Sunday, January 16, 2022

Sudan Tribune

Plural news and views on Sudan

Roots of Sudanese conflict are in the British colonial policies

By Savo Heleta

January 12, 2008 — What is wrong with Africa? Why is the largest number of failed states on the continent? Is something fundamentally wrong with Africans or could there be another explanation? Trying to find answers to these questions, let’s see what historians and social scientists believe are the roots of the conflict in Sudan, an African country where peace lasted for little over a decade since 1956.

Like in all other parts of the world, there was always some form of conflict in the region that became Sudan at the Congress of Berlin in 1886, where the European colonial powers drew the borders of African countries. Bechtold (1976) writes that the animosity between the northern and southern Sudanese can be traced back to the Arab slave raids when northern tribes had been contracted by the Arabs to conduct raiding activities in the south. However, before the late 19th century, the Sudanese conflict was not strictly ethnic, between the Arab north and the African south, writes Prunier (2005), but tribal conflict over territory and resources. Similar fighting occurred all over the continent and around the world throughout the history.

Since 1899, Sudan was ruled by the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium. However, Egypt had little influence in reality (El Mahdi, 1965; Albino, 1970; Holt and Daly, 1979). Deng (1978) calls the Condominium a “British rule with Egypt as a rubber-stamp half.”

Trying to control half of the world at the time, the British did not have the force to occupy Sudan. Like in other colonies across Africa, they had to institute the “divide-and-rule” policy in Sudan. They wanted Sudanese to distrust, fear, and fight each other, instead of their colonizers.

The “divide-and-rule” policy separated southern Sudanese provinces from the rest of the country and slowed down their economic and social development. The British authorities claimed that the south was not ready to open up to the modern world (Chapin Metz, 1992 ). At the same time, the British heavily invested in the Arab north, modernizing and liberalizing political and economic institutions and improving social, educational, and health services (El Mahdi, 1965, Eprile, 1974; Chapin Metz, 1992; O’Ballance, 2000).

The British Condominium government had nothing against Islam in the northern parts of Sudan. In fact, the British encouraged Islamization of the north through financial help for building mosques and pilgrimage travels for Muslims (Holt and Daly, 1979). In southern Sudan however, with the help of Christian missionaries, they wanted to prevent the spread of Islam (O’Ballance, 2000) and “preserve purely African way of life of the southern people” (Albino, 1970). Wenger (1991) claims that the British at this time planned to attach southern Sudan to the British colonial East Africa.

Another colonial experiment that slowed down development of southern Sudan had been the “indirect rule” policy. In order to prevent educated urban class and religious leaders from influencing social and political life in southern Sudan, the British authorities gave “power” to the tribal leaders and ruled through them (Holt and Daly, 1979). While the “divide-and-rule” policy separated the north and south, the “indirect rule” divided the south into hundreds of informal chiefdoms. The British authorities made their “indirect rule” policies official through the “Southern Policy” document.

The Southern Policy stated that, “the policy of the government in southern Sudan is to build up a series of self-contained tribal units with structure and organization based upon indigenous customs, traditions, and beliefs” (Albino, 1970). These southern tribal units were to be completely separated from the rest of the country. Under the Policy, northern officials were transferred out of the south, trading permits for northerners were withdrawn, and speaking Arabic and even wearing of Arabic dresses were discouraged (Albino, 1970; Eprile, 1974; Deng, 1978; Holt and Daly, 1979; Chapin Metz, 1992).

Deng (1978) notes that the period of the British rule in the south was the “longest period of peace and security [in history], at least from invasion and the use of crude force.” Toynbee (quoted in Albino, 1970) believes that, while the British had prevented the oppression and exploitation of the southern Sudanese by their northern countrymen, they did little to help the south “to learn how to hold their own in the modern world.”

The British administration reversed its Southern Policy in 1946, stating that the southern Sudanese were “inextricably bound, both geographically and economically, to the Arab north as far as future development was concerned” (Eprile, 1974; Bechtold, 1976; Chapin Metz, 1992). One of the reasons for this abrupt decision, writes Eprile (1974), was a need to repay northern Sudan for helping Britain during World War II.

The tensions and mistrust between the northern and southern Sudanese that had been building up over decades culminated into a large scale armed conflict in the mid-1950s (Eprile, 1974). Fearing marginalization by the more populous and developed north, southern army officers mutinied in 1955 (Bechtold, 1976). This was the beginning of the first long civil war in Sudan. Toynbee (quoted in Albino, 1970) believes that the British policies in the Sudan were the primary cause of conflict:

The British differentiated the northern and southern Sudanese from each other without separating them politically. This made it virtually inevitable that, if and when the British abdicated, the northerners, being by far the stronger of the two sections of the Sudanese people, should attempt, as they have done, to assimilate the southerners by force. This, in turn, has made it inevitable that there should be a southern resistance movement.

Similarly, Cohen (1996) believes that the British “indirect rule” policy retarded interactions among different groups in the south and lead to divisions and conflict between them, thus helping the northerners:
The protective umbrella of indirect rule made it possible for some tribal groups to develop vital interests while other groups became relatively underprivileged. When the British withdrew, an intense struggle for power ensued. The privileged became exposed to the danger of losing power and had to mobilize their forces in defence, while the underprivileged aligned themselves to gain power.

Historians and social scientists, both Western and Sudanese, believe that the post-independence conflict in Sudan was largely caused by the ethnic divisions created by the British colonial administration between 1899 and 1956. The south became economically underdeveloped and cut out from the rest of the country due to the British segregationist policies. As a result of underdevelopment and the lack of political organizations and unity, the southern region was not prepared to actively participate in the Sudanese government after independence.
Regional differences resulted in a deeply divided and economically differentiated Sudan – an Arab-dominated north, economically and politically stronger than an underdeveloped and weaker African south. The southern provinces, sidelined during the British rule, continued to be marginalized and underdeveloped in independent Sudan controlled by the northerners. This consequently triggered the southern rebellion and two civil wars that ravaged the country for the most part of the second half of the twentieth century.

So, what is wrong with Africa? Why there are so many failed states, like Sudan, on the African continent? While Africans are to blame for corruption, despotism, and the lack of rule of law since independence, the root causes of the majority of conflicts in Africa lie in the policies implemented by the former colonial powers, from South Africa, Rwanda, and Sudan, to name only a few. In the case of Sudan, the primary cause of mistrust, divisions, and conflict between the north and south lie in “divide-and-rule” and “indirect rule” policies implemented by the British colonial authorities.


* The author a postgraduate student in Conflict Transformation and Management at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He is the author of Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia. The book will be published in the United States by AMACOM, New York, in March ’08. More about the book on www.savoheleta.com