Looking for the 1956 Map of Sudan


27 August 2008: Looking for the 1956 Map of Sudan


In June 2008 the chairperson of the Southern Sudan component of the Sudanese North-South Border Demarcation Commission, Riek Dogoal Juer, revealed that the committee charged with the task of demarcating the North-South borderline in Sudan could not locate the map that the British handed over to the newly independent state on January 1, 1956. 

(Picture: Map of the Port of Sudan, 1946; Perry-Castañeda Library, University of Texas)

This map is critical as the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 9 January 2005, that ended the 21 years of North-South war, provides for demarcation of the border between the two regions. This demarcation is to be based on the 1956 border which was inherited from the British colonial administration. However, despite collecting more than 300 different maps of Sudan from around the world, the demarcation committee could not find the map of 1956.


This map was allegedly not only missing from the government archives in Khartoum but could also not be traced in Cairo. Egypt had jointly ruled Sudan during the colonial era. Such allegations immediately spurred speculations and rumour-mongering of conspiracy. Some Southerners speculate that Khartoum is hiding the map because it would reveal the contested region of Abyei to be located in the South. Egypt was suspected to be hiding the map as it would assist in finalising the separation of Sudan and creation of a new state; which could render the contentious 1929 Nile Treaty redundant.


The map will be used for the North-South border demarcation, andthat will in turn lead to the redeployment of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) across the borders. It will also establish political constituencies in the disputed areas before the 2009 general elections and the referendum on independence in the South in 2011. But most importantly, the demarcation would determine whether Juba or Khartoum controls the mineral-rich Abyei region.


I was confused, as many people who are following the implementation of the CPA, as to how an important document as a map of a country could mysteriously disappear from records around the world.  While visiting the UK in July, I embarked on a mission to locate this missing map. My first stop was at the British National Archives, where I meticulously went through the map catalogue but it did not have a listing for a 1956 map of Sudan. I approached the archivist for assistance but he confirmed what was in the catalogue. I argued with him that the map is in the archive although it is not in the catalogue but he was absolutely confident that if it was not in the catalogue it was not in the archive. We even sought the advice of the map expert in the National Archive who confirmed the non-existence of this map.


My next stop was at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library’s Map section, which has the most comprehensive collection of Ordnance Survey maps in the world.  I went through the same routine of looking for the map in the catalogue and seeking assistance of librarians. I hit the same wall as in the National Archives. I repeated the same search at the British Library’s Map library and the Royal Geographical Society. At this point, I was on the verge of giving up and concluding that the British were part of the conspiracy to hide this map.


However having been bitten by the research bug, expended so much energy, and come from so far, I went back to the drawing board.


My next stop was the University of Durham, where I visited the International Boundary Research Unit (IBRU), which specializes in peaceful resolution of border disputes. While being given a tour of the university I was shown the Sudan Archive of the School of Oriental Studies, which is nestled between the Durham Cathedral and the Castle.  My hosts told me that the Sudan Archive contained the most comprehensive information on Sudan including papers of administrators, missionaries, soldiers, businessmen, doctors, agriculturalists, teachers and others who had served or lived in the Sudan during the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium.


The Archive also contained maps and related printed material.  This information gave me an ecstatic feeling that I had finally unravelled the mystery of the 1956 map. As I was fighting the urge to dash into the archive, I told my host that I wanted to visit Archive to retrieve the 1956 Sudan map. Their curt response was: “There is no 1956 Sudan map!” I told them my adventure of locating this map and they laughed at me and said: “This misinformation should be corrected in media as there has never existed a 1956 Sudan map.”


I finally gave up the search for the 1956 Sudan map but was left with many questions that I tried to find answers for. Why was the world led to believe that this map existed and had mysteriously disappeared? How could the North-South Border Demarcation Commission comb through more than 300 maps of Sudan around the world and fail to recognise that this map never existed?  Could this desperate search for a colonial map be repeated in future border disputes?


While trying to answer these questions I came to a conclusion that there is a wrong assumption in Africa that the colonialists, while transferring power to the African leaders, handed over the map of the newly independent country wrapped in the flag. This was not what happened. The colonial administrations never carried out surveys, delimitations, and demarcation of their colonies before handing them over. In fact some of the boundaries they left behind were those agreed upon between 1885 and 1905. In such cases, if countries like Kenya and Tanzania were to look for the colonial map that was left behind when they gained their independence, they will have to refer to the 1905 map that was defined in the Anglo-German Treaty of 1905. The Sudan demarcation commission will also have to rely on the 1905 boundaries of Abyei when delimiting the north-south boundary.


The most important lesson from this exercise of searching for the 1956 Sudan map is that African governments and research institutions should maintain archives of historical records that should be made accessible to the public. In the case of Sudan, it is sad to note that its central archive was torn apart to make way for army housing, and some of the available records are either partly eaten by ants or stored in beer crates in a local girls school.

Wafula Okumu is with the African Security Analysis Programme, ISS Pretoria Office.