For most of its history, the region of Sudan has not been a unified country. Spanning over nearly one million square miles, the region is mostly desert, bisected by a narrow fertile strip on either side of the Nile. It was historically inhabited by a wide variety of tribes, kingdoms, and principalities. The northern part of the country was forcefully unified in 1820-1821, when Egypt annexed the area. Several other attempts were made to unify Sudan, but they met with limited success. Finally, Great Britain and Egypt formed an alliance to invade the country. They succeeded, unifying the entire area that is today known as Sudan, under a predominantly British government.
After the Second World War, Great Britain's economy and military were devastated. Recognizing that many African countries were beginning to rebel against their European governments, the British signed a treaty with Egypt that would grant Sudan independence in 1953, with the region officially gaining “home rule” starting on January 1, 1956. During the transitional period between 1953 and 1956, a constitution was drafted, but it was vague about a number of important issues, including the role of the military in government, the separation of mosque and state, and whether the government would be federal or unitary. This laid the groundwork for intense strife between the predominantly Muslim, Arab northern region of Sudan, and the mainly Christian and animist south, populated mostly by ethnic Africans. Civil war broke out before the country had even received its official independence.
An inefficient and corrupt government also plagued the fledgling nation. This undermined even the dictatorship's good-faith efforts to establish schools in rural areas, a problem that Salih portrays in Season of Migration to the North. From 1958 to 1964, the country was ruled by General Ibrahim Abboud, who suspended the constitution and intervened heavily in the economy, all while enacting policies of Islamification. However, he was unable to control the country due to increasing rebellions in the south, and was succeeded by a series of short-lived, impotent rulers. It was in this period that Salih wrote the novel while living abroad.
Since 1969, Sudan has been controlled by a series of dictators, most of whom have enforced strict Islamist policies. The civil war persisted on and off until 2002, with scattered violence remaining. A referendum for southern independence was held in January 2011, with the south voting overwhelmingly to secede. The country has also received attention and infamy as the site of the Darfur genocide, a separate conflict that has been ongoing in the southwestern region since 2003 and cost more than 400,000 lives.