Home | Comment & Analysis    Friday 8 February 2008

Roots of Sudanese conflict are in the British colonial policies

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By Professor Ali Abdalla Ali

February 7, 2008 — The above title is for a paper written by Savo Heleta and published in Sudan Tribune of January 13th. 2008 .The paper is a very interesting one and was able to give a detailed reasoning for the causes of Sudan’s underdevelopment and the contribution of the British legacy in Sudan from 1899 until 1956 to its present day backwardness and underdevelopment .Although what had been precipitated by those years of colonial rule still affect the course of Sudan’s progress, yet there seem to be no good excuse for the various governments that ruled Sudan for more than half a decade to allow the continuation of such underdevelopment, such that the Sudan and in spite of its unusual natural and human potential is considered one of the least developing countries of the world. Heleta stopped short of explaining the role of the British in Sudan’s underdevelopment but did not try to dwell on the role of those who took the responsibility of governing the Sudan after independence in 1956. While appreciating the comment made on Heleta’s paper, one would like to comment on two aspects .One related to some points not mentioned by Heleta on the policies of the British during their stay in Sudan and, the second comment will be as to why those who were responsible for Sudan’s management after independence failed to make Sudan a strong state.

First while agreeing on a lot of what has been mentioned by Heleta on the policies of the British and their legacy, many other policies were undertaken which precipitated the underdevelopment of the Sudan and also made it very difficult for those who took the helm after independence to carry on. As correctly mentioned although Egypt had taken part in the reconquest of the Sudan, yet it had no influence on the course of events that took place in the Sudan. This is so because Egypt itself was under the control of Britain. The projects undertaken in Sudan by the British Administration were themselves mostly financed by the Egyptian taxpayer rather than from the finances of the British Empire ( See M.M.Mekkawi 2004).Moreover, the British adopted a financial and trading policy that insured that Sudan’s export earning were always more than the value of its imports. To do that there were adopted restrictions on the consumption levels in all the country so that peoples’ expectations will not convert themselvesf into importation of many goods needed by the people. Sudan used to export what it did not consume and imported what it did not produce and hence the use of foreign exchange. The level of development was extremely low. The major concentration of the Administration was on the production of Cotton and importation of restricted necessities. When there was a surplus in the balance of trade it was kept in Britain. Such accumulated surpluses constituted what used to be described as the Sterling Balances which were transferred back to the colonies after they got their independence. Another kind of restriction was absence of imported private cars and instead installing the electric Tram and buses to stop individuals from importing private cars. Cotton was grown in the Gezira and used to be shipped to feed Lancshire mills. Even when such Cotton was converted into textiles there was no importation of textiles because it might have raised the level of imports and therefore, a possible deficit in the balance of trade for which the Administration would have been held responsible. Instead the British Administration encouraged the local production of Cotton cloth made by traditional looms in Norab area in Northern Sudan. It used to be made for both men and women. The British administrators themselves used to tailor such material because it was made out of Sudan’s Cotton which is very cool in Summer!. After Sudan obtained its independence and got its Sterling reserves accumulated in Britain ,it started freely using such scarce resources on importing all that it needed, Cars, Textiles, Trucks etc. This led quickly to the depletion of such scarce resources. It also gradually led to the disappearance of the beautiful locally made cloth in Norab and also the disappearance of the Tram until today! The Tram which is still roaming many streets of modern Europe.

Another important aspect during the period covered by Heleta is what used to be called the Closed District Ordinance 1925.This Ordinance had a detrimental effect in deepening Sudan underdevelopment since it had to do with restricting the movement of people between the various provinces and regions. The Southern Region was completely cut of from the rest of the country and de-Arabized not only because it was not ready to take its own responsibility but because the imperial design was to have the Southern Region to be part of Greater East Africa (Hazelwood).The Ordinance was also meant to keep the various other regions at bay. As for the Western Region, the British had definitely a vendetta with Sultan Ali Dinar who was in full control of that region. The British were not able to have control on it except after 1916 when they were able to defeat Ali Dinar. The second is that the Mahdi was able to trap and kill General Hicks in Sheikan in the Western region, in addition to the killing of General Gordon in the siege of Khartoum. Therefore, the Ordinance was not only meant to keep people at bay to protect the production of Cotton and the smooth shipment of such Cotton to Lancshire, but in a subtle revenge to the killing by Sudanese of two great British generals. That is why when the Sudan obtained its independence it inherited a very unbalanced ,underdeveloped country. Such unbalanced development was very obvious from the National Census and the National Accounts prepared in 1955 by the Department of Statistics and published in 1955/56.It was carried out by very able statisticians such as Harvey and Kleve. Such data showed a very striking difference between the various regions. The Central Sudan being the most developed since it was where Cotton used to be grown .Also and because of the Ordinance, there was a very low level of movement between regions. In 1968 it was estimated that about 53 % of the population in the Three Towns came to it after independence.

Another aspect was that the internal saving level was very low if non-existent and the country depended on its revenues from taxation on international trade. These together with the meager internal taxes( Ushur,Poll tax, Animal tax etc.) constituted the revenues of the colony. It is actually after a surplus is realized between expenditure of the running of the colony and the revenues thus collected, that such surpluses were spent on what they used to described as the development budget. The level of expenditure on public services was relatively low.

This leads us to comment on the second point as to why those who took charge of the Sudan at the time of independence failed to make Sudan a strong country? This question has been left out by Heleta maybe reserved for a coming study, but one shall try to say what one thought about this failure. The British were able to run the country from 1898 until independence because the Administration was a unified whole with a very clear imperial objectives which it had to fulfill. Aside from keeping the spread of Mahdism Southwards, the intention was to pacify the Sudan and create a meaningful activity to sustain its people and also undertake the production of a raw material that Britain mills needed specially after Britain lost its source of raw Cotton from the USA because of the Civil War at that time. Therefore, through various mechanisms they were able to settle down in Sudan and run the show as one single hand all orchestrated by the Governor General from Khartoum. The Governor General used to have his monthly meetings for all those in charge of the provinces in which all issues related to the development or more correctly its underdevelopment and decisions used to be taken after intensive discussions. The files of such meetings have not yet been researched because they tell how the Administration was able to run Sudan all these years for the sake of their imperial objectives. In addition to the system of indirect rule which was referred to by Heleta and which was very effective since the British were able to institute a veil between them and the Sudanese in general. They were also able to institute another kind of veil between them and the small Sudanese businesses and traders. This was done through instituting branches of British banks as well as companies. Under them came the various companies established by the various foreign communities such as Greeks, Italians, Syrians, Indians ,Armenians and Jews. The last layer was the Sudanese businessmen and traders. In this way the Administration was able to insulate itself from Sudanese businessmen and traders. They were even suspected that they had their sympathy with those nationalist Sudanese and parties. This oneness of purpose by the British was greatly missed after independence when the Sudanese political parties took over responsibility.The imperial objectives were not converted into national Sudanese objectives. The divisions between the religious leaders and tribalism that was partly encouraged and instituted by the British as mentioned by Heleta as well other factors specially the revolt by the Southerners in 1955 in complete distrust of the North ;such factors started to complicate the political space. Since then Sudan was never able to have enough time to think about Sudan’s development. Out of 52 years of rule in Sudan about 36 years were comprehensive rule. Sudan alternated between military ,popular revolts and democratic regimes. With each alternation Sudan’s economy as well as Sudan’s Civil Service which was supposed to manage the country suffered an outflow of able technicians . They left to the Gulf countries and Europe helping in developing countries other than their own.

The South remained in bad shape and the other regions such as the West, the East and even the North were greatly left out of any meaningful development. This is because whatever development that was instituted had to take place in the already most advanced regions of the Sudan mainly the Central areas. Even the Southern issue was much traded with whether by the political parties or by the military in the North. There is more to be said that the responsibility of Sudan’s underdevelopment has its roots in the colonial legacy of Britain and which constituted a real impediment to development after independence, yet we remain responsible for the 52 years after independence during which we were not able to make the Sudan a better place where every citizen irrespective of colour or creed could have found a decent place under the Sun .

However, the last 18 years had witnessed considerable changes specially the policies of economic liberalization , the opening up of the country as well as exploitation and export of oil in 1999, for the first time in Sudan’s recent history. The export of oil was a good factor in bringing peace to the Sudan. Such a peace had ended 22 years of civil conflict between the North and the South in the form of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). This was followed by another agreement in Abuja to solve the problems of Western Sudan as well as solving the problems of Eastern Sudan. This kind of piecemeal solutions was compounded by the problem of Darfur which started in 2003 and culminated in the internationalisation of the issue such that Sudan became a subject of continuous mention in the international media. On the top of that the USA and the West are in consistent tug of war with Sudan specially the USA which has been boycotting and applying economic sanctions on the Sudan for nearly a decade.Still it could be fairly said that there is still too much dominance of politics in Sudan that tends to overshadow any positive development that had taken place. This issue will be taken separately in more depth in another article.

" Lo. Allah changeth not the condition of a folk until they change that which is in their hearts" The Quran

The writer is Professor of Economic, Faculty of Business Studies Sudan University of Science and Technology. He is also Editor of www.sudanfinancialtimes.com. He can be reached at aliabdalla.abd@gmail.com.



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  • 9 February 2008 18:44, by RASFranzen

    Dear Professor,
    I understand that you are an economist, not a historian and thus unfamiliar with the sources. But actually the British were largely following the steps that the last khedival Gouvernor/Mudir, Dr Emin Pasha, was already taking to protect the native Africans of his province from enslavement and exploitation.
    If you read his diary, you will find that he had to free slaves all the time and send rotten elements North.
    As Emin’s situation was a cause celebre’at the end of the 19th century, becase he was actually a German claiming to be a Turk and well connected in the scientific community, at least Schweizer’s edition of his diary was also published in English and should thus be available to you.
    The root causes of the North-South divide in Sudan is not british policy, but the continuing exploitation of the Natives by the Nubians/Dongolans.
    Emin Pasha went so far, as to say that without the warlikeness of the Dinka, the South would have been depopulated, before Baker, Gordon and he himself could curb that slavery business.
    best wishes
    Soenke Franzen

    repondre message

    • 17 February 2008 12:40, by Kizzie

      How are Nubians not considered natives? They’ve lived in the Sudan since the begining of times!

      It is absurd to make such hasty generalizations and differentiate between the natives and the nubians and other Sudanese.

      We need a national identity

      View online : nubians are natives

      repondre message

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