British Imperialism and the Crisis in the Sudan

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British Imperialism and the Crisis in the Sudan

Whitaker R. Birt

Engr. 297A

Prof. Bruce Lusignan


One of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis is currently unfolding in the Darfur region of the Sudan. For the past 22 months, more than 70,000 Sudanese have been killed, and nearly 2 million people have fled their homes to neighboring countries. This paper attempts to explore this present day civil war and genocide taking place in the Sudan. This is an event of epic proportions that will have vast implications for the future of the country and the continent. Understanding the history of European colonialism in Africa, as focused through the lense of the Sudan, is the purpose of this paper. Primarily, the paper will analyze the history of European imperialism in the region of the Sudan, and attempt to understand how the British occupation of the country provided the framework and foundation for many of the problems today. Furthermore this paper will explore the implications that this genocide will have in the international realm of politics; the lack of media exposure of such an horrific event is another avenue of exploration in this paper.

In present day Sudan the country is divided across political and religious lines that are so deeply rooted that a peace resolution does not seem likely in the near future. The world is simply waiting and hoping that the conflict will be resolved internally without aid from the outside world. The manner in which the world is responding to the conflict in the Sudan is indicative of the manner in which the world has always viewed Africa and its people. Dating back to as early the 1400s the world has always viewed the people of Africa as second-class citizens and have treated them as such. This mindset still permeates throughout the world today, nearly six centuries later and is at the root of the of the present day problems. Primarily the violence and turmoil is concentrated in the Darfur region of the Sudan. It is estimated that 1,000 people are dying each day in the Sudan, and given the apathetic mindset of the world, hundreds of thousands will continue to die if not helped.

The Sudan is home to two civil wars taking place dating back hundreds of years. “The older of the two, pitting the Muslim revels from the south, has claimed 2m lives in the past two decades, and spurred 4m people to abandon their homes.”(Economist 11) Although the two sides in this old war are close to a peace resolution, a new insurgence has begun in the region pitting “Arabs” against the “black Africans”, in an effort to attract peace concessions from the Sudanese government just as the older rebels did years before. An uprising by rebel groups against government targets sparked this new war because they felt neglected by the Sudanese government. But the response of the government to the new revolt falls extremely short of peace concessions, and instead perpetuates an environment of violence, torture and depression. The government has given its own militia, the janjaweed, free reign to pillage, rape and kill black civilians in a futile attempt to squelch the revolt. This can be see as an “ethnic cleansing” in which the government feels that the killings of blacks will hopefully rid the country of the rebels given that the Darfur rebels are mostly black Africans. Thus, the Sudanese government is primarily responsible for the reign of terror being inacted throughout the Darfur region. The government’s janjaweed has instilled a sense of fear and terror among the civilians.

European Imperialism

This paper asserts that European Imperialism is at the heart of the current problems today in the Sudan. The claim is that the imperialistic mindset of the European powers provided the framework and foundation for the violence in the Sudan. The European nations always viewed Africa as a wealth of land and always sought to divide the country and the people. It is this division of the people that has persisted in the Sudan. The burden of the past has shaped the modern Sudan. Primarily, British imperialism in the Sudan created a system of division that is the root of the present day problems. “British imperialism followed its classical policy of divide and rule in colonizing Sudan…These divisions, either introduced or strengthened by British imperialism, have echoed down the years and manifested themselves particularly sharply since the late 1980s.”(Socialist World) To firmly understand the problems today, we must first understand the nature of the system that Britain enacted in the country, and furthermore understand how this system affected the interactions among the people. Sudan was primarily under the control of Egypt until 1882 at which time Britain assumed control over Egypt and likewise, assumed governing power over the Sudan. The Condominium Agreement of 1899 was then formalized and “the Sudan became the first and only colony in Africa with divided sovereignty.” (Khalid 18) The present day conflict between the blacks and Arabs in the Darfur region can be traced to the insurgence of the British Empire in the Sudan, and the northern and southern regional division that resulted. The South was primarily viewed as inferior because it was home to black Africans whereas the Northern Muslims and Egyptian nationalists were protected and entrusted by Britain. Britain allowed the spread of Christianity through the Southern region of the Sudan, while maintaining Islam in the northern region. This religious division, along with the ethnic division has manifested itself today as seen with the violence between the black Africans and Arabs. To further protect the religious identity of the North, Britain banned Christian missionaries from the region in an effort to protect the independence and identity of the people, thus giving them as much autonomy as possible.
“The continuation of the North-Side divide was enhanced by the decision of Kitchener that the Southern Provinces should be permitted to be converted to Christianity, while the Northern Sudan remained Muslim. This led to difference value systems developing which have been at the root of much of the tension and conflict between these regions since Independence.” (Thomas 4)

From the beginning Britain’s motives in the Sudan were to colonize the country by introducing new European technology to an economy that was suffering. But Britain instituted a lopsided system in which the majority of the development and attention was geared towards the Northerners, while the Southerners remained neglected and lacking of Britain’s assistance. “The British justified this policy by claiming that the south was not ready for exposure to the modern world. To allow the south to develop along indigenous lines, the British, therefore, closed the region to outsiders. As a result, the south remained isolated and backward.” By simply allowing the South to exist among the technological innovation of the region, the South was left politically and economically impoverished.

Post British Imperialism

Since the Sudan was granted independence in 1956, only for 10 years has the country been free of civil war and conflict. The violence has resulted in a “lack of infrastructure development, and major destruction and displacement.” Before understanding the current situation in the Sudan, it is necessary to examine the unique history of the country in order to gain an understating of some of the root causes of the violence and turmoil. Since the early 1800’s, the Sudan has always functioned as a country divided amongst its people, and this division has persisted and transformed into the current problems today. The territorial mindset of the inhabitants has produced a rift in the country that has lasted for almost two centuries. Until 1820, the Sudan operated as a collection of small kingdoms, each with their own sovereignty. Then Egypt conquered the country in a futile attempt to unify. The northern part of the country was successfully unified while the South remained separate and independent. “Sudan was proclaimed a condominium in 1899 under British-Egyptian administration. While maintaining the appearance of joint administration, the British Empire formulated policies and supplied most of the top administrators.” For the more than the next 50 years, Sudan primarily functioned as a colony of Britain, and it was not until 1953 that Britain and Egypt reached an agreement that afforded the Sudanese people with autonomy i.e. “self-government and self determination” The Sudan was finally granted independence on January 1, 1956 under a provisional Constitution. However, this sparked 16 years of civil war and violence because having already promised the southern region that a federal system would be created, the new government refused, leaving the southerners without autonomy and power, which is the situation today.
The Nature of the janjaweed

The janjaweed is a government sponsored Arab militia who sole purpose is the systematic “ethnic cleansing” of a region carried out by killing the “black Africans” in the region. The soldiers ride on horseback into village slaughtering men, burning homes, and abducting women and holding them for weeks as sex slaves. The government insists that it is doing all it can to stop the reign of terror of this militia, but the African Union, United Nations, and other humanitarian aid organizations recognize that the government is financially supporting these militia, while allowing them to kill and pillage with impunity. “The Sudanese government has armed, recruited and supported the Janjaweed militias that have participated with government forces and government aircraft in campaigns attacking civilians and villages in Darfur since early 2003.”(Human Rights Watch) Once again, we see how the governmental support of the janjaweed can be traced to the British subjugation of the people in which the Northern government was primarily Arab. Currently, the militia has camps spread throughout the Darfur region and more currently being formed. Organizations have even witnessed that some of the camps are even shared with the Sudanese army.

The rebel militia known as the Sudanese Liberation Army is the only resistance the janjaweed has faced throughout their destructive campaign. This army lacks the financial support and resources to put an end to the janjaweed’s reign of terror. Even still, the army has shown resolve and determination in their fighting.

The Refugees

One aspect of the civil war that is possibly more horrific than the actual killings is the lives that the Sudanese civilians lead after fleeing their homes. Currently more than 2 million have fled their homes resulting from the fighting from the Darfur region, with more than 4 million fleeing as a result of the northern and southern war of the past two decades. These numbers reveal that the conflict in Darfur has the potential to grow to the type of war that has been seen for years between the two regions. The civilians who have fled their homes leave with simply the clothes on their backs since all of the their possessions have been either burned or stolen by the janjaweed. Many of the refugees do not survive the trip to neighboring countries, primarily Chad. These refugees live in terrible and unhygienic conditions in which they lack items like food, water, and other things necessary to sustain a life in these camps there are also “are high rates of malnutrition, bloody diarrhea, and waterborne diseases such as Hepatitis E (Jaundice). Cases of meningitis and polio have also been reported. The risk of a deadly cholera outbreak remains high”(Oxfam News) Even the settled communities along the border where the civilians seek refugees have also been suffering because the populations in these villages have grown extremely fast to the extent the villages are unable to accommodate everyone. There is also increased competition over scarce resources between the settled communities and the dispatched people. “Buying food is becoming increasingly difficult as the price of food in markets soars - the cost of a chicken has risen from 100 to 800 dinars. This is over $3 in a country where most people's income before the conflict was only about $5 a day. People do not know what they will eat next year.” (Oxfam News) Even these refugee camps are still people attacked by the janjaweed. People are afraid to leave these camps for fear of being raped and beaten. More than 80% of the refugees are women and children. “The World Health Organisation reported that between June and August 2004 displaced people in North and West Darfur were dying at between three and six times the rate that is normal for people in Sudan.”(Oxfam News)

Old Civil War

Understanding the older civil war of the past 20 years, which has claimed more than 2 million lives and forced nearly 4 million others to flee, provides insight into the current civil war. This old civil war stems from the British occupation of the Sudan and further reveals that the effects of British imperialism in the country are still being seen today. This war of the past two decades is between the Northerners and the Southerners, which is the direct result of the British division of the people when it first colonized the country. This division and subjugation of the people is still present today and the animosity and hatred between the two regions is much the same as it was when Britain first occupied the country. This civil war began in 1983 and was sparked by President Gaafar Nimeiri’s “decision to incorporate traditional Islamic punishments…into the penal code.”(U.S. Department of State 4), which was many groups found controversial, primarily the non-Muslims. During this time, the people were denied constitutional rights in effort to enforce widespread use of the new Islamic punishment system. In addition, “amputations for theft and public lashings for alcohol possession were common...” (U.S. Department of State 4) Thus the denial of rights and the harsh nature of the new punishment system led to a resurgence of the civil war from 1972 that pitted the non-Muslim southerners against the Muslim Northerners. This is the same religious war that the two sides are currently fighting today. Then in 1984, President Nimeiri made public assurances that his new system of justice would respect non-Muslims and there would be an end to the state of emergency. However, southerners were suspicious of his concessions and as a result, the war continued. This civil war led to outbreaks of famine and drought in 1985, along with civilians protesting increases in price of resulting from the drought and shortages of resources. At this time the country was in a state of chaos which eventually led to coup in the same year that ousted President Nimeiri and instead installed a civilian government in which the constitution of Nimeiri was suspended and citizens were given more rights. However, this new government had many internal problems, and even still, the civil war continued and “during this period, the civil war intensified in lethality and the economy continued to deteriorate.” The continued increase in the price of goods resulted in more riots and more violence between the two regions. Then in the 1991, a new penal code was instituted, the Criminal act of 1991, in which punishments were similar to the Islamic ones first introduced in the constitution of Nimeiri. This new act continued to result in the mistreatment of southerners and did little to end the violence and instead only intensified it. This once again shows that the Sudanese government has continued to neglect the welfare of its citizens by enacting laws and a system that continues to trump the rights of the individuals.

During this year, there have been progressive steps on the part of the international community to end the violence. On Arpil 8, 2004, a cease-fire was signed between the Sudanese government and the two main rebel groups in the North and the South to end the fighting. Although there is still fighting today, the international community is optimistic that there will be peace between the two regions by the end of year. The agreement, similar to the Addis Ababa agreement of 1972 which temporaily suspended the fighting, is aimed to give southerners more autonomy, just as they were seeking 20 years earlier. And this is one step closer to peaceful resolution to the conflict in the western region of Darfur.

World Reaction

We see a government in the Sudan that is doing nothing to end the violence and instead assisting in the raping and murdering of innocent civilians. Just as we recently remembered the 10-year anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, it is imperative that the world react now and assist or the death toll in Darfur may rise to the total witnessed in Rwanda. But during this past summer, there has been some response from the international community to the situation in the Darfur. Primarily, we see the African Union leading the aid mission in the region, with the minimal financial assistance from the European Union and the United States. Since the summer the African Union has slowly dispatched soldiers to the region to protect civilians and the African Union aid workers in the region helping to assist those who have fled and are homeless. There are currently more than 2,000 soldiers deployed in the region, along with the hundreds of aid works, and it is expected that by the end of this November, the African Union mission in the Darfur region will grow to 3,320 people, civilians and soldiers included. Even though the African Union is protecting some of the civilians who have fled, the mission is geared more towards observation and reporting on the violence between the two groups, as opposed to outright military intervention and assault on the janjaweed. The European Union and the United States have also responded by providing some financial assistance to the African Union in the mission. This summer, Congress passed a resolution declaring that the Sudanese government was committing ‘genocide’ in this western region. The House of Representatives approved the motion by the convincing margin of 422 votes to none-and the Senate concurred” (Economist 39)

The United Nations is the one organization in the unique position of affecting the greatest amount of change in the Sudan by imposing sanctions on such goods as oil. The UN can also appeal to the international community for assistance. The role of oil in the conflict is crucial because it is the one good that its extremely important to the economy in Sudan as well as the Sudan’s interactions with other countries. Sudan began exporting oil in 1999 and produces approximately 300,000 barrels per day and it has oil reserves leased to countries as far as China and Canada. The Sudanese economy is highly dependent on the revenue generated from their oil exports, of which provide for 70% of the total export earnings. It is estimated that in 2003, oil production yield $1.9 billion, and estimated that earnings would rise to $2 billion by the end of this year. However, if the fighting continues, then infrastructure in the country will continue to deteriorate and oil production may not increase, and as a result the economy will continue to suffer. It is even been claimed that the violence in Darfur is linked more to money and the and struggle over the oil reserves, some of which are in the southern part of Sudan, as opposed to a simple ethnic struggle between two group. Some organizations say that the situation in the Darfur was sparked by the black Sudanese leaders demanding a share of the earnings from the oil reserves in the western region. “ As with the conflicts of the past twenty years in Sudan the situation in Darfur is not simply a bloody-minded continuation of long-standing ethnic conflict. It is part of a struggle over resources. Claims that uncontrolled rebels alone cause the mayhem are untrue. The victims are pawns in a power struggle over the distribution of the profits from oil and other resources, and the economic advancements they make possible.”(Journal of Socialist) This further shows the dependence that the people have on oil, thus if the U.N were to impose sanctions, perhaps the Sudanese government and the rebels would be more inclined to reach a peace resolution. The U.N has only threatened sanctions on oil, by approving a resolution this past September which said the sanctions would be imposed on the economy if the Sudanese government did not make more of an effort to rein in the janjaweed militia and end the violence. The resolution also calls for an increase in the African Union military force along with an increase in the humanitarian aid as well as an investigation of any alleged reports of genocides activity. The resolution falls short in declaring military intervention against the militia and instead only sanctions, with the African Union force helping to oversee the distribution of aid to civilians who have fled their homes.

Only recently have we seen the international community attempting to intervene in the conflict in Darfur. Although many countries, including the United States are hesitant to respond to conflicts due to stipulations governing international law and genocide and the legal responses that countries have.

“Under the UN Convention on Genocide in 1948, the 127 state signatories undertook to ‘prevent and punish’ genocide defined as ‘acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group’, including the causing of serious bodily or mental harm, preventing births or inflicting conditions calculated to lead to a group’s destruction. States may act alone or call the UN to take ‘appropriate’ measures” (Economist 40)

This is the legal definition of genocide that is stipulated by the United Nations and recognized internationally. The problem with the Darfur situation is that many countries are unsure if the current violence and situation is clearly a genocide. This is because even though the janjaweed have primarily target black Africans, “some Arab groups have also been attacked and some African ones spared.”(Economist 40) Some humanitarian organizations have even argued that the killing in Darfur has not yet met the threshold to be considered genocide. This is primarily why the resolution recently passed by UN called for an investigation into possible genocide acts being committed by the Sudanese government. Even still, under international law, “there is no inherent right of armed humanitarian intervention, event to stop genocide.”(Economist 40). Thus even if the UN does declare that another genocides is taking place in the Sudan, there is no legal right for intervention. A possible legal argument that would justify armed intervention would be precedence, given the UN intervention in past genocides in Somalia and Yugoslavia. In these two cases, the UN intervened to preserve the peace and “stop gross violations of human rights.” (Economist 40), which it could do now but some countries with vested interest in the oil in the Sudan would veto a resolution calling for military intervention. This is why the resolution recently passed only called for a threat of sanctions in order to force the Sudanese government to stop the janjaweed, as opposed to the resolution calling for outright military intervention.

As we look to the future, the outlook does not see positive for the situation in Darfur. Without swift action from the international community, the fighting will continue and innocent lives will continue to be lost. The United Nations is the one organization in the unique position of having the greatest influence in bringing peace in the region. Hopefully by imposing sanctions then the Sudanese government will be more active in ending the reign of terror of the janjaweed militia. If the Sudanese government continually blocks access to the Darfur region, then civilians will continually lack the aid and assistance of humanitarian organizations and many will continue to die of starvation. There is growing optimism that Northern and Southern Sudan will finally reach a resolution by the end of the year. The United States should also take a more active role in providing assistance to the Sudanese people and to the African Union troops in the Sudan. But given that are administration’s foreign policy is more geared towards counter-terrorism, many people see that the situation in Darfur is not an immediate concern. Between 1989 and 1998, the United States contributed more than $700 million dollars to Operation Lifetime Sudan, a relief effort led by the United States. But know under the Bush administration, we have not see as much financial assistance as there was under Clinton. Perhaps the world will have to simply wait and see how the situation in Darfur will unfold.


Anderson, G. Norman. Sudan in Crisis: The Failure of Democracy. Gainesville: University Press of Florida,1999.

Khalid,Mansour. War and Peace in Sudan.London: Kegan Paul, 2003.

Thomas, Graham F. Sudan: Struggle for Suvival. London: Darf Publishers Ltd., 1990.

Voll, John O. Sudan: State and Society in Crisis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

The Economist. 31 July 2004.

“Human Rights Watch.” 27 August 2004.

“Socialist Party.”
“Oxfam News”. November 2004.


“BBC News”.

“U.S. Department of State”. October 2004.

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