A Colony Divided: The Decolonization of Sudan and its Impact on Contemporary Politics

I wrote this essay as part of a course on modern European empires I took in fall 2018. It examines the decolonization and political rise of Sudan, which recently gave rise to South Sudan (the world’s newest nation) after a prolonged period of civil war. WordPress would not let me include the footnotes I’d written for the original paper, but if you message me over “Contact” I’d be happy to provide my sources. As always, feel free to reach out with comments or questions.

South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, split off from Sudan in 2011. (Photo credit: Randy Fath on Unsplash)

The turn of the 20th century brought with it new political philosophies and trends, new technologies, and new threats to the imperial status quo; in this rapidly changing global environment, colonies across Asia and Africa faced increasing nationalism and opposition to colonialism.  Colonial Sudan, characterized by its unusual political framework, blend of British and Islamic influence, linguistic diversity, and location in the Nile basin, was no exception.[1]  After the British defeated the Mahdi in Omdurman (the Mahdi had himself taken power from Egypt and Turkey), Egypt and Britain partnered to rule the Sudan in a joint political structure. Britain termed this political construct the “Condominium” and placed it under the purview of the Foreign, rather than the Colonial, office.  Despite Britain’s attempts to shirk accusations of imperialism, Britain held most political power and largely excluded Egypt from the Sudanese colonial project, creating what historian Heather Sharkey has called a “de facto British” colonial administration.

The region’s cultural, economic, and religious diversity left it vulnerable to exploitation, and the British government did not hesitate to extinguish Egyptian opposition and foster division and strife between Sudan’s diverse populations.[1]  As nationalist sentiments developed and political instability grew among the Egyptians and between the Sudanese themselves, the British found themselves forced to grant Sudan independence in 1956.  This paper will examine the ever-shifting relationship between Sudan, Britain, and Egypt, the social and political developments that led to decolonization, and the key diplomatic events that solidified it.  Although decolonization occurred through relatively peaceful political channels, the geopolitical and religious divisions created before and during the decolonization process would set the stage for decades of civil war and ethnic conflict.

Between 1898 (the beginning of the Condominium era) and 1956, the British government faced growing nationalism within both Sudan and Egypt.  As Sharkey argues, the Sudanese viewed nationalism as a balm for “the trauma of colonial subjugation.”[1]  Both Sudan and Egypt hoped for the freedom and sovereignty that other colonized nations had begun to achieve (Egyptian officials also hoped to wrest power from the British and take Sudan for themselves).  Britain, in turn, remained dedicated to the maintenance of control over its African resources – including, but not limited to, the strategically important Suez Canal.  Ironically, Britain’s colonial administrative structure contributed to its own undoing: students educated at British-run colleges in the Sudan came together to study Arabic literature, write books and essays suggesting ideas for reform, and develop a sense of national identity.  This contributed to the formation of an influential urban political class that historian Ahmed Abushouk terms the “educated elite,” a group that would later take leadership roles in the postcolonial government and prove a significant thorn in Britain’s side.[2] 

The technology available in Sudan – the movable-type printing press, roads, railways and, later on, telephones – also facilitated the development of independent nationhood.[3]  The Sudanese had access not only to national communications, but to international stories of decolonization efforts.  Imperialism had begun to fall out of international favor, and colonies across the world strove to take advantage of the new principle of self-determination.  Moreover, both Britain and Egypt had lost a great deal of money and power following not only their colonial skirmishes, but also two world wars.  Even while Britain battled Egypt for dominance over Sudan, it suffered from military and financial weaknesses that left its colonies exponentially more difficult to govern.

Despite Britain’s attempts to exclude Egypt from the governing process, Egyptian politicians and intellectuals ensured that the spread of nationalist sentiment within Sudan did not remain an exclusively “Sudanese” project.  As scholar Mohammed Nuri El-Amin puts it, Egypt “firmly believed that the Sudan and Egypt were destined to remain forever a single entity.”[1]  Adding insult to injury, Britain had also declared Egypt a British protectorate in 1914.[2]  Egyptian leaders, likely resentful that the British government kept them out of power and eager for chances to undermine British rule, helped to circulate Arabic texts;[3] these texts “gave [the North Sudanese] an outlet for their frustrations as well as space for debating the meaning of ‘Sudanese’ identity.”[4]  Egyptian newspapers, as well as Egyptian religious leaders within the Muslim community, also held great influence over Sudanese citizens.[5]  Egypt took domestic as well as international action, even staging a revolution against the British in 1919.  This revolution, which aimed to protest British rule and ultimately inspired a similar revolt in Sudan in 1924,[6] involved all social classes and served to underscore the political volatility of the Condominium arrangement.[7]  Although Egypt technically gained independence in 1922, Britain retained little respect for its sovereignty, and external and internal strife would haunt the newly independent nation for decades.

Clearly, Sudanese nationalism sprang from many sources, both organic and engineered by the Egyptians.  This pluralistic nationalist movement, though ultimately strong enough to bring about decolonization, struggled with the same religious and geopolitical division typical of many 20th-century decolonization movements.  The British isolated the largely Christian southern region of Sudan from the majority-Muslim North (ostensibly to protect the South from Muslim attacks, as the North had forced Southerners into slavery in the past), enforcing a geographic boundary already predetermined by the location of the Nile.  Meanwhile, the British government managed education (taught in Arabic) in the North.  The South, however, ran its own schools, mostly managed by Christian missionaries and taught in either English or the vernacular.  Northern, British-run universities served as feeders for the colonial administration, but these universities denied admission to students from the South.  This educational divide placed the struggle for independence largely in the hands of Northerners, giving Southerners limited influence over the future of their nation.  Britain’s policies promoted “uneven development among regions and social groups,” all while solidifying “patterns of exclusionary ethnic politics in the postcolonial era.” [1] They sowed the seeds for the ethnic and religious tensions that would ultimately divide Sudan in 2011.

Nationalist groups also experienced philosophical differences: while some leaders favored slow and steady collaboration with the British government, more extreme “ultra nationalists” supported a rapid switch to independence.[1]  Even among groups of leaders with a common vision, socioeconomic and political division persisted.  The relatively moderate Advisory Council of Northern Sudan alone consisted of merchants, tribal leaders, and educated government employees, all of whom had different backgrounds and likely very different approaches.[2]  Even radical “ultra nationalists” found themselves split between those who supported collaboration with Egypt and those who hoped to work with Neo-Mahdists, a group feared by the British.[3]  The seeds of these divisions, sown by the British and Sudanese alike, continue to bear fruit.  Sudan has endured civil war and armed conflict since 1983, a legacy of bloodshed culminating in South Sudan’s split from the North in 2011.  Religious, tribal, and political divisions persist in the region today, even after South Sudan gained independence, and South Sudan itself remains fractured by ethnic conflict.

Once Sudanese nationalism had taken hold, decolonization itself occurred through many channels.  Throughout the early 20th century, the “Sudanization” of the bureaucracy had gradually taken place, with Sudanese workers replacing Egyptians and eventually the British.[1]  More immediately, however, several specific events served to crystallize both the nationalist resistance and the crackdown of the British administration.  One of these was a 1924 uprising complete with military demonstrations and riots and culminating in the assassination of the British governor-general of Sudan, Lee Stack.[2]  The British retaliated by banning further demonstrations and forcing Egypt to remove all its troops from Sudan (despite the fact that, by this point, Egypt had become an independent nation).[3] 

After the attempted revolution in 1924, Britain also adopted a stronger policy of indirect rule within Sudan in order to intensify the divisions between urban and rural leaders.  This indirect rule served to “strengthen local and ethnic compartmentalization and raise obstacles to anti-colonial agitation on a national scale,” as well as “to reduce contact between graduates in the central administration and the provincial and local rural societies to a minimum.”[4]

Clearly, the British remained reluctant to relinquish control over Sudan (or cede power to Egypt) for several decades.  Gradually, however, internal activism and the widespread development of Sudanese political parties created new options regarding Sudan’s governance.  The British did not restore power to the politically active “educated elite” until the 1930s, when the threat of Sudanese collaboration with Neo-Mahdists forced Britain to capitulate.[1]  Britain ceded still more power to the Sudanese in 1948, when the colonial government (against Egypt’s wishes) added to its ranks a Legislative Assembly and an Executive Council comprised of government officials, tribal leaders, merchants, and others.[2]  Even in this atmosphere of turmoil, new political parties with different goals continued to form, diverge, and coalesce within Sudan. (Some embraced socialist views, while others catered to specific regions; still other politicians chose to remain independent.)  Meanwhile, independence talks continued.  The Egyptian state, incensed by Britain’s decades-long contempt for its position of power, finally attempted to secure its long-desired claim on Sudanese territory by rejecting the Condominium agreement in 1950.  Many Sudanese politicians, however, desired more than a simple transfer of colonial authority and continued to push for total independence.  The Sudanese rejected not only the Egyptian bid for their territory, but also an attempt by the United Nations to control their soon-to-be-independent state.[3]

Khartoum, Sudan in contemporary times (Wikimedia Commons)

Sudan’s political landscape continued to develop into the mid-1950s.  As Egypt faced mounting political turmoil (it would endure yet another revolution in 1952),[1] Sudan’s independence talks began to conclude.  In 1953, Sudan (still under diminishing British rule), held elections that installed the National Unionist Party, itself a conglomeration of smaller parties, as the majority party in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.  Candidates from six political parties (the NUP, the Umma Party, the Southern Party, the Socialist Republican Party, the Southern Political Association, and the Anti-Imperialist Front), as well as independent candidates, occupied legislative seats after this election.  The divergence of the various parties’ goals and titles highlighted the nation’s deep political divisions even at this early stage.  In 1955, the Senate and House approved a new national flag for their country and removed the British flag.  New Year’s Day 1956 marked the first sunrise over an independent Sudan; Ismail al-Azhari of the NUP took over as the first Prime Minister.[2]  Sudan had gained independence, but its struggles were far from complete; its own division would engulf the new government and give rise to a brutal civil war in 1983.

Sudan’s decolonization efforts fell in line with those of other African nations, such as Eritrea and Libya[1]; clusters of other nations would follow suit in the 1960s and 1970s.  However, Sudan – as well as its fledgling counterpart and the world’s youngest nation, South Sudan – still suffers from the instability engendered by decolonization and the political and military events preceding it.  As South Sudan struggles to define its national identity, both nations face the repercussions of decades of civil war – continued repression, economic difficulties, and political insecurity.  It would behoove current leaders, as well as international aid services and NGOs, to acknowledge the deep-rooted historical strife underlying Sudan’s instability.

[1] Abushouk, “The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan,” 218.

[1] Botman, Egypt from Independence to Revolution, 55.

[2] Abushouk, “The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan,” 225-227.

[1] Abushouk, “The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan,” 214.

[2] Abushouk, “The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan,” 217.

[3] Abushouk, “The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan,” 221.

[1] Sharkey, Living with Colonialism, 7.

[2] Nuri El-Amin, “The 1924 Sudanese Uprising,” 248.

[3] Botman, Egypt from Independence to Revolution, 35.

[4] Abushouk, “The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan,”214.

[1] Abushouk, “The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan,” 215.

[2] Abushouk, “The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan,” 216.

[3] Abushouk, “The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan,” 215.

[1] Sharkey, Living with Colonialism, 8-9.

[1] Mohammed Nuri El-Amin, “Britain, The 1924 Sudanese Uprising, and the Impact of Egypt on the Sudan,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 19, no. 2 (1986): 237.

[2] Selma Botman, Egypt from Independence to Revolution, 1919-1952 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1991), 25.

[3] Sharkey, Living with Colonialism, 6.

[4] Sharkey, Living with Colonialism, 10.

[5] Nuri El-Amin, “The 1924 Sudanese Uprising,” 239.

[6] Nuri, “The 1924 Sudanese Uprising,” 237.

[7] Botman, Egypt from Independence to Revolution, 55.

[1] Sharkey, Living with Colonialism, 10.

[2] Ahmed Ibrahim Abushouk, “The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan: From Collaboration Mechanism to

Party Politics, 1898–1956,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 38, no. 2 (12 May 2010): 213.

[3] Sharkey, Living with Colonialism, 9-10.

[1] Sharkey, Living with Colonialism, 6.

[1] Heather J. Sharkey, Living with Colonialism: Nationalism and Culture in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 6.

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