The history of Ethiopia during the 19th century involved three fundamental processes: (1) the Zämänä Mäsafənt (Era of Princes) and its coming to an end under Kassa Häylu, later Emperor Tewodros II; (2) the repeated attempts by Egypt and Italy to colonize Ethiopia, culminating in the Battle of Adwa on March 1, 1896; and (3) Mənilək’s territorial expansion and conquest of what is now southern Ethiopia during the last quarter of the 19th century in campaigns known as agär maqnat. These three distinct, yet related, processes laid the foundations for the making of modern Ethiopia.
The end of the Zämänä Mäsafənt was a key factor in centralizing state power in the hands of the emperors of Ethiopia. It enabled consolidating the power of the regional lords under the emperor, which in turn played a critical role in confronting Egypt and Italy’s colonial intrusions in the late 19th century. Mənilək’s territorial conquests in the south further strengthened the state, garnering vast human and material resources that played a critical role in the Ethiopian victory at the Battle of Adwa. All three processes worked in tandem: the end of the Zämänä Mäsafənt created a strong centralized state; such a state succeeded in nipping in the bud the colonial invasions of Egypt and Italy; and the successes of the agär maqnat campaigns added to the overall strength of the country. It also laid the ground for the problems of the 20th century, chief among them being the “national question.”
Ever since its conquest by the armies of Muḥammad ‘Alī Pasha in 1820, Sudan (the Republic of Sudan today) has been subjugated to colonial rule by foreign powers—first by the Ottoman-Egyptian regime from 1821 to 1885, then by the British (nominally the Anglo-Egyptian “Condominium”) from 1899 to 1955. Consequently, modern Sudanese history came to be characterized by the emergence of a series of anticolonial popular struggles, such as the Mahdist movement (1881–1898), the 1924 Revolution, and other political movements in the 1940s and 1950s. In spite of apparent differences in style, method, and ideological background, these were essentially based on the energy of the masses aspiring for liberation from colonial rule.
The development of the national liberation movement in Sudan was a complicated process, since the modern Sudanese state itself was an artificial colonial state, and it was never self-evident what the “Sudanese nation” was. Building solidarity among peoples of different cultural and religious backgrounds within Sudan (such as the mainly Arab Muslim population in the north and peoples of different backgrounds in the south and the Nuba Mountains) turned out to be crucial to the anticolonial struggle. Because of the colonial situation which prevailed in the Nile Valley after the 1880s (Egypt itself was occupied by the British in 1882), the idea of a regional (if apparently contradictory) coordination of “Sudanese nationalism” and the cause of the “unity of the Nile Valley” coexisted. Finally, since colonialism inevitably had its socioeconomic dimensions, a conflict of interests between the privileged local elites (tribal and religious leaders) and the general masses emerged, leading to a struggle over who would represent the “Sudanese nation.” The independence of the country in 1956 did not put an end to the question of Sudanese nationalism, since the colonial nature of the modern Sudanese state remained unchanged, and the popular struggle against oppressive state apparatus and social injustice continued even after independence. Various elements of civil society, including trade unions, students, and women, called for a democratic transformation of the Sudanese state. Peoples of the politically and economically “marginalized” areas in Sudan (such as the South and the Nuba Mountains) rose up in protest against underdevelopment, leading eventually to the emergence of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SLPM) in the 1980s, which advocated the vision of “New Sudan”—a type of “Sudanese nationalism,” so to speak, based on the aspirations of marginalized areas. Although, with the independence of the South in 2011 (a development which was not originally anticipated by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement [SPLM] itself) the modern Sudanese state (as it used to be known) ceased to exist, this does not mean that the heritage of various anticolonial struggles in Sudan has been meaningless. Rather, it constitutes a common property, so to speak, for the peoples in the region (though now divided between different states), and serves as a source of historical lessons and political inspiration for future generations.
A. C. S. Peacock
In the mid-16th century, the Ottoman empire expanded to encompass parts of the modern Sudan, Eritrea, and the Ethiopian borderlands, forming the Ottoman province of Habeş. The Ottomans also provided aid to their ally Ahmad Grañ in his jihad against Ethiopia and fought with the Funj sultanate of Sinnar for control of the Nile valley, where Ottoman territories briefly extended south as far as the Third Cataract. After 1579, Ottoman control was limited to the Red Sea coast, in particular the ports of Massawa and Suakin, which remained loosely under Ottoman rule until the 19th century, when they were transferred to Egypt, nominally an Ottoman vassal but effectively independent. Politically, Ottoman influence was felt much more broadly in northeast Africa in places as distant as Mogadishu, at least nominally recognized Ottoman suzerainty.
The 1924 Revolution marked the first time in Sudanese history a nationalist ideology became the language of politics and was successfully employed to mobilize the masses. It was a part of a broader movement of anticolonial nationalist agitation that merits studying this Sudanese event as an illuminating example in world history of the period. Thousands of people from all over Sudan protested in the name of principles such as self-determination and the will of the Nation, and the right of citizens to choose their own destiny. Moreover, the movement that led it, the White Flag League, explicitly sought to include people from different backgrounds, statuses, professions, and religions, to counteract the colonial policy of reliance on ethnic affiliations and social hierarchies. Even though it was bloodily put down after only six months, the events of 1924 represent a revolutionary departure in the in the history of modern Sudan.
Throughout the political history of Sudan, the presence of the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP, established in 1946) has been quite conspicuous. Often referred to (rather exaggeratedly) as one of the strongest communist parties in the Middle East and Africa, it has undoubtedly played a significant role in Sudanese society, struggling for both the expansion of civil and political rights of the ordinary masses and the achievement of social justice.
The significance of the communist movement in Sudan might be better understood when located within the context of the history of the national liberation movement in Sudan. As its original name, the Sudanese Movement for National Liberation (SMNL) suggests, the communist party started initially as a movement by a group of Sudanese students and youth, who aspired to the liberation of their country from British colonial rule (to which Sudan had been subjected since 1899) but were disappointed with the attitude of the traditional political elites and, guided by Marxist ideology, came to realize the importance of the social dimension of national liberation. Subsequently, the party succeeded in expanding its social basis among the working masses, notably the railway workers and the peasants working for large-scale cotton schemes.
After the independence of Sudan (1956), while the ruling elites who came to power (tribal and religious leaders, big merchants, elite officials, and so on) were not interested in changing the essentially colonial nature of the Sudanese state they inherited from the British (such as the unbalanced development and the oppressive nature of the state apparatus), the Sudanese Communist Party called for making radical changes in the economic and political structure of the country, advocating a “national and democratic program.” This aimed at the de-colonization of the economic structure, democratization of the state apparatus, and the expansion of civil and political rights. It also called for a democratic solution for the question of economically and politically marginalized peoples and regions inside Sudan, such as the South.
One of the most remarkable achievements of the SCP was its role in the struggle against military dictatorships, which came to dominate the Sudanese political scene only a few years after independence. When, in order to contain the growing strength of the working masses, the traditional elites involved the army in politics (1958) and the ‘Abbud military regime came to power, the SCP played a significant role in organizing popular struggle and paved the way for the 1964 “October Revolution,” which put an end to the dictatorship. Again, the SCP played a significant role in the struggle against the Numeiry regime (a military dictatorship that took a quasi-leftist posture when it came to power in 1969 but eventually revealed its reactionary character) and contributed to the success of the 1985 intifada (popular uprising), which toppled the dictatorship. Finally, when another coup d’état took place in 1989 and ‘Umar Bashir and the other army officers affiliated with the National Islamic Front came to power, the SCP played a key role in the establishment of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), a broad umbrella organization that included not only the political parties in the North but also political forces representing the interests of marginalized areas, such as the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). The SCP contributed to the crystallization of the program of the NDA, which agreed on important principles concerning the future of Sudan, such as democracy, a balanced economy, the separation of religion and politics, and the right to self-determination for the South.
Developments since the conclusion of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2005) between the Bashir regime and the SPLM have been presenting new challenges to the SCP. As a result of the independence of the South (2011), the party members in the South established a new party, the Communist Party of South Sudan. In the North, the dictatorial regime still persists, and suppression of the working masses and marginalized areas (such as Dar Fur) intensifies. Changes in the international and global milieu, such as the failure of Soviet-type socialism and the fragmentation of the working class as a result of the onslaught of neoliberalism, have also had their repercussions, and the Sudanese communists in the early decades of the 21st century are obviously experiencing a time of ordeal, politically, socially, and intellectually.
In assessing the role of the communist movement in Sudan, social and cultural aspects should not be overlooked. Being a movement basically aimed at the democratization of Sudanese society, it has inspired the movements by hitherto-neglected social groups such as women, youth, and people from marginalized regions. Culturally also, it has been a source of inspiration for many artists and musicians, such as the singer Muhammad Wardi and the poet Mahjub Sharif.
To understand the role of the modern Nile in African history, it is first necessary to have familiarity with the premodern “natural” Nile, including both its hydrology and societal importance. It is well known that no river basin in the world has a longer, more complex, and more eventful history. The Nile water issue in modern times is a history of how economic and political developments in East and North Africa have been fundamentally shaped by the interconnectedness of the Nile’s particular physical and hydrological character; the efforts of adapting to, controlling, using, and sharing the waters of the river; and the different ideas and ambitions that political leaders have had for the Nile.