South Sudan: A New History For A New Nation
by Douglas H. Johnson
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"There Is Where We Came From"
On 9 July 2011 I attended South Sudan’s formal independence ceremony in Juba, an event that marked a departure for Africa. Most African countries became independent on a negotiated “transfer of power” from a colonial authority to a new national elite. South Sudan’s independence came from the directly expressed will of its people. There was a shared sense of the historical importance of the event beyond the exercise of self- determination by Africa’s newest nation. My companions that day included a Kenyan and a Ugandan, both from communities who shared languages and histories with South Sudan. “This is where we came from,” one of them commented. “This is our home.”
Watching the arrival of several African heads of state, one sensed a change in Africa as well. When the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was founded in the early 1960s, Sudan was already locked in its first civil war. South Sudan’s exile leaders, fighting what they called their own anticolonial struggle, were shunned by the new African governments bound in solidarity to each other. South Sudanese warnings against the nascent OAU becoming a club for dictators proved all too prescient, but as John Garang, South Sudan’s leader in the second civil war, later commented, “We were the pariahs of Africa,” and the warnings were ignored. Yet here Africa’s leaders now were lining up to watch the flag of one African Union member go down as that of a future member went up.
My own introduction to South Sudan began more than forty years earlier as a student at Makerere University College in Uganda sharing classes with South Sudanese refugee students. Sudan was then nearing a turning point in its long first civil war. Ja’afar Nimeiri’s May Revolution had proclaimed that the war needed a political rather than a military solution. Southern guerrilla forces, the Anyanya (named after a local poison), were finally coalescing around a unified leadership. Despite pronouncements of an imminent peace, the war continued for nearly three more years.
This was also a time of revolution in the writing and teaching of African history, moving beyond the histories of colonial pioneers and embracing the investigation of the indigenous past. The recently published Zamani: A Survey of East African History presented an integrated regional history based on this new research. As welcome as this was, there were still some silences. East Africa stopped at the northern borders of Uganda and Kenya. Aside from references to prehistoric “River Lakes Nilotes” and nineteenth-century “Khartoumers,” South Sudanese history was absent. I came away from these combined experiences with the desire to write for South Sudan the type of history that now defined the field of African history.
I was fortunate to be able to begin substantive research inside South Sudan during the period of the Addis Ababa peace between 1972 and 1983, and to observe the evolution of historical research through alternating periods of peace and war. Prior to 1972 the main focus had been on the causes of civil war (e.g., Oduho and Deng 1963; Beshir 1968; Abdel-Rahim 1969; Albino 1970; Wai 1973). The outlines of South Sudan’s long colonial period were delineated in the pioneering works of Richard Gray (1961), Robert Collins (1962, 1968, 1971, 1983), and the Sandersons (1981). While virtually no one claimed as bluntly as A. J. Arkell that South Sudan had no history before 1820, the year of Egypt’s invasion of Sudan (Arkell 1961, 2), the internal histories of South Sudanese societies received little attention during the Addis Ababa peace when new fieldwork was possible. The long second civil war refocused attention on the twin tragedies of war and slavery (Wakason 1984; Hutchinson 1995; Jok 2001; Beswick 2004). The conclusion of peace in 2005 reopened South Sudan to field-based research, and a new generation of researchers has continued the work of earlier field-workers in creatively combining exploration literature, administrative records, and older ethnography with new fieldwork (e.g., Jal 1987; Simonse 1992; Leonardi 2013a; Cormack 2014; Tuttle 2014; Stringham 2016). There is now also a serious effort to examine South Sudanese intellectual history and the ideas underpinning its nationalist ideology (Poggo 2009; Tounsel 2015), as well as detailed studies of the conduct, consequences, and aftermath of war (Schomerus and Allen 2010; LeRiche and Arnold 2012; Pinaud 2013; Badiey 2014; Grabska 2014; Falge 2016).
A new history of South Sudan thus has much to draw on. There are still many challenges, quite apart from the basic contradiction here of attempting to fit a longue durée history into a Short History series. There are lingering stereotypes in the earlier literature commonly referred to and promoted by South Sudanese themselves that must be confronted. Because the historiography of South Sudan has lagged behind much of the rest of Africa’s, the quality of the sources and the way they have been used must be examined. For this reason there will be a running reference to historiography throughout this text. Inevitably chapters become more detailed the closer we get to the present, but they will not be detailed enough for those readers who are mainly interested in what is happening now. The purpose of a longue durée history is to give shape to a nation’s past and not let the present define that past.
Ever since Richard Gray’s characterization of southern Sudan as isolated from the great centers of power and historical trends of the continent (Gray 1961, 8–9), writers have taken the region’s historical isolation as proven, even describing the region as “cut off from the rest of the world” and “as remote an environment as can be found” (LeRiche and Arnold 2012, 4; cf. Poggo 2009, 21). But representatives of nearly every major African language group are found within its borders. One of the themes of this book is to show how South Sudan is a missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle of African history and identify both historic and recent connections between South Sudanese and communities beyond their borders. A new history for a new nation must combine the internal history of indigenous communities with a record of South Sudan’s involvement with the wider region.
Writers have also found the complex ethnic makeup of South Sudan a challenge to describe. Embarrassed by the colonial overtones of the word “tribe,” they replace it with either “ethnic group” or “clan,” implying that all South Sudanese societies are bounded by small kin-based groups. There are serious objections to using “tribe” in any context (Ehret 2002, 7), but “tribe” and “ethnic group” are not interchangeable. Anthropologists Ferguson and Whitehead make a useful distinction between tribes as “bounded and/or structured political organizations” and ethnic groups, which “are a cultural phenomenon with only latent organizational potential” (2000, 15). In South Sudan’s ethnographic and administrative literature “tribe” and “clan” have distinct meanings and are not interchangeable. Tribal organizations are recognized administrative units with their own internal political structure: the Nuer people are organized into a number of different tribes, as are the Dinka people. Clans are kin units whose significance differs among South Sudan’s many peoples: some are territorial and central to a tribe’s political organization, others are nonterritorial and widely dispersed. In this book I use the word “people” to describe groups who share the same language and similar social principles or cultural practices, “tribe” when referring to specific administrative-political units, and “clan” only when appropriate for certain kin groups. The use of ethnic names in South Sudan is undergoing a change as South Sudanese intellectuals seek to replace the English terms with indigenous self-names. However, until some consensus is reached I retain the more conventional forms established in the literature: Shilluk rather than Collo or Ocolo, Nuer rather than Naath, Dinka rather than Jieng, Mandari rather than Mundari, Lotuho rather than Otuho, and so on.
Linguistic terms are sometimes applied as broad ethnic labels, and there are also popular meanings unrelated to scholarly use. The term “Nilotic” is particularly problematic. Linguists now identify three broad branches of Nilotic within the Nilo-Saharan language family: Western, Eastern, and Southern (see chapter 2). The first are found in Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Uganda; the second in South Sudan, Uganda, and Kenya; and the last in Kenya and Tanzania. Yet “Nilotic” also has different cultural and political connotations. In Ethiopia it is a general term for lowland peoples of diverse languages and origins. In Uganda it refers to the peoples of the north associated with past dictatorial regimes, not all of whom speak a Nilotic language. It has acquired similar political overtones in South Sudan and is applied almost exclusively to the Western Nilotic-speaking Nuer, Dinka, and Shilluk, less often to the Atuot and Anuak, but not to the Mabaan, Acholi, and Pari. I use it here only in its linguistic sense. The Eastern Nilotic languages of Bari, Lotuho, Toposa, Turkana, and Maasai were at one time classed as “Nilo-Hamitic” but, as the “Hamitic hypothesis” of a race of light-skinned civilizers in African history has been thoroughly discredited and we now recognize that there were no such people as “Hamites,” there can be no merging of Nilotes with Hamites, and the archaic label “Nilo-Hamitic” has been dropped even by linguists.
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