- New Histories of New Nations:South Sudan and Sudanese history
By Øystein H. Rolandsen & M.W. Daly. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
By Elena Vezzadini. Oxford: James Currey, 2015.
By Chris Vaughan. Oxford: James Currey, 2015.
By Douglas H. Johnson. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2016.
By W.J. Berridge. London: Bloomsbury, 2016.
By Jok Madut Jok. London: Oneworld, 2017.
The Sudans have undergone major upheavals over the last fifteen years. By 2005, fifteen years of civil war was brought to an end in South Sudan, but conflicts escalated across Sudan's other borderlands, particularly in Darfur and in the Nuba Mountains. President Bashir's regime has continued to entrench itself in Khartoum, moving from a sanctioned pariah state to a partner in Europe's attempts to control north African migration. South Sudan has taken the opposite trajectory. From its secession in 2011, its state- and nation-building project has foundered: its militarised elites have continued patterns of violent and repressive government of an alienated and impoverished citizenry, while competing over resources and power, and sinking the country into renewed civil war and myriad internal conflicts.
Over this period, there has been opportunity for a new wave of research on Sudan and South Sudan. This opening up is not just of new travel and internal research opportunities, but of archives and a growing international and local academic community. The work reviewed here, all published over 2015 to 2017, is part of this resurgence. All the books here (and the nature of reviewing them together) support a key point made by many scholars of the region: that Sudan and South Sudan must not be studied separately, and broken off from each other into the intellectual peripheries of Middle East and African studies respectively. These works demonstrate the necessity of reading the Sudans' history as multiple, entangled political histories across newly-established borders.
All the reviewed books also attempt two things. They fight against national and international stereotypes and oversimplifications of the countries, rooted partly in a significant dearth of research into the Sudans over the twentieth century. And more specifically, they seek to challenge dominant national narratives of history and historical memory. Both Berridge and Vezzadini work to situate their Sudan scholarship within both Middle East and Africanist literature, and in doing so, challenge each field; Vaughan and Johnson set out strong cases against the "isolation" of Darfur and South Sudan, in turn; and Jok, Rolandsen and Daly all fight against the supposed inevitability of South Sudan's secession and "failure."
Those of us who study the Sudans often feel we have to do this quite basic fire-fighting for two main reasons. Firstly, there are powerful common narratives around the Sudans, particularly around South Sudan's secession and descent into renewed civil war over from 2011 to the present; and secondly, as Rolandsen, Daly and Johnson point out here, there is still a dearth of deeply researched work on both countries, and so much work still to do to bring the Sudans' precolonial, colonial and post-independence historiography up to speed with either Middle East or African studies in general. And so all of the reviewed books are working towards common ends: to bind the Sudans into their geographical and intellectual context; to illuminate histories previously hidden by a common but limited research focus on Sudans' states and wars; and to re-examine methods and sources, particularly in the search for histories beyond elites and central state politics.
New Histories for New Nations?
Many scholars are engaged in writing a 'new national history' for the newest country in the world, and there are two examples here: Øystein H. Rolandsen and Martin W. Daly's A History of South Sudan: From slavery to independence (2016), and Douglas H. Johnson's South Sudan: A new history for a new nation (2016). These national histories are best read together, because their arguments and perspectives cut across each other...