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The Sudanese Identity Controversy in the Context of Unity and Secession Risks

By: Ahmed Alhaj (Site Admin)

Are the current crisis and the various conflicts that the country has been witnessing a reflection of its quest for final identity? Has the question of identity been settled at the grass root levels? Has the   mill of history found the special ingredients that would grind Sudan into a state-nation or are we still yearning to reach that point in history where one state becomes one nation? What is it that characterizes and brings the cohesive element that forms a nation? In our present status has the Comprehensive Peace Agreement set the pace for us to reach common grounds and make concessions so as to reach status of a nation-state?

Are we in crisis? Have we been able to reconcile ourselves with ourselves or are we still in push and pull stage? And when it is said that it is person's culture that sustains him at time of crisis? Do we have a common culture that sustains us at times of crisis?  These questions of what is seen as the Sudanese identity controversy in the context of unity and sessions, is what is discussed in this study by renown Sudanese scholar based in Malaysia, professor Abou Shouk, in a lecture reported by Dr Saif El deen Hassan al Awad Abdullah.  Following are his findings

 Mohamed Osman Adam

 The Sudanese Identity Controversy in the Context of Unity and Secession Risks 

Sudanow- History and Islamic Culture Professor at the International Islamic University in Malaysia has recently described as being the Sudanese identity is a vital element of politics in Sudan.

Professor Abu Shoak, presented a paper entitled "the Sudanese Identity Controversy in the Context of Unity and Secession Risks", pointed out that in Malaysia there were several ethnic groups governed by a democratic system that attempted to examine the power- and resource-sharing issue and to create mechanisms that absorb the racial disputes to recruit them for the service of the national development and rehabilitation.

The seminar on "The Sudan Future between Unity and Secession Options" was held in Malaysia by the cultural secretariat of the Sudanese community under the Sudanese embassy supervision and in collaboration with the Ethnic Studies Institute of the Malaysian National University in Kuala Lumpur and under the auspices of the Ministry of Planning and Unity Support Fund in Khartoum.

Abu Shoak, a historian and author, in a paper he presented at a Seminar in Malaysia, described what he calls the procedural identification of the Sudanese identity which he described as a complicated issue of an imposing presence with the intelligentsia and scientific research circles because it is a vitally important element in the Sudanese politics.

The identity element pushes the sectoral forces of the Sudanese community into scrambling for power- and resource-sharing in addition to implementation of the prerogatives of the democratic transformation aspired for by both ruler and opponent and everyone pursues his own political interests, he said.

Tracing the course of the historic dimension of the development of the identity concept and reviewing the Afro-Arab concepts and their cultural reality and their isolation from other nationalities, Professor Abu-Shoak said the search for identity began to move towards a formula of a unitary goal and a dual Arab and Negroid composition in Sudan. He said signs of this unitary tendency referred to as "the forest and desert trend", with the former denoting the Negroid element and the latter the Arab one. This symbolism reached its climax in the "Sennar Human-being" project presented by (poet) Mohamed Abdul Hai and his mulatto colleagues as a typical identity of the Sudanese people because they believe that the "Black Sultanate" (Sennar Kingdom) embodied the political and social inoculation that occurred between the Abdallab (Arabs) and Fonj (Negroes) tribes.

He said the "forest, desert" call began to wane with the escalation of the Afro-Arab call which was forced by the ethnic disputes within Sudan and abroad as advocated by some of those who have been influenced by the repercussion of the reality to present it as an ethnic, social and political solution to the Sudanese identity dilemma.

Professor Abu-Shoak pointed out that Dr. Abdalla Ali Ibrahim believes that the term does not offer an effective solution to the existing identity question in Sudan but he, rather, describes it as "evasion" and its supporters as "evaders alliance" because Ibrahim believes that it hides behind the African ingredient to play down the part of the Arab-Islamic culture which is more spread in Sudan.

Abu-Shoak said the southern elite, in contrast, rejects the Afro-Arab phrase because they believe it is deceptive and does not apply to the living reality in south Sudan as the southerners retain their pure African identity and do not want to be included in the category of the "typical Sennar human-being", because, in their viewpoint, this human-being is the hybrid composition of the northern Sudanese.

In order to by-pass the difficulties created by the Afro-Arabism, Abu-Shoak said the "Sudanism" term appeared in the early 1980s. This term was adopted by the Sudan People's Liberation Movement in its founding document in 1983 and was explained by Dr. John Garang in the form of an algebra formula of (S=A+B+C); S refers to the Sudanese identity, A stands for historic diversity, B for contemporary diversity and C for the external effects and international cultural interaction.

Professor Abu-Shoak believes that the SPLM theorist attempted to free himself from the narrow nationalistic forms and the accompanying problems to wide national context which is free of ethnic complications. He said Dr. Mansour Khalid, commenting to this positive thinking, said: "the cultural incubator of the Sudanese personality is neither Arabism nor Negroism; it is Sudanism. And likely, the social root of the Sudanese nationality is neither Arabization nor Negritude, it is Sudanization."

  Dr. Khalid, according to Professor Abu Shoak, believes that Sudanism is the product of an Arabism that has become Nubian and Negroid and Nubian that has become an Arab personality.

Dr. Khalid, Professor Abu-Shoak went on, upholds that the Sudanese are not a single nationality in the anthropology or lineage concept but are a single group of people in the political concept, with their elements interacted in a specific geographic space, a specific historic era, each with a certain mood.

Professor Ahmed Abu-Shoak affirms that the option before such groups is either direct affiliation to the homeland through the citizenship and its constitution or indirect affiliation through its minor identities – religious, ethnic or cultural.

The Professor describes the latter option as a recipe that results only in a catastrophe; explaining: as barricading behind minor identities necessarily isolates a person who is not affiliated to this identity and being isolated, that person will be secluded to his local identity, and possibly to denying every bright side in the culture of the one who isolates him and seeks to predominate over him. The isolated group, in reaction, will not find in the creativeness of the other person anything other than a form of hegemony.

Professor Abu-Shoak believes that preference by the elite of one of these conciliatory terms to the other is one form of the crisis being suffered by the united state of the Sudan and at the same time embodies an effort that is being exerted in the framework of the search for a comprehensive Sudanese identity for all the people of Sudan with their ethnic, religious and cultural diversities.

He said the inconvenient identity question and its answer have long remained a common factor of the political elite for achieving the project of the united Sudan state which, according to Abu Shoak, has become linked to the result of the January 2011 referendum which will decide whether the south will remain under the umbrella of the united state of Sudan or under the flag of an independent state that shares northern Sudan contested borders and human resources and natural wealth that has been divided between the two sides of a country the split of which is imminent.

Professor Abu-Shoak said in this complex political scene, two groups have appeared: one adopting an attitude of confrontation, regarding the promotion for the Arab-Islamic identity a call for dismantling the united state of Sudan, while the other group presents a conciliatory position that matches between the identity and citizenship which can be linked closely together by democratic transformation and balanced development.

He said the confrontation attitude is led by Dr, Haider Ibrahim who, according to Abu Shoak, believes that the crisis does not lie in understanding the identity but in presenting the identity question as a priority in the Sudanese national project. The crisis also lies in the way in which this question has been made and in the historic circumstances under which is has been asked. The answers to the questions are wrong because the question itself is wrong. Hence, Dr. Ibrahim believes that affiliation to the Arab tongue is "an evasive solution" because it falls short of the "folk" mind that has randomly affiliated itself Al-Abbas (Prophet Mohammad's uncle.) Ibrahim also considers the Africanist call a hollow one because, in identifying itself, it depends on the geography and colour. The Dinka identity is more cohesive than an Africanist identity without frontiers.

Professor Abu-Shoak says Dr. Ibrahim further believes that the very existence of the Sudan on the political map is only an imaginary one because its "alleged" identity has been made clear due to a historic and cultural accumulation that pours in the vessel of unity and unification; but has, rather, gathered within its borders the contradictions of its political, social, cultural and religious reality. Dr. Ibrahim added that the intelligentsia was not up to the challenge of transforming the illusion into a reality because they have more than once missed the chances of taking off to a better future. According to Abu Shoak, Dr. Ibrahim cited the independence, the October 1964 Revolution, the April 1985 Upheaval and the January 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement as examples of those occasions.

In view of this gloomy situation, Dr. Ibrahim concludes that history does not replay itself, adding: "let's complete the collapse circuit fully and think from now on about the reconstruction because the preset situation is incurable." Professor Abu-Shoak describes this view as pessimistic.

 Professor Abu-Shoak points out that Dr. Ibrahim is shared in his vision of confrontation by persons who contest the legitimacy of the aspired Sudanese identity on the basis of the cultural project (Islamic Sharia) which they regard as isolationist and disastrous to the unity of Sudan because it makes Islam as a standard framework for determining the Sudanese identity. This, they believe, pushes aside the cultural, social and religious diversity as well as the elements of the Sudanese political unity. They also believe that the plot of forced Arabization and Islamicization and dressing the state machine in a traditional Islamic costume by the Nilotic intelligensia over the post-independence decades would ultimately lead to secession of the south from the north and may be followed by other parts of the unitary Sudan.

Professor Abu-Shoak indicated that there is a conciliatory trend fostered by Noureddine Satti and others who believe that development is cause of the crisis because most of the motives of the current splinter in Sudan are demands based on the basic living needs in Sudan. According to Professor Abu Shoak, Dr. Ahmed Osman calls for a considerable measure of development which believes should start with the human development because, according to Dr. Osman, the human element is the capital of development. Dr. Osman recommends reconsideration of the existing system of education in Sudan, starting from the kindergarten, or pre-school education, up to the university. This system requires serious revision to help Sudan get out of the dark tunnel of identity.

 As regards the unity, secession options, Professor Abu-Shoak said, if we review the history of the Sudan before and after the independence, we will find that the north-south dispute was basically due to lack of confidence between the two sides. A proposal for a federal system was rejected in the parliament and so were the round-table recommendations, said Abu Shoak, adding that the latest Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005 is now dying. In Order to make an objective analysis of the situation in the Sudan, we have to examine three interrelated rounds, each of them pushing the other towards the collapse of confidence and this will inevitably lead to assumptions raised by some of the thinkers, said Abu Shoak, adding that the highest likelihood is secession, unless something happens to change the balance of power.

Professor Abu-Shoak went on to say that the CPA, which we think has theoretically offered answers to many of the questions raised with regards to the identity, citizenship, the religion-state relationship and the power- and resource-sharing, was characterized with isolationist dualism and legalized the secession option as opposed to an attractive unity based on genuine, professional implementation of the provisions of the Agreement.

He added that the CPA was born out of a crisis womb, has attempted to address some of the basic issues and put in place solutions more viable than those given by the 1972 Addis Ababa agreement for the southern side. Nevertheless, the CPA contained some contradictions in favour of secession, Abu-Shoak said. He explained that it has established a dual-system state, with a semi-autonomous government in the south and, therefore, in case of secession, no constitutional or legal tremor will theoretically, occur in the south.

The Agreement contained an isolationist element and, apparently to secure the fate of the agreement, the two partners retained 80% of power to obtain the absolute majority. It has granted the south 34% of power which restricts any amendment to the constitution and CPA, said Professor Abu Shoak. He added that the southern politicians argue that it is a democratic share, although, according to all population counts made throughout the history of Sudan, the south is not entitled to more than 21% of the power. And because of the 34% that was stipulated in the CPA, the south rejected the recent population census against which the general elections geographical constituencies were divided and, succumbing to their protest, the south was given 40 seats in the federal parliament so as to keep balance in the present parliament until the referendum is conducted.

Discussing the implementation, Professor Abu-Shoak noted that the CPA was faced with a number of problems and, although many of its provisions have been implemented, the two partners were at loggerheads on many occasions, and sometimes the SPLM, a ruling partner, appeared more closer to the opposition than to the government; and this has impaired the government performance and slowed down implementation of the agreement and turned what has been called an attractive unity into a repulsive one.

Another shortfall of the CPA was that it has not defined the attractive unity, has not specified its standards and where it can be applied; in the north or the south or all over the country.

Yet another problem with the CPA was related to the resource-sharing which was made between the SPLM and the (Khartoum) government, denying the right of the other regions. Originally, it was proposed that the resources be distributed on the basis of development. When the Darfur problem is resolved, Darfur will be entitled to a specific share of the remainder of the development cake, said Abu Shoak.

Wondering about the available alternatives, Abu-Shoak replies that there are only two alternatives: either to confront the secession risks or to repair the existing unity which he described a wretched.

Professor Abu-Shoak predicts that in case of secession, the Sudan will become a target for foreign intervention and the problem will be more complex than what is presently occurring in Iraq. There will be the Abyei border issue and even if both the government and the SPLM approve The Hague arbitration resolution, this resolution is opposed by the Mesairia tribe which nobody can persuade it to accept it. The location of the Abyei town in the north does not imply that the Mesairia have obtained their full share of South Kordofan lands because they have lost 50% of the territory they allege is their property. Can they remain akimbo? This is doubtful, says Professor Abu Shoak.

The scholar indicates the nomadic paths as constituting the second issue, pointing out that the Sudanese economy is a traditional one and there are still zonal tribes that move across expansive areas straddling the north-south borderline. The Baggarah (cattle herders), for instance, roam between Darfur and Bahr el-Ghazal in Dinka Malwal and they need open paths, Awlad (sons) Hameed of the Arab Rufa'ah al-Hoay in Khour Yabous in Upper Nile who also need unhindered paths; and there are also Arab Saleem and Dar Maharim in the Dinka, Shuluk and Nuer regions. Demarcating the borders between the two states will definitely create problems between the zonal tribes, leading to negative consequences.

Yet a third problem Prof Abu-Shoak indicates is related to the "ceiling" of the negotiations, predicting that, in case of secession of the south, the ceiling of Darfur negotiations will be raised and an alliance may be established between Darfur and south Sudan with a view to raising this ceiling; and the Eastern Front will also be affected.

The Professor poses a question on how the Popular Consultation will be addressed in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile. These two regions were contested by the two partners; and the SPLM has got the post of the Governor of the Blue Nile and obtained some votes in South Kordofan. All these are problems that must be taken into account if secession becomes a reality, he said.

Professor Abu-Shoak wonders about the fate of the minorities on both side – the northern minority in the south and the southern minority in the north.

He said that most of the southern universities are established in Khartoum, wondering about the fate of the students of those universities.

 These issues need to be discussed, he said, pointing, moreover, the assets issue, indicating that the Sudan is now a federal state and the south will demand its rights in those assets; how are those assets going to be divided?

The south is not one unit; there are tribes which will reject predominance by the Dinka tribe which is spread over several provinces and the south secedes, the ruling majority will be from the Dinka, can the southern minorities accept this situation? They have already rejected such a situation during the last days of late President Jaafer Nimeiry, forwarded James Tumbura and   demanded that the south be divided into three regions. This is another problem threatening the stability in the south, Professor Abu-Shoak said.

The stability in the north will be threatened by the economic question, said Professor Abu Shoak, explaining that the Sudanese economy is basically dependent on petroleum of which 85% is produced in the south and 15% in the north and its proceeds make up 40% of the federal government budget and 95% of exports proceeds in foreign exchange.

As for the south, according to Abu Shoak, the petroleum proceeds make up 90% of the region's budget.

"If war breaks out in the zonal areas, all of the petroleum earnings will vanish and the northern state will be faced with a drastic problem and the south will confront a worse situation,"

Abu-Shoak predicted.

Speaking about the Nile water, Abu-Shoak said if the Sudan splits into two states, other countries will intervene and demand reconsideration of the Nile water agreement. In this case, Abu-Shoak went on, northern Sudan will be largely affected and regional and international alliances will be re-established with each of the two independent states.

"We should not believe that America or China serve the interests of the north or the south, in favour or against Islamic Sharia. They have permanent interests but not permanent friends. The external interests of America, Asia or Israel in the region will be fully reconsidered." Professor Abu-Shoak explains.

Professor Abu-Shoak concludes that, in case of secession, there will be a critical situation of adverse repercussions on both north and south Sudan and if tension occurs around all these points, war will erupt and war will only result in destruction as "we have seen".

Professor Abu-Shoak concluded that the 2005 CPA was the only option that has remained for the People of Sudan in the upcoming months, pointing out that, despite its shortcomings, it remains the sole way-out.

"A unity miserable option is the best one. He adds, however, that applying this option or applying the agreement on the ground and restoration of confidence between the two parties requires a political will-power.

By Professor Ahmed Ibrahim Abu Shoak 

Edited by Mohamed Osman Adam

Sudanow is the longest serving English speaking magazine in the Sudan. It is chartarized by its high quality professional journalism, focusing on political, social, economic, cultural and sport developments in the Sudan. Sudanow provides in depth analysis of these developments by academia, highly ...


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