9 Mar 2021


South Sudanese Past Notes & Records By Douglas H. Johnson

"For a country with 'no reliable textbook', I wholeheartedly agree with the author that “It is an open invitation to South Sudanese to research and write more about their own past'. It is a must read for Students of History of South Sudan."

Douglas H. Johnson. South Sudanese Past Notes & Records, Africa World Books Pty Ltd, P.O. Box 130 Wanneroo, WA 6065, Australia, 2015, ISBN 978-0-9943631-2-1 paperback, £9.36

A Review By Jacob J Akol*

First published by Sudan Studies for South Sudan and Sudan, Number 62 July 2020 

This book, “dedicated to South Sudanese historians, past, present and future”, has a foreword by the eminent South Sudanese writer and scholar, Prof. Taban lo Liyong, who asked two pertinent questions: “…in the writing of history, our history, have we got native sons and daughters who have become authoritative? The answer is resounding No! In the collection of archival materials that had been so painstakingly collected together, chiefly by Douglas? No”.

Professor Liyong also pointed out, quite rightly, that the problem of “reading documents about our past but not being able to understand them properly (is) because we lack the proper background and international context into which to situate them”. So, to understand and appreciate South Sudanese Past Notes & Records, the reader needs to understand the context in which conferences and policies about the Sudan in general and southern Sudan in particular were made.

Britain was the dominant colonial power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century with expansive territories beyond Egypt, including India, Malaya (today Malaysia), Australia and New Zealand. The importance of the route through the Suez Canal to the Far East made influencing Egyptian politics and economic policies of the utmost importance to the British. This led to Britain supporting Egyptian interests in the upper Nile regions of the Sudan and into Equatorial Africa; which in turn led to the defeat of the Sudanese Mahdia forces in Khartoum in 1898 and the establishment of the joint Anglo-Egyptian administration of the Sudan.

The book is conveniently divided into four main sections: ‘Self-Determination and Independence’, ‘People’, ‘Places’, and ‘Legacies’.

In the first section, ‘Self-Determination and Independence’, the author begins with a question that many Sudanese and South Sudanese alike think they know the answer to i.e. ‘Just what was the “Southern Policy?”’ The average reader will not only be surprised to find that the so-called “Southern Policy” was neither unique to Sudan nor confined to southern Sudan, but also that it was a short-lived policy that “may have helped to emphasize the differences between the peoples of the South and the people of the North, but it did not create them” (page 7).

The second question the author poses is, “What was decided at the 1947 Juba Conference?” This is the conference that South Sudanese in general credited with being the main event that determined the future of southern Sudan. In reality, the outcome of the conference was irrelevant, since the decisions it appeared to make had already been taken in the wider interests of, firstly the British, secondly the Egyptians, and thirdly the north Sudanese. What about the interests of South Sudanese and the issue of self-determination? Well, that was decided seven years later at another Juba Conference, one that is usually underrated or overlooked.

The 1954 Juba Conference followed “The All Parties Agreement” (APA) of 11 January 1953 in which Egypt for the first time conceded self-determination for the Sudan. However, during the process leading to the APA, not a single southern Sudanese leader was consulted; the APA was later rightly “cited as the first betrayal of the southern Sudan”. The significance of the usually forgotten Juba 1954 Conference must therefore be seen as the background to the APA, “For it was in this conference that the southern leadership of the day announced the conditions on which they would accept a united Sudan, and reserved the South’s right of self-determination” (page 18).

The process that led to the independence of Sudan in January 1956, much sooner than planned, was full of intrigues and betrayals. While Britain extracted Sudan from Egypt’s clutches, it also sought to protect the interests of southern Sudan. Little did southern Sudanese realise that British support for self-determination for the Sudan would undermine their capacity to protect the south; when some southerners rebelled in Torit a few months before independence, it was left to Al Azhari’s first all Sudanese government to respond, resulting in the rebels being scattered into the bush, with many ending up seeking asylum in then British colonised East Africa.

The book traces southern Sudanese struggles for self-determination through democratic means as well as armed struggle until independence was gained in 2011; the author giving credit where due to various South Sudanese leaders.

In the second section ‘People’, the book offers anecdotal stories of southern Sudanese individuals who have distinguished themselves in many fields, at home and in the Diaspora. If, for instance, you want to know what Ngundeng actually said and did, you will need to read this book so as to separate reality from myth. In addition, you may have heard of Ali ‘Abd al-Latif and the White Flag League; but who exactly was he? What about South Sudanese missionaries such as Caterina Zeinab, Fr. Daniel Surur Farim Deng and Salim Wilson, the ‘Black Evangelist of the North’, what do you know about them? This book has it all.

Southern Sudanese particularly distinguished themselves in the field of military service, first for Egypt, then during the joint Anglo-Egyptian re-conquest of the Sudan; they also became the backbone of the British East African Rifles. One outstanding career soldier was Fashoda-born Lual Maiker, who later in life became known as Ali Jaifun. Not only did he serve Egypt bravely and faithfully but he equally served during the Anglo-Egyptian re-conquest of the Sudan.

To cap it all, Ali Jaifun aka Lual Maiker, distinguished himself in his ‘loaned’ service to Napoleon III of France during his campaigns in Mexico. Lual was decorated by the emperor himself in Paris, on his way back to Egypt after four years of service in Latin America. Later he was confronted, in his birthplace Fashoda, with French Captain Marchand, who had sneaked into southern Sudan in an attempt to forestall the advance of Kitchener’s Egyptian army by making a treaty with the Shilluk reth (king); a decision which Ali helped to reverse (page 99). Fascinating stuff!

The third section ‘Places’, details some of the many inaccuracies in the maps that were drawn of South Sudan, including the misspelling of the names of people and places. This was due to the fact that there was little or no involvement of southern Sudanese in the writing or editing of these maps, or indeed books or reports. Foreigners who recorded oral information were often unable to accurately transliterate what they heard, even when they were familiar with local names.

In other books and reports, not by this author, the site of my old school, ‘Kuacjok’, which makes sense to a Dinka when written with ‘c’ in it, is now invariably written, even by South Sudanese officials and journalists, as ‘Kuajok’, which does not make sense. Similarly, Gakrial town is now referred to as ‘Gogrial’, which renders it totally unrecognisable to my brother or sister in the village nearby. All this should serve to remind local as well as foreign writers to take special care when writing down the names of South Sudanese people and places.

The last section, ‘Legacies’, also begins with a question: ‘Why do we need archives?’ Put another way, “Why do we need a room to keep old records?” which was the question put to the author and archivist by a very senior member of the High Executive Council” of the then Government of Southern Sudan in mid-1970s. “The attitude of the official above was widespread,” (page 179) notes the author, not withstanding the fact that he has also paid tribute to another South Sudanese leader: “The idea of an archive for the Southern Regional Government originated with late Mading de Garang, then Regional Minister of Information and Culture, Wildlife and Tourism. He established a department of archives in 1977, taking over the responsibility of the closed files kept in the basement of the former Equatoria Province Mudiriyya (now the headquarters of Central Equatoria State)” (ibid).

When the division of the South was decreed in 1983, responsibility for the archives was inherited by the Equatoria Regional Government, which did not care about the archives. The author notes: “It has to be said that this authority failed to perform its responsibility to preserve this heritage for the rest of South Sudan. The archive collection was split up between several buildings, moved about as these buildings were allocated for different purposes, often dumped in disorder in poorly maintained storerooms, left to be eaten by termites, nibbled by rodents, fouled by bats, and soaked in puddles of rain water” (page 180). These documents were apparently, “a big headache” to some regional officials. Documents kept in district headquarters faired even worse, as both the government troops and the SPLA forces “seemed to make war on paper wherever they went” (page 181).

Although South Sudan does not as yet have a building to house its archives, the author has noted a change for the better since 2004 when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between Sudan Government and SPLM/LA was nearing completion. External support to train archivists and digitize documents has become available. As Dr. Johnson concludes, “South Sudan could have a fully functioning archive service: it has the equipment, it has staff who are being trained and are enthusiastic and dedicated to the job… As the South faces a new future, let it also pay attention to and preserve its past” (page 183).

Many educated South Sudanese are curious about the past and look back in order to fine answers about now and the future. In that regard the book concludes by answering a question I threw at the author some time back: “Is there a role for amateur historians in South Sudan?” After relating the story that prompted me to raise this question, Douglas’s answer on the last page of this book is that, “the amateur historian does have an important role to play in South Sudan…In some sense all history is local, and the work of amateur historians should be an important contribution to recovering South Sudan’s past. As South Sudan trains more of its own professional historians, let them remember the work of amateur historians as well” (page 192).

Much of the collection in this book was first published in early 1980s as a series of articles in The Pioneer weekly newspaper and Southern Sudan Magazine, both founded and edited by author of Jungle Chronicles, journalist Atem Yaak Atem.

As the collection was originally addressed to a South Sudanese readership, this book is primarily addressed to South Sudanese at home and abroad. For a country with “no reliable textbook” (xv), I wholeheartedly agree with the author that “It is an open invitation to South Sudanese to research and write more about their own past” (ibid). It is a must read for Students of History of South Sudan.

Jacob J Akol is the author of Burden of Nationality and other books.

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