Sudan: The long-term View


Gerard Prunier

This schizophrenia is at the root of a deep identity and existential anguish which makes the Northern Sudanese dangerously marginal Arabs, prone to reassert their dubious “identity” through the killing of Black “slaves”, in order to prove to the whole Muslim world that they, themselves, are NOT slaves. It is this schizophrenia which can explain how such mild and courteous people as the “Arab” Sudanese can so easily turn into genocidal monsters once they are faced with a Black African challenge to their “Arab” identity. 

Sudan : the long-term view

The present Sudan crisis, occurring after fifty-six years of conflict and a process of secession which had been vaunted as the once-and-for-all solution, calls into question the very nature of that entity called the Sudan(s).

I.    The weight of the past

First of all, the most fundamental element to remember is that the Sudan is not a country:
•    It has no natural boundaries or climactic unity
•    It has no overall dominant culture , “Arabism” being a foreign imported element
•    It has hundreds of tribes and languages , Arabic , in its various dialects , being only a lingua franca used by many but not treasured as an element of cultural identity
•    It was born not of European colonial domination but out of a late extension of the Ottoman Empire i.e. a notoriously flabby and shapeless imperial structure which has left in its wake, from the Balkans to the Middle East, a field of political and cultural ruins.
•    Throughout its brief history (something akin to the present day Sudan was born only in 1821) it has inflated and shrunk to cover surfaces ranging between one and four million square kilometres , depending on the period [see insert] . No feeling of unity ever developed during that accordion period. The only unity ever evidenced came from two sources: commercial greed and violence. These two sources of “unity” are still the only ones operating today, as evidenced in the North-South oil negotiations.
•    Multiple cultural, geographic, political and ethnic combinations are possible in the Sudan(s) because there is no core identity anywhere. The fact that the Southern Sudan could not even come forth with a name for itself in 2011 is telling enough. Even Biafra or Eritrea “knew” what they were; the Southern Sudan did not. It only knows it is not the North, something of a completely negative feeling. There is no patriotism anywhere, only various reactive forms of defence mechanisms. The South knows it does not want to be islamized and arabized. But beyond that it is split into fifty mutually fissiparous tribes. The middle belt, populated by black Muslims, has accepted Islamization but refused Arabization. It took these people many years to finally decide that they were not Arabs, even though Arabic is widely spoken over the area, but mostly as a second language, the first language being qualified as rottana (litt. “gibberish” i.e. dialect) by the native arabophones. Today these people fight the Arabs after serving them as labourers and mercenary soldiers for over a century. Finally the northern parts are trying to be islamo-arabic while knowing that the “true Arabs” (i.e. the Middle Eastern ones) despise them, calling them “abid” [slaves] in the very same way that they themselves call the Southerners. This schizophrenia is at the root of a deep identity and existential anguish which makes the Northern Sudanese dangerously marginal Arabs, prone to reassert their dubious “identity” through the killing of Black “slaves”, in order to prove to the whole Muslim world that they, themselves, are NOT slaves. It is this schizophrenia which can explain how such mild and courteous people as the “Arab” Sudanese can so easily turn into genocidal monsters once they are faced with a Black African challenge to their “Arab” identity.
•    The name Sudan is in fact a non-name. It comes from the classification of the medieval Arab geographers who , starting from the Mediterranean shoreline , distinguished a series of trans-african North-to-South parallel strips i.e. the populated lands of Maghreb and Machrek , then the  Sahara (desert) , then the Sahel (from the Arabic as-Sahil , the shore , the Sahara being like a sea and the Sahil its southern “shore”) and finally , further south , al-Beled as-Sudan , “the land of the Blacks”. This last strip ran from today’s Senegal to the foothills of Abyssinia and it was a geographical appellation like “the Balkans” or “Australasia”. It was not something that could be called a country. This approach can be verified if we remember that during colonial times, there were two Sudans: the French Sudan (today’s Mali) and the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (today’s North and South Sudan. The fact that today Mali is also splitting due to the Tuareg insurrection is a reminder of how flimsy and theoretical these “Sudanic” structures are.



1821-1863 :    THE BASE    . Under the “Turkiyya” [Turco-Egyptian imperial regime of Mohamed Ali , Abbas Pasha and Mohamed Said Pasha] “the Sudan” was limited to today’s northern Sudan minus Darfur and governed from Cairo . The rulers were Ottomans of Albanian origin who speak scant Arabic [their mother tongue is Turkish] . Mohamed Ali’s reason for conquering “the Sudan” was to acquire Black slave soldiers to fight the Turks in Arabia [he thought they were adapted to the climate ; he was wrong] and to find gold mines [he did not find them] . He plundered whatever resources (ivory , musk , civilian slaves) he could find . The imperial administration in “the Sudan” was made up of Armenians , Greeks , Tcherkess , Syrians , Turks , Albanians, Macedonians and even a few (but very few at the high level) Egyptian Arabs. None were “Sudanese”. The results of occupation were so disappointing that Mohamed Said thought of evacuating the country altogether . After a trip to “the Sudan” he changed his mind when he saw the benefits of the slave trade . Henceforth “the Sudan” was seen purely as a reservoir of Black slaves , picked in the South and all the way into the Congo and Uganda . But the South was not militarily occupied , just plundered for human resources . This slaving policy left very serious consequences in terms of identity and political perceptions .

1863-1881 :   EXPANSION  . Under Ismail Pasha the Turco-Egyptian regime decided to colonize Africa , using “the Sudan” as a base . In a few years the Cairo-based Empire occupied the South, then from there moved into large chunks of what came to be known later as Ubangui-Chari [today’s Central African Republic] , the whole north of Uganda down to Lake Kyoga , the Somali shoreline of the Red Sea all the way down to Lamu in Kenya , the region of Harar in Abyssinia , Darfur and parts of Chad . They also attempted to conquer Eritrea , the Abyssinian high plateau and Buganda but failed in these endeavours . They used as officers and administrators for these conquests of whole bevy of European adventurers (Americans , both Northerners and Confederates , Italians , British , Prussians , Austrians) on a model that was later copied by King Leopold in the Congo Free State . “The Sudan” had become a bloated entity of some four million square kilometres . At the Universal Exposition of 1873 held in Vienna , the Egyptian pavilion displayed a map of its imperial territories and also of its future conquests : if these had taken place “the Sudan” would indeed have become al-Beled as-Sudan , “the land of the Blacks” since if would have included Kenya , all of Uganda , all of the CAR , the future Belgian Congo , Angola , the Brazzaville Congo , Gabon and the Cameroons .

1881-1898 :  SHRINKING  . With the Mahdiyya millenaristic rebellion , “the Sudan” shrank back to its Muslim core , losing the whole African Empire and today’s Southern Sudan , retaining only Darfur

1898-2011 :  APPARENT STABILIZATION HIDES CONSTANT DOUBTS ABOUT BORDERS  . When they overthrew the Mahdist State , the British decided to re-agglomerate part of the old Turkiyya Empire , but not all . They re-occupied the South and at first neglected Darfur which had seceded (they re-occupied it in 1916 , because of strategic fears linked to a World War One Turkish threat) but refused to join their Southern Colonies of British East Africa (later Kenya) and Uganda to it . The Belgians occupied a big chunk of south-western Sudan [the Lado enclave] from 1894 to 1910 . It went to “the Sudan” at Leopold’s death in 1910 but some was later cut off and joined to Uganda in 1912 (today’s West Nile Province) . In 1947 , during the Juba Round Table Conference , the Southerners asked for a separation from the North in case of independence . The British hesitated but decided against it under Egyptian pressure . The Egyptians wanted the Sudan to remain whole in the hope of re-occupying it . They traded a unified Sudan for the continuation of British occupation of the Suez Canal . Some of the northern Arab nationalist parties campaigned on “reunion” with Egypt but did not join with Egypt after winning the 1956 elections . After independence “the Sudan” constantly bickered with its various neighbours (Chad over Waday , Egypt over the Halaib triangle , Kenya over the Ilemi triangle , Uganda with the LRA) because none of the borders were secure and popularly accepted .

2011-  ?  :    SECESSION  .   South Sudan secedes . For how long ? And with what logical vision for the future ?


II. The present regime since 1989

What was the basis for the June 30th 1989 coup? Most analysts say it was the desire to establish a radical fundamentalist Muslim state in the Sudan. Indeed. But this is only the first layer of explanation and probably not the most important. The main cause was the war and how it was going. The war had (re)started in April 1983 (the previous one had been fought from August 1955 to February 1972) and by 1989 it was going quite badly for Khartoum. The elected government run by Sadiq al-Mahdi (elected in June 1986) was losing one battle after another and the SPLA had occupied 75% of the South Sudan territory (as per the North-South colonial boundary, kept after independence) . It was also pushing forces into South Kordofan and Blue Nile, using local insurgencies of Black Muslims who were beginning to desert the Northern army in order to join the Southern rebels. Starting in February 1989 Sadiq al-Mahdi had started to negotiate secretly with the SPLA and was planning to open official peace talks in Addis Ababa on July 3rd 1989. The National Islamic Front (NIF) coup occurred three days before in order to pre-empt the peace negotiations. The driving idea behind the coup was not so much to empower Muslim Fundamentalism but to prevent the Umma party from betraying the cause of Arab hegemony in the Sudan by “selling” peace to “the slaves”. From that point of view, the coup was a success. All the more so since Communist Ethiopia, which was the main backer of the SPLA, saw its regime overthrown in April 1991 by a guerrilla group, the TPLF, which was closely supported by the Sudanese Secret Service. Thus the SPLA “lost” Ethiopia and by 1993, it was almost completely defeated. It managed to survive only because it then “gained” Uganda as a new rear base. And why so? Because the core nature of the NIF became obvious when it attempted to invade Northern Uganda, using the rebel LRA as a tool. This is a key point. The NIF was not so much an expression of Islamic radicalism as an embodiment of Arab imperialism , first in Sudan itself , and then in a contested border region . Neither the proxy tool of the invasion (the LRA) nor the target (the Ugandan polity) was Muslims. But Museveni who had so far been cool towards the SPLA (he did not want to help a Communist-backed insurgency and risk alienating his American allies) not only decided to help John Garang but played a key role in “selling” Garang to the Americans , turning him from a Communist rebel into a US ally .

                But what did this mean from an internal Sudanese point of view? The NIF presented itself cleverly to the Arab world as a defender of “Arab lands” and to the Muslim world (these two are not the same: the Arabs are only a minority in today’s Islamic Umma) as a revolutionary radical movement. It won on both counts, with money from Saudi Arabia and guns from Iran). This was the heyday of the regime (1991 to 2002). Buoyed by its successes, it then decided to carry out its project of complete islamization and arabization not only of the whole country (i.e. attempting to turn the myth of a global Arab identity from an ideology into reality) but of the whole region. This was a most foolish decision. Why?
•    Because so far “the Sudan”, whose complexity and ambiguity we have outlined in the preceding pages, was an unstable, partly amicable, partly violent, folksy compromise. The “Christian slaves” of the South were nearly at the bottom of the social pile (with the exception of the West African Muslim Fellata who were even worse off) but the Black Muslims of the Middle Belt were used to be used by the Arab ruling group as servants and cannon fodder. The sudden radicalization of islamization upset that delicate balance. During those ten years the Middle Belt African Muslims progressively shifted from supporting the Arabs to supporting the Southern Christians. Racial and cultural identity had overcome religious identity. The Peripheries started to join into the war against the Centre.
•    As for the region, it set the “Black African” countries (Kenya , Uganda , even the DR Congo) against Khartoum which was felt to be a threat . In a way we were back in 1863, with an ill-defined imperialist Muslim core exploding outwards and threatening the whole of Eastern and Central Africa.
Which is why the US-sponsored peace process was such a failure: it selected the SPLA and the NIF as the only two protagonists, completely neglecting a third of the country which was forced back into being an appendage of the Northern Arabs while it had spent the last ten years turning against it . It also took for granted the fact that Kenya and Uganda, both US allies , would simply toe the diplomatic line . They have not and today they support both South Sudan and the Black Muslim SPLM-North rebels. The Darfur insurrection (February 2003) should have been a warning. But unpleasant dissenting analysts such as myself who tried to point out the problem were discounted with a shrug of the shoulders: everybody knew that the main contradiction in the Sudan was religious. The fact that it could be racial, cultural, geographic and economic was felt to be too complicated, especially by a US administration which was driven by its radical fundamentalist Protestant fringe.


III . How do we get out of this mess ?

This is not an easy question to answer. The Sudan(s) are at the heart of all the contradictions of the African continent:
•    Muslim fundamentalism versus democracy
•    Islamism versus moderate Islam
•    Arabism versus Africanity
•    The “oil curse” versus a diversified economic development
•    International law versus national sovereignty
•    Armed rebellion or peaceful dissent
•    Armed resistance versus genocidal massacres
•    The state(s) versus the tribes
•    And most of all , the Centre versus the Peripheries

One thing is sure: the Sudan(s) cannot improve under the present NCP administration (the NCP is the new name of the NIF). Why? Because the policies of that regime have universally failed:
•    It took power to curb the rise of the Blacks in the country and maintain national unity. Nevertheless the South seceded and the Northern Blacks are in revolt.
•    It inherited a functioning economy which it has managed to ruin, both by losing 75% of the oil resources and by neglecting, almost scuttling, the non-oil components of the economy. It is now cash-strapped after losing hundreds of millions in corruption.
•    Its constant policy of lying and betraying its signature has lost it all credibility
•    Its Army is now soldierless because it lost all its former obedient subjects who used to provide the cannon fodder. It now relies almost entirely on technology (Chinese weapons), mercenaries and a political army, the Difa’a esh-Shabiya, the Sudanese equivalent of the SS. Its army loses most battles. It did not re-take Heglig, which had been evacuated by the SPLA. The 1,200 casualty’s story is a fib (there were 29).
•    Its Islamist ideology is in ruins. The popular street nickname for NCP cadres is Tujjar ad-Din (the merchants of religion). Not only is the regime challenged by the democratic opposition and fought against by the Black guerrillas, it is also increasingly threatened on its right by genuine Muslim radicals such as Ansar as-Sunna and al-Takfir wa’l Hijra .
•    With a top leadership which is indicted by the ICC, it cannot backtrack and is now leaning into a crazed flight forward.
•    Its only real ally is Iran. Egypt and Libya are distant supporters but keep it at arm’s length because they fear the regime’s toxic aura. 

Can the democratic opposition take power, through an “Arab Spring” type of insurrection? This is unlikely. Why? Because after long periods of dictatorship, the Arab Spring countries had either an empty scene (Libya, Syria) or else a believable opposition (Tunisia, Egypt). The Sudan has neither. There is a long tradition of democratic opposition but the democratic parties are so threadbare, they have made so many mistakes, they are so corrupt, they have ridiculed themselves so much, that they are today more of a liability than an asset. Few people follow them but they stand in the way of anything new like so much dross. Even the Islamists are not an alternative. The mainstream movement has been ruined by its stupid exercise of power. As for the small extremist groups, they have a limited audience and would be incapable of running a government. There is no equivalent to the Egyptian Muslim Brothers movement, even less to the Tunisian en-Nahda.

Could the Southern Sudanese government provide an alternative? Hardly. First of all the cultural divide is such that the popular attitude, reflected by most politicians, is “let these Arabs sort themselves out”. Some Southerners want to support the Black Muslim SPLM-North guerrilla (not all: some feel that the Northern Blacks have to fend for themselves) but few would want to substitute themselves for them and become an outside freedom army. Besides the Southern Government is so administratively inefficient, so divided by tribal challenges and so corrupt that it is only the pressure of war that keeps it standing. The moment Khartoum collapses and removes the outside pressure, Juba might collapse too.

This leaves only one alternative: revolutionary war. What the Sudan needs is a Mao Dze Dong. Unfortunately it does not have one, John Garang having died. It does not have a Nelson Mandela either, that could have taken it towards a peaceful transition. So the only hope is the creativity of war, a kind of Museveni phenomenon. None of the present leaders (Yasser Arman, Abd-el-Azziz al-Hilew, Malik Agar) are cut out of the Mao or even Garang cloth. But overthrowing the present regime by the force of arms is the only shock therapy that can bring the Sudan if not to its senses (it does not have any) but at least to the leap of a radical transformation where democracy is not the product either of the tired old “democratic” parties or of American international pap. The Sudan needs a change of political culture. All its leaders are ageing tired politicians approaching senility. A new generation is urgently needed and new ideas as well. Having negotiations and preventing that military outcome would be a form of coitus interruptus that would have only two consequences: a longer period of instability and more casualties. The mistake of 2005 should not be repeated. At the time I remember Garang telling me: “I am not happy with this peace. If I still had had six months or a year, I would have won militarily. But I don’t have a choice. The Americans are pushing me”. Garang stood for unity, not secession. Had he lived, he would most likely have won the 2009 presidential election. And trying to deny him his victory would have led to such a groundswell of dissidence that the situation would have been corrected much faster than it was in the Ivory Coast.

        But today, after the fall of the regime (probably in six to twelve months) some kind of a constitutional assembly will have to be called in Khartoum. The danger to avoid is a Tripoli-type militia mess. This could happen but it is unlikely. The SPLM-North is structured, it collaborates closely with the Darfur guerrilla movements and it will benefit from Southern Sudanese sympathy. Southern Sudanese delegates should take part in that constitutional assembly too; some form of a confederation might be brokered.
            Of course the Sudan cannot be transformed overnight from a blob into a highly cohesive nation-state. But it can go through a transition where the Constitutional Assembly is backed by a technical executive (the army could be included under certain circumstances) which rules without governing. A form of ethnic senate (something like the Somaliland Guurti) will be in order, to balance the one-person-one-vote Parliament. The whole process will be a mess but it could prove to be a creative one. The Sudan, once it suspends its mad attempts at becoming by force what it is not by nature, is basically a rather mild space. We have here none of the fanatic Somali fractitiousness nor the Abyssinian authoritarianism. In the Sudan(s) the future belongs to the unknown. But given the experience of the last twenty years, the unknown is likely to turn out better than the known.





We have 12 guests online


Here you can find some
of my books.