The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan government claimed sovereignty over the Sudan from the very end of the nineteenth century, but it was not until the 1920s that this government actively started to engage in the administration of the regions that surround the Bilnyang and connected rivers. Government only created a permanent presence at Gogrial during the defeat of Ariathdit.1 Zoe Cormack, ‘The Making and Remaking of Gogrial: Landscape, History and Memory in South Sudan’ (PhD diss., Durham University, 2014).
By this stage, the Condominium was producing detailed maps of settlements on this higher, drier, ironstone plateau to the west of the Bilnyang,2 Ordinance Survey 1912, ‘The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan’.
but the Nuer-speaking areas to the east of the Bilnyang and connected rivers were not getting much government attention. In 1931, the governor was still calling it ‘an administrative no-man’s land’.3 Charles A. Willis with Arthur H. Alban, The Upper Nile Province Handbook: A Report on Peoples and Government in the Southern Sudan, edited by Douglas H. Johnson (Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 1995 ), page 3.
Government priorities included the stopping of Nuer-Dinka fighting, intra-ethnic fighting, as well as tax collection.4 Paul Philip Howell, Manual of Nuer Law (Oxford University Press, 1954), page 9.
The Condominium government’s earliest demands were that the government had the right to settle all grievances and that self-help justice through raiding and revenge should end.5 Douglas Johnson, Nuer Prophets: A History of Prophecy from the Upper Nile in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Clarendon Press, 1994), page 257.
Conflict was now to be seen as not only an affront to the other party but to government itself. Conflict was redesignated by the government as criminal and not political, and therefore the response was to be legal hearings and law enforcement.
After local authorities conceded the hakuma
’s excessive displays of violent power, government officials’ vision of peace was increasingly judicial. In the early years, the District Commissioner acted as arbitrator and settled disputes. For example, in the mid-1920s, Nuer travelled south to the country headquarters in Rumbek to seek the District Commissioner’s interventions to settle disputes. To make the District Commissioner’s task more manageable, the government appointed chiefs and established courts. By the 1930s, the Sudan government shifted to a more explicit policy of indirect rule and the government formulated its famous Southern Policy in which it would govern ‘self-contained’ ‘racial or tribal units’.6 Civil Secretary H. A. MacMichael, Memorandum on Southern Policy, in Civil Secretary to Southern Governors, GB-0033-SAD.485/1/3-8, 25 January 1930.
The government went on to entrench the chiefs and their courts as a key part of the ‘tribal structures’ through which it would govern. As elsewhere in the empire, the chiefs’ courts were to become a key part of the central government’s control over South Sudan.7 Mamdani, Citizen and Subject.
Governance by chiefs became part of the government’s imaginings of a series of territorialised communities around which administrative boundaries could be drawn.8 Zoe Cormack, ‘Borders are Galaxies: Interpreting Contestations over Local Administrative Boundaries in South Sudan’, Africa 86:3 (2016): 504–527.
Occasional officials explicitly recognised that this would be a social change ‘away from arcane lineage-based identity and towards ‘modern’ territorial-based identity’.9 Ibid., page 508.
Governance would be organised around provinces, districts and, within them, a series of chiefdoms. The government divided the areas around the Bilnyang and connected rivers into different districts based on their perceptions of tribal units. Over time, names, boundaries and province membership changed. Court structures were arranged to overlap with these districts, and meetings and periodic courts were held between the districts.