After the British defeated the Mahdist forces at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 they debated how to govern the Sudan. Prior to 1895 the British government had maintained that the Sudan was res nullius, or ungoverned territory. With control over Egypt and the vital Suez Canal, British politicians believed that it was also necessary to control all of the Nile River upon which Egypt was dependent for its very survival.
The weak Ottoman Empire that ostensibly ruled the Sudan as well as Egypt was powerless to prevent British expansion into the Sudan. Other European powers, including France, Britain’s major imperial rival, were pressured into accepting British domination over the Nile Valley.
After some debate the British decided that annexation of the Sudan was impracticable, and Lord Cromer, who ruled Egypt as consul general, devised a hybrid form of dual government. The so-called Anglo-Egyptian Condominium of 1899 provided that Ottoman rights were recognized but not implemented and, through the right of conquest, Egypt would govern and pay for the administration of the Sudan by the British.
Herbert Kitchener was appointed the first governor-general, and the territory was divided into six provinces administered by British officers. These officers governed territory far larger than Britain itself. The khedive in Egypt had no power over the Sudan, but the Egyptian treasury was held accountable for many of the expenses for governing the Sudan.
The governor general in the Sudan reported through Cromer in Egypt; a fiscal conservative, Cromer attempted to keep the expenditures in the Sudan as low as possible, a practice that caused considerable dismay among British officers in the Sudan.
After Kitchener was recalled to lead troops in the Boer War, Reginald Wingate, the Sirdar, or commander in chief of the Egyptian forces in the Sudan, was appointed the new governor-general; Wingate remained in the position until the middle of World War I, when he became high commissioner in Egypt.
The largest country in Africa, the Sudan was a complex conglomerate of peoples, religions, and languages. The north, with the capital city of Khartoum, was mainly Muslim and Arabic-speaking and was tied culturally and historically to the Arab world.
As the center of government, the north tended to receive more monies for development and education than the more remote and harder to reach southern provinces. The peoples in the southern provinces were ethnically and linguistically tied to other groups in central Africa and practiced traditional African religions or were converted to Christianity.
The deep social and religious differences between the north and the south often broke out into civil wars that continued to plague Sudan into the contemporary era. The political and economic linkage between Egypt and the Sudan that the British had devised also became a major stumbling block in diplomatic negotiations between Britain and Egypt.
Given the major financial contributions to the Sudan by Egypt, Egyptian nationalists, not surprisingly, contended that Egyptian and Sudanese independence were intertwined and that Egypt should have a role in deciding how the Sudan was to be governed.
On the other hand, Britain steadfastly refused to link the two issues. Under the British administration, a separate Sudanese nationalist movement evolved, but Britain did not grant the Sudanese independence until 1956.