Nuer Field Project

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Native Administration in the South and the Beginnings of the Nasir Station

by Edward Miner,

After Egyptian forces led by Lord Kitchener defeated the Mahdists under the command of Khalifa Abdallahi at Omdurman on September 19, 1898, British military attention quickly turned to challenges coming in the Southern Sudan to their control of the Nile River. French forces under Captain Marchand had occupied Fashoda; Belgians were encamped at Rejaf and Lado; and the Abyssianians (Ethiopians) were encroaching along the Baro and Sobat Rivers. Southern Sudanese battalions of the Anglo-Egyptian army were sent to reoccupy old military outposts such as the one at Nasir. With the withdrawal of all three opponents, the British military undertook the task of administering the central Southern region which included the Shilluk, Nuer and Dinka peoples. The Nasir outpost, and the great bulk of the Nuer people, fell into what was first the Fashoda Military District and later the Upper Nile Province. Major H. W. Jackson, the first military governor, established the district headquarters at Fashoda (shortly thereafter renamed Kodok). In 1914, the provincial capital was moved to Malakal.

Since the administration of the Southern provinces was not a priority in Cairo or Khartoum, the transition from military to civil administration would take the better part of three decades. The first civilian governor of Upper Nile Province, K.C.P. Struve, was not appointed until 1919, and the military continued to play a key role in administration until the finalization of the provincial borders in 1929. The Sudan Civil Service, formed in 1899, recruited exclusively from the ranks of the British, Egyptian and Northern Sudanese officers of the Sudanese battalions of the Egyptian army. ‘Seconded’ for short-term contracts from their permanent military assignments, these officers seldom gained much knowledge of Southern Sudanese languages or political structures. Already on reassignment from British regiments to the Egyptian army, British officers were especially subject to turnover.

The Anglo-Egyptian partnership in the Sudan was an exceedingly delicate one. Justification for a British presence rested in theory on their protection of Egyptian territorial interests in a unified Sudan. The years following World War I saw increasing resistance to British colonialism in all of the former territories of the Ottoman Empire (within which Egypt had existed as an autonomous entity since the time of Viceroy Muhammad ‘Ali, even while under British ‘protection’). With vital British interests implicated in control of the Suez canal, relations between the British and Egyptian governments became increasingly tense. Such tensions were a principal factor in a mutiny led by Egyptian officers in Khartoum in 1924. With the suppression of the mutiny, Egyptian officers were excluded from the Sudan Civil Service, and even Northern Sudanese officers were excluded from posts in the Southern Sudan. The Civil Secretariat in Khartoum sought to accelerate the transition from military to civil administration in all parts of the Sudan. Provincial administrators in Southern Sudan, for their part, began to regard any Arabic or Islamic influences in their areas as a threat to the political and cultural integrity of Southern peoples.

As early as 1921, governance in the South began to take its cue from the Milner Report, which had laid out the principles of Native Administration. Senior inspectors now became deputy governors and their duties more closely tied to the provincial capitals; inspectors became district and assistant district commissioners, and interfaced directly with Shilluk, Nuer and Dinka ‘leaders’ (however created); and the Arabic-speaking class of local administrators (mamurs and sub-mamurs) was eliminated. Douglas H. Johnson, in his introduction to The Upper Nile Province Handbook (authored by Governor C.A. Willis upon his exit from the Upper Nile Province in 1931), describes the transition in these terms (1995: 7-8):

The logic of native administration, which ultimately led in 1930 to the formulation of the Southern Policy of separate development between North and South, was that much routine administration could be done through local authorities, using customary structures and law, and in so far as these could be co-opted by government. Much of this had been implicit in administration from the start; everywhere ‘legitimate’ chiefs had been sought out, especially in the North, to replace the functionaries of the Mahdist regime, which was characterized as having usurped the authority of traditional rulers. Even in Upper Nile a code of Dinka ‘law’ had been produced in the province as early as 1906. Much of the administrative activity throughout the Sudan in the 1920s and early 1930s was spent in regularizing what had gone on before by providing the legal and administrative framework for a devolution which was still to be closely supervised by British officials. But in the Upper Nile (as in many other parts of the South) the previous two decades had been spent in subordinating the very indigenous rulers which the new theory of native administration now required to be propped up. The autonomous power of local leaders had to be suppressed before it could be co-opted, and in practice the greater the potential power the more vigorous was the suppression.

A series of twelve punitive patrols were mounted against various groups in the Upper Nile Province in the first quarter of the twentieth century, generally to enforce the payment of tribute in cattle. The gradual cessation of such raids characterized the transition from military to civil administation. The military suppression of the Eastern Jikany Nuer around Nasir came in 1919-1920, and became the occasion for Governor Struve to object directly to Khartoum about such methods. During Struve’s tenure, the tribute system was reformed along the lines of a low percentage tax on individual herds, reducing the incentive for Nuer and Dinka resistance. Shortly thereafter, John Lee was appointed the first civilian District Administrator at Nasir, and Percy Coriat at Ayod and Abwong. These men quickly developed a reputation for their knowledge of the Nuer language and good relations with local Nuer people. Of particular importance was the care that they took in identifying socially respected individuals that could function for their purposes as administrative ‘chiefs’. Coriat, for example, was successful in inducing the Gaawar Nuer prophet Dual Diu to function in such a capacity, in spite of the fact that this was a cultural innovation. By 1923, administrative chiefs were being equipped with local courts and police to enforce the emergent versions of customary law sanctioned by the government. Moreover, through the cultivation of good will, the District Commissioners had done much to reduce the level of raiding between Nuer and Dinka communities.

When C.A. Willis succeeded Struve in 1926, he would extend the principles of Native Administration in ways much less conciliatory than his predecessor. His prior experience came as the former director of the Intelligence Department in Khartoum, and was tainted by his perceived failing in that capacity with respect to the 1924 mutinies (Johnson 1995: 13). As Governor of the Upper Nile Province, Willis was prone to override many of the suggestions of his District Commissioners; his policies were driven by ideology rather than practical experience. The good relations that Struve’s District Commissioners had cultivated among Nuer prophets and other notables would be squandered. The most disastrous consequence of his extreme interpretation of the theories of Native Administration was the assumption that (Johnson 1995: 19)

…there was an office of ‘chief’ among the Nuer which had been undermined or usurped by the ‘kujurs’ [prophets] (an assumption subsequently exploded by Evans-Pritchard’s research). Once the confrontation which he initiated with the Nuer gathered pace, he elaborated on this theme in a number of reports, attempting to prove just how far the ‘kujur’ had transgressed their proper inspirational bounds—though his arguments were received with growing skepticism in Khartoum, who feared the consequences of an ill-thought out general anti-kujur crusade. The suppression of ‘kujurs’, however, did not lead to a reemergence of chiefs from the background, and Willis began to qualify his earlier statements about the existence of traditional chiefs. By 1928 he was beginning to admit that the idea of an executive chief itself was imported by the government.

Having failed in finding the executive function that his style of Native Administration required in Nuer culture, Willis resolved that such functions would be created. He apparently saw no contradiction in cultural innovations to preserve cultural traditions.

To minimize the potential for contention between missionary societies, Khartoum divided the three Southern provinces (Upper Nile, Bahr al-Ghazal, and Mongalla) into spheres of influence. The American Presbyterian Mission (APM), headquartered in New York, was offered some of the most difficult territory for evangelism in the culturally conservative, Nilotic-speaking bloc of the central Southern Sudan. The APM commenced its work among the Shilluk with the opening of a station at Doleib Hill, situated a little north of Malakal (the capital of Upper Nile Province) on the White Nile River. Consonant with the wishes of Lord Cromer (the British Agent in Cairo), the focus of APM activity was on industrial training rather than literary education. The APM Mission Board in New York was so pleased with the success of the industrial training at Doleib Hill that specialists in this area were sent, resulting in the opening of a trading store in 1910. As this was contrary to the guidelines issued by Lord Cromer a decade earlier, the Condominium government ordered the store closed in 1913. The attention given to industrial and agricultural facilities, and the slight degree to which they competed with literacy development, however, meant that the Doleib Hill mission was well positioned to weather the scarcities of the World War I era.

The Condominium government was keen, however, to recruit the APM to an effort to open up communication with the Eastern Nuer; to that end, another mission station was established at Nasir on the Sobat River (near the Ethiopian border) in 1913. As at the Doleib Hill station, the focus of activity was initially on industrial and agricultural training and production; but by 1916, the Nasir missionaries were conversant enough in Nuer to teach local children how to read and write their own language. By the mid 1920s, despite a relative lack of interest among the Nuer, the Nasir station had probably made greater strides in literacy development than Doleib Hill. With an increasing interest in education among Shilluk and Nuer notables, school enrollments gradually began to increase. In 1925, the APM Mission Board posted educational specialists Rev. J.A. Heasty and Miss Ray Huffman to the Doleib Hill and Nasir stations, respectively. Sanderson and Sanderson (1981: 157) note:

Heasty was an expert in the teaching of English; Miss Huffman produced ‘graded text-books’ and made a significant contribution to Nuer linguistic studies. Indeed, once the commitment to academic education had been fully accepted, the Americans set about fulfilling it with the energy and thoroughly practical competence which had marked their earlier dedication to industrial work. Although the Mission still remained a small-scale concern, by the 1930s the quality of its education work was widely acknowledged.

Sentiments at the Civil Secretariat in Khartoum against literary education in the South would shift in the postwar years when language itself would be recognized as a factor in the future of British influence. At the inception of the Condominium, a diplomatic imperative that claims on the Southern Sudan not jeopardize the British position in Cairo dictated that the Sudan remain whole, and that the Southern provinces not be annexed to British East Africa. After World War I, however, the British Civil Secretary and the British Governors of the Southern provinces became concerned about the political and cultural designs of Northern Sudanese nationalists. While the lingua franca form of Arabic in wide use had never been viewed by British administrators as a vehicle of Northern Sudanese or Islamic influence per se, arguments for the introduction of literary Arabic in the mission schools created a sense of urgency for the closing out of Northern influence in the South. In particular, the government was keen to replace minor officials of Northern Sudanese or Egyptian origin in the South with mission educated locals literate in English. Sanderson and Sanderson (1981: 136) write:

By April 1928, when the ‘Rejaf Language Conference’ met under Matthew’s [the Secretary of Education] chairmanship, Maffey [the Governor-General] had evidently ceased to press for the adoption of Arabic. Matthew, in his keynote speech from the Chair, deplored ‘the increasing spread of pidgin Arabic, a jargon severely limited in its means of expression’, and therefore quite unsuitable as ‘a language of intercommunication’; and reminded the Conference that the Government had decided (most recently in 1927) ‘gradually to replace Arabic by English as the language for correspondence…in Government offices’. In the course of the proceedings Matthew made it clear that Arabic-medium schools would be tolerated only where (as at Malakal) a government kuttab was needed to cater for a settled Northern population; or where (as at Wau) there was ‘a miscellaneous population using Arabic as a convenient means of communication’.

Sir Harold MacMichael, the Civil Secretary, who had previously been no great supporter of the missions, was forced to rely upon them instrumentally in his strategy to separate the South from the North linguistically, culturally and economically. This support for the missions was tempered by a continued apprehension that the long-term effect of missionary education would be ‘detribalization’, or the destruction of traditional tribal structures and customs. In this, mission objectives were perceived to be at odds with the fundamental strategy of the Southern Policy. In any case, government grants to the mission schools became available from 1928. Although not eager to accept government subsidies, the APM recognized that if it did not cooperate with its educational programs, the government might be forced to proceed with the establishment of its own competing schools. In short order, however, the APM grew more comfortable in its strategic alliance with the government.

Crucially for the success of mission education, the new Southern Policy and its use of English in administration meant that graduates of the mission schools were positively positioned for entry into and advancement in the civil service. Sanderson and Sanderson (1981: 158) write:

Thanks to the enormous prestige and authority which Government had by now acquired among most Southern peoples, the dissemination of a belief that it approved of education could indeed be expected to improve school attendance. To send a son to school would now seem less a pointless exercise, especially for a notable who was (as many increasingly were) anxious to retain the goodwill of his local governor or DC [District Commissioner]. Moreover, some officials ‘drafted’ boys directly into school. In 1927 Governor Willis of Upper Nile Province sent six young Nuer to the Americans at Nasir; three of them already interpreters to DCs and the other three were being trained for similar posts.

The government subsidies undoubtedly were a significant factor in accelerating the growth in educational enrollments, but by about 1930 there seemed to be a groundswell in indigenous demand for mission education which then stabilized in about 1932. In 1936 the elementary schools at Doleib Hill and Nasir counted 217 pupils in regular attendance, many of which were recruited from informal ‘bush schools’ operated in the surrounding villages. In 1935, separate quarters were built at the Nasir station for female students, and in the following year “Hickson reported favourably upon the Nasir Girls’ School. Indeed, the general quality of the Presbyterian teaching at this time seems often to have impressed the Government more favourably than that of the two larger missions [the Verona Fathers and the Church Missionary Society]” (Sanderson and Sanderson 1981: 192)”.

During the World War II years, the South saw little growth in the training of teachers or in school enrollments. Although “the overall expenditure of the Education Department increased by over 80%…almost all of this growth took place in the Northern Sudan” (Sanderson and Sanderson 1981: 233). The problem was not so much a lack of available funds, but of personnel. There was an increasing awareness that the Southern Policy had failed in its major objectives, which had been to develop the economy of the South in isolation from the North and to prepare it politically for independence. Criticisms pointed to the strategy of culturally isolating Southern peoples from one another and from the North as a key reason for the failure to develop a sufficient cadre of Southern Sudanese civil servants and teachers. Moreover, it was beginning to dawn on some British administrators that independence would come sooner rather than later, and that long-term approaches to development would not address the immediate problem. The ‘detribalization’ that the strategy of Native Administration had been designed to prevent was no longer widely viewed as the most pressing threat to the future of the South. The greater threat was that the region did not possess a pool of educated political leadership or the level of economic development that would inoculate it against Northern hegemony. The Civil Secretariat would respond to these criticisms with the opening of government secondary and teacher training schools, but attend to such initiatives as though an independent Sudan were still several decades away.

For the British, the political future of the South would take a backseat to its strategic interests in delegitimating Egyptian claims against Sudanese sovereignty. To this end, from 1945, anti-Egyptian sentiment within Northern Sudanese nationalism was exploited to justify a continued British presence. This strategy would ultimately, however, backfire by generating increased anti-British sentiment in the North. In this context, the coveted notion of the ultimate annexation of the South to Uganda became inimical to British strategic interests. In 1946, the Civil Secretary officially reversed the Southern Policy of separate development. Sanderson and Sanderson (1981: 294) write:

In his circular of 16 December 1946 the Civil Secretary called for the revision of an obsolete Southern Policy, in response to recent political developments both inside and outside of the Sudan; and for the re-statement of policy ‘in a form which can be publicly explained and supported’ and which would be acceptable to Northern Sudanese opinion. This revision implied that the Southern Sudan should henceforth be regarded as ‘inextricably bound for future development to the middle-eastern and Arabicised Northern Sudan’. The circular noted certain educational implications of this revolution in policy: the need for a Southern secondary school; the provision of higher education for Southerners at Gordon Memorial College, and not in Uganda; and the introduction of Arabic (as a subject, not as a medium of instruction) into Southern schools from intermediate level upwards.

Within Northern Sudanese public opinion, the mission organizations were widely identified with the much despised Southern Policy. One result of the administrative and economic segregation was that there was little awareness that a distinct, anti-Islamic regionalism had begun to emerge in the South. As this trend in Southern opinion became more apparent in the political preparations for independence, Northerners widely blamed the missions as the source of the separatist politics. Christian conversion was increasingly viewed as a threat to national unity. The missions, for their part, intensified their search for converts to better prepare the South to resist Northern influence, thereby aggravating Northern opinion. In 1948 a Northern Sudanese was installed as Minister of Education, and Arabic was introduced as a subject into the secondary schools. This signaled the start of a vigorous campaign on the part of the Northern political elite to push for the rapid Arabicization and Islamicization of the South.

With the administrative and trade barriers to Arabic and Islamic influence now removed, the several mission organizations cooperated in various ways to stem these influences, but were ultimately unsuccessful. Their ability to form effective alliances were compromised in part by increased tensions between Protestant and Catholic missions due to their mutual encroachments into each other’s long standing spheres of influence. In 1957, the mission schools were placed directly under the control of the government. The years from 1945 to 1964 can be viewed in terms of the increasing influence, and finally dominance, of Northern Sudanese in Southern administration and commerce. In particular, the rapid inflow of Northern Sudanese civil servants meant that Arabic once again became the working language for lower level administration, throwing into crisis the future and relevance of the Christian missionary education in English.

Despite its small size relative to the other mission organizations, the APM distinguished itself in its resistance to encroaching government control in these years. Its relative weakness, however, was its reluctance to ordain enough Southern Sudanese pastors for its churches to be self-sustaining. Sanderson and Sanderson (1981: 390-1) write:

The American Mission, with its almost aggressive buoyancy and strong commitment to direct evangelism, evidently found it more difficult than the CMS [Christian Missionary Society] to practise ‘deliberate conscientious obedience to “the Powers that be ordained by God”’. Its more outspoken opposition to Government cost it ‘at least nine’ expulsions before the general expulsion of March 1964. In spite of these expulsions, and the virtual impossibility after 1958 of obtaining entry permits, the Mission still had in 1964 twelve missionaries engaged in medical and evangelist work in the Southern Sudan, in addition to McClure and his team in Ethiopia. Much of this work was in new, or very weakly developed fields, where even in the 1950s and 1960s the activity of the missionary himself was still crucially important. The small indigenous ‘Church of Christ on the Upper Nile’ was moreover hardly self-sustaining. The Americans were, for these and possibly other reasons, more reluctant than the CMS to delegate ecclesiastical authority to the Sudanese. Even as late as 1960 they had ordained only ‘three or four’ Sudanese pastors. Their Church was moreover organized as a single Presbytery under a moderator elected for three years – a centralized structure unlikely to encourage missionaries to see themselves simply as auxiliaries to the local Church.

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