First Sudanese Civil War Erupts Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The revolt of the Southern Corps of the Sudanese army against its northern officers, only months before Sudan’s independence, was the first incident in a long-running civil war that would destabilize and ravage the nation for the next seventeen years.

Summary of Event

The civil war in the Sudan is one of the more intractable conflicts in Africa, having claimed countless lives. The conflict centered on the southern Sudan—defined as the Bahr al-Ghazal, Upper Nile, and Equatoria provinces—which is distinguishable from the rest of the country on both ethnic and religious lines. Whereas the north is largely Muslim and Arabic-speaking, at least thirty different languages are spoken by people in the southern provinces. The people of the south adhere to a variety of religions, including Christianity, and are generally darker skinned than the northerners (the majority of whom consider themselves to be Arabs), but there is no clear racial distinction. First Sudanese Civil War (1955-1972) Civil wars;Sudan [kw]First Sudanese Civil War Erupts (Aug. 18-Sept. 6, 1955) [kw]Sudanese Civil War Erupts, First (Aug. 18-Sept. 6, 1955) [kw]Civil War Erupts, First Sudanese (Aug. 18-Sept. 6, 1955) [kw]War Erupts, First Sudanese Civil (Aug. 18-Sept. 6, 1955) First Sudanese Civil War (1955-1972) Civil wars;Sudan [g]Africa;Aug. 18-Sept. 6, 1955: First Sudanese Civil War Erupts[04920] [g]Sudan;Aug. 18-Sept. 6, 1955: First Sudanese Civil War Erupts[04920] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug. 18-Sept. 6, 1955: First Sudanese Civil War Erupts[04920] [c]Government and politics;Aug. 18-Sept. 6, 1955: First Sudanese Civil War Erupts[04920] Loleya, Renaldo Azharī, Ismāՙīl al- Helm, Alexander Knox Abboud, Ibrahim

The British ruled the Sudan from 1898 to 1956, although they did so (in theory) jointly with Egypt, in an arrangement known as the Condominium Condominium, the (colonial policy) . The British were never enthusiastic about the cultural influence of Islam in the south, and from 1930 their policy aimed specifically at maintaining the distinct identity of the peoples of the south. The southern provinces were closed to northerners, except for those on government business. Greek, Syrian, and Jewish traders were encouraged to set up business in the south, while northern traders were expelled. The Arabic language, northern styles of dress, and even Arabic names were discouraged or prohibited. Christian missionaries were encouraged; Muslim proselytizing was banned. Education in the south was left to missionaries.

The aim of the British was to preserve and develop southern cultures, but the result was inequality and mistrust between north and south. Southerners lagged behind northerners in education, economic development, and political experience. Northerners tended to view the south as backward and uncivilized, whereas memories of nineteenth century slave trading added to southerners’ fears of the north.

In 1946, the British reversed their policy and began to reintegrate the south. By this time, nationalist political parties had emerged in the north and were demanding British withdrawal. Negotiations for the transition to independence largely bypassed the southerners, many of whom feared they were unprepared to hold their own in an independent Sudan.

Mistrust in the south increased when, in 1954, the newly elected transitional government, dominated by northerners, began the process of “Sudanization” of the army, police, and administration. Most of the positions vacated by the British went to northerners: Out of eight hundred administrative posts which were “Sudanized,” only six went to southerners. Even in the Southern Corps, which was entirely composed of southern troops, the higher ranks (twenty-four positions in all) were filled by northerners as British army officers departed, while only nine junior posts remained for southerners. Although the root of the problem was that there were few southerners qualified to fill higher ranks, southern soldiers tended to view it as another case of northern arrogance and discrimination.

By 1955, the situation had become dangerously polarized. Two southern members of the ruling cabinet were dismissed in May for disagreeing with the prime minister, Ismāՙīl al-Azharī, on southern affairs. Southerners of all political stripes were attempting to form their own southern bloc in parliament, advocating a federal constitution with some autonomy for the south. The government rather clumsily attempted to head this off, and in July had one southern member of parliament and five other men arrested and sentenced to prison, after a trial later described as “farcical” by a commission of inquiry.

The day after this trial, and only sixteen miles away, a crowd protesting the dismissal of three hundred southern workers at a cotton project was fired on by soldiers and police. Six were killed by gunfire, and two others drowned trying to escape. Meanwhile, a faked telegram had been circulating in the south, purporting to be from Prime Minister al-Azharī, in which officials in the south were instructed to “persecute [the southerners], oppress them, ill-treat them according to my orders.”

On August 7, authorities uncovered a mutiny plot in the Southern Corps. The conspirators were spreading the rumor that northern troops were “coming to kill southerners.” Three days later, the government airlifted northern troops into Juba, the capital of Equatoria, and civilians began to flee the city. Meanwhile, the government proceeded with plans to move Number Two Company of the Southern Corps from Torit, Equatoria, to Khartoum, the capital of the Sudan, on August 18. When the day came, the soldiers refused to obey their orders, having heard rumors that they were to be executed in the north. Within a few hours, the base was under the control of mutineers. The mutineers killed several northern officers and looted shops in town owned by northerners. Several dozen southerners were drowned trying to flee Torit.

On August 19, Lieutenant Renaldo Loleya arrived from Juba with the (somewhat exaggerated) news that the northern troops in Juba were indiscriminately killing southern soldiers and civilians. Renaldo assumed command of the mutineers. Northerners who took refuge at the police station were rounded up by the mutineers on August 20, and several were executed. In all, seventy-eight northerners were killed at Torit. Other garrisons of the Southern Corps in Equatoria soon joined in the mutiny, as did many police, civilians, and even some government officials. Only one-quarter of those later tried and executed were actually soldiers. Northerners were attacked, and their property was looted. In Bahr al-Ghazal and Upper Nile provinces, however, authorities were able to disarm and calm the soldiers before full-scale mutiny could occur.

When Prime Minister al-Azharī asked the mutineers to surrender and promised them fair treatment, they responded by asking that the northern troops be withdrawn from Juba and the British or United Nations brought in to investigate. Al-Azharī refused to remove his only loyal troops from the region, and in fact began to send more troops south. The governor-general of the Sudan, Sir Alexander Knox Helm, who was on leave when the mutiny occurred, returned to the country on August 25. He ordered the Southern Corps to surrender, promised its members safe conduct, and added his assurance that a “full and fair investigation” would be conducted. Because he was in the process of evacuating the British from the country, he refused to consider sending in British soldiers as the mutineers had requested.

On August 27, the mutineers agreed to surrender, but when northern troops arrived in Torit on August 30, they found the garrison deserted, except for Loleya and a few companions. The others had fled, fearing retribution from the northerners. All told, only 461 southern soldiers surrendered, out of a total force of some 1,400. Nevertheless, on September 6 the government declared the disturbances to be over. The Southern Corps was disbanded and its place taken by northern forces.

In all, at least 261 northerners and 75 southerners were killed in the actual uprising, according to the commission of inquiry which followed. Women and children had not always been spared. It would seem likely that many more people died in later reprisals by northern troops, as there were reports of torture, mutilation, and summary execution by northern soldiers. Of those formally convicted for participating in the mutiny, 121 were executed, including Renaldo Loleya. It is alleged by southerners that several of these mutineers were put on trial posthumously, having already been summarily executed, and that the government was trying to cover its abuses of justice by announcing their trial and execution. Southerners also accused Sir Knox Helm, who left the country on December 15, of doing nothing to fulfill his promise of safe conduct for those mutineers who surrendered.


Although more than one thousand of the Southern Corps remained at large, this did not interfere with the celebration of Sudan’s independence on January 1, 1956. Over the next few years, there were scattered incidents in the south. In 1957, the army destroyed seven hundred huts in one district alone in reprisal against villagers who sheltered rebels. Southern members of parliament continued to seek a political solution to the southern problem through some sort of federation, but without success.

The situation grew worse with the overthrow, on November 17, 1958, of the elected government of the Sudan by Brigadier General Ibrahim Abboud. It was under Abboud’s regime that the tense situation in the south turned into an outright civil war. Abboud’s policies toward the south were little different from those of his predecessors—the basic assumption of northern leaders was that assimilation of the south into Arabic and Islamic culture would solve the problem—but he took the policies much further than had his predecessors. Abboud apparently sought to arrest many of the southern political leaders in 1960, but they were warned and chose to leave the country. Many educated southerners followed these leaders into exile.

Abboud also sought to remove the influence of foreign Christian Christianity;missionaries missionaries, who were regarded as the main source of the troubles. In 1960, the Sunday holiday was abolished, and a number of priests were arrested. In 1961, all religious gatherings outside churches were banned, and missionaries who left the country were prohibited from reentering. In 1962, missionaries were required to apply for a license, and finally, in 1964, all foreign missionaries were expelled from the south (although not from the north). One effect of this action was that nearly all the schools in the south were closed.

In 1962, a group of prominent southern politicians in exile founded an organization, later known as the Sudan African National Union Sudan African National Union (SANU), devoted to complete independence for the southern Sudan. In the following year, an organized guerrilla movement, popularly known as Anya-nya Anya-nya[Anyanya] (“snake venom”), was forged in the south from the various remnants of the Southern Corps and others who had joined them in the bush. As the military campaign against the government increased in strength, the government reacted more harshly, and there were reports of atrocities on both sides. It was the ordinary people, caught in the middle, who suffered the most. Abboud was overthrown in 1964, and the Sudan returned to civilian rule. The war, however, continued. Hundreds of thousands of southerners fled to neighboring countries or to the north, as the violence escalated throughout the 1960’s. First Sudanese Civil War (1955-1972) Civil wars;Sudan

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Albino, Oliver. The Sudan: A Southern Viewpoint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. A very concise work, written by a southerner who became a member of SANU. This book has been widely quoted in subsequent literature. Contains an overview of the history of the southern Sudan, a recounting of the author’s own political activities before being exiled, and a chapter detailing the discrimination against the south in independent Sudan. Some references, no bibliography or index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alier, Abel. Southern Sudan: Too Many Agreements Dishonoured. Oxford, England: Atlantic Highlands Press, 1990. This contribution by a prominent southern attorney and former vice president of the Sudan is based largely on his own experiences. It includes a wealth of detail and insights into the southern question and is particularly valuable for its discussions of the 1972 accord and the post-1983 phase of the struggle. It is, however, somewhat disorganized. Index, maps, and short bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beshir, Mohamed Omer. The Southern Sudan. New York: Praeger, 1968. The author, a prominent northern journalist, attempts to give a balanced account of the southern issue through 1965. The work is particularly valuable for the official documents, dating from 1930 to 1965, which are reproduced in the appendixes. Also contains very useful maps of languages, ethnic groups, and spheres of missionary activity in the south. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holt, P. M., and M. W. Daly. A History of the Sudan: From the Coming of Islam to the Present Day. New York: Longman, 2000. Considered an invaluable resource for students and general readers, this fifth edition of Daly’s text is newly revised and expanded. Includes a chapter on the Sudanese civil war, maps, and a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Ballance, Edgar. The Secret War in the Sudan: 1955-1972. London: Faber, 1977. This work, focusing on the military aspects of the conflict, is particularly valuable for having been based on interviews with Sudanese on both sides. Unfortunately, these sources are often not revealed, so the book should be treated with some caution. Contains a full chapter on the 1955 mutiny. Map, index, few references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Sudan: Civil War and Terrorism, 1956-1999. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Thorough account of the history of war in the Sudan after 1956.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wai, Dunstan M. The African-Arab Conflict in the Sudan. New York: Africana, 1981. A theoretical analysis of the southern problem and Sudanese politics, but organized chronologically. The author, a southerner, argues for an effective federal system in the Sudan. The work is especially useful for its glossary of principal figures and its chart of southern political movements and their leaders. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. The Southern Sudan: The Problem of National Integration. London: Frank Cass, 1973. A collection of articles by both northerners and southerners, as well as non-Sudanese, on various aspects of the southern problem, including the issues of race, ethnic identity, secession, economic development, and education. Although somewhat dated, many of the conclusions are still apt. Several documents are reproduced in the appendixes. Index, maps, and references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yangu, Alexis Mbali. The Nile Turns Red. Edited by A. G. Mondini. New York: Pageant Press, 1966. A collection of reports of atrocities committed by northern soldiers in the south. Accuses the Khartoum government of genocide. A highly polemical work, and should be treated with some caution. Short bibliography, no index.

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