This is the first of a series of posts over the next week commemorating the first anniversary of South Sudan’s independence on 9 July. In this post, historian, Douglas H. Johnson looks at how the “Southern policy”, implemented by the British colonial authorities, contributed to the rift between North and South Sudan. This article originally appeared in the South Sudan newspaper, The Pioneer in the August 7-13, 2010 issue.

The “Southern Policy” of the Anglo-Egyptian government in Sudan has been blamed for many things.  Politicians, journalists, and ordinary citizens often claim that it meant that the South was administered separately from the North, that it excluded all Arabs and Muslims and actively eliminated all Arab and Muslim influences from the South, that it created a tribal “zoo” in the South, that it kept the South under-developed.  But just what was the “Southern Policy”, how long did it last, and what was its effect?

Nubian woman in Anglo-Egyptian Sudan

The “re-conquest” of Sudan was undertaken by Britain to re-establish Egypt’s control over its former colony.  The army that overthrew the Mahdist state at Omdurman in 1898 was largely an Egyptian army with Egyptian and Sudanese troops and British officers.  It was the army that provided the administrative structure and personnel that governed the country, with British officers as provincial governors and inspectors, and Egyptian and Sudanese officers as mamurs and sub-mamurs, the local government officials of the day.

In the North, pacification was completed relatively quickly and there was an early transition from military to civil administration, with more civilians – British and Sudanese – appointed to administrative posts.  But in the South pacification took longer.  By and large, Southern Sudanese people did not see the advancing Anglo-Egyptian force as liberators, because they had already liberated themselves from the Mahdist theocracy.  There was a far longer period of resistance to the Anglo-Egyptian government in the South than in the North – in fact, the last pacification campaign in the whole of British Africa was fought against the Nuer in 1927-30.  One result of this was that administration in the South continued to be dominated by the military and military interests until the 1920s.  While in the North, Sudanese were being trained at Gordon College (later the University of Khartoum) for posts in the expanding civil administration, in the South the government decided that it needed only a few “moderately educated Blacks” to fill minor clerical posts and there was very little investment in education.

Two things changed in the 1920s: the introduction of “Native Administration” and the expulsion of the Egyptian army.  Native Administration, or Indirect Rule, was founded on the principle of administering rural areas through customary authorities, using customary law.  This applied to both northern and southern provinces, and while sharia or Islamic law was also applied as family law in the North, local customs within different Muslim communities were also recognised.  In the South, sharia law applied only in those towns with significant Muslim populations, and customary law, applied through the chiefs’ courts, became the basis for local administration.  Already with the introduction of Native Administration in 1921 the role of the mamur was becoming superfluous, but with the expulsion of Egyptian soldiers following the White Flag Mutiny in Khartoum in 1924, and the formation of a separate Sudanese army, the Sudan Defence Force, independent of Egypt, meant that by 1925 the mamur had virtually (but not completely) disappeared from the rural areas.  Those who remained were almost exclusively Northern Sudanese civilians; very few Southerners were recruited into junior administrative posts outside the main towns until much later.

Native Administration, then, was the policy for the entire country.  It meant that rural administration was based increasingly on customary law and vernacular languages.  It was one system, but it allowed for and encouraged the development of local variations.  In the South, this meant encouraging development along local custom which for the most part was not influenced by Islam.  This new system of Native Administration in the South was further reinforced by the Closed Districts Ordinance, first introduced in 1922.  Throughout the British Empire colonial governments imposed closed district regulations on areas allegedly in need of protection from illegal or damaging economic (and sometimes political) activity.  In parts of East Africa some frontier districts were declared closed in order to combat poaching.  In the Sudan, districts were declared closed usually as a means of combating the surreptitious slave-trade that was still being conducted even in the 1920s, and which Egypt and Britain, as members of the League of Nations, were committed to eradicating.  So most parts of the South (Renk District excluded), and some parts of Blue Nile, the Nuba Mountains and Darfur were declared Closed Districts and persons from outside those districts (merchants, hunters, tourists) had to apply for permits to enter.  Movements between districts by local peoples continued to be regulated through the institutions of Native Administration.

In 1930, these different strands of administrative practice were brought together in a policy memorandum issued by the civil secretary (head of civil government) in Khartoum “to build up a series of self-contained racial and tribal units with structure and organisation based, to whatever extent the requirements of equity and good government permit, upon indigenous customs, traditional usage and beliefs.”  In practical terms, this means the continued reduction of the role of the mamur, the use of vernacular languages in rural administration, the development of customary law through a network of chiefs’ courts, and the recognition and definition of specific tribal territories.  It also meant that non-Arab merchants (Greeks, Armenians and Christian Lebanese) were given priority in permits to trade.

The newly articulated Southern Policy was interpreted in different ways in different provinces.  In Bahr el-Ghazal British officials went to extremes in the Western District in creating a No-Man’s Land with Darfur around Kafia Kingi, of expelling certain Darfur peoples, and even of eliminating Arabic personal names.  This exaggerated and heavy-handed application of the Policy went beyond what the civil secretary had intended, and many British administrators in other parts of the South were shocked and appalled.  The example of the Western District of Bahr el-Ghazal has since been cited as typical of the Southern Policy, but in fact it was unique.

The Southern Policy lasted for only sixteen years.  It was abandoned in 1946 when the government adopted the policy of self-government and self-determination for the whole of the Sudan in order to prevent Egypt from asserting its sovereignty over its own colony.  But what was the overall impact of those sixteen years?

Did the Southern Policy mean that the South was administered “separately” from the North?  No.  The Southern provinces were part of the same administrative system as the whole of Sudan, sharing the same administrative personnel, and subject to the same administrative regulations.  The Southern Policy was seen as a logical extension of the principles of Native Administration, based on local custom, and the local customs of most of the Southern peoples were markedly different from the local customs of most Muslim peoples in the Northern provinces.  The Policy allowed for, and encouraged, a wider divergence of customs.

Did the Southern Policy exclude all Muslims from the South?  No.  There were a number of indigenous Muslim communities in the main towns, notably Renk, Kodok, Malakal, Wau, Rumbek and Juba who were unaffected by this Policy.

Were Northern Sudanese completely prevented from entering the South?  No.  Pastoralist peoples such as the Rizeigat, Misseriya, Seleim and Rufa’a continued to cross the border in their seasonal migrations and continued to mingle with Southern border peoples.  Northern Sudanese employed in a number of technical departments, such as the Railways and Steamers, served in the South.  Not all mamurs were removed.  Two of the Khalifa Abdallahi’s sons served as mamurs in Upper Nile.  Ibrahim Bedri, related to the family that founded what became Ahlia University in Omdurman, served as a mamur in Yirol and Renk, spoke Dinka, and trained Southern administrators such as Clement Mboro.  Merchants from major trading houses in the Three Towns also continued to trade in the South throughout the period of the Southern Policy.

Did the Southern Policy keep Northerners and Southerners separate?  Only to a certain extent.  The Southern Policy did nothing to build up a unified corps of Sudanese administrators, trained in the same institutions and serving together throughout the country.  The government’s decision to limit the number of Southerners in the civil service was taken in the early years of the twentieth century, and the Southern Policy did little to reverse this.

Did the Southern Policy keep the South undeveloped?  The Southern Policy was a symptom of the government’s economic neglect of most of the rural areas of Sudan, not its cause.  Other rural areas of the North remained undeveloped under Native Administration.

The Southern Policy, therefore, was a brief episode in the history of British administration of the Sudan.  It may have helped to emphasise the differences between the peoples of the South and the peoples of the North, but it did not create them.  It cannot take all the blame for the civil wars that followed independence.

To learn more about the Southern Policy see Robert O. Collins, Shadows in the Grass: Britain in the Southern Sudan, 1918-1956 (1983), and Lilian Passmore Sanderson & Neville Sanderson, Education, Religion & Politics in Southern Sudan 1899-1964 (1981).