A review posted separately of Mahmood Mamdani’s Saviors and Survivors is long enough without further comment on two positions that, however, misapprehend or exaggerate the role that Darfur played in British administrative thinking during the colonial period. These are the centrality of Darfur to the fortunes of the Mahdist cult and its importance in the pursuit of Indirect Rule or “Native Administration”.
Although by all accounts eschatological ideas were given increasing credence among west African Muslims in the nineteenth century, evidence of a west African impetus – whether general or specifically through the mediation of Abdallahi al-Ta’aishi, the future Khalifa – for Muhammad Ahmad b. Abdallah’s manifestation as Mahdi is scant. That, after its initial successes in the east, the Mahdiyya found significant support in Darfur is unarguable. But the Mahdiyya was never a “Darfurian” movement. By the 1920s the province was, however, a bastion of the surviving Mahdist cult, and it figured prominently in the rise of Sayyid Abd al-Rahman, the Mahdi’s son, to a position of importance in the politics of the country as a whole up to and after independence in 1956. It is worth noting that his rehabilitation – with British sponsorship – was already under way when Darfur was annexed in 1916.
Darfur’s role as a laboratory for experiments in Indirect Rule was partly related to the strength there of the Mahdist cult – but only partly. Commentators have tended to emphasize the idea of tribal authority – in a pristine form or revived or even, as some exponents and critics alike put it, “resurrected” – as a bulwark against mass opposition to colonial rule, whether religious or nationalist. In this scheme of things, the enhancement of tribal authority might seal off Darfur from these and other “isms” (even communism). But the most important reason for the formal adoption of Indirect Rule was economic: it was cheap.
The proof of this motive for colonial policy is the fact that Indirect Rule was practiced in fact long before it was adopted in theory. From the beginning of the Condominium (almost twenty years before the annexation of Darfur) rural areas and nomadic tribes were hardly “administered” at all: collective taxation (called “tribute”) was levied, and serious inter-tribal affrays were mediated, but in many places there was little or no other government presence – some areas went years between administrators’ visits. With the conquest of Darfur, it is true, a theoretical apparatus was superimposed on earlier practice, but again even then the practical aspect – Darfur was huge, sparsely populated, and expected to cost more to administer (in any sense of the word) than it could produce in revenue – was most prominent. What the theories of Indirect Rule provided was a fig leaf of high-sounding theory to cover the nakedness of the Sudan Government’s real policy: neglect of the rural Sudan outside those few areas favored for modern agricultural development.
The enthusiasm of many – but not by any means all – British administrators for “tribal authority” in the inter-war period was remarkable for its excesses. But Darfur was not marginalized because of its attachment to Mahdism, it was neglected because it was already marginal.