Book Review: “Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity” by Mahmood Mamdani

400000000000000901827_s4In many cases in Africa today, political conflicts are debated through language of citizenship  and language of culture; the former defending equal rights of “settlers” and the latter defending traditions of the “natives”; both contesting access to land, resources, and power. In “Define and Rule,” Mamdani questions the very definition of “native” by exposing the theory of “nativism” as a creation of intellectuals of Empire in crisis. Mamdani argues that “native” as political identity was produced by the theorists of British colonialism who were faced with the crisis of the 1857 uprising in India.

It is generally held that the roots of current political conflicts in Africa are traced back to colonial policies. Nonetheless, these policies are commonly expressed with the phrase “divide and rule” denoting that colonialists created divisions as a strategy to debilitate resistance within their colonies. However, from “Define and Rule” we comprehend that defining subjects first and foremost was in the core of dividing them. Mamdani historicizes the political legacy of colonialism and discusses the historical dynamics that produced indirect rule and, more importantly, the intellectual endeavors that justified it. Indirect rule’s goal was to stabilize colonialism through fragmenting colonial subjects in administrative units. Mamdani maintains that the shift from direct to indirect rule represents a shift from an assimilationist colonial scheme that focused on the elites of the colonized to a project of shaping and managing differences in both society and polity focusing on the conquered masses.

The book is structured to present the theory that informed colonial indirect rule and the historical circumstances that produced it, the enactment of this theory in Sudan, and the intellectual and practical antidote represented respectively by the Nigerian historian Yusuf Balla Usman and the Tanzanian leader Mwalimu Julius Nyerere.


As a legal anthropologist, Henry Maine was the most prominent among those who debated the reasons of the mid-nineteenth-century crisis of the British Empire. The product of his contemplations was creating the “native” as a political identity.  His argument was that the Utilitarians were mistaken to ignore the historicity and the agency of the colonized if they were to institute a durable colonial project. To make his point, Maine created a conceptual binary in which he distinguished between the West and non-West. The former was progressive and was to represent universal civilization and the latter was stationary and was the custodian of custom. According to Maine, only the West could claim this universality because of its experience going under Roman rule through which reason was emancipated from culture producing abstract law. He argued that legislation and sanction is peculiar to modern political society while habitual observance defined natives’ communities. Thus, Maine’s thesis was based on a distinction between “customary laws” and “modern law”. In this conceptual binary, Maine distinguished between the settler who is modern, and the native who is not. He claimed that history defined the settler while geography defined the native.   Based on this model, the goal of British colonial rule was set as “conservation/protection” replacing “civilizing mission” and “order” instead of “progress”.


Mamdani’s thrust is that Maine’s thesis was a theory of history as well as a legal theory going in hand in hand: if writing about the past is the domain of history, shaping the future is the domain of law. For Maine, as Mamdani explains, the target is the durability of colonial rule. Hence as a theory that Maine espoused for stabilizing the empire, nativism’s practical counterpart was founded on three institutional pillars: (1) a historiography that racialized and tribalized colonial subjects (writing history), (2) a census used as a colonial technology (forging the present), and (3) laws (shaping the future).

The key to mapping the population, according to Mamdani, is deciding on the categories around which to organize society. In Africa it was race and tribe; race is the category of “non-native” and tribe is the category of “natives”. Hence, based on “origin”, the state institutionalized the race-tribe divide within the single category of the colonized, disregarding other characteristics such as residence.

Mamdani suggests that indirect rule should be understood as a new form of governmentality that shapes and manages (and sometimes creates) difference. Indirect rule enforced identity from above through law and the language of pluralism; hence it is crucial to understand the relation between law and subjectivity. Through law, group identities were imposed on individual subjects thereby institutionalizing group life.


Mahdiyya: Led by Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Abdullah, the Mahdiyya was a massively successful revolutionary movement. It mobilized Sudanese populations against the Turco-Egyptian rule (1821-1885), which was backed by the British. Darfur and Kordofan became the fortresses of Mahdiyya movement and its Sufi order – Ansar – in Sudan. As a trans-local and trans-ethnic movement, Mahdiyya forged the political identity of northern Sudanese. The movement decisively defeated the colonial forces shaking their power centers and established a national state (1885-1898).

Mamdani argues that in the history of British colonialism, Mahdiyya must rank second, after 1857 India, in the hierarchy of anti-imperialist movements that shook the very foundations of imperial rule. It led to the enactment of lessons learned from India in Africa starting with Darfur.

In the Kingdom of Darfur, before Mahdiyya, four institutions provided the foundation of its centralized authority and detribalized its land-based power. These institutions were Arabic as the court language, Islam as the court religion, a highly organized army and administration, andHakura as an estate system that granted land rights to individuals. The kingdom was a cosmopolitan society with elites and a diverse population, and the king made demands upon all impartially. The Mahdiyya continued this process of detribalization effectively. In fact, the great social achievement of Mahdiyya, as a movement and a state, was its profound assault on chiefly/tribal power through jihad which shook chiefly power from below, the highly centralized autocratic state challenged chiefly power from above, and the recruitment of army created large movements and much dislocation of people. The Mahdiyya was extremely hostile to political and administrative organization along ethnic and tribal lines. Hence, Mahdiyya profoundly disrupted tribal life in Sudan (Mamdani 2009).

British colonialism, as Mamdani suggests, understood that Sufism heralded an egalitarian revolt (the Mahdiyya) against authority; the center of that revolt was Darfur. Therefore British colonialism transplanted its lesson from India and forged a counterrevolutionary agenda to reorganize power and society by retribalizing them. The political objective was to reorganize colonized populations around narrower identities. Consequently, British colonialism defined the population in Darfur as native tribes and a settlers’ race (Arabs).

Historiography: The racialized colonial historiography of Africa is that Africa was civilized from outside by light-skinned immigrates. This is called the Hamitic Hypothesis.  In Sudan, the natives are black; Africans, primitive and indigenous and the non-natives are light-skinned, Arabs and settlers. By asserting that Sudan’s history before colonialism was an interaction between settler and native races, where Arabs were the settlers subjugating and civilizing non-Arab natives, British colonialists laid the foundation for the Sudanese version of Hamitic Hypothesis.

Mapping the distinction between settlers and natives became official, from administration to law to writing history. Native tribes would be treated preferentially and non-natives would be discriminated against in access to land, settlement disputes, and participation in governance.

Hence, colonial power reversed the detribalization started in Darfur Kingdom and continued by Mahdiyya by dividing the basis of Mahdiyya into natives and settlers and by turning the tribe into authentic political identity and a basis for discrimination.


Mamdani discusses the writing of the Nigerian historian Usman who challenged colonial historiography and the Hamitic Hypothesis. Usman also deconstructed key ethnic and racial categories and questioned the notion of “traditional” communities. Also, Mamdani provides Nyerere, the president of Tanzania (1961 -1985), as an example of political decolonization. Nyerere pursued a state-building project through which he reformed indirect rule effectively. He provided a non-violent fashion to decolonize the African state through a unified legal system and a centralized administrative apparatus.

An interesting point about the colonial project of shaping and managing differences is the double-layered subjectivity it created by which British colonialism masked itself as a subjugating agent. That is, British colonialism removed itself as an actor in the oppressive scheme when it defined the colonized in terms of “primitive natives” and “civilized non-natives.” It subjugated both “natives” and “non-natives” yet created the illusive notion that “natives” were/are subjects of the “civilizing” impact of “non-natives.” “Non-natives” conquered “natives” according to the colonial notion. By doing this, British colonialism obscured its role as perpetrator; it displaced its responsibility of conquest and subjugation and placed it on a subject group. Colonial subjects, “natives” and “non-natives,” embraced this false notion because, I think, it credits both of them. “Natives,” based on the colonial notion, view themselves victimized by “non-natives” thereby rendering themselves virtuous and innocent sufferers worthy of salvation. “Non-natives”, on the other hand, embrace the colonial notion because it gives them the merit of being the civilized who played a historical role of ameliorating “native” lives. Colonialism, however, while disguising its subjugating role, accentuated its role and mandate of “law and order.” This rendering has descended in today’s political strives and can be charted in two points.

First, “The language of analysis, accusation, and victimization is centered only on local actors: Arabs versus Africans, Hutu versus Tutsi, etc. “Natives” antagonizes “non-natives” as conquerors while the historical role of superpowers in these conflicts has been obscured. For instance, Britain, like other previous colonial powers, overlooks its historical role in Darfur crisis while presenting itself as a mediator, peace-maker, donor, etc., this time espousing “humanitarian” discourse instead of the “law and order” of yesterday. Thus, if defining subjects during colonialism created animosities between colonial subjects and sowed the seeds of today’s conflicts, obscuring colonial powers’ historical role secured its “humanitarian” role today in these conflicts

Second, since “natives” have been rendered victims, their use of violence has been permanently justified. They can commit atrocious crimes with impunity as long as they do not go contrary to superpowers’ interests. On the other hand, the involvement of “non-natives” in any form of violence is constantly interpreted as a continuation of their historical “conquest” endeavors regardless of context. Thus, “natives” and “nonnatives” are suspended in perpetual portrayals of victimization and perpetration; disregarding contexts, trading places, historical developments, and facts. “Natives” become eternal victims of interminable conquerors– (“non-natives”). This interpretation robs “natives” from agency in history while delinking conflicts from historical facts.

Moreover, the book reveals how colonialism molded the ways colonial subjects view themselves in theory and how that is translated in political conduct. In regards to Sudan, Mamdani has refuted the Sudanese version of Hamitic hypothesis disproving the assumption that migration explains Arabization in Sudan (Mamdani 2009). He explains that there is no history of Arab invasion in Sudan and there is no single or an overarching history of Arabs in Sudan. He elaborates that Arabization was associated with Arabic’s status as language of official administration, law, commerce and religion rather than with the weight of Arab migrants. However, most Sudanese, including academics and intellectuals on all sides of political struggle, hinge on colonial historiography of Sudan in political debates and political conduct.

Also, in Sudan, native administration is still widely regarded as authentic, traditional and pre-colonial institution. However, there were two attempts to reform indirect rule in postcolonial Sudan; both failed. The first one, under Nimeiri’s regime in the 1970s, lacked the local democratic base and augmented despotic power in the center. The second, under current government in the 1990s, left the whole structure of native administration intact and tried to realize justice through land (dars) redistribution, thereby escalating tribal conflicts triggered by environmental crisis.

Additionally, education was one of the cultural technologies used by colonialism to form a conceptual map of Sudan by identifying a people with a place, space and ethos (Sharkey 2003).  Strikingly, such false notions are still taught in Sudanese schools. For example, in the final year of middle school, it is required to memorize a map of Sudan with the fixed locations or homelands of each “tribe” in the country. Moreover, the current government of Sudan has formalized such notions further when it added, recently, “tribe” to the Sudanese national ID card. Hence, enlightened by Mamdani’s discussion, one is urged to ask: what would such practices do to a society that has suffered tremendously from – and is struggling with – the colonial legacy of reifying culture into political identity?

Thus, based on Mamdani’s illuminating argument, both alternate historiography and new political practice are needed to create inclusive political communities with equal citizenship under unified law. In Sudan, such alternative historiography and political practice need to be accompanied by academic reform. Mamdani’s nativism theory lays the intellectual foundation to address such issues and instigates innovative discussions about nation-building and statecraft in Africa.


Rabah Omer has worked as a researcher in Sudan and South Africa.

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