“Native Courts” and the Limits of the Law in Colonial Sudan: Ambiguity as Strategy


  • Funding and support for this project were provided by the Groupe de recherche interuniversitaire en philosophie politique de Montreal and the Interuniversity Consortium for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies. For their valuable comments on earlier drafts of this article, the author thanks Khalid Mustafa Medani, Jacob Levy, and Victor Muñiz-Fraticelli, as well as the anonymous reviewers of this journal.


This article offers a way of thinking about colonial-era legal reform that departs from traditional narratives by highlighting the importance of legal ambiguity in state building projects. Following the establishment of “Native Administration” in the Sudan in the early 1920s, the British colonial government conferred expansive judicial and administrative powers on tribal sheikhs and nazirs (chiefs), while at the same time discouraging many attempts to formalize or standardize those powers, preferring instead that they remain informal and undefined. This policy, which I term “strategic ambiguity,” emerged out of a belief that tribal leaders would be more effective if they possessed maximum discretion and judicial flexibility, even though the result was a colonial government woefully ill-informed about much of its own judicial system. These findings point to a way of thinking about colonial-era legal reform in which governmental ignorance was actually productive of sovereignty, and not an obstacle to it.