Six months after the capture of Khartoum, the Mahdi died of typhus. The task of establishing and maintaining a government fell to his deputies--three caliphs chosen by the Mahdi in emulation of the Prophet Muhammad. Rivalry among the three, each supported by people of his native region, continued until 1891, when Abdallahi ibn Muhammad, with the help primarily of the Baqqara Arabs, overcame the opposition of the others and emerged as unchallenged leader of the Mahdiyah. Abdallahi--called the Khalifa (successor)--purged the Mahdiyah of members of the Mahdi's family and many of his early religious disciples.
Originally the Mahdiyah was a jihad state, run like a military camp. Sharia courts enforced Islamic law and the Mahdi's precepts, which had the force of law. After consolidating his power, the Khalifa instituted an administration and appointed Ansar (who were usually Baqqara) as amirs over each of the several provinces. The Khalifa also ruled over rich Al Jazirah. Although he failed to restore this region's commercial wellbeing , the Khalifa organized workshops to manufacture ammunition and to maintain river steamboats.
Regional relations remained tense throughout much of the Mahdiyah period, largely because of the Khalifa's commitment to using the jihad to extend his version of Islam throughout the world. For example, the Khalifa rejected an offer of an alliance against the Europeans by Ethiopia's negus (king), Yohannes IV. In 1887 a 60,000-man Ansar army invaded Ethiopia, penetrated as far as Gonder, and captured prisoners and booty. The Khalifa then refused to conclude peace with Ethiopia. In March 1889, an Ethiopian force, commanded by the king, marched on Qallabat; however, after Yohannes IV fell in battle, the Ethiopians withdrew. Abd ar Rahman an Nujumi, the Khalifa's best general, invaded Egypt in 1889, but British-led Egyptian troops defeated the Ansar at Tushkah. The failure of the Egyptian invasion ended the Ansar' invincibility. The Belgians prevented the Mahdi's men from conquering Equatoria, and in 1893 the Italians repulsed an Ansar attack at Akordat (in Eritrea) and forced the Ansar to withdraw from Ethiopia.
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