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Rift Valley Institute

Making local knowledge work

Britain, Sudan and the “Southern Policy”

Under the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, the South of Sudan was treated very differently to the North.

For Major-General Herbert Kitchener, the British assault in southern Sudan on September 2nd 1898 was an exercise in both conquest and revenge.

13 years after Britain’s Governor-General in Sudan had been killed in Khartoum, this latest operation had involved years of preparation, including the development of both rail and steamship supply routes and extensive training for British and Egyptian troops.

But it was the deployment of the newly engineered Maxim machine gun and the .303 Enfield and Metford rifles that proved to be the truly decisive factor in the massacre that followed.

During the five-hour Battle of Omdurman, 11,000 of the 60,000 Mahdists were killed, and 16,000 wounded. Of Kitchener’s far smaller mostly Egyptian and Sudanese army, only 500 were wounded or killed.

Omdurman was also a crucial moment in the career of Winston Churchill, then a young war correspondent in the 21st Lancers. Kitchener had been against Churchill being dispatched to the Sudan, citing his coverage of the Malakand Campaign in India, and Winston had needed to use leverage from his mother to get him sent to East Africa.

In practice, the Southern Policy only lasted 16 years, ending in 1946, and was interpreted differently by each of the southern provinces.

Aly Verjee acted as the EU’s chief political analyst during South Sudan’s referendum on independence. He was subsequently Acting Chief of Staff in the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission for the Peace Agreement (2015–16) and is now a Fellow at the Rift Valley Institute.

“It is difficult to draw a causal link between colonial policies and the present day,” Verjee tells me.

“But there are clear examples of lingering issues: for example, where borders and boundaries should lie, a subject that continues to be a source of tension in bothSudan and South Sudan. Linguistic, ethnic and tribal identities are not immutable, but in the Sudans, as sadly in so many other places, the instrumentalisation of identity politics has sometimes been more important than the creation of a national identity.”

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