Durham Academics Q&A Two

Dr Cherry Leonardi

Associate Professor of Modern African History


Emily: Having done your module last year for ‘Making History’, I was particularly interested to think about how History in Politics fits into an African context, and perhaps your specialist area of South Sudan. Geographically wise, might the answers be very different than they would be in Europe?

Cherry: Yes – I suspect that there are both similarities and differences. In my view, history everywhere is inevitably political, because everyone has their own version of history and every group defines themselves through their history. This history can be used to differentiate from other groups, whether that’s on the level of a nation, a political or ethnic group or a religious, regional or local identity of some kind. The way in which people tell history is always political in the sense that it reflects particular perspectives and interests, and therefore will always be contested.

Two things spring to mind in relation to my own research focus – one is the more national level of things. For example, South Sudan is unusual as a very new country, having only become independent in 2011 after lengthy periods of civil war. I suppose it became very important to develop a national historical narrative to explain those conflicts and justify South Sudan’s independence. The anthropologist Jok Madut Jok says that for the South Sudanese, their history has become a narrative of victimhood, because it goes back to the 19thcentury when many South Sudanese were enslaved. They were then colonised by the British, and many claim that they were abandoned at the point of Sudan’s independence in 1956, and that the Northern Sudanese dominated the government that followed. So in those wars, there was also an emphasis on liberation; the rebel forces were fighting to liberate South Sudan, and that has become a central narrative for the government that they then formed.

But different factions and groups will have their own version of the history of those wars – who were the liberators, who were the oppressors, who were the victims? This can play out in ongoing conflicts as well and is only one example of how deeply political historical narratives are, and you inevitably find that those in the government will be trying to impose their own view of history, and that others will resist that. You see that in any country, but it is particularly fraught in a conflict situation like South Sudan.

Emily: Yes, definitely. It’s really interesting how you connected nationalism, and how you need historical writing to become a nation. That’s now been researched as more generally the relationship between history and politics, and now that you’ve pointed out the context, I can definitely see that in Africa in particular.

Cherry: Yes. The other angle I’ve researched this is actually at a more local level, and I think one of the issues when we talk about ‘politics’ and when it comes to what was considered ‘political history’ in the past, is that it often focuses only on the national and international levels. And that’s not where my area of focus lies – it lies on a more local level and raises the questions of who has authority within a village or district. There is also often a tendency to assume that things are not political on a local level, and that communities are of one mind and a unified group, whereas in reality those communities are divided, full of competition and people have power over others. 

This is particularly interesting with regard to land disputes, and I have been researching this in both South Sudan and Northern Uganda in recent years. These are areas where land is traditionally held in a communal, customary way, so there aren’t systems to register land titles quite like there is here. People accessed land because they belonged to a particular group, usually defined in kinship terms. They usually talk about claims and rights to land through their fathers’ line. And because nothing is written down in this sense, when disputes arise, people immediately go into history, in a court of law as well as within local dispute resolution mechanisms. Land disputes often refer back to historic agreements made by grandparents or great-grandparents, which are remembered in different ways now. When history isn’t often written down, the oral narratives are the way that people preserve history, and it shows that history is always political, as there are always different retellings and versions of the same story.

Emily: And obviously if the history isn’t recorded, and it’s oral, then the possibility to manipulate the history is much more possible. Do you think there are any particular dangers with using history in politics?

Cherry: Yes, I was going to say that I think it’s very difficult doing research in a context where there’s an ongoing dispute, as people tend to tell very polarised narratives and are very mindful of the contemporary implications of those narratives. For example, I started doing research on these land issues in 2014, just on the border between South Sudan and Uganda, and whilst I was there, a conflict actually broke out over the international border line, because it had never been properly demarcated, and for various reasons it had suddenly become a source of conflict. So I was trying to interview people about land and boundaries in the midst of a border conflict. What might people have said about the border ten years earlier? It might have been very different to the versions of history that I was being given, so the present conflict and the politics of that particular moment were shaping some of what people were telling me. I then went to the other side of the border and found a sort of mirror image process occurring in Uganda. So, you have these competing narratives about the history of that particular border, and therefore it is a challenge. It’s often said that history-telling reveals as much or more about the present than it does about the past in some ways. But of course written sources were also shaped by the particular perspectives, prejudices and purposes of their authors and audiences at the time when they were written, so as historians we’re always trying to interrogate the politics of our sources, whether oral or written.

Emily: Yes – that was really interesting. What people want out of their history is what makes it political, as they use their history based on their present needs rather than it being objective.

Cherry: Exactly. I’m not sure that anyone can ever tell an objective history, and even as historians, we are all reflecting our own position, agendas and interests even when we try and tell history in its most objective form.

Emily: Yes, definitely. One of the broader questions I was going to ask, which spans more of the continent of Africa rather than specifically South Sudan, was in what way do you think history plagues international relations now? We have already talked about the boundary disputes between South Sudan and Northern Uganda, but are there any other remarkable situations where history plagues international relations now?

Cherry: I think in a sense, it always does. The relations between national governments are always shaped by the history of their relations, and the grievances that go back a long way. One of the things I think a lot about is the legacy of colonialism within African studies, and how much those colonial relationships of inequality and economic exploitation have continued to shape post-colonial relations between Europe and Africa.

Emily: Could you maybe expand on how colonialism has affected post-colonial relations? I think that those who haven’t studied the period might be interested in a brief exploration.

Cherry: It’s a big question. I suppose one of the ways that it’s been focused on a lot is through political economy and the nature of the state in Africa. Post-colonial states are often seen to have inherited similar structures from their colonial predecessors, and of course the colonial motives were to extract resources from these territories which were meant to be profitable. So, the state system was set up with a focus on raw materials and things that could be taxed when they were exported or imported and thus make a profit for the colonial government. Independent governments inherited these economic structures and it meant that whoever controlled the government could also control a lot of the sources of revenue from international trade and investment – which may have contributed to some of the more violent struggles for control of states. And there are other colonial legacies that are seen to have contributed to conflicts or authoritarianism in postcolonial states, such as regional economic inequalities, the power of the military or the weakness of democratic institutions. Many analysts and activists have also pointed to continuing inequalities in international economic systems that have made it difficult for postcolonial economies to compete. There are also more subtle issues such as the dominance of former colonial languages like English and French, or the continuing ways in which Africa is stereotyped in international media, and so on.

Emily: That’s really interesting, because I touched on that in my studies, and the impact of colonisation alongside globalisation. My last question links somewhat to local histories and your discussion of land disputes. Should previous abuses in history be used to enact justice at a later date?

Cherry: This is one of those things that people will differ over, and I certainly think that where people are left with a lingering desire for justice, then any process which can enable some form of recognition and restitution in those cases can potentially promote greater reconciliation and unity. People often talk about the need to move on from past injustices or abuses, and I think that sometimes the only way to achieve this is through some kind of process that feels like justice to people. There’s an important potential there, but it’s also immensely challenging to find ways of honouring the multiple versions of history that we’ve been discussing, rather than alienating, silencing or fearing particular voices. So I generally welcome attempts to redress historic injustices, but I acknowledge that it is a complex set of questions to open up, and you can also create division through this process as well as trying to promote unity. I think it’s going to be a very interesting debate going forward about how far people in the present are responsible for the crimes of previous generations. For me, where you can see a continuing structure or situation of privilege that goes back to some form of historic injustice, that’s what you really need to focus on and use whatever mechanism you can to redress that core issue.

Emily: I suppose that also links to the current movements to decolonise the curriculum – educating how modern injustices connect to previous injustices needs to be recognised.

Cherry: Absolutely. It’s about continuing legacies and not just an abuse that happened in the past that doesn’t affect the present. Where people can see continuities from those into the present, those are the legacies that people are now really trying to tackle.

Conducted by Emily Glynn, Founder