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.
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.
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.