Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 -16 April 2003
Issue No. 633
Region
Current issue
Previous issue
Site map
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875
Text menu
Comment Recommend Printer-friendly

The Sudanese issue: the view from the South

Helmi Sharawy* discusses the issue of Sudanese unity, this time from a southern perspective


Click to view caption
Men, women and children hold up an Iraqi flag during an anti-war protest in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum
Many claim to have a stake in objectivity, but few are able to admit how much their perspective shapes their opinions and drives their interests. The Sudanese issue highlights this dilemma today more than any time in the past. Khartoum's perspective on the issue no doubt differs from the perspective in Juba, both of which differ from that of Cairo, not to mention the view from Washington and Nairobi. The Sudanese issue has been much discussed in many world capitals, but without lingering for too long on southern Sudan. We are thus obliged to step back somewhat from the matter. Any true discussion of the issue is essentially a suggested perspective, which might prove useful in the future, even if it has not been in the past. The view set forth here concerns the partisans of pan-Arabism, even Egyptianism, as much as it concerns the parties involved in the Sudanese conflict. Indeed, despite efforts to understand the Sudanese issue, the disregard that continues to be shown towards the south in many Egyptian writings is embarassing.

In Cairo, and in Arab political culture in general, I feel that we have not yet begun to deal in depth with the entire range of Arab cultural and social diversity, although we continue to live with many of the problems this causes. We have the Kurds in the Levant, the Amazigh in North Africa, Negroid in Mauritania, and Africanism in Sudan, but an all- encompassing perspective that might help us handle this diversity has yet to be reached. We are still not very aware at reading the lessons of recent history -- both reassuring and disconcerting -- from the former Soviet Union, the Balkans, or East Asia. We have no rule of thumb relating to the model of unity (many Arabs here supported the partition of India and the Balkans), or pointing out that, in historical terms, partition is unnecessary (an option offered to the Bantustans and the Kurds, but rejected on a popular level), or dealing with a ruler's insistence on separatism (as in northern Italy's desire for secession). We must see these issues from the proper perspective to be able to deal with them in an appropriate manner, instead of attacking first.

Here I shall attempt to approach the Sudanese issue from the southern perspective, in the hope that something new can be discovered, while at the same time taking heed of the importance of external considerations that might suddenly arise.

I must first consider the factual perspective. Despite its simplicity, this perspective raises the most significant questions related to the formation of the Sudanese nation, national identity, and the nature of citizenship in Sudan. Members of the south Sudanese leadership, such as Joseph Garang, Abel Alier, Francis Deng and Bona Malwal have been discussing this subject seriously since at least the 1960s. Any discussion of national unity or integration must be accompanied by an examination of social and cultural unity and diversity in Sudan, an issue taken up by these southern Sudanese authors at a very early stage and developed further by northern intellectuals such as Mohamed Omar Bashir, Mohamed Abdel- Hayy, and Abdel-Ghaffar Mohamed Ahmed in all sincerity. I only mention sincerity here because the colonial anthropological approach played a negative role in this regard, using diversity to raise the issue of partition.

Secondly, we need to consider the historical perspective. Many northern historians have not recounted Sudan's social and political history so much as they have written a history of the Sudanese problem and its roots in the modern political development of Sudan. Thus, we are not familiar with the 1801 Zande revolt, the revolt of the Dinka in 1822, the Shelluk, or the general revolt of the south against the British solution proposed at the Juba Conference in 1947, all of which would have given us a sense of Sudan's integrated structure, shaped by Nubian kingdoms, the Sinnar, the Fur, and the sultanates of Dinka and Zande. We must become acquainted with the writings of Joseph Garang and Francis Deng on Sudanese society at a time when Sudanese history was written solely from a northern perspective, which fell silent on the history of the south, as we see in the writings of Youssef Fadel, Mekki Shebeka, and Mohamed Ibrahim Abu-Selim. This legacy is extremely significant to modern history.

We must next consider the developmental perspective. Related to the social and economic history of the Sudan both before and after independence, this perspective raises the subject of integration and alienation, whether we are talking about historical forms of exploitation (slavery and the history of the galibiya), the absence of development programmes and the uneven distribution of wealth in successive political eras (see the documents of the southern regional legislative assembly in the 1970s and 1980s), or the demand to forcefully divide the wealth, seen in contemporary settlement talks such as Machakos.

Fourthly, we must examine the issue of hegemony. This is not simply a matter of direct political control -- northerners have not been in complete control for quite a long time -- but also includes the process of inserting the Sudan as a whole into the global hegemonic order, thus expanding regional or global capitalist markets and engendering forms of colonialist policies, a fact sometimes disregarded in the southern perspective. Here, also, is where ideological hegemony comes into play. Put in sociological terms, a certain social class imposes its hegemony over others outside its natural sphere of influence by using cultural elements, such as Islam, or ethnic elements, such as Arabism. In doing so, this class exploits historical or geographic facts, which the ideology reshapes to become a form of control, such as the history of the galibiya in the south, the Mahdists, or the behaviour of the ruling northern class in general. This situation may continue until such hegemony becomes relatively acceptable, as seen in the ideas of southern moderates such as B Alier, Abel Alier and Joseph Lagu, and during the implementation of the Addis Ababa agreement in the 1970s. But an increasing sense of alienation tends to give rise to the opposite reaction, which is longer lasting. Examples of this type of hegemony are still being played out in different forms in India, Nigeria, and South Africa.

Finally, we must consider the issue of counter-hegemony, examining African history in general for examples of counter- hegemonic movements. Hegemony has historically led to violence and counter-violence between regional, social or tribal forces, which has then grown into revolt and war, followed by the rise of a new hegemonic vision, which may tend either towards integration or alienation, though not necessarily separatism. This is a process of imposing a new ideology with the objective of achieving regional counter-hegemony. This model applies to the Museveni's resistance movement in Uganda, which rejected northern, and later Baganda, hegemony. It also applies to the revolt of the Tegri against the Amhara under the leadership of Zenawi and the march on Kinshasa from the eastern Congo under Kabila.

These models are not incompatible with the thought of the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), which raised the slogan "the new Sudan" to break the traditional hegemony of the bourgeois and sectarianism over Sudan, as is clear in the movement's written documents and the writings of John Garang. Garang, like most of the leaders of the insurgency movements mentioned above, was influenced in Dar Essalaam by the ideas of the Moi Revolution prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s concerning the use of sociopolitical coalitions and the long, popular march to gain control of the capital. Indeed, in his published interviews, Garang does not deny this strategy for ruling the new Sudan. This raises not only the issue of national unity, but the form of the state, and enjoins us to see the extension of the SPLM's influence to the Nubian mountains and the east not as an attempt at separatism, but as an attempt to achieve a new hegemonic order.

We can now examine how the negative aspects of all these approaches or perspectives led to the erosion of trust between south and north Sudan. Did north Sudan facilitate trust-building or national integration during its leadership of post-independence Sudan? The policies implemented as the modern Sudanese state was being formed do not appear to have had this objective in mind -- neither the political coalitions organised during the national liberation movement, nor the development and economic programmes enacted after independence, nor even most of the tussles for power in Khartoum. Indeed, steps to build trust began only recently, starting with the programme of the opposition National Democratic Alliance, and they are still a source of conflict in the Machakos Agreement.

Certain historical events and the stances taken by south Sudanese of various persuasions prominent in Sudanese political life reveal that, in general, southern Sudanese seemed much keener than northerners -- albeit to varying degrees -- to uphold the principle of coexistence. This is perhaps a response to the mistaken approach -- taken by certain Sudanese politicians and intellectuals and ingrained in a broad section of Arab culture -- to the Sudanese issue from the tense events surrounding the moment of independence, or from the logic of Anyanya I, which disappeared from the Sudanese stage at the hand of Garang himself. Nevertheless, Arab writers continue to dwell on separatism, which has not helped efforts to build trust, but has instead led recently to tangible shifts in the position of some southerners.

Perhaps the writings of Abel Alier and his personal evolution are a good example here, best expressed in his 1989 book South Sudan: Too Many Disagreements Dishonoured. Like many southerners, Alier alludes over and over not to separatism or secession, but to the promises of unity and support for integration. As a member of the largest social group in Sudan, the Dinka, Alier is significant. He has also served the central government in Khartoum in several positions, contributing to the attempt to resolve the crisis with a spirit of unity that is palpable in his writings.

We can better understand the south Sudanese perspective if we put the writings of Alier, which document his own journey, next to those of another southern intellectual like Joseph Garang, executed by Jaafar Al-Numeiri in 1971 after he wrote The Dilemma of South Sudanese Intellectuals. If we go back to the 1947 Juba Conference preceding independence, the Round Table Conference of 1965 that followed the popular revolution of October 1964, and the southern stance towards the Addis Ababa Agreement of 1972, we will find unanimous support among southerners, in one form or another -- even among the partisans of Anyanya -- for concord and national integration. Meanwhile, northern social and political forces undermined most of the measures that made integration possible.

The Addis Ababa Agreement, in force from 1972 to 1982, is the ideal representative of attempts made at unity, despite the opinions of some here when it was implemented. The agreement followed a period of intense sectarianism in which little was done to further integration; indeed, there was virtually no organised political activity on the southern stage. A perpetual state of revolt held sway, hindering proposals made in the Round Table Conference of 1965 and the declaration of 9 June, 1969, that followed the May Revolution. All of these agreements met with clear Egyptian support, though it grew out of different political perspectives.

The Addis Ababa Agreement brought a form of provincial self- rule, along with other details we need not mention here. What is notable, however, is the degree to which the agreement evinced a desire for stability. Southern political literature of this period -- and even northern literature -- clearly expresses the desire for national integration and stability, which lasted as long as northerners acted in good faith. We also see how this attempt at unity ended when the intentions of the north changed.

The writings of Francis Deng, Bona Malwal, and Joseph Lagu speak at length about diversity and unity in Sudan, the reconciliation of Sudan's Arab and African identity, and the role provincial rule played in achieving unity. Deng -- a state minister, ambassador, and professor -- talks in his writings about the dynamics of diversity and unity, and about the potential of the Dinka tribes to bind the north and south. Malwal wrote about African-Arab cooperation when he was the minister of culture and information in Khartoum. The booklets of Lagu, the former leader of Anyanya and the vice-president, also fall within this framework. Indeed, all these writers wrote within the framework of the unity of Sudan, both positively and conservatively.

The reader may be surprised to learn that the tone of these writers was passed to certain young northern intellectuals in the 1970s. These intellectuals, too, wrote about diversity and unity from different perspectives: anthropological (Abdel-Ghaffar Mohamed Ahmed), literary (Mohamed Abdel-Hayy), and many others in Sudanese Culture, a magazine enjoying wide circulation at the time. Yet, when we examine the writings of the older generation of northern Sudanese researchers, who were followed by many Arab researchers, we find that their histories of Sudan show a complete disregard for the existence of the south, with not even a limited response to the younger generation of writers. In order to avoid generalisations, however, we must mention the efforts of the late Mohamed Omar Bashir, a professor, practitioner and pioneer of southern Sudanese thought and Sudanese unity throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps the efforts of the Centre for Sudanese Studies to reissue and translate the works of southern Sudanese writers will lend new life to much of this thought.

Yet, it seems that when it comes to the Sudanese issue, the negative has always outweighed the positive. Soon enough, northern isolationism and the north's tendency to alienate the south outweighed concern for the south. Tension within the provincial governments and towards development, discrimination between political forces active in the south, and problems related to the Gongli Canal and the southern regional borders started to make themselves felt. The conflict over oil broke out at an early stage, and the situation exploded in the early 1980s. The north -- the stronger power -- did not deal with these problems wisely, abrogating all measures taken to bring about regional unity and ignoring provincial representatives and their people. The process of isolation and alienation was cemented when the Addis Ababa Agreement was cancelled and the south divided, followed by Numeiri's turn towards the Islamic path and the implementation of the Shari'a in September 1983. Numeiri's coalition stood with the forces of anti-southern extremists, represented by the National Islamic Front, led by Hassan Al-Turabi, which soon isolated Numeiri himself from the limited coalition that supported him. It ended in the revolt of the north against Numeiri and the May revolution in April 1985.

When the situation exploded in the south in 1983, neither the Islamic path nor the Shari'a was the primary focus of protest, as many have claimed in an attempt to deny southerners the right of protest. Rather, the explosion was the accumulated result of a political culture of alienation and its practical embodiment on many levels. We should take note of the body of documents produced by the protest movement and its development, as represented in the evolution of the SPLM. From its fundamental declaration in 1983 through its 1998 programmes, the movement did not emphasise separatism. It included self- determination as a principle among many others, including justice and democratic rule, and as a political tactic, but it was not part of the movement's intellectual foundation.

It seems to me that the position of the SPLM has not changed since it was established in 1983. This is reflected in all stages of negotiations with the northern central authorities, even after the popular revolt against Numeiri's regime in April 1985. During this second or third democracy, the regime was expected to be more democratic and more mindful of unity to head off any separatist tendencies arising in the south and to put an end to the armed conflict. But it was the SPLM that first demanded a constitutional convention to discuss the framework for a new democratic, united Sudan. Since, however, the traditional political parties brought to power by the popular revolt had no nationwide political presence -- also not in the south -- they did not come up with democratic or unity-minded measures that might have brought the various parties of the conflict together. It is no accident that the Kokadam Agreement, signed by the SPLM and delegates of Al-Sadeq Al-Mahdi, failed. Nor is it a coincidence that the subsequent Peace Initiative, signed by Al- Mirghani himself and other leaders of the northern-oriented "democratic government" also failed.

Neither of these two initiatives- with Garang- raised the issue of separatism, nor did they reveal any separatist designs among southerners; rather they focussed on conditions that would obtain, in the south, a new, united Sudan. I think that this is what shaped the stance of the movement with the Sudanese opposition after the 1989 coup.

Under the leadership of John Garang, the SPLM took up the slogan "the new Sudan", based on the democratic coalition of the early 1990s before the movement became a founding member of the National Democratic Alliance opposing the rule of the National Islamic Front and the Sudanese military. Along with the southern movement, the coalition has participants from other areas in Sudan, who also deserve to be read. This is reflected in the declarations of the coalition issued in Asmara in 1995. As a principle, self-determination became a moot point after 1992, when the government itself and some ambitious parties within the opposition emptied it of all meaning. The documents of the SPLM through its 1998 programmes are relevant here, for they show the profound effect of Garang's visit to Cairo that time.

Though this article cannot cover the whole debate between the many parties in the Sudanese conflict -- its objective is to deal with the southern perspective -- it is interesting to note that John Garang himself did away with the separatist Anyanya movement twice in the history of the SPLM, refusing to cooperate with the figures of separatism, with whom the Khartoum government has cooperated since 1992. I shall end by examining the impact of the accumulated lack of trust in Sudan, which has caused those forces active in building trust in the 1970s to give up their attempts entirely and pin their hopes on other parties.

Now we find Abel Alier, writing in 1989 about broken promises and despairing of history. We have Bona Malwal in London shrieking with rage and going back to criticising the Arabs. And here is Francis Deng in 1995, writing about the south from Washington in a different tone, speaking about a conflict of visions rather than diversity and unity as he had before. And there he is contributing to a 2001 report about Sudanese politics for the US, participating with the US Institute for Strategic Studies in its talk about one nation, two systems, and about a confederation.

As the spiral of jihad and revolt grows fiercer in the south, John Garang's SPLM today issues writings, documents, and maps about a federation or a confederation rather than talking about "the new Sudan". When talk about unity arises today, it comes in the context of Machakos and bears a heavy price, either for the national democratic movement or for Sudan's foreign relations.

So the question remains: who is responsible for destroying trust rather than building it?

Everyone continues to ignore the domestic factors involved in building trust and unity, until the US suggests that there is no need for partition due to petroleum interests in southern, western and northern Sudan, along with the neighbouring African regions. From which perspective will talk about Sudanese unity begin now? Does this sort of imperialist climate that links unity with new systems of government reassure the friends in Egypt? Or shall we once more try to build trust from our national perspectives?

* The writer is director of the Arab African Research Centre in Cairo.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Comment Recommend Printer-friendly

Issue 633 Front Page
Egypt | Region | INVASION OF IRAQ | Economy | Opinion | Letters | Culture | Living | Features | Heritage | Sports | Profile | People | Time Out | Chronicles | Cartoons | Crossword
Batch View | Current issue | Previous issue | Site map