IN August 1947, in the episodic manner of a flash in a newsreel, the affairs of the Sudan were thrown into the glare of world publicity when Egypt accused Britain, among other things, of depriving her of the Sudan. When the case was being discussed by the Security Council there were certain dark and fine-looking men at Lake Success, speaking excellent English and, with one impressive exception, wearing European dress, who claimed to represent the Sudanese nation and to decide its destiny. Unfortunately they did not all claim the same destiny. There was an Umma Party demanding complete independence, and some parties demanding various degrees of association with Egypt. Spectators whose attention was not immediately monopolized by the next item on the newsreel, Greece or Indonesia, may well have wondered whether a new nation were being born in this obscure part of Africa, and, if so, what were its expectations of success or even of life.

The problem of the Sudan which baffled the Security Council can be understood only with some help from geography and history. Between Egypt and Kenya a vast indeterminate region stretches from the desert of the north through a land of precarious rain-grown crops to the green hills and bushlands of the equatorial belt. The three zones are threaded but not linked by that astonishing trickle of water, the Nile, which goes on to give life to Egypt. Until quite recently this formless region had little history, except perhaps near the rivers, from which seeped some traces of the events in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and Christendom. When, in the later Middle Ages, Arab tribes entered the Sudan and spread into the harsh immensity of the northern plains, they brought religious uniformity but no political unity, and they did not reach the equatorial and Negro south. It was only in the early nineteenth century when a vigorous Albanian, ruling Egypt nominally as viceroy of the Turkish Sultan, led his restless Turkish and Balkan soldiers to easy victory over the disunited tribes and princedoms of the Sudan that the region attained a central, if alien, government. The oppressions of this government and those of its scattered garrisons, and the raiding of the helpless pagan tribes in the south for slaves, became an international scandal. Just when Egypt, herself in chaos and rebellion, fell under the control of Britain as represented by the able administrator, Lord Cromer, the northern Sudanese, under the fiery religious revivalist, the Mahdi, threw off Egyptian rule. This occurred in 1882-1883. To the British it seemed that merely putting Egypt to rights was task enough, and there could be no thought then of a costly reconquest of the misgoverned province. It was in evacuating -- or delaying to evacuate -- the garrison early in 1885 that General Gordon fell to the Dervish spears, and the suspense and anger of those dramatic days burned the name of the Sudan into the minds of the British people. For the next 13 years the Sudan suffered the hard and fanatical rule of the Mahdi and his successor, Khalifa Abdullahi.

But by the middle nineties Egypt was in moderate order, while the scramble for Africa was threatening to break into the great disordered no-man's-land round which Britain, in the name of Egypt, had been drawing purely diplomatic frontiers. Hence Lord Kitchener's expedition of British, Egyptian and Sudanese troops, which worked methodically up the Nile to win the victory of Omdurman in September 1898. It was here that the young subaltern Churchill joined in a rash charge into a gully full of Dervishes and, unlike many of his fellow Lancers, came out alive on the other side.

On the morrow of the battle Britain was faced with a very awkward situation, and the formula she found for meeting it is the one which governs the Sudan problem today. Fact and legal theory were at odds: Britain had decided upon the reconquest of the Sudan and had led the tripartite army, but she had done this as the guardian of Egypt and in Egypt's name. Yet she could not hand back this impoverished country to an Egypt which was under her own control. She was now in an expansive mood and she had, of course, the power to annex the Sudan. But this would have lead to jealous protests from the other Powers, especially from France, whose famous Marchand expedition was at this very moment obliged by Lord Kitchener to abandon the Upper Nile; and, moreover, British anti-imperialists were by no means silent at home. In characteristic fashion, therefore, the British authorities decided that, having for the moment the substance of power, there was no need to question Egypt's legal rights.

The Agreement of 1899 set up the Sudan as a state separate from Egypt, freed from the foreign capitulations which had been the curse of that country. Egypt's former sovereignty and the rights acquired by Britain through conquest and not derived from her undefined control of Egypt were to be combined in a joint rule, or Condominium. The two flags, which can be seen today flying on all public buildings in the Sudan, suggested equal status, but the right to recommend the Governor-General was given to the British Government, and this, coupled with the Governor-General's almost unfettered power, is the keystone of the Agreement. It is one which could work only if one or another of the two nations so widely different in character were unquestionably the dominant partner. As it was in 1899, this Agreement was less between Egypt and Britain than between Lord Cromer and Lord Kitchener. It will be observed that the Sudanese did not, and at that time could not, form a third party. Divided, their own militant rulers defeated and killed, they were passive, in desperate need of peace, order and the good government they had never known.

The British came into this stricken and impoverished country with Egyptian troops and Egyptian officials and, for many years, an Egyptian subsidy to pay for the administration of a poor country further impoverished by its misfortunes. They also brought with them Sayed Ali Mirghani, a holy man of a sect opposed to Mahdism. He had fled to Egypt and was now expected to rally orthodox opinion to counter the zealous but unorthodox revivalism which had swept over so many of the great Beggara cattle-owning tribes of the west. Mahdism, though politically defeated, was still regarded as dangerous and was held in horror by the sedentary and urban classes along the rivers who had gained most from Egyptian rule. For this reason the infant son born posthumously to the Mahdi, who had died at the height of his triumph, was kept under careful watch.


From 1900 until the First World War the Sudan Government went quietly about its task of building a firm, effective central and provisional government. Staffed from the best products of the public schools and the two ancient universities, it was authoritarian and beneficent. Its officers were chosen as much for their all-around record as for brains, and it was a common gibe that the Sudan was a land of Blacks run by Blues. The confidence of the people, relieved from disorder and uncertainty, was quickly won in so far as this can ever be done in a Moslem country by western rulers. Departments proliferated and social services were slowly extended; communications developed and with them trade and production. The Government pushed its fingers southward among the shy, ill-treated pagan tribes and took them gradually, but not always quite peacefully, into its administrative grasp. There was no serious difficulty with Egypt, which was still largely under British control and very much the junior partner: she supplied, as reluctant exiles, the trained and educated junior staff not yet available in the Sudan, and her vital irrigation department, under British direction, exercised an increasingly effective and scientific control of the Nile waters.

The dark Arabs of the north are a virile and dignified people: they accepted the British as agents of a conquering Power who did not abuse their position, and they met them upon a basis of admitted difference in which, thanks to the pride of Islam, there was no servility. Looking back today in the present atmosphere of urgency, it must seem that the British service, braced neither by criticism nor by difficult problems such as those presented in some colonies by immigrant communities, conducted their interesting task in too complacent and leisurely a manner. But this wisdom comes after many events.

The First World War broke across this slow, quiet progress. Its effect was indirect, but it disturbed the delicate equilibrium of the Condominium which rested upon British predominance. The British, intent upon their war with Germany and her local ally, Turkey, used Egypt as a base and a source of labor and supply with too little attention to the susceptibilities of a people stirred into sudden self-consciousness and political ambition by the war and by the new creed of self-determination. Britain even went so far as to declare a Protectorate over Egypt in 1914, and to denounce the lingering, legal suzerainty of Turkey over that country. The end of the war saw the emergence of a nationalist people's party in the Wafd which endeavored to rouse opinion at home and abroad against Britain; and as Britain felt Egypt slipping out of her control she tightened her grasp upon the Sudan, to protect her own interests, but also because she felt that her task there, well begun, was not even half done. It seemed equally impossible to leave the country to itself, or to hand it over to an Egypt under what Britain regarded as factious, irresponsible and Anglophobe leadership.

In 1922 Britain withdrew the Protectorate and recognized Egypt as a sovereign state, reserving communications and defense, and the Sudan, from her grant of authority. The Egyptian politicians attacked these reservations unceasingly; the next two years saw a rapid worsening of Anglo-Egyptian relations, and Egyptian attempts to foment trouble in the Sudan. The murder of Sir Lee Stack, the Governor-General, in the streets of Cairo in 1924, following a violent anti-British press campaign and mutinies in the Sudan among some of the Egyptian and Sudanese troops, roused the British to severe action. Egyptian troops, not without further incidents, were expelled and Egyptian participation in the administration virtually came to an end. But while Egypt's share in the Condominium was thus in practice almost abolished, Britain did nothing to cancel Egypt's legal rights under the Agreement.

From 1924 to 1936 the British administered the Sudan singlehanded. Political instability and excitement in Egypt made it impossible for Britain to come to terms with her, but this period was on the whole one of peace and progress for the Sudan. The new Sudanese political leaders now complain that the progress was too slow, especially in training for self-government and in the closely related matter of education; they accuse the Government of punishing the Sudanese for the sins of the Egyptians by an excess of caution. And it is true that the British moved away from the system of direct rule, under which the Sudanese intelligentsia who were issuing in increasing numbers and at rising standards from Gordon College might have hoped to replace their rulers at an early date in a kind of centralized technocracy, and, drawing upon the example of indirect rule initiated by Lord Lugard, began to develop rural local government upon the long-neglected basis of tribalism.

The reversal may have been too sudden and too sharp. There was, and is, a great contrast in the way of life among the scattered, semi-nomadic peoples in the northern plains and the sophisticated, professional, mercantile and wage-earning groups in the four or five main towns, and especially in the large population of the three towns, Khartoum, Omdurman and Khartoum North, which have grown up at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles. Here men read newspapers, attend cinemas and football matches, listen to the Egyptian wireless and discuss politics ardently in coffee shops. When the writer visited the Sudan in the years before the war and attended meetings with the young intelligentsia, there were fierce denunciations of the "African colonial policy" by which, the Sudanese said, their progress was being barred and tribal disunion fomented. By that date, however, the Government was already moving toward a broader and more balanced encouragement of a true local government on patterns which varied for large and small towns and for rural areas, and was speeding up the process of Sudanization of the civil service.

Economically, except for the universal slump in the middle of the inter-war period, the country made fair progress in spite of the great difficulties of economic development. Outstanding in boldness and imagination was the so-called Gezira scheme by which the waters of the Blue Nile were dammed at Sennar to irrigate nearly a million acres of land by natural flow. This land is farmed by a partnership among the 20,000 native tenants, the Government and a commercial company -- the Sudan Plantations Syndicate -- who divide the profits upon a 40-40-20 percentage. The country's revenues have benefited greatly from the export of the cotton thus grown, and the whole country has gained from the production of a large, assured grain crop in a land often afflicted by drought and famine. It is worth noting here that this large scheme is due for nationalization in the near future.

In 1936 a temporary political stability in Egypt under the Wafd and the leadership of Nahas Pasha, in combination with the darkening world situation, at last brought the Condominium Powers together. A Treaty of Alliance was signed which modified the British military concessions in Egypt without abolishing them, and in other ways met Egypt's heightened sense of national self-respect. The Agreement of 1899 in regard to the Sudan was confirmed, but it was agreed that Egyptian as well as British officials could again be appointed when Sudanese were not available. Egyptian troops were to return to the Sudan. (The writer watched the first of these march into Khartoum shortly afterward through silent crowds.) In recognition of the changed political atmosphere, there was a clause in which the parties agreed "that the primary aim of their administration in the Sudan must be the welfare of the Sudanese."


This treaty led to the first strong, overt expression of Sudanese nationalism, which for years had been developing among the few townsmen who possessed some western education. The public recognition that, in the absence of any constitutional means of expression, the treaty settled the destiny of the Sudanese without any reference to their views, caused an outburst of protest. Several newspapers sprang into existence, some of them ephemeral and nearly all of them bitter in tone. The "Graduates General Congress," formed of educated, politically-minded elements, came into being, and, claiming to speak to the Government on behalf of the whole of the Sudan, demanded a legislative assembly, a Sudanese nationality and the right to self-determination. But by this time Britain was at death-grips with the Germans on the borders of Egypt and was in no mood to be patient with this narrowly-based, inexperienced and self-elected body of leaders. Rebuffed, the moderates began to lose control, and membership of the Congress was widened to include Sudanese with any claims to literacy. More ominously, the Congress leaders, informed that they did not represent the people, turned to the two religious figures who divided between them the allegiance of the great majority of the Moslems, and thus infused politics with the sectarianism of the masses and divided their own ranks. One of these holy men was Sayed Sir Ali Mirghani. Pious, aging, delicate and retiring in disposition, he had neither desire nor capacity to lead a political party, but as a rival to the other outstanding religious leader, he became, inevitably, the symbol round which opposition was grouped. On the other side stood Sir Abdel Rahman el Mahdi, the Mahdi's son, who had by this time become a great public figure, winning his way by his moderate and astute political leadership and the great wealth he had amassed from growing irrigated cotton.

So long as the war lasted, the political situation was overshadowed by the country's danger: the Sudanese showed great loyalty to the Government and complete social discipline, while the fighting men lived up to their magnificent reputation. In 1944, in order to meet the pressure of the political groups and obtain an expression of opinion and support from the moderates, the Government set up a nominated representative Advisory Council for the Northern Sudan. By the standards of the British colonies this was a belated and limited gesture, but the difficulties between the Condominium Powers had until then seemed to preclude any important constitutional innovation. Staffed in the main with moderate and experienced professional men and the more intelligent Nazirs (or chiefs) of the major tribes, this Council, which met in the Governor-General's palace, was a dignified, useful but not very lively body. It was, of course, derided by the younger politicians and editors.

These and many other Sudanese waited with impatience for the peace which they hoped would bring political emancipation as a reward for their honorable record in the war. They were, however, obliged to wait with growing excitement and a sense of frustration as, in 1946, their co-rulers entered into prolonged negotiations for the revision of the 1936 treaty, at the request of Egypt. Excitement reached a dangerous height when, after a treaty had been drawn up and initialled by Sidky Pasha and Mr. Bevin, the former was credited in the Egyptian press with an interpretation of its Sudan clause to the effect that "Britain has accepted the unity of Egypt with the Sudan under the Egyptian Crown." This statement caused an outburst of anger, especially, of course, from the Umma Party. When the treaty consultations had begun the members of this party had tried to coöperate with the parties which had grouped themselves round Sayed Ali Mirghani; these parties used the slogan "the unity of the Nile Valley," and hoped to gain from Egypt the self-determination which they seemed unable to wrest from the British. The two groups sent a joint delegation to Cairo to represent Sudanese views, but it soon broke up, for the Umma Party rejected Egyptian sovereignty with growing vehemence and, while claiming complete independence, was willing to accept the help of the British in achieving it. The other group, which appeared to comprise most of the urban, educated and trading classes, grew increasingly alarmed at the idea that Britain might relax control in favor of a Mahdist régime; they retained alarming memories of rough tribal tyranny which such a régime had exercised over the riverain groups. It was this fear, rather than any desire to exchange British for Egyptian control, which drove them deeper and deeper into the Egyptian camp. Tribesmen who knew little of politics or constitutional problems responded at once to religious sectarianism, and Mirghanists, claiming to be more orthodox, inevitably took the opposite side from the Mahdists, with their taint of heresy and their unfortunate historical associations.

In order to avoid disorder and factional fights, Mr. Attlee made a reassuring declaration about continuing the status quo in the Sudan; but this still further infuriated the Egyptians, and in July 1947, Egypt took her conflict with Britain to the Security Council. There the question drained away in a waste of arguments and inconclusive resolutions. The central point at issue was whether Egypt would accept Britain's demand, made in conformity with the tradition of the British Empire, that the Sudanese must be left free, when the time came, to decide for themselves whether to remain under Egyptian sovereignty or to be independent. Egypt refused to grant this demand.

The result was not, however, altogether sterile. The Sudan Government, which through its Governor-General, General Huddleston, had stoutly upheld to the British Foreign Office the Sudan's right to self-determination, decided to take a further step toward the attainment of that objective. It therefore set up an unofficial conference, mainly of experienced Sudanese officials, to discuss the form of a new constitution. This Constitution was put into legal shape and passed unanimously by the Northern Advisory Council, predominantly Umma in composition, in March 1948. The writer attended the debates. Neither the Sudanese nor the senior British officials who led the proceedings were highly experienced in constitution making, but together they hammered out a system on the British parliamentary model in an atmosphere of great good will, the Sudanese requesting and receiving a number of concessions.

In order to keep within the four walls of the 1899 Agreement, the conference retained in the Constitution the large powers of the Governor-General; but these are intended to be kept in reserve. The Constitution departs from the usual British colonial model by setting up a large representative assembly of nearly a hundred members. Ten of these are directly elected in the six major towns, where alone the people were considered ready for the ballot box. Another ten are nominated to represent special interests such as labor, journalism, etc. Fifty-two are elected in rural constituencies in the north by a process of indirect election -- a controversial point, since the tribes are still inevitably dominated by their Nazirs and Modas (sub-chiefs), who are still largely dependent upon government support and draw official salaries, and, moreover, the chiefs themselves may stand for the elections which, not surprisingly, they win. With great difficulty, the Government decided to include 13 representatives of the Negro south, as these pagan and newly Christianized people are very much more backward than the Moslem northerners who once raided them for slaves. At present, representatives of these primitive tribes are selected at provincial councils, since any form of election would be meaningless to them.

Finally, there are some 20 members of the Executive Council and the Under-Secretaries. Like the British Cabinet ministers they sit in the chamber and, like them, they are chosen by the Governor-General in consultation with the leader of the Assembly who, in the Sudan, is elected by that body. In addition to the leader, at present a retired Sudanese army officer who commands confidence by his fine record and integrity, and who is also the secretary of the Umma Party and Minister for Agriculture, there are three Sudanese Ministers, one for Education, one for Public Health and one without portfolio. These four men sit in the new Executive Council with two of the Sudanese Under-Secretaries, those for Irrigation and for Economics and Trade. The British members of the Council are the three senior officials, the Secretaries (Civil, Financial and Legal), and the military commander, all four sitting ex officio. The British head of the Sudan Plantation Syndicate, nominated on personal grounds, and the Director of Economics and Trade have been appointed Ministers Without Portfolio. There are thus six British and six Sudanese members, a proportion laid down in the Constitution. The Council meets, like the British Cabinet, in private but it is no secret that its proceedings have been wholly constructive and amicable and that there has been no tendency to division on racial lines.

According to the usual practice in the early stages of British transfer of power, this Constitution gives large functions to the new organs in the full expectation that they will be used constructively. But, in countries where political immaturity, disunion or external interference may cause the new institutions to break down, large and indeed overriding executive and legislative powers are kept in reserve for the Governor so that if a crisis arises he may legally take up again the powers that have been delegated and so preserve law and order. In the Sudan this was made necessary by the continued validity of the 1899 Agreement in which, as we have seen, power is concentrated in the Governor-General's office. In response, however, to both Sudanese and Egyptian criticisms his position has been made less autocratic than in the first drafts of the Constitution. Sudanese criticism has, however, been directed less against these reserve powers, the need for which seems to be widely accepted, than against the methods of election, which are said to bear unfairly against one of the parties.


This brings us back to the main problem of the country. The Constitution has been rejected by the "Unity" parties who boycotted the elections and demonstrated in the main cities against the opening of the Assembly. In this they had the support of Egypt, whose Government refused all requests to coöperate in the creation or the working of the new Constitution. The "Unity" parties are mainly represented in the towns and, in Middle Eastern fashion, in the schools, but they have few able and experienced leaders. The Umma or Independence group, by contrast, although it is based so largely upon the unsophisticated tribes of the western plains, contains some of the ablest Sudanese, men who have literally grown grey in the public service, and who by long and close association with their British colleagues have come to understand the problems and the methods of modern government. Thus the Minister for Education was Assistant Director in that department and has shown himself a most able parliamentarian; the Minister for Health is a senior doctor who comes of a family famous for its public services; the Sudanese Minister Without Portfolio is also Vice-Principal of Gordon College. One of the Under-Secretaries is the son of the Khalifa Abdullahi upon whom fell the mantle of the Mahdi and who was killed by the British troops. These and others now holding senior appointments are men of great integrity and personal charm, well known to the writer and on terms of close friendship with their British colleagues; their wisdom and conservatism are in striking contrast to the intemperance of their opponents and the excitable youths who at intervals parade the streets.

It is still an open question whether the new Constitution will solve the Sudan's problems and become in time a full expression of majority opinion and a center round which the nascent but still deeply divided nation may form itself. The nation has started as well as it could in the difficult circumstances: its simple but dignified buildings, run up in a few months and modelled on the plan of the House of Commons, have been the scene during this spring of debates conducted in English and Arabic in which the Assembly, with its trousered townsmen and its majority of tribal chiefs in the white turbans and flowing white robes, have steadily voted in support of their Ministers and have conscientiously learned, with a Sudanese judge as Speaker, the mysteries of British parliamentary procedure. Most encouraging of all, the black Christian southerners have sent some representatives who have surprised the northern Moslems, not only by their ability but also by their restraint. The writer heard one of them give an excellent speech in English in the course of which he quoted Mr. Churchill in favor of a government which was owned by the people rather than one in which the people were owned by the government. It is believed that the opposing groups are beginning to regret their nonparticipation and that they have been reassured to find that the Assembly, though predominantly Umma, has not fallen under the control of the extreme Mahdists. The Government is anxious to obtain their coöperation, but their demands for more direct elections, for the disqualification of Nazirs for membership and the cancellation of the requirement for two years' residence before election -- all obviously demands of an urban group -- would not be easy to apply at once in the social and educational stage of the Sudan.

Clearly, much depends upon the attitude of Egypt. There can be no doubt that her distraction and failure in Palestine have allowed the Sudan to take a very important step toward self-realization and independence. Possible forms of Egyptian participation under the new Constitution were being seriously discussed in Khartoum only a year ago; today it is already difficult to imagine how Egyptians could be introduced into the new Assembly or Council. Contacts between Egypt and the Sudan are very slight; few Egyptians visit the country, and since cotton is the major export of both countries, trade between them is small. The Nile waters are, of course, an indissoluble bond which demand complex and continuous coöperation of a kind Britain has scrupulously fostered. Yet with the large new plans of extending Nile control to Ethiopia and Uganda, in the interests of both countries, Egypt can no longer claim that she must rule the lands from which she draws her water.

If, however, ultimate strife between Egypt and the Sudan, and between the main parties in the Sudan, is to be avoided, Britain must use all her influence to achieve reconciliation in those two interdependent spheres. The Sudan as it is today has been created in 50 years under British guidance. With dangers within and without, with deep internal divisions, political and physical, with a precarious economy narrowly based on cotton, and now with a venture into parliamentary self-government, there is still much need of protective and educational work by Britain in the Sudan. But if she is to crown the success of her past work she must not only protect the rights of the Sudanese to attain full self-government and make that self-government a constructive and unifying reality, but also endeavor to understand the legitimate interests and natural fears of Egypt. By thus pursuing a policy of harmonization, it may be hoped that Britain can in time transform the now unworkable Condominium into a triple alliance freely accepted by three nations.

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  • MARGERY PERHAM, Reader in Colonial Administration, Oxford University; member of the Advisory Committee on Education in the Colonies; author of "Africans and British Rule," "The Government of Ethiopia" and other works.
  • More By Margery Perham