, the Southern Sudanese rebels began a dialogue with the Sudanese government over proposals for regional autonomy and the cessation of hostilities. The Addis Ababa Agreement was signed on 27 February 1972, ending a 17-year conflict between the Anyanya, and the Sudanese army and providing for autonomy for the Southern region.

In July 1977, a national reconciliation agreement was reached between President Numeiri and Ansar’s leader, al-Mahdi upon which Hassan al-Turabi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, returned from exile. He remained active in politics until his death on March 5, 2016 after suffering a stroke.

Numeiri turned increasingly to the Muslim Brotherhood for support. He appointed Hassan al-Turabi as attorney general, who designed a new constitution based on the shari’a. In September 1983, Numeiri modified the penal codes to bring them into accord with Islamic law. This measure was resisted by Christians and animists of southern Sudan and the few secularists in the North.

Moreover, Numeiri unilaterally divided the southern region into three provinces again, thereby effectively abrogating the Addis Ababa Agreement. The situation deteriorated, and a new war began in 1983, led by Dr. John Garang of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). The economic situation was appalling, as manifested in inflation, debt, and unemployment.