‘Lines in the sand’: Britain’s colonial legacy in South Sudan

south sudan ‘Lines in the sand’

To anyone aware of South Sudan and its geography, the imagery I have invoked in the title of this piece may, at first, prove confounding: it conjures up the image of barren wastelands and deserts, stretching as far as the eye can see. By contrast, the country is typified by its lush forests and grasslands, perfect for the nomadic cattle-rearing society for which the peoples of South Sudan are known. The line in the sand to which I refer is further north, to be specific, it is the border with neighbouring Sudan. Between 1899-1956 Sudan existed as a condominium between the United Kingdom and Egypt, though it was in reality under the de facto control of London for the majority of its existence, a fact that cannot be left un-examined when investigating the conflict in South Sudan today.

The people of what was then known as Anglo-Egyptian Sudan were never homogenous (European empires had a particular knack for imposing arbitrary borders all over the world after all); there was a distinctive split in the peoples of the more developed Arabic regions in the north and the nomadic cattle-based society of the south. As such, Sudan proved to be perfect for the implementation of the policy that underpinned the very existence of the British Empire: the concept of ‘divide and rule’.

This was implemented in Sudan under the banner of the so-called ‘Southern Policy’ which saw southern regions separated from the remainder of the state, with the British claiming the south too ‘underdeveloped’ to be opened up to the ‘modern’ world, all the while investing in the predominantly Arabic north. The divergence between the two regions stoked ethnic tensions between the African south and Arabic north, a conflict that would eventually lead to a brutal civil war and the eventual secession of the southern regions to form the new state of South Sudan in 2011.

The concept of ‘divide and rule’ was not simply levelled to impose a distinction between the north and south, but between various tribes as well. The south of Sudan was predominantly inhabited by two tribes: the Nuer and the Dinka. Under the policy of ‘indirect rule’ Britain saw delegated power to hundreds of informal chiefdoms throughout the territory, allowing some to acquire vital interests while other groups remained relatively underprivileged. It is this that sowed the seeds of resentment amongst the various ethnic groupings within the country as they vied for greater influence or access to resources, particularly after decolonisation.

Through its imperial policies Britain sowed the seeds of ethnic conflict within South Sudan; it stoked resentment between tribes and privileged some to the detriment of others, fuelling a tension that has all too often resulted in conflict and bloodshed. This is sadly not an isolated story, it is one echoed across the former colonies of the African continent, many of whom continue to suffer as a result of the imperial project to this day.

Looking forward

As a country Britain has been fundamental in shaping the world, sometimes for the better and other times for the worse. Undoubtedly our colonial past is not one that should be erased from history, to do so would be an insult to those who suffered and who continue to suffer today either as a direct result of colonisation or in the conflicts that spawned from it.

What we can do, however, is take responsibility and take action to remedy our mistakes as a country.

Britain is one of just six countries in the world that meets the UN target to appropriate 0.7% of GDP to foreign aid and has one of the last remaining independent ministries specifically for its deliverance, something that, as student advocates, we should ferociously seek to defend in light of increasing populist rhetoric.

The UK’s international legacy needn’t just be one of ‘lines in the sand’, of conflict and the spectre of empire, but a proud one of hope and progress, delivered through our commitment to international aid – something of which we can all truly be proud.


This blog post was written by James Dane, one of STAND UK’s regional organisers.