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Why peace is elusive: The government has suspended the peace talks with the rebels after losing the strategic town of Torit. But as Jacob Akol reports, there is more to it than meets the eye. (Around Africa: Sudan).

When the government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) signed the landmark "protocol" in the Kenyan town of Machakos on 20 July (see NA, Sept, p22), it seemed that the longest and most complex conflict in Africa was nearing a happy conclusion.

Negotiations resumed in earnest on 12 August, but in early September the government "suspended" the talks after losing the strategic town of Torit to the SPLA.

The shorthand version of the conflict has long been an oversimplification of the war as that between the Muslim/Arab-cultured North and the Christian/animist South. The complexity of it is fully discussed in War Of Visions--Conflict of Identities in the Sudan, a book by Dr Francis M. Deng, a distinguished Sudanese academic and diplomat.

Dr Deng traces the conflict to its toots, dating back to ancient times, when the Arabs traded freely with Bilad al-Sudan, an Arabic phrase "from which Sudan derives its name" and which means "Land of the Blacks" and refers to all the sub-Saharan territories.

The Arab traders married into leading African families. In due time, and with the expansion of Islam and the Arab empire in the 7th century, many descendants of the admixture of Arab and African blood became ready converts to Islam.

But, unlike elsewhere in Africa "where, with the exception of Mauritania, people identify themselves as Africans, the northern Sudanese see themselves as Arabs and deny the strongly African element in their skin colour and physical features. They associate these features with the Negroid race and see it as the mother race of slaves, inferior and demeaned.

"Having been permitted by Islam and the assimilationist Arab culture to pass into the supposedly superior Arab-Islamic identity, northern Sudanese 'Arabs' (39%) do not only vehemently resist any attempt by the non-Arab population (61% nation-wide, with 33% in the South and 28% in the North) to identify the country with black Africa," says Dr Deng.

They insist on defining it as an Arab country "A prominent northern Sudanese scholar and statesman has even suggested that the Sudan should change its name because it is reminiscent of a denigrated racial label."

"In the Sudanese context, the more the North asserts its Arabness, the more the South asserts Africanness as a counter identity," says Dr Deng. Therein lies the heart of the conflict: "In both the North and the South, then, the identity factors have been moved from the realm of benign self-perception to the politically contested stage of national symbolism with the associated implications of shaping and sharing power, wealth, and other national values."

But, while the conflicting identities between the North and the South appear clear-cur, there are also large groups of non-Arab communities in the North (about 28%) "who have been partially assimilated by their conversion to Islam and adoption of Arabic as the language of communication with other tribes." These groups have been "virtually adopted by the dominant Arab groups as 'orphans' of Arabism, redeemed from their degraded status of their slave origin as black.

"Their identification with Arabism." Dr Deng says, "is the result of a process in which races and religions were ranked, with Arabs and Muslims respected as free, superior and a race of slave masters, while Negroes and heathens were viewed as legitimate target of slavery, if they were not in fact already slaves."

All it needed for an African to become an Arab was to convert to Islam, learn to speak Arabic language, intermarry with the Arabs and identify genealogically with the master race. "In due course, so liberal was the process that the claim to Arab ancestry could be made from fictional assertions that usually did not need to be verified."

Colour of skin is also an important factor in Sudan: "The darker the colour of skin, the less authentic the claim to Arab ancestry and the greater the likelihood of being looked down on as of slave origin."

The vision of the leadership of Sudanese "Arabs" (39%) for a "united Sudan" is one in which the Southerners (33%) are either peacefully converted or forced into Islam. Their vision is a "united Sudan" in which 39% are "Arabs" while 61% are "orphans" of Arabism. The South has rejected that vision as unacceptable and divisive.

The vision of the southern leadership had been that of self-preservation and protection of their ancient beliefs and cultures and, lately, Christianity. But in recent years, the Southern vision, led by the SPLA/M, for a "United Sudan" has been that of a nation under secular laws, with religious and racial identities consigned to the realm of benign self-perception.

That was the vision the SPLM/A brought to the negotiating table at Machakos. Under this vision, the identity of the nation would revolve around its name and the flag. Sudan would no longer be identified as "Islamic" or "Arab" or "African", though in some appropriate instances beneficial to Sudan it could still be identified as "Afro-Arab".

That vision was rejected as "unacceptable to Islam" by the government "because Islam is a way of life" and therefore encompasses everything a Muslim does.

The compromise vision, it seemed, was the Machakos Protocol, which would give the South six years of secular self-administration in a United Sudan, with the option of voting for the continuation of such unity in diversity or secession as a separate nation.

But the September suspension of the talks by the government and the call for an all-out war should not be seen as mere protest for the SPLA's capture of Torit, as no ceasefire agreement was signed.

During the negotiations leading to the Machakos Protocol, the government continued the bombing of SPLA-controlled areas and captured a string of SPLA positions; while the SPLA captured the strategic town of Kapoeta from the government, and none of them walked out of the peace talks in protest.

The likelihood is that President Omar Bashir, like President Numeiri before him, has given in to relentless high and low profiled criticism from pan-Arabists and Islamic extremists for having signed the Machakos Protocol, which they see as signalling either an end to their hegemony over other races and religions or providing a possible way out for the people of the South.

When eventually they return to the negotiating table, the observing nations will find that the Sudanese leaders do not agree on what it was exactly they agreed to in Machakos.
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Author:Akol, Jacob
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6SUDA
Date:Oct 1, 2002
Words:1065
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