The Arabs applied the word Sudan, meaning 'blacks', to a belt of territory running right across Africa south of the Sahara, from Senegal to the border of Ethiopia (B). Part of this area, long known as French Sudan (or Soudan), is now the new republic of Mali (15). The Sudan republic, independent since 1956, was previously a nominal condominium, the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, with Britain the effective ruling power.
Egypt's dependence on Nile water has always made it look anxiously (or ambitiously) upstream (8), and various Egyptian governments conquered and ruled areas along the upper Nile in the past. In the 1880s the Egyptians were driven out by a revolt led by the Mahdi Mohamed Ahmed, a religious leader (4); one of the reasons for Sudanese discontent had been slave trading by expeditions from the north. Britain, already occupying Egypt itself, eventually crushed the Mahdists in 1898 and took over the Sudan.
As nationalism grew stronger in Egypt, Egyptians became less and less content with their minor role in the condominium, and in 1951 Egypt denounced the agreement, proclaiming King Farouk king of Egypt and the Sudan. But in 1953 it was agreed that the Sudan should become independent. Before and after independence, its politics were marked by rivalry between the Khatmia religious sect, whose leaders to some extent favoured union with Egypt, and the Ansar, the followers of the Mahdi's descendants, whose Umma party opposed union. The support for union with Egypt soon dwindled, but sectarian rivalry still troubled politics. In 1958 the army, led by General Abboud, seized power.
There have been outbursts of unrest in the south, whose 3 million inhabitants, mainly pagan or Christian Negroes living dispersed over a wide area with numerous rivers and much forest, have little in common with the 7 million northerners, who are Arabic-speaking Moslems mainly concentrated along the Nile. But the northerners, more advanced in many respects, dominate the Sudan, which is a member of the Arab League and generally oriented towards the Arab rather than the black African world. Khartoum, at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles, is the natural centre of the country; just south of it, the Gezira ('island') area between the two rivers was greatly developed under British rule, yielding both grain and cotton from a million acres of irrigation supplied from the Sennar dam.