The National Reaction of the South Sudanese People to the Jonglei Canal (1901 – 1983)

Posted: February 20, 2018 by PaanLuel Wël Media Ltd. in History, Jonglei Canal, Junub Sudan

By Joseph Akol Wek Kuanyin, Juba, South Sudan

Construction of the Jonglei Canal in Sudan on February 24th,1983

Construction of the Jonglei Canal in Sudan on February 24th,1983

February 20, 2018 (SSB) — A more ambitious project not included in the interim programmes was the excavation of the Jonglei Canal. With reference to the statement made by an Egyptian political commentator Samir Faraj on Egyptian TV dated 28th January 2018 and was circulated on national courier social media and Facebook, during the interview in an Arabic, the former military commander and governor of Luxor said that “the digging of canal would give Egypt 30 billion cubic metrics of water per a year, he also said the water would greatly benefit Egypt and Sudan and ease their problems.”

Egypt is embroiled in a row with Ethiopia over the building of a dam across one of the tributaries of the Nile. Egypt is worried that, the dam affect the flow of Nile downstream, Egypt has tried for many years to woo South Sudan to restart the digging Jonglei canal. I would like to refer you back to the year of 1901 when Sir William Garstin undersecretary of the state of public works in Egypt, had proposed the excavation of the Canal, the Garisten cut, that would transmit fresh water from Equatorial Lakes to the White Nile that otherwise would be lost by evaporation and transpiration in the Sudd.

The proposal was revived in 1946, but it was not possible until December 1971 that a subcommittee of the Egyptian – Sudanese permanent joint technical committee (PJTC), that responsible for hydrological implementation of the 1959 Nile Water Agreement, presented an entirely new scheme for a canal 174 miles from the villages of Jonglei on the Bhar el Jabel to the confluence of the Sobat and White Nile rivers that would not change the regimen of the Sudd.

The amount of land that would be reclaimed by the diversion of the swamp water into the canal would be negligible, and the first all-weather overland road to link northern and Southern Sudan would be built along the canal embankment. The signing of the Addis Ababa Agreement in February 1972 and the subsequent gave Southern province self- Government Act in March had now made possible the Jonglei canal, and the final contract was signed between the Permanent Joint Technical committee (PJTC) and the French company, called Compagnie de construction International (CCI), on 28th July 1974 to construct Jonglei canal at a cost of $s52 million. An additional $S 18 million was allocated for a local development project in the Canal Zone.

Although it was self – evident that the Jonglei canal would have an enormous impact on the Nilotic living in the Canal Zone. The announcement of the project at the first aroused little interest in the Southern society except among those in the Assembly who conspired to use Jonglei to topple the Government of Abel Alier. A clandestine document was widely circulated among Southern students and junior officials in the rivers towns of Juba, Bor, and Malakal demanding the two million Egyptian fellahin would be settled in the Canal Zone under the protection of the Egyptian soldiers.

The second set of rumors, equally bizarre but believed was circulated declaring that the canal would drain the Sudd and destabilizes the normal meteorological processes, there would be no any swamp, no evaporation, no cloud, no rainfall only a desert for the Egyptian fellahin to plow. All these rumors found fertile soil in Juba, where the threat of Dinkocracy was deeply rooted among the local Bari, on 17th October 1974, students from the Juba commercial secondary school held a protest demonstration and the police have no tear gas or riot gear to ignominiously retreat before a barrage of stones to the protective will walls of their headquarters.

Embolden by their success, the next day, the students joined by junior government employees, rampaged through the street, breaking into the shops and setting cars in a fire, they were only dispersed when the police fired the live bullet in the crowd, killing two students. A State of emergency was declared, a curfew imposed, some of two hundred demonstrators were arrested except the few who escaped to East Africa to provide the passionate but ignorant propaganda for a clique of environmentalist activist convinced the canal would result in the desertification of the Sudd.

Both the regional and central governments reacted swiftly to control the damage. Abel Alier delivered informed and calming speech to the Assembly in which he emphasized that no Egyptian peasants or troops were being sent to the South and described the benefits to be derived from the construction of the canal. He ended his peroration with the ringing challenge:

I wish to say that although this [Jonglei] canal is the central Government project while regional Government is there to support it and stands for it. If we have to drive our people to paradise with sticks we will do so for their own good and the good of those who come after us.

When President Jafaar Nimeri realized that, something was misunderstanding about Jonglei canal national project, he abruptly appointed the National Council for the Development of the Jonglei Canal Area (NCDJCA) charged with “formulating socio-economic development plans for the Jonglei area” a Jonglei Executive organ (JEO) responsible for conducting studies of the effect of the canal, and development projects for the people of the canal zone. No sooner had the JEO begun its task in 1976, the Jonglei canal came under a withering assault from impassioned environmentalists.

From its origins in the Nairobi headquarters of the United Nation Environmental programme, the hue and cry of environmentalists were picked up by the European press, particularly Germany and France. A steady stream of sometimes thoughtful, often strident, and frequently ignorant articles poured forth from the media led by a coalition of environmental groups in Europe and the United State known as the environmental Liaison Center, with headquarters in Nairobi, demanding an immediate moratorium or temporary Suspended on all work in the Canal Zone.

In the year 1977 at the United Nations Conference on Desertification, held in Nairobi, provided a global forum for those who denounced the Canal, particularly professor Richard Odingo of Nairobi University, who dramatically declared, “Here is a Canal being built in an area that could easily be an Africa‘s next desert,” which was absolutely nonsense according to central Government Under leadership of Jafaar Nimeri of which, he viewed him as an obstacle to project.

That heated international debates culminated in a packed meeting sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society in London on 5th October 1982 entitled “the impact of the Jonglei Canal in Sudan” twenty-five years before, the Jonglei investigation Team had conclusively demonstrated that the canal would have no significant impact on precipitation. The multi-volume studies of the Canal Zone undertaken for the JEO by Mefit Babitie SRL. From 1979 to 1983 substantially confirmed that conclusion.

The economical and speedy construction of the large navigable canal in the world was to be made possible by the “Bucketwheel,” an awesome machine, five stories high, weight 2,300 tons, and consuming 10,400 Gallons /day (40,000 liters, 900 tons) of fuel. This behemoth had to be fully automated in order to keep the great wheel and it twelve buckets simultaneously revolving and rotating 180 ͦprecisely on grade in a plain where the slope is only is only 2¼ inches/mile. Guided by a laser beam the wheel itself would complete a revolution every minute while simultaneously rotating 180 degrees to dig a canal over 130 feet wide and 20 feet deep, the Buckets depositing the debris onto a conveyor belt to the east bank, thus creating the all-weather road.

No sooner had the Bucketwheel shifted into high gear than the alignment of the canal was significantly altered in 1981. The original canal was a straight line from Jonglei to the mouth of the Sobat. When the JEO learned that the beds of the Atem and Bhar El Jabal rivers approaching Jonglei were extremely unstable, the entrance to the canal was moved upstream to Bor adding 56 miles and $s million to the cost of the canal, an extraordinary bargain at 1981 prices, as the Bucketwheel crawled relentlessly forward to its rendezvous with the Bahr el Jabel at Bor.

Another large development project also not part of the Interim programme was the beginning of Petroleum exploration of 200,000 square miles of Southern Kordofan and the Upper Nile by Chevron Overseas Petroleum Incorporation (COPI). Northern Sudanese politician was less than enthusiastic. Privately, until the discovery of oil, many Northern Sudanese would have been delighted to have the South secede and an end is an accursed drain on the national treasury. Publicly, northern politicians and civil servants remained convinced that, if there were oil deposits in the Southern Sudan, a fundamental bond of unity would be removed, enabling the South to separate.

This conviction soon appeared immutable through a series of unfortunate episodes marred by disagreements and misperceptions over oil. When president Jafaar Nimeri visited United State, in 1978 with his new Minister for Energy, Dr. Sharif Al Tuhami, who had been openly disparaging of any oil development in the South, the American media disclosed that commercial quantities of oil had been discovered “in the Southern part of western Sudan” to be piped 900 miles to Port Sudan for the International markets. The report was widely broadcasted over the voice of America; the South explodes in a protest.

Waves of prolonged demonstrations surged through the Southern town demanding that the pipeline should pass “Southern oil” through Southern Sudan and East Africa to Mombasa. Khartoum reacted to the demonstrations by peremptorily replacing the Southern garrison at Bentiu under the command of Captain Salva Kiir Mayardit who was to become the president of autonomous Government of Southern Sudan in 2005 and currently elected president of Republic of South Sudan, with the battalion of 600 Northern troops from the western command.

Other provocative incidents soon followed is when Khartoum sought to redraw the boundary particularly between North and South in July 1980 to include the oil fields and rich grazing land of the Upper Nile and the Bahr el Ghazal in Kordofan, Southern students took to the streets in protest at this flagrant violent of the Addis Ababa agreement. With little grace, Nimeri rescinded his decree, but Northern and Southern views over oil exploration and exploitation become over more divergent and acrimonious.

In November 1980, President Nimeri addressed the National Legislative Assembly to present the petroleum policy of his agreement, the small refinery scheduled for construction at Bentiu would be replaced by a 400- mile pipeline to pump the Bentiu crude oil to a larger refinery at Kosti in the North, Southern students again took to the street, and the High Executive Council (HEC) and regional Assembly angrily denounced his decision, for the loss of the refinery would simply condemn the greater Bentiu area to perpetual underdevelopment, although Nimeri refuse to reverse his decision, he did agree to a package of Government and Cheveron initiatives that included a development authority in Bentiu,  while Chevron undertook to improve health, drinking water, and education in the Bentiu area council.

The Southern Sudanese sullen summered in humiliation at their impotence, which Nimeri did not let them forget when he grandly announced that he had abandoned his refinery at Kosti for an 870- mile pipeline to pump Bentiu crude oil directly to Port Sudan for export to the international markets

These were nonetheless ebullient and prosperous years in which the large infusion of Arab and international capital trickled down into the Suq and the pocket of even the most impoverish Sudanese. Even the casual foreign visitors could not but be aware of the optimism and buoyant belief in a rosy future that pervaded the Sudanese particularly in the three town of the center, whose prosperity continuous to widen the gap between the heartland and periphery, which was presumably content to receive the scrap from the beautiful dinner table of development in Khartoum.

The president had demonstrated a national leadership that the Sudanese deserved, the SSU had provided structure for the political mobilization of the people and the economy was booming. This stability and growth could not have been made possible without the apparent resolution of the Southern problem which enables many northern to leave the Southern along to get on with their own affairs. Nimeri basked in the glow of his enhanced prestige and wide support for his regime throughout the country.

On new year ‘s day 1956 there were few Sudanese who would have predicted their bubble was about to burst, and that president Ja,afar Nimeri ‘s regime would relentlessly disintegrate without the slightest token of remorse from his subject.

In my own view and conclusion, the project was lacking community rural participatory approach whereby the resident community of that particular locality was not involved in Environmental impact assessment, that was conducted to prove that no impact on ecology, the good project with simple questionnaires that can be understood by community members.

The second was the feasibility study was not done before the project kicked off to see the environmental impact to both human, domestic animal and wild animals in the project site of the canal. In this matter many national project fail because Southern Sudan intellectual and community were involved and viewed as people with no choice but to agree with what every proposed by Sudan or Egypt, partly, Egypt and Sudan believed that God created them in her head and viewed other as if God created them on her foot but those assumptions got no fertile land to yield nowadays.

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  1. ConcernedMonyjang says:

    What is this author trying to say really in relations to the Jonglei Canal Project?

    There is no doubt that Jonglei Canal Project was an issue of historical significance. Therefore this article should have been entitled as the “history of Jonglei Canal project” at best and not about “national reactions” to the project. But I give the author a credit for hinting at Egypt’s continued interest in the project and in South Sudan as a whole. Whether the ruling class of South Sudan could be able to look beyond Egypt’s “donations” is a matter of concern. I don’t take this to be a criticism to the present author. My objective is more analytical and to his advantage.

    This author has got a crucial topic of research study as the then Southern Sudan region became independent in 2011. But it is the way he is saying that is a problem with me.

    I explain. Southern Sudan, the territory under which the Jonglei area falls in at the time when the infamous project was commissioned was not a “nation”. But a semi-autonomous region of the Sudan. And although the Southern Sudan’s residents reacted to the Proposed Project plan, there was nothing “nationalistic” about it. So that so much it warrants the title of: “The National Reaction of the South Sudanese People to the Jonglei Canal” as the author emphasizes.

    Having stated it above, it becomes a matter of confusion as to what “nation” the author means in relation to the issue of “Jonglei Canal Project”. Stating that “The National Reaction of the South Sudanese People to the Jonglei Canal:1901 – 1983”: demands that the author specifies as to which “nation” that he has in mind. Therefore conflating on the “national reactions” to the project obfuscates some historical facts relating to the Jonglei Canal Project, it also distorts some significant scholarly works done in relations to the Jonglei Canal Project: both by individuals and some international organizations.

    An example of these significant scholarly works is that of Dr. John Garang de Mabior submitted to Iowa State University, United States, in partial fulfillment of the Degree of Doctorate of Philosophy in Economics in 1981. Sorry this is not SPLM. This is scholarship. In the SPLM, Garang was beyond critique.
    Garang’s work entitles: “Identifying, selecting, and implementing rural development strategies for socio-economic development in the Jonglei Projects Area, Southern Region, Sudan” outlines issues relating to the non-community consultation approach to the proposed project in the Jonglei area; and more importantly, “to contribute to the debate on[and in relations to the] appropriate rural development strategies for the JPA[Jonglei Project Area]”. For Garang, this can be achieved by:

    1) “providing an analytical framework within which the various conflicting issues on the subject may be Identified, debated and resolved; 2) applying the analytical framework to the JPA to suggest planning elements upon which an appropriate rural development strategy for the JPA could be based; and (3) provoking more discussion and review despite the fact that the strategy of Integrated rural development, as recommended by international organizations, seems to be gaining [attention] in the area”(de Mabior, 1981:5).

    Garang maintains that: “The primary and initial objective of socio-economic development in the JPA[Jonglei Project Area] is the eradication of hunger, disease and Illiteracy, and the provision of basic social services including shelter, health care, nutrition, schools, transport and flood control”(p.5).

    Similarly, however, the author of the present article also hints at:

    “[T]he project… lacking community rural participatory approach whereby the resident community of that particular locality[the Jonglei area] was not involved in [matters relating to] Environmental [impacts/and in the] assessment, that was conducted to prove that no” ecological impact would be done to the area as a result of the excavated canal.

    The present author was probably unaware of the Garang’s dissertation. However, both Garang(see Introduction, p:8) and the author of this article quoted Abel Alier utterance that:

    “If we have to drive our people to paradise with sticks we will do so for their own good and the good of those who come after us”. What this oblique statement means in relations to the Jonglei Canal Project is unclear. Does it mean that Abel Alier was in opposition to the proposed canal project; or was in support of it is hard to tell.

    Other scholarly works on Jonglei area were done in relations to Sudan’s natural resources, flooding disasters and their mitigation strategies, as well as the studies on White Nile waters.These were done by both the Sudanese and foreign scholars alike. These scholarly works regardless of their individual findings preceded the feasibility studies that were later conducted by the Egyptians and the Sudanese academics.

    Furthermore, at least two countries and three governments were involved.The first two countries with their respective governments were the Egyptian and Sudanese governments; and the third was the regional government of Southern Sudan, known as the High Executive Council(HEC) at the time.

    But let keep to water and proposed canal project. Egypt’s motivation in the project was to maximize its share of the Nile waters. The river Nile, dubbed as the “life blood” of Egypt, spans thousands of miles, running through various countries in the region. The colonial British administration in both Egypt and Sudan gave “Egypt a lion’s share” over the water of the Nile river: potential point of future conflict in the region. Egypt has been also reported to be in a vehement opposition to constructions of major dams including the proposed Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam. However, between 2009 and 2011,these riparian countries in the region convened in Kampala, Uganda and singed the Nile-Basin Countries’ Initiative(NBCI): a framework that will deal with the water issues among these countries. Both Egypt and Sudan are said to have got mixed positions in relations to the NBCI. As South Sudan became independent in 2011,both Egypt and Sudan become its important allies in the region.Until now, it has not signed the NBCI.

    It seems to me that what the author of the present article has in mind is the possibility of Egypt resuming the Jonglei Canal Project in South Sudan in the near future. Given the internal affairs of this new African country, the dysfunctionality of its leadership, it would be hard to deny that possibility.

    Many thanks, Joseph Akol Wek Kuanyin for your forward thinking!


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