A Struggling Sudanese Economy – Rooted in British Colonisation?

The last few months have witnessed a social media storm expressing outrage against the violence and killings of protesters who rebelled against the Sudanese government. ‘Blue for Sudan’ was adopted by many social media users, and many changed their profile pictures to blue in solidarity for Mohamed Mattar, a protestor killed in the June 3rd Massacre. The events occurring in Sudan have shocked the world and have since been condemned by Western nations.

How did the April protests begin?

The Sudanese movement originated in response to austerity measures put into place by President Omar al-Bashir, who has since been removed. Following his removal, the Transitional Military Council has taken control of the government and continues actions al-Bashir pursued during his presidency, enforcing curfews and limiting access to media. The worsening political climate is the result of a ‘fragile’ and ‘deteriorating’ economy which has struggled to develop, constrained by a politically and economically unstable environment. Economic growth has been stifled by the constant conflict that  plagues Sudan’s past and present. This situation leads to an important question – can colonisation account for Sudan’s economic uncertainty?

History of Colonisation 

Colonisation left behind a legacy of exploitation and conflict, which has amplified the divisions between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ post-colonial nations. The narrative that ‘developing’ states have been predisposed to fail after independence from Britain has gained momentum in post-colonial theory. British intervention doomed Sudan to failure because of its creation of new borders after its expansion into the Sudan in the 1890s. Despite religious and ethnic differences between Sudan and South Sudan, with the former predominantly Muslim and the latter consisting primarily of Sub-Saharan Christians, the British united the two countries as one nation. Britain’s policy of  ‘divide and conquer’ created conflicts between the two regions, leading to segregationist policies. Because the borders constructed by the British failed to account for important differences among the Sudanese population, they have left the country fractured, leading to civil war.

However, British colonisation cannot be held entirely accountable for tensions between the North and South, as Turco-Egyptian rule over Sudan exacerbated the rift through extraction of resources from the South and the establishment of the North as the administrative centre during the 19th century. Britain also reinforced this with its divide and conquer policy, which further entrenched divisions between the North and South. Britain focused predominantly on the economic and educational development of the North, building technical and primary schools, as well as expanding railway and steamer services. Consequently, the southern part of Sudan was marginalised.

Sudan’s current economic crisis has thus originated from improper use of resources by Northern elites, whose authoritarian rule can be traced back to their empowerment by the British. The divide between Sudan and South Sudan has festered and developed into civil war, which has exacerbated the lack of economic growth. Resources that could have been used for economic development were instead redirected into funding war. Government spending has been primarily allocated towards ‘subsidies, state transfers, and security expenditure’. Loss of life due to conflict and the overall lack of focus on long-term development has left Sudan unstable. The question  of how large of an effect Britain had on the post-colonial Sudanese economy thus arises.

Sudan Today 

Two civil wars later, in 2011, South Sudan regained its independence from the British Empire. The causes of these civil wars are rooted in the ethnic divisions created by the marginalisation of South Sudan. Tensions remain between Arab Muslims and Christians/Non-Arabs.

Sudan has failed to gain a footing in the global economy, as Britain has left a legacy of weak governing institutions and a growing conflict between Sudan and its southern counterpart. Transferring political power to the Northern elites greatly damaged the economy. Sudan’s split from the South has caused many economic shocks, including a loss of three quarters of its governmental revenue in 2011, as the country was reliant on oil revenue generated by the South. It is worth noting that the oil revenue that Sudan’s economy did gain before independence was used by the government to ‘enrich [itself] at the country’s expense’. Additionally, Sudan has experienced consistently high inflation, reaching a staggering 72.94% in October 2018. The economy suffers from an overreliance on agriculture, which is responsible for employing ‘80% of the workforce’ contributing ‘27% to Sudan’s GDP’ in 2015. Moreover, the inefficient use of the country’s resources indicates a clear underdevelopment of the secondary sector and services industry. These factors have meant that Sudan has been limited in economic growth and development.

Has colonisation impacted Sudan today? Can Britain be held responsible for the larger divisions between Sudan and South Sudan? Evidence leans towards Britain playing a role in Sudan’s underdeveloped economy, and a political system that is corrupted and unstable. This is due to the fact that colonisation has left lasting and damaging effects on the Sudanese economy, through the divisions it solidified between the North and the South. This can be clearly perceived through the 2019 protests against the oppressive rule of the former Sudanese president. Though an agreement was reached by the pro-democracy movement and the militia to establish a power sharing government, it remains to be seen if this will bring Sudan more certainty and the opportunity to rebuild its economy.

Yasmin Cheema

Yasmin Cheema is a member of the Business and Economics policy centre’s working group.


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