Sudan’s population was estimated at 36.1 million in July 2015. Sudan is an ethnically diverse country, even after the independence of South Sudan in 2011.
Conducting an accurate census has been a challenge in Sudan throughout its troubled modern history. The exact population of Sudan and its ethnic composition has always been an issue of political contention. The government of South Sudan, for instance, has accused the Khartoum government of deliberately manipulating census data in oil-rich regions. Furthermore, civil wars and political disruption have made it difficult to reach all corners of the country simultaneously to carry out an accurate census. The last official census, in 2008, recorded the population of Sudan, including the populations of Eastern, Western and Northern Sudan, at 30 million.
The vast majority of Sudan’s population, estimated at 67 per cent, lives in rural areas, depending basically on agricultural and pastoral production. However, these figures change rapidly due to the increasing number of people moving to urban centres.
The third of the population that lives in urban centres is concentrated in the Khartoum metropolitan area, which is growing fast at an annual rate of 2.6 per cent. Khartoum has more than 5 million inhabitants, including approximately 2 million internally displaced people from war zones and drought-stricken areas.
The population density in Sudan was last measured at 21.57 people per square kilometre in 2014, according to the World Bank. The density varies from 2 to 3 persons per square kilometre in desert areas, to 230 in agricultural areas in the Gezira region.
Sudan, with an area of 1,886,068 square kilometres (728,215 square miles) is located in eastern Africa, with a 853-kilometre (530-mile) coastline on the Red Sea. It lies between latitudes 8° and 23°N and shares land borders with Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Chad, and Libya. Sudan’s terrain is generally dry, mostly Saharan; there is a belt of flat savannah plains south of Khartoum.
The Blue Nile flows from the heights of Ethiopia across southeastern Sudan. The White Nile crosses Sudan from south to north. The two rivers meet in Khartoum, forming the main Nile, which flows north to the Mediterranean.
Most of the population of Sudan lives on the banks of the Nile river and its tributaries, and in the Gezira area, which is the fertile land located between the Blue and White Nile south of Khartoum and extending to the Ethiopian border. This area includes the largest agricultural scheme in Sudan and Africa, including five of the country’s largest sugar-cane plantations and factories. About 17 million people (43 per cent of the total population) live in the triangle between Khartoum, Sinnar on the Blue Nile, and Kosti on the White Nile.
The second most populated region is Darfur, with about 7 million inhabitants living on agricultural and pastoral production. Western Darfur is an undulating plain dominated by the volcanic massif of Jabal Marrah towering 900 metres above the Sudanic plain. The rains running off Jabal Marrah onto the plain historically supported both settled famers and nomadic pastoral tribal groups. The outbreak of civil war in Darfur in 2003 forced millions of inhabitants of rural areas to move to internally displaced person (IDP) camps near large cities in Darfur and the rest of the country. Because of the war, the inhabitants of Nyala city in southern Darfur, soared from 100,000 in 1985 to nearly one million in 2015, making it the second largest city in the country.
The rest of Darfur, especially the northeastern parts, are desert and semi-desert, with little water from the seasonal streams known as ‘wadis’. The southern parts of Darfur is rainy and green from June to October and known for its livestock production.
Kordofan, in central Sudan, is a sparsely populated desert and semi-desert region where animal herding and the production gum arabic and oil-seeds are the main economic activities.
There are several small areas of mountains and hills on the edges of Sudan, far from the Nile and its tributaries. In the west the Driba Caldra (3,042 metres or 9,980 feet), located in the Jabal Marah, is the highest point in Sudan; in the far east are the Red Sea Hills.A unique feature of southwestern Sudan are the Nuba Mountains of southeastern Kordofan; and the Ingessana Hills are found in the southern Blue Nile region.
These mountainous and hilly areas are sparsely populated by indigenous non-Arab, African tribes. Small seasonal rivers and streams flow down from the hills, supporting limited agricultural and animal herding activities.
There are also large population concentrations on a few other medium-scale modern agricultural schemes on the Rahad river, one of the tributaries of the Blue Nile south of Wad Madani and in New Halfa on the Atbara river in eastern Sudan.
Fewer than three million people live on the banks of the Nile from north of Khartoum to the Egyptian border, about 1,000 kilometres to the north.
Sudan’s population is young, with about 60 per cent of the total population under the age of 24 years. The fact that only three per cent of the population is over 65 years of age reflects a low life expectancy at birth; 61 years for men and 65 for women and a very low median age of 18.9 years.
Life expectancy has improved significantly in Sudan – up from an average 43 years in 1983, although it has improved at a slower pace since 2006. The population growth rate of Sudan has declined steadily since then, to its current level of 1.78 per cent. Mortality rates in Sudan are high, with 17 deaths per 1,000. Despite a high infant-mortality rate and one of the world’s highest maternal-mortality rates (52.86 deaths/1,000 live births), the population continues growing. Sudan is expected to have a population of 42.7 million by 2025.
An interesting aspect of Sudan’s population structure is that male/female ratio at birth is 105 males to 100 females; a figure that changes considerably between the ages of 24 to 54 to 94 males to 100 females. That may be attributable to male migration for work abroad and the fact that young males die at a higher rate than females, especially during civil wars.
Sudan is a traditional society, in which the majority of households are headed by males. 28 per cent of households are headed by women, with this proportion being highest in rural areas. The average household size in Sudan is approximately seven persons.
Sudan is a country of great ethnic and geographic diversity. According to United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) figures, Sudanese Arabs account for about two-thirds of Sudan’s population. Among them are the Kababish of northern Kordofan, a camel-raising people; the Jaalin and Shaigiyya groups of settled tribes along the rivers; the seminomadic Baggara of Kordofan and Darfur; and the Shukriya and Batahin Arabs of eastern Sudan.
The rest of the population consists of other ethnic groups; the Beja in the east, Nubians in the far north, the Fur and Zaghawa in Darfur, the Ingessana in the southern Blue Nile region, Nubas in the mountains in southern Kordofan, and other peoples. This mosaic of people is divided into nearly 600 tribes of various sizes scattered across the country and speaking 300 languages and dialects.
Some researchers and activists dispute the percentage of Arabs in Sudan, as there are political and ideological differences about who is an Arab and who is not. Many argue that speaking the Arabic language only does not make Africans into Arabs and that most of the Arabic-speaking tribes living along the Nile north of Khartoum are, in fact, Arabized Nubians.
The Arab tribes of northern Sudan originally migrated to the country in the 12th century, intermarried with indigenous populations, and introduced Islam.The preeminence of the Arabic language and culture goes back to the waves of Arab migrations in the 12th century. The spread of Islam in Sudan contributed to the long process of Arabisation of the people in Sudan. There are numerous local languages and (unwritten) dialects of various ethnic groups spoken in rural areas.
Arab identity and Islam were used as a basis for national unification from the Sultanate of Funj through the Mahdiya and the Anglo-Egyptian condominium. The rise of political Islam from the 1980s, the increasingly uneven distribution of development, and the marginalization of peripheral regions exacerbated the feelings of exclusion of non-Arab ethnic groups in Sudan, thus creating the present crisis of identity in Sudan.
Tribal structures are still an important social, economic, and political factor in Sudan. Civil wars and ethnic and economic conflicts in the marginal areas of Sudan contributed to the upsurge in the influence of tribal factors and sustained the reemergence of tribal loyalties at the expense of the power of the central government of Sudan. Representation in the national government on tribal-ethnic grounds has been a fact of life in Sudanese politics for decades.The Sudanese Arabic dialect is the mother tongue of about 70 per cent of the population, the lingua franca of the whole country, and the main language of education and the media.
Sudan is almost entirely Muslim (97 per cent, according to government figures). The Sunni Maliki doctrine is the dominant school of Islam adhered to by the Muslim population. There are small minorities of non-Muslims, comprising of Christians in the Nuba Mountains near the border with South Sudan and a few thousand Christian Copts of Egyptian origin, living mainly in Khartoum, who have settled in Sudan over the last two centuries. After the implementation of Islamic Sharia law in Sudan in 1983 and the sweeping Islamization carried out by the government of Omar al-Bashir, many Copts emigrated from Sudan.
The Sunni Muslims of Sudan are traditionally divided into two major sects, the Khatmiyya and the Ansar. This split manifests itself in the political sphere, where the Khatmiyya have supported the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ansar sect the Umma party. The spiritual leaders of the two sects are also the political leaders of those political parties. There are no significant religious differences between the two dominant sects. The sectarian division is political, related to the role of each sect since the Mahdist revolution in 1880s and their internal and external political alliances. Traditionally, the sectarian and political influence of Ansar covers the south and west of the country, while Khatmiyya’s strongholds are in the east and north.
Modern -relatively radical- Islamic movements emerged among educated citizens in cities demanding the establishment of an Islamic state that enforces Sharia law. Those groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, which has gone by various names during its history in Sudan and posed a challenge to the traditional religious sects, took power in 1989.
An influential conservative Salafi Sunni Muslim group is Ansar al-Sunna, strongly supported, especially financially, by similar Salafi groups in Saudi Arabia. Ansar al- Sunna stayed out of politics for a long time after their emergence in 1960s, but have recently began to take part in politics, and some of their leaders are part of the present government.
The various Sufi orders also attract a strong following in Sudan, in both rural and urban areas, and played a significant role in spreading Islam in Sudan and the rest of northern Africa.
Migration and Urbanization
Migration is an important factor in the population dynamics of Sudan. Long before independence, Sudan witnessed waves of immigrants from West Africa in the 18th century. Thousands of Sudanese also migrated internally, both permanently and temporarily. The early seasonal and permanent mass migration of people was from Darfur to the Gezira region as labourers in the cotton plantations in 1940s. Later, significant nomadic populations were displaced by the widespread drought and famine that affected the northwestern parts of the country, northern Darfur and northern Kordofan, in 1984.
The worst was to come with the escalation of civil war in the late 1980s and then in Darfur starting in 2003. By the end of 2014 there were 2.3 million internally displaced people, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), making Sudan a country housing one of the largest internally displaced populations in the world. Migration between states has increased by a factor of five since the 1960s, predominantly from rural to urban areas, looking for employment and better social services, thus weakening Sudan’s rural productive capacity.
The uneven population distribution caused by the migration of labourers and IDPs resulted in great variations in population density between states, with Khartoum State being the most densely populated area – 15 times the national average.
Sudan also hosts a huge number of refugees from neighbouring countries. The UNHCR estimates that, by the end of 2015, there could be up to 460,000 refugees and asylum-seekers in the country, mainly from Ethiopia, Eritrea, and South Sudan. The Sudanese government’s estimate is at least 50 per cent higher than that of the UNHCR.
There at least 300,000 Sudanese Darfuris who took refuge in Chad after the outbreak of civil war in Darfur 2003, and some 150,000 Sudanese in South Sudan.
About 1.3 million Sudanese live as immigrants in other countries, mostly Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Sudanese emigrants are the second largest source of sorely needed foreign exchange for the national economy, but those emigrants are also a significant brain drain for a poor country like Sudan.
Income Distribution and Poverty
Sudan ranks among the poorest countries in the world, being categorized by the United Nations as low-income. The gross domestic product (GDP) of Sudan is estimated at $73.80 billion. The GDP per capita in Sudan was last recorded at $987 in 2014. Sudan’s economy grew significantly in the oil boom of 1998-2011. Per capita GDP soared from $533 to $987 in 2014, decreasing the rate of extreme poverty from 85 percent in 1990 to 47 per cent today.
Figures of international organisations on Sudan’s economy reflect a rapid growth during the last two decades, but the reality is that nearly one of every two Sudanese (46 per cent of the population) is living under the poverty line of $3 per day, unable to get enough food and take care of himself properly. Economic growth is necessary but not sufficient to achieve poverty reduction.
The geographical disparities in poverty constitute a thorny political issue, taking a heavy toll on the stability of the country. The lowest poverty rate is 26 per cent in Khartoum State, while North Darfur has the highest rate, at 69 per cent. The four better-off states are Khartoum, Gezira, North Sudan, and River Nile. That is undoubtedly due to the concentration of development and economic resources in these areas of Sudan where the political power and urban centres are located. Accordingly, most of the sizeable investments in infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, telecommunications, and new factories, during the oil-boom years were located in these four privileged regions.
The rural inhabitants of Sudan suffer more poverty than the urban, but there are disparities even in rural areas and between settled farmers and nomadic groups; the latter constitute nine per cent of Sudan’s population and 14 per cent of its poor.
The traditional subsistence rain fed farming and livestock sectors suffer higher poverty levels than those in regions of irrigated agriculture. The dependence on oil since 2000 has hurt all agriculture, traditional and modern, in Sudan.
While the government, local and foreign businesses, and investment concentrated on the emerging lucrative oil business, few resources were allocated to agriculture, which was the backbone of the national economy before oil.
Civil wars and conflicts aggravate poverty, displace people in rural areas, halt productive activities, and take young people away to fight, so it is no wonder that regions suffering from conflict, such as the Nuba Mountains, Southern Blue Nile, and Darfur suffer the most poverty and deprivation. But one can also argue that poverty is the cause of conflict rather a result of it.
The recent socioeconomic history of Sudan shows that regions prone to drought, such as Red Sea, Northern Darfur, and Northern Kordofan, are more vulnerable to poverty than others with more abundant natural resources.
Gender-based disparities are also substantial in Sudan. Poverty among families headed by women is about 35 per cent, while it is 29 per cent in male-headed households. About 60 per cent of women have less than primary education, compared with 50 per cent of men.
All these disparities will be mitigated with an effective government policy to address the root causes—ending civil wars and conflicts, achieving lasting peace and justice and even and equitable development, investing in rural areas and agriculture, and so on.
The dramatic changes and developments in Sudan since the 1980s, due to armed conflict, the short-lived oil boom, and the separation of South Sudan have left the social structures of Sudan changing continuously.
The traditional division into upper, middle, and lower classes is not, and perhaps never was, valid in Sudan. Up to the 1980s the government was the largest employer in Sudan, so senior and middle-ranking government employees, including civil servants and professionals such as lawyers, teachers, army and police officers, and medical doctors, constituted a sort of middle class. In rural areas, local merchants, dignitaries, and tribal leaders were representing people working in farming and livestock production. There was also a relatively small but important segment of railway and factory workers.
In today’s Sudan, all that has changed dramatically. Migration to urban centres, impoverishment of rural farmers, conflicts, and unrest on the peripheries altered the social structure of the country.
The unemployment rate in Sudan increased to 19.5 per cent in 2014 from 15.9 per cent in 2011. Unemployment is particularly high among young people, including thousands of university graduates. Tens of thousands are trying to make a living as street vendors.
The security and defence sector, which receives more than 60 per cent of government expenditures, is becoming an important employer for desperate young men, especially from rural areas.
As the traditional business firms and families who work in the processing and exporting of agricultural products lose ground, a new brand of businessman is emerging, who depends on his political and government contacts and connections to secure lucrative government contracts. Building and maintaining connections in the higher echelons of the government is becoming the most effective way to do business.
The new business class is taking over more of the public sphere by controlling the media and private TV stations. While trade unions and professional, social, and civil organisations are declining and disintegrating, more and more people, even in the urban centres, are seeking refuge in tribal and kinship structures for support and solidarity in the face of increasingly intrusive government policies and actions.
On the other hand, the inhabitants of the huge slums and shanty towns on the outskirts of Khartoum and other big cities live in appalling conditions, while the inhabitants of affluent neighbourhoods consider them a serious social and security threat.
Unlike the drought victims of the 1980s, the internally displaced people of today have more political awareness, which makes them more of a challenge to the establishment.
Massive migrations of population are also causing ethnic tensions and clashes in both regional centres and rural areas.
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