Recent scholarship on ‘neo-traditionalism’ and colonial governance in Africa has challenged assumptions about the ‘invention of tradition’ and the ability of the colonial state to create wholly innovative kinds of local authority. This article explores one episode in the development of the authority of Ali el Tom, probably the most famous ‘traditional’ ruler in Condominium Sudan. It suggests that Ali el Tom's authority was a creole product, which drew on local moral codes and colonial forms of authority, but was not fully part of either. The willingness of his people to accept this sometimes abusive authority relied on a partly illusory sense that it was familiar; but this willingness was not unlimited, and on occasion actions from below set limits to the invention of authority and tradition.
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