Sudan: Repressive Democracy (1964-1969)

Reviewed January 2020

The October Revolution of 1964 led to the resignation of the military government of Lt Gen Ibrahim Abboud in favour of the United National Front (UNF), a coalition of political parties and civil society organizations, and 15 days later Abboud himself resigned as president and was succeeded by al-Hatam Khalifa (Shay & Liberman 2006, 11). The UNF government was dominated by the Communist Party of the Sudan (CPS), the People's Democratic Party and their allies in the trade union movement, but left-wing support was concentrated in the urban areas of the north while their opponents' support base lay with the rural majority and the government delayed Constitutional Assembly elections, initially set for March 1965, to May in the hope that they could rally more rural support in the interim (Shay & Liberman 2006, 11, 12). The government attempted a reconciliation with southerners, but offers of autonomy were rejected by most southern leaders who demanded "home rule" with the national government's jurisdiction limited to defence and foreign relations and the government in turn rejected this as a covert strategy aimed at eventual secession (Shay & Liberman 2006, 12, 13; Collins 2008, 82, 84).

In the meanwhile pressure on the government from the right for elections, led by the Umma Party, the National Union Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, mounted in the form of mass demonstrations in Khartoum and, lacking support from the military, Khalifa and the government was forced to resign in in early February (Shay & Liberman 2006, 12, 13). The new government, reflecting more accurately the balance of support in the north, was dominated by the rightwing parties and election preparations were vigorously undertaken (Shay & Liberman 2006, 14). A round table conference was convened in March 1965 to pave the way for nationwide elections through a negotiated settlement that would end the war in the south, but without success and the May elections were conducted in the northern constituencies while polling in the southern seats were postponed (Shay & Liberman 2006, 13, 14; ; Collins 2008, 83-85).

In the run up to the elections the Senate was abolished, women were given the vote for the first time and the minimum voting age was reduced from 21 to 18 years (Collins 2008, 84, 85). In the elections of 1965 the Umma Party and its allied parties won a majority of the northern seats, but the new Prime Minister, the Umma Party's Mohammed Mahgoub, chose to form a coalition government with the National Unionist Party (NUP, formerly National Union Party) so as to isolate the CPS and its allies in parliament (Shay & Liberman 2006, 14; see Constitutional Assembly election (1965 and 1967) for details). Ann Lesch (1998, 42) points out that the democratically elected legislature and government that finally issued from the 1964 October Revolution focused on eliminating the CPS, the implementation of an Islamic constitution and on a vigorous prosecution of the war in the south; the majority northern Islamic organisations aimed at the control and assimilation of minorities and disregarded dissenting viewpoints and the concerns of other ethnic groups. The CPS was banned on 9 December 1965 and the vision of a unitary Arab and Muslim Sudan was pursued through the centralisation of decision making in the hands of the majority so as to subordinate, marginalise and enculturate minorities (Lesch 1998, 432; Ofcansky 2009, 1122). However, pursuit of these shared goals did not prevent continual conflict and personality clashes within the government from compromising its cohesion, stability and efficacy; between 1965 and 1968 three different governments followed one another in rapid succession (Shay & Liberman 2006, 16; Ofcansky 2009, 1122). The Umma Party itself split in 1966 and a smaller faction broke away before the 1968 elections (Shay & Liberman 2006, 16; Ofcansky 2009, 1122).

The military was unleashed on the south so that atrocities against civilians and the persecution of intellectual and traditional leaders followed, while thousands fled the country in July 1965 while others joined the Anya-Nya guerrillas leading to a further deterioration of the security situation and more were internally displaced into camps by government counter-insurgency operations (Lesch 1998, 43; Collins 2008, 86). Northern undertakings on power decentralisation, socio-economic development and respect for religious freedom were shelved; the response in the south was reflected in the 1967 Constitutional Assembly election where the federalist Southern Liberal Party (formerly Liberal Party, Southern Party) was swept away by the Sudanese African National Union (SANU) that had been formed in exile in 1962 to demand the secession of the south from the Republic of Sudan (see Constitutional Assembly election (1965 and 1967)). Moreover, in August 1967, the increasingly effective Anya-Nya guerrilla movement set up a Southern Sudan Provisional Government, placing de facto secession firmly on the table as a possibility, but cooperation between southern political groups and guerrilla forces proved to be short lived and the Provisional Government collapsed in 1968 (Lesch 1998, 43; Shay & Liberman 2006, 15; Collins 2008, 87, 88).

Not only were Christians and traditionalist southerners alienated, but so also were non-Arab Muslims in the north who regarded the peculiar implementation of shari'ah by the government as an assault on their identity, culture and religion as Muslim Africans (Lesch 1998, 42, 43). Moreover, the northern intellectuals, both left-wing and middle class professionals who had spearheaded the October revolution felt marginalised and disenchanted, but also, more significantly, the caste of junior officers whose support had made the Revolution possible increasingly shared their sentiments (Lesch 1998, 43, 44; Shay & Liberman 2006, 15, 16). The crisis was deepened on 7 February 1968 when a third of the members of the Constitutional Assembly resigned and, for lack of a quorum, fresh legislative elections were forced, which were conducted in April and May 1968 (Inter-Parliamentary Union Undated, 2). The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), formed by the merger of the NUP and the PDP in December 1967, took 41% of the vote and 46% of the seats (vs 30% of the seats between them in 1965/7), while the previously dominant Umma Party, now split into three factions, managed 42% of the vote but only 33% of the seats (vs 43% of the seats in 1965/7; see 1968 Constitutional Assembly election for details).

The outcome of the April/May 1968 Constitutional Assembly election did nothing to stabilise the political and security situation, the government remained divided, distracted and ineffectual while in the north riots, strikes and sabotage continued (Shay & Liberman 2006, 15, 16; Collins 2008, 90). In addition, the government found itself increasingly isolated internationally (Ofcansky 2009, 1122). On 25 May 1969, taking advantage of widespread disillusionment with democracy and discontent with the government, secularist, socialist and pan-Arab nationalist officers, supported by the CPS, toppled the government and re-established military rule under Gen Ja'faar Muhammad Nimeiri (Lesch 1998, 44; Shay & Liberman 2006, 17).


COLLINS, RO 2008 A history of modern Sudan, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

INTER-PARLIAMENTARY UNION UNDATED "Sudan", [www] [PDF document, opens new window] (accessed 24 Jan 2011).

LESCH, AM 1998 The Sudan: contested national identities, Indiana University Press.

OFCANSKY, T 2009 "Sudan : Recent History" IN Frame, I 2008 (ed) Africa South of the Sahara 2008, Routledge, 1122-1135.

SHAY, S & LIBERMAN R 2006 The Red Sea terror triangle: Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and Islamic terror, Transaction Publishers, New Jersey.