Colonialism and Geopolitical Opportunism: "North Sudan" and the Dispossession of Bir Tawil

By Doctor Comrade

In 2014, an American man named Jeremiah Heaton claimed an area on the Egypt-Sudan border called Bir Tawil and established the kingdom of North Sudan under the auspices of making his then 6-year-old daughter a genuine princess. He planted a flag designed by his daughter and declared the new country as his own. When news of his journey became public, Disney decided to option the story as a feature film. The resultant backlash criticized Disney and Heaton for glorifying whites marching into African territory and staking claims to the land. One of the most common criticisms, and perhaps my favorite, was that Disney’s first movie about an African princess would be about a white girl. 

What Heaton has evidently stumbled into is a highly contested history of European colonialism. Though he has said “Bir Tawil was not a country nor does it have a population…. Basically, colonialism is when one country takes over another for purposes of exploitation of people and resources. My actions do not fit the definition of colonialism in any way. The term for what I have done is establishment of a new nation, something that has not been seen using terra nullius land in hundreds of years.” He added that he has “never viewed the world through any type of racial lens.” About his vision for Bir Tawil, Heaton has also stated, “I’m the visionary. I’m at the tip of the spear who will lead the charge and get beat up.” What I would like to show is that these claims are—whether unwittingly, unconsciously, ignorantly, or purposefully—firmly embedded in a colonialist discourse of European territorial conquest, imperial domination, and racial subjugation. 

Bir Tawil is a region of about 2060 square kilometers on the southern border of Egypt and northern border of Sudan. The area is referred to as terra nullius, Latin for “nobody’s land,” because neither the Sudanese nor Egyptian governments want it. In 1899, the British established the border as the 22nd parallel in the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium Agreement, which would make Bir Tawil part of Sudan. A subsequent administrative boundary was drawn in 1902 that supposedly reflected local land use practices in which Bir Tawil was part of Egypt and a neighboring area called the Hala’ib Triangle, which extends north of the 22nd parallel, belonged to Sudan. In the twenty-first century, both Sudan and Egypt claim Hala’ib, and thus both also disclaim Bir Tawil (though it is technically administered by Egypt). 

However, this nation-centric model obscures some important history. This border dispute is reminiscent of many acts of colonial administration in which land was divided by colonial agents without regard to the local practices or populations. Even the notion that land can be cordoned off, bartered, sold, mapped, and administered is a colonialist discourse about the nature of property. Bir Tawil is noted as having a population of zero inhabitants, which is a European ideal of land usage. In actuality, Bir Tawil is part of the territory of the Ababda tribe of nomads. Despite not having permanent and sedentary residents, Bir Tawil is clearly land that is occupied by the cultural, agricultural, political, and economic interests of indigenous peoples, and therefore any attempts to administrate it as a territory or country encapsulate efforts by colonialists to bring the land under their control. By demarcating and delimiting the land, the British administrators, like in North America or Kashmir or Israel, have not only caused the present conflict but violated the sanctity of indigenous land use. 

This is the situation in which Heaton has inserted himself. By claiming the status of terra nullius, and claiming that “Bir Tawil was not a country nor does it have a population,” he has engaged in the same forms of colonialist discourse that attempted to justify the domination and subjugation of peoples by European powers. As historian William Cronon has observed, claiming that land is not being used, that it is a "wasteland," is a common technique of colonialists who used such notions as justifications for the dispossession of native lands from the people who use them. Moreover, Heaton has claimed that his usage of the land will improve it, and marking African land as the target of his efforts only helps to justify his possession of it under the ideal of progress—making the land usable for Euro-American goals. 

And Bir Tawil does have a population. Just because they are nomads does not mean they do not have legitimate claims to the land. To me, this seems obvious. 

It’s also important to note that Bir Tawil means “tall water well” in Arabic. The land has a locally designated name and a system of local land usage. To call this land terra nullius is an intellectual disgrace propagated by ignorant or malicious journalists, policymakers, analysts, and would-be colonialists like Heaton and his Disney Corp. counterparts. 

Heaton’s quote is also instructive because of his seemingly benign redefinition of colonialism. The concept is more rigorously defined by historian Jürgen Osterhammel as “a relationship between an indigenous (or forcibly imported) majority and a minority of foreign invaders. The fundamental decisions affecting the lives of the colonized people are made and implemented by the colonial rulers in pursuit of interests that are often defined in a distant metropolis. Rejecting cultural compromises with the colonized population, the colonizers are convinced of their own superiority and their ordained mandate to rule.” The strength of this definition is not merely its theoretical tidiness but also its basis in empirical analysis of historical events.  

How did Heaton claim “North Sudan,” and does it conform to this definition of colonialism? 

Heaton says his claim over Bir Tawil is legitimate. He argues that planting the flag — which his children designed — is exactly how several other countries, including what became the United States, were historically claimed. The key difference, Heaton said, is that those historical cases of imperialism were acts of war while his was an act of love.” 

His mandate to rule comes from his belief that his stake in indigenous territory is legitimate because of his love for his daughter, who lives in a distant land. Citing what Native American theological George Tinker calls the historical precedent of genocide against Native Americans, Heaton believes his flag gives him the right to administer this land because of the long European tradition of conquest, when they “stole countries with the cunning use of flags.” And like Queen Victoria, who ruled India despite never going there, little Princess Emily rules “North Sudan” despite her complete lack of physical, cultural, or social connections to the place. Heaton has attempted to engage in diplomatic relations with both Egypt and Sudan (as well as other countries) in an attempt to develop the area, which demonstrates that the decisions made about the land are solely his own and they disregard the land use practices of the local nomads. Despite how development may affect the land, Heaton has unilaterally decided not only that he is the sole arbiter of diplomatic affairs in Bir Tawil but also that he will not take into consideration the interests of the Ababda peoples, who he claims do not exist. In these ways, the decisions made about the lives of the colonized people are implemented by the colonial administrator in pursuit of interests that are inherently Americentric and defined by Americans and Europeans. He has rejected cultural compromises based on the belief that no other cultures have legitimate claims to the land, and therefore his development initiatives and cultural practices are superior to those of the inhabitants of the area. In short, Heaton is engaged in colonialism. 

Heaton even called himself the "tip of the spear," a unsubtle reference to military tactics of conquest and violence. The purpose of a spear is to penetrate an enemy's body from a distance, which serves as the perfect metaphor for Heaton's determined outlook on conquering Bir Tawil. If he believes himself to be the tip of the spear, then he believes he is engaged in a conquest of the land in which he himself constitutes the weapon of penetration.  

Despite Heaton’s “good” intentions, we must call this act exactly what it is: cultural chauvinism under the guise of geopolitical opportunism. What he cannot escape are the historical relationships and discourses in which he is intrinsically participating. He has recently claimed that he plans to administer the land as an experiment in energy efficiency and agricultural innovation. He is convinced that his cultural and technological superiority supersedes indigenous land use traditions that span thousands of years; he is convinced that his “benign” administration of the land will benefit humanity in the long run, using language that is couched in the exact same terminology as those who carried out the Civilizing Mission under the White Man’s Burden (here I think his “tip of the spear” comment is particularly troubling); he is convinced that his Euro-American definition of population, nation, land, and property are superior to the traditions of the people who inhabit the area. 

Heaton denies his role in imperialism because he is working out of “love.” What he cannot deny is his ineluctable participation in a series of colonialist discourses that justify the dispossession of indigenous peoples, domination by Euro-American elites, and subjugation of non-European cultures.