Britain, Sudan and the “Southern Policy”
Under the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, the South ofSudan was treated very differently to the North
For Major-General Herbert Kitchener, the British assault in southern Sudan on September 2nd 1898 was an exercise in both conquest and revenge.
13 years after Britain’s Governor-General in Sudan had been killed in Khartoum, this latest operation had involved years of preparation, including the development of both rail and steamship supply routes and extensive training for British and Egyptian troops.
But it was the deployment of the newly engineered Maxim machine gun and the .303 Enfield and Metford rifles that proved to be the truly decisive factor in the massacre that followed.
During the five-hour Battle of Omdurman, 11,000 of the 60,000 Mahdists were killed, and 16,000 wounded. Of Kitchener’s far smaller mostly Egyptian and Sudanese army, only 500 were wounded or killed.
Omdurman was also a crucial moment in the career of Winston Churchill, then a young war correspondent in the 21st Lancers. Kitchener had been against Churchill being dispatched to the Sudan, citing his coverage of the Malakand Campaign in India, and Winston had needed to use leverage from his mother to get him sent to East Africa.
Aged 24, he resigned his commissioned and published the two-volume River War, an account of his time in Sudan.
Churchill described the defeat of the Mahdists as “the most signal triumph ever gained by the arms of science over barbarians. Within the space of five hours the strongest and best-armed savage army yet arrayed against a modern European Power had been destroyed and dispersed, with hardly any difficulty, comparatively small risk, and insignificant loss to the victors”.
After Omdurman, the region south of the 22nd parallel was administered through an Anglo-Egyptian Condominium from 1898 through to 1956. It received varying levels of British interest during that period, but in practice, the area was ruled as a colonial administration allied to local tribes, with a governor general directly answerable to London, via officials in Cairo.
Through the implementation of the “Southern Policy”, the British sought to end the mistreatment of the southern population by the North, but in so-doing stunted the economic progress of the South. In recognition of the ethnic and cultural differences in the region, the three southern provinces were administered as a different entity from the North.
A “closed door” approach was taken to business interests from the North, with Arab merchants barred from operating in the South and Arab administrators replaced with British officials.
Writing in the Journal of Northeast African Studies, David Nailo N. Mayo notes that the ethnically diverse population of the south had encountered oppression and enslavement from the majority Arab population in the north for many centuries.
“Since the Ottoman Empire, the history of the Sudan has been the history of the Arab-Islamic peoples against the natives, and resistance by the latter against the invaders,” Mayo writes.
“This was not just an invasion of the sword. Through other cultural annihilation modalities such as: cultural diffusion and assimilation, and scoring native ways, customs, languages, religions, and so forth.”
According to Mayo, British administrators were “genuinely interested” in preserving the language and culture of the non-Arabic (predominantly southern) population ofSudan.
A memorandum on British policy in South Sudan read:
The policy of the Government in the southern Sudan is to build up a series of self contained racial or tribal units with structures of organisation based, to whatever extent the requirements of equity and good government permit, upon indigenous customs, traditional usage and beliefs.
Scholars are divided on both the motivations for the Southern Policy and the legacy of British administration in the region. For Savo Heleta, Manager of Internationalisation at Home at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, the fate of the region is directly linked to the “divide and rule” and “indirect rule” policies of the condominium. “Indirect rule” was the means by which administration was coordinated through pre-existing tribal groups in the south.
“The protective umbrella of indirect rule made it possible for some tribal groups to develop vital interests while other groups became relatively underprivileged,” Helata writes.
“When the British withdrew, an intense struggle for power ensued. The privileged became exposed to the danger of losing power and had to mobilise their forces in defence, while the underprivileged aligned themselves to gain power.”
Other historians, such as Justin Willis of the University of Durham, have questioned whether the Southern Policy, under-resourced as it was, was itself a significant factor.
“One might say that both those policies (in the north and south) were a sort of lame British response to the real nature and consequence of Condominium rule,” Willis tells me.
“This was to encourage the emergence of an educated northern riverain elite, who were too useful for the British to do without, and who learned the skills of government — and so inherited the state at independence.”
“British anxiety over the inevitable consequence of their rule — which was to create a kind of state that had not previously existed — was not unique to Sudan, it was apparent everywhere.”
In practice, the Southern Policy only lasted 16 years, ending in 1946, and was interpreted differently by each of the southern provinces.
Aly Verjee acted as the EU’s chief political analyst during South Sudan’s referendum on independence. He was subsequently Acting Chief of Staff in the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission for the Peace Agreement (2015–16) and is now a Fellow at the Rift Valley Institute.
“It is difficult to draw a causal link between colonial policies and the present day,” Verjee tells me.
“But there are clear examples of lingering issues: for example, where borders and boundaries should lie, a subject that continues to be a source of tension in bothSudan and South Sudan. Linguistic, ethnic and tribal identities are not immutable, but in the Sudans, as sadly in so many other places, the instrumentalisation of identity politics has sometimes been more important than the creation of a national identity.”
When independence for Sudan took place in 1956, it was granted with the precondition that the South would be allowed equal participation with the political process of the whole country. Yet it very quickly became clear that the north had no intention of treating the south with any degree of equanimity.
In the years prior to independence, the process of “Sudanisation” saw the majority of administrative posts in the newly independent Sudan given to northerners. This became one of the catalysts for a mutiny within the military and the ensuing civil conflict between north and south in the years to come.
Economic resources that could have been used in the south were appropriated by the north, and out of a total of 1,200 new government jobs announced by Sudanfollowing independence, only four junior positions were given to southerners.
“Sudan is unusual,” says Aly Verjee.
“It became independent despite the fact civil conflict had already begun in the country. Post-independence governments failed to address the causes of instability for decades.”
“There have always been at least two Sudans — the Sudanof the capital and the Nile valley, and the Sudan of everywhere else — east, west, north and south. And the bitter harvest of failed conflict resolution efforts sowed the seeds for future disputes.”
On 9th July, 2011, South Sudan formally became the world’s youngest country, following a referendum in which 98.83% of the South had voted to form their own state. In so doing, South Sudan became the world’s youngest country, bordering the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudanand Uganda.
The independence referendum had been held as a condition of a 2005 peace deal that ended years of civil conflict during which around two million people are believed to have lost their lives.
South Sudan is an oil-rich region, but remains under-developed, and is home to some of the poorest people in the world. The country ranks at no.2 on the global Fragile States Index, formerly the Failed States Index, after Somalia.
Today the UN estimates that almost half of its population are thought to be at risk of starvation. Roughly 1.7 million South Sudanese people are internally displaced, while 900,000 have fled the country altogether.
The varying extent to which Britain and Egypt, as well as regional tribal interests and other colonial powers have led to the human tragedy unfolding today will always be hard for scholars to determine absolutely. Few would argue that the historical actors in the area helped to improve north-south relations, or the lives of the people living in the south.
“The peoples of the two countries share a great deal: not only a common history, but land, water, and kinship,” says Aly Verjee.
“The differences between peoples have often been exploited to the detriment of their common humanity”.