Sudan's Search for Identity

Andrew Hammond, World Press Review Egypt correspondent, Khartoum, Sudan, Sept. 9, 2002

Street scene, Khartoum
Khartoum residents are in an introspective mood following the collapse of peace talks (Photo: AFP).
On paper, Sudan possesses all the ingredients for an affluent future—water, oil, and fertile land, as well as a population that hasn’t expanded beyond the country’s resources. Yet Sudan has seen almost nothing but fighting between successive Khartoum governments and the rebels in the South since it won its independence from Britain in 1956. Peace talks between the two sides had offered a way out, whereby Africa’s largest country could eventually split into two semi-autonomous states.

Following a government walkout from the talks in early September after the southern rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) captured an important southern town amid continuing hostilities, the euphoria many Sudanese felt when the talks seemed to be going well has departed. On the streets of Khartoum, northerners and southerners alike are pondering where it all went wrong.

But after 19 years of fighting that has killed 2 million people, displaced 4 million, and kept Sudan’s development standing still, observers reckon there’s little will on either side to push this war much further. In case any party is tempted to think otherwise, international pressure to sue for peace has never been greater, not least from the United States. Many here say this was the key factor in bringing the two sides together to sign a breakthrough interim agreement on July 20 following five weeks of talks in Machakos, Kenya. The deal offered southerners a referendum on their future after six years of autonomy and a waiver on the Islamic Shariah law applied in the North, which has sharply drawn into focus the cultural differences between Sudan’s North and South.

The war in the South has been in part a war over Sudan’s identity. Muslim, Arab, and Arabized elites in the North—Nubian and Arab tribes living along the Nile from the northern border down to the Khartoum area—have formed the politically dominant cultural group in the multi-ethnic country since independence. Peoples in the East and West, like the southerners, complain of political and economic marginalization. But unlike the southerners, they have been part of the Arab-Islamic cultural system dominated by northerners for centuries. In the North, a shared Arab-Islamic identity has been essential to the complicated process of building a state out of a land where people of more than 500 tribes speak more than 150 languages.

But there is a cultural price to pay for this. Amin Abu-Manqa, head of the Afro-Asian Studies Institute of Khartoum University, says languages have died out in recent decades because authorities emphasize the importance of Arabic, the holy language of Islam, as a unifying cultural and linguistic lingua franca. One of the extinct tongues is that of the Gule people from the area southwest of Khartoum. Ironically, they played a key role in Sudan’s Arab-Islamic history, forming the Arabic-speaking Funj Sultanate, which ruled for 300 years. “Now they say they are Arabs,” Abu-Manqa said, estimating that 65 percent of Sudanese today speak only Arabic, compared to 51 percent in 1956. “It’s a social aspiration to be from the Arabs and the Prophet’s house.”

Reflecting on his country’s diverse ethnic composition, Abu-Manqa muses, “The great number of languages could be a blessing or it could be a curse if we don’t know how to deal with it wisely. If we stamp them out, we deprive ourselves and the world of their richness. So the smaller languages should be recorded because they are endangered.”

But the war has sharpened attitudes among religious constituencies in the North, and many argue that the Islamist government that came to power in 1989 and intensified the war in the South has been the worst enemy of many of Sudan’s indigenous cultures. The dialects of the Nubians, the original indigenous ethnic group along the Nile in north Sudan, are also losing ground to Arabic, said Nubia specialist Khidir Abdelkarim. Modern Nubians, a sister people to the ancient Egyptians, like the modern Egyptians consider themselves as an integral part of the Arab world. Khartoum’s National Museum offers a poor commemoration of Nubian civilization compared to the state-of-the-art Nubian Museum in the southern Egyptian city Aswan, or even to Khartoum’s Presidential Palace Museum, which features artifacts from the British colonial period.

“In the early 1990s they (government) were not giving enough attention to cultural heritage. Many people working in archaeology have lost their jobs. In education, they are trying to skip over the Christian period, which lasted from the sixth to the 15th century,” Abdelkarim said.

“They are portraying themselves now as the champions of this heritage, by granting licenses to dig, for example, but [people] are not convinced [by] this.” The expectation among northerners in Khartoum—politicians and citizens alike—is that the government will do everything it can to persuade southerners to stick with a unified country.

First and foremost, that will mean sending money—the one thing that rarely headed southward, even after a 1972 peace deal that collapsed in 1983 when the current civil war broke out. But corruption may pose a problem on this score, says Albino Okeny, editor of the southern-run Khartoum Monitor: “[International donors] should take money directly to people because I can see a lot of corruption is going to take place.”

The government is expecting a big peace dividend. The country currently holds US$21 billion in external debt, and hopes that the International Monetary Fund will write some of it off once the civil war is over. The government also expects that international investors who have long eyed the country’s considerable oil reserves, but have shied away from the civil war, will jump the minute it looks like a peace will hold.

Many returning exiles and refugees could in themselves be a financial asset. “I expect a large call by the South for expatriates to come back, and we’ll see them answer the call, from Egypt, Uganda, and the United States. If there is real peace, there are lots of committed southerners,” said one Western diplomat.

Southerners will also want to see their people given serious positions of power, not simply deputy positions in key government ministries and a few token top jobs. SPLA leader John Garang is understood to be arguing for a rotating presidency with Bashir, though southern intellectuals writing in the Khartoum Monitor have warned of the “red herring” of reducing the dispute over marginalization to a spat over a better slice of the plum jobs in Khartoum.

One of the biggest fears among Khartoum’s political elites is that the peace being carved out now leaves the Bashir military dictatorship in place to rule the roost over the North. Bashir came to power in a 1989 military coup. He was allied with radical Islamists led by ideologue Hassan al-Turabi for much of that time, then suddenly broke the alliance in 1999 and placed Turabi under house arrest last year—ironically, because Turabi’s Popular National Congress party signed a peace understanding with Garang. Bashir’s main strength is his military background, while Sudan’s other main politicians, including Garang, Turabi, and Sadeq al-Mahdi, the prime minister Bashir ousted in 1989, are seen as charismatic leaders with large followings.

“Bashir is a naive African dictator, interested in power, whether it’s Islamic or secular. He’s planning to stay for another six years on the back of the Americans,” said civil-society activist Ghazi Suleiman, reflecting the widespread belief in Khartoum that the United States pressured the government and SPLA into suing for peace.

“The president can give with his left hand and take with his right,” said Suleiman, a lawyer who has been detained many times in the past for his pro-democracy activities.

Northern opposition figures see Shariah as a fig leaf for Bashir’s dictatorial impulses. Southerners see in it a continuation of the Arab-Islamic desire to dominate the South and eradicate their culture.

But Khartoum is not likely to compromise on the rule of Shariah in the north. Reports from the talks in Machakos had the government vehemently opposing an SPLA demand that Khartoum, as the national capital, should be a Shariah-free zone. Opinion pieces in Khartoum Monitor went so far as to argue that the country needed a new capital anyway, since the very mention of the capital stirs such enmity in the South.

Austere Shariah laws have squeezed Khartoum, once a sprightly city of 6 million people, of its life. Unlike most Arab and African capitals, the streets are empty after 11 p.m. “Jumhouriya Street here used to have dancehalls and bars. Now it’s dusty and empty and beggars fill the streets,” says Mustafa, an aging communist sitting in a café he ruefully notes was once a bar.

Alcohol still thrives on the sly, in whiskey smuggled in from neighboring Eritrea and Ethiopia and via a popular date homebrew called aragy. Pro-Shariah government officials say the drinking ban will stay, though diplomats report that some figures in the ruling establishment would like to lift restrictions in tourist hotels.

“Our country has its own traditions. There are millions of tourists per year in Iran, where they don’t have wine or the other things of Western tourism,” protests Minister of State for Culture and Tourism Siddiq al-Mujtaba. “We don’t want drunken tourists.”

But if the South eventually opts for secession and the laws remain on the books in North, there will less aragy around for those who like a secret tipple—it’s made mainly by southerners.

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