The Role of Archives in Nation Building: Preserving Sudan’s documentary heritage

On 18 February some 60 persons gathered at the UNESCO House in Juba, South Sudan for a lecture by Dr Douglas H. Johnson on “The Role of Archives in Nation Building”, organized by UNESCO and the Rift Valley Institute. The National Archives Project of South Sudan is currently implemented by UNESCO, UNOPS and the Rift Valley Institute together with the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports, with the generous support of the Government of Norway.

Dr Johnson, a distinguished Sudan historian, best known for his work on the Abyei Boundaries Commission, and author of The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars and When Borders Become Boundaries, explained that every government produces new documents daily, and every government needs an efficient archive service in order to preserve and retrieve documents when needed. Despite this, archives in South Sudan have always been given a low priority in national development planning and funding, being seen as a matter of history and the past, rather than the present.

Yet many of the current political debates in South Sudan have their roots in the nation’s political past, and the record of that debate can be found in various archives – such as the manifestos of South Sudan’s political parties and exile movements preserved in the administrative records in Juba.

Questions of national reconciliation can benefit from an examination of the way previous governments promoted reconciliation on a regular basis at the local level.

Despite many self-inflicted wounds resulting in the loss of valuable documentation, South Sudan still has a significant body of archival material spanning over 100 years of government to draw on in order to see what worked in the past, what didn’t work, and why. What is needed is a strong commitment to preservation, conservation and access. Otherwise South Sudan will lose the record of its past through neglect.

Dr Johnson emphasized the many challenges that the archive is facing. Rapid deterioration due to bad conservation, the effect of the extreme climate and termites and the absence of firm legislation are just some of the various obstacles. He also emphasized the urgent need for professional training to the future custodians of the archives.

The professor, who is involved in the National Archives project, ended with a positive outlook. Through the intensive work of the Rift Valley Institute, many documents have been assembled and conserved. Besides this, there has been a big step forward with the digitization of an important amount of written heritage. The prospect of a new National Archive building will be a cornerstone in the conservation of the rich South Sudanese history. UNESCO is proud that it can contribute to this significant progress towards sustainable development, capacity and peace building.

At the conclusion of the event, the Ambassador of the Egypt in South Sudan announced the approval of training scholarships funded by the Government of Egypt for staff of the Archives department to be trained in in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

The event was attended by senior government officials, ambassadors, representatives of UN agencies, NGO’s and academia.