A Distasteful Legacy: British Colonialism and the Sudanese Crises

Sudan and South Sudan have agreed to implement joint security arrangements, including a demilitarised border zone, in the latest attempts to diffuse tensions between the world’s newest state and its northern neighbour. Whilst an agreement in principle has been made, neither side has made a commitment to ending one of Africa’s most serious security dilemmas.

For several decades, whilst South Sudan and Sudan were still united as one country, regional conflict was a persistent reality along what is now the border between the two. The Darfur Crisis, and ethnic and tribal conflict in the South Kordofan region, raged. Worryingly, both internal conflicts still simmer today with frequent reports of attacks on innocent civilians and generals wanted for war crimes. Such outrages cannot be stopped without cross-border cooperation. Unfortunately, both states accuse the other of exacerbating each security threat.

Attacks on civilian settlements on both sides is a regular occurrence
Attacks on civilian settlements on both sides is a regular occurrence

To what extent are the British responsible for today’s troubles across Sudan? Between the 1820s and the 1860s, the Egyptian dynasty of Muhammad Ali Pasha gradually took control of much of present-day Sudan, the inhabitants of which shared many cultural and religious traditions with the Egyptians. However, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the economic opportunities that offered invited the world’s foremost colonial power, Great Britain, to take virtual control of Egypt and Sudan through the appointment of a favourable puppet ruler. The early seeds of Anglicisation were sown.

However, the Mahdist War broke out in 1881 scuppering British plans. With colonial forces predominantly stationed in the Egyptian strongholds of Cairo and Alexandria, a Sudanese rebel force led by Muhammad Ibn Abdalla (the Mahdi) took control of Khartoum and inflicted a series of embarrassing defeats on the British. After a drawn-out process of smaller skirmishes, the British eventually defeated the Sudanese rebels at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, ending the Mahdist War and re-establishing Anglo-Egyptian control over Sudan.

The Mahdist War pitted tribal warriors against the strength of the British Empire
The Mahdist War pitted tribal warriors against the strength of the British Empire

As a means of exerting greater political and economic control, the British imperialists began a process of divide-and-rule in Sudan whereby ethnic and tribal differences were exacerbated to prevent a united opposition force similar to the Mahdists. This involved the Christianisation of South Sudan and the promotion of pro-Egyptian Islamic Arabs in the north of the country. Of course, this led to severe tension and heightened already existing tribal differences. These tensions persisted throughout Sudan’s years of unity and continue into the dual state era. Christianity and Animist beliefs dominate in South Sudan today, putting the state at odds with the strictly Islamic north. It is hard to see this problem existing without the interference of Britain in the 19th century.

The religious divide throughout the former Sudan is clear to see
The religious divide throughout the former Sudan is clear to see

Darfur, meanwhile, had historically been an autonomous region within which existed several tribal groups. This existence abruptly ended during WWI when British forces, afraid Darfur would come under the influence of the Ottomans, invaded the region and incorporated it into Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Rather than pursuing development in Darfur, the British neglected its people, focusing resources on Khartoum and the centre of the country. A politically and economically independent region had become financially dependent and politically isolated in one foul swoop setting it on a path of resentment and conflict for years to come.

To blame all of Sudan’s ills on Britain would be unfair. Other factors must be considered for the ongoing crises; the meddling of the Egyptians, who first invaded Sudanese territory; the ruthless and corrupt regime of Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president wanted for war crimes; drought and famine; and the inevitable tribal complexities that plague nearly all African countries, particularly those as vast as the Sudanese states.

Despite all the contributing factors, the legacy of the British imperial force is still felt throughout Sudan and South Sudan. The creation of a religious divide; the unequal development pursued in different provinces; the resettlement of tribal entities. All of these selfish acts, borne out of imperial greed and a sense of superiority, are a stain on Britain’s colonial record which is by no means all bad.

By the time of the Sudanese independence from Britain in 1956 much damage had already been done
By the time of the Sudanese independence from Britain in 1956 much damage had already been done

We must hope that the security agreement comes to fruition for great difficulties seem to lie ahead. Militant Islamists threaten to tear apart the South Kordofan region; the Abyei province of the same state must decide whether to part with Sudan or join its southern neighbour; disputes over the region’s oil revenues persist. Without a bilateral agreement of the sincerest conviction, and the ability of the Sudanese and South Sudanese governments to first ensure stability within their own states, the perpetual crises will spiral devastatingly onwards.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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