After decades of civil war, a fragile peace exists today in the southern Sudan. While people have hoped that the peace accord there could serve as a model for ending genocide in the African nation's western province of Darfur, there are growing fears that calm in the south could unravel. One Elon professor has shown that sources of hostility for the Sudan have deep historical roots.
History professor Brian Digre’s recent research on the topic examines the pivotal events leading up to Sudanese independence. He presented his findings this fall in a paper titled “National Integration Without Self-Determination: Political Transition in the Southern Sudan, 1944-1948” at the annual meeting of the African Studies Association.
What happened in the Sudan? After British forces occupied the country in the late 19th century, British administrators came to recognize the different ethnic, religious and developmental characteristics dividing a largely animist and Christian African south from a predominantly Muslim Arab north. Due to these differences, and their own imperial interests, the British separated their administration of the Sudan and eventually sought to eliminate northern influences in the south.
Following World War II, the Sudanese equation changed as Britain faced growing demands for independence. “Northern (Sudanese) leaders were intent on Sudanese unity, and the British, more concerned about their future relations with Khartoum and Cairo, accepted this,” Digre says in his research. Not only were southern interests sacrificed, but their leaders were hardly consulted before a legislative assembly was established for the entire country.
The British claimed that southern consultation did take place at the brief two-day Juba Conference in 1947. Digre shows that at the time the British were already intent on accepting Sudanese unity and inclined to overlook southern concerns that they would not be fairly represented. Eight years later, on the eve of independence in 1956, dissatisfied southern troops rebelled against Sudan’s northern-controlled government.
“Radha Kumar’s thoughtful essay ‘The troubled history of partition’ recognizes that from Ireland to India, disastrous consequences often followed when Britain, confronted by ethnic conflict, sought a rapid colonial exit thorough a policy of divide and quit,” Digre writes in the conclusion to his paper. “In the Sudan, British officials pursued the reverse policy, unite and quit. Yet, it too appears as politically expedient. Failing to respect or even fully ascertain southern preferences, hasty integration produced not national unity but ongoing civil conflict.”
Much of Digre’s previous research has focused on West African independence. Though far from the Sudan, he still discovered British concerns about the possible influence of Sudanese developments. He pursued his research on the Sudan in the British National Archives while leading Elon’s London program in spring 2007.
But his personal interest in the Sudan goes back many years, beginning when he traveled through the country as he returned home from his Peace Corps service in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.