Sudan is a multi-ethnic nation. It contains up to six hundred different ethnic groups with widely varying origins, customs and traditional political systems. Several dozen languages are spoken drawn from a wide spectrum of language groups.

One of the causes of recurrent war in Sudan is the failure of successive central governments to find a formula that can acknowledge the ethnic diversity that exists in Sudan. Grave historical injustices have been perpetrated--and continue to be committed--against marginalised peoples in Sudan. Racism is real, but often the reality of racial discrimination and racist attitudes are not recognised by Sudan’s elites. Members of the dominant riverain group even accuse black Sudanese of ‘racism’ when they try to mount a coup or take other assertive political action. Sudan’s greatest ‘national’ achievements, notably Independence in 1956, are seen very differently by citizens from different parts of the country: there is no unifying national myth.

If the coming transition is to achieve a successful transition to democratic rule, one of the main issues that must be settled is the question of how to provide equal rights for different ethnic groups in Sudan, and how to redress the wrongs that have been suffered by these people. But at the same time, Sudan cannot simply be reduced to a patchwork of different ethnic groups: there are virtues in a pan-Sudanese national identity that cannot be overlooked and should not be downplayed.

The roots of Sudan’s ethnic diversity are complicated and have been studied at length and in depth by Sudanese and foreign scholars. Even to attempt to summarise the nature of this diversity would be a lengthy business. Instead this paper will briefly look at why ethnic diversity has become a political problem, and what can be done to overcome this. It will be structured around an analysis of those points of view that have denied that ethnicity is a problem at all.

During most periods in the post-independence history of Sudan it has been fashionable to see ethnic diversity as either a transitory or an unproblematic phenomenon. Critiques have come from three different quarters:

  1. The Islamist-assimilationists. According to this argument, Sudan is predestined to be an Arab-Islamic state because of either (a) the natural superiority of the Arab-Islamic culture and religion over indigenous cultures and religions, or (b) the process of creating a Sudanese identity in the mould of the ruling Arab-Islamic minority that occurs because of the latter’s control over the political process, the economy, and the national media and educational institutions. Many hold views that attribute inherent superiority to Arabism or Islam: we will not discuss these views here other than to say that there is a profound and unacknowledged racism often found in them. Of more concern for this paper is the observation that there is a genuine concern underpinning some assimilationist’s views. How is a multi-cultural society built that consists of a patchwork of fragmented ethnicities to participate as an equal in the modern world?
  2. The leftists or Marxists. According to this critique, which was also forwarded by the SPLM in its early years, current socio-cultural diversity has arisen as a political problem because of the unequal development of different parts of the country. It follows that the answer to the conflict is for more equitable development and access to resources, which will in time overcome any problems that arise from different ethnicities. Leftists are worried that a focus on the communal rights of marginal people will conceal the true nature of inequality: it would simply allow these people to enjoy their dances and other quaint customs, while denying them real access to political power and economic development.
  3. The liberals. Liberals’ views overlap with the leftists’ to some degree. According to them, all citizens are equal, and allowing certain groups to have a special status on account of their culture or ethnicity, and in turn exalting the communal values of these groups in the eyes of the law, would (a) enshrine various forms of local repression which are incompatible with basic human rights and (b) would also be a hindrance to national unity--it might even lead to separatist sentiments and the breakup of a united Sudan. Liberals are particularly frightened by the shadow of former Yugoslavia, where a too-rigid approach to political ethnicity led extremely violent ethnic conflict and the fracturing of a multi-ethnic state.

Each of these three critiques is based on some reality, and this in turn entails a certain set of policy prescriptions. Acknowledging these realities is the first step towards developing a set of future policy options that can allow for the simultaneous expression of local particularities and a pan-Sudanese identity. The complexities of Sudanese identities are such that this will never be an easy task. There is no single formula that will work for the whole of the Sudanese nation, and no hegemonic force that can impose a monolithic solution on the entire country.

On the opposite side of the argument there is a fundamental point. Some of Sudan’s minorities have, in the recent past, faced annihilation. Preventing the crime of genocide is one of the basics of international law and one of the pillars of humanitarianism. When collective survival is threatened, collective rights and guarantees need to be taken extremely seriously, even when they conflict with individual liberties.

This paper will briefly examine each of the above critiques, allowing some of the main points of argument to develop, and then conclude with some preliminary recommendations for an ‘identity policy’ for a future Sudan.

‘Becoming Sudanese’: the Assimilationist Ethic

The historic diversity of Sudan cannot be denied. This has been described in a number of ways, ranging from simplified bio-genetic categorisation of Sudanese into ‘brown’ and ‘negroid’ races to more complex analyses which suggest a diversity of origins for today’s Sudanese population.

The ancient kingdoms of Sudan were very varied, including the following, among others:

  • Christian kingdoms of Nubia
  • Funj Kingdoms
  • Beja states
  • Dar Fur Sultanate
  • Zaghawa state
  • Tegali Kingdom
  • Shilluk Kingdom
  • Zande Kingdom

and others too numerous to mention.

These states no longer exist. In their place there is the Republic of Sudan, a sovereign member of the United Nations, the Organisation of African Unity, the Arab League and other international bodies. This sovereign nation is generally seen as part of the Arab world, although it is located in the heart of the African continent. How did this come about?

It did not come about because Arabism and Islam were predestined to rule over African peoples. The most basic historical fallacy is to believe that because a certain state of affairs exists today, it is somehow inevitable and desirable. The history of the consolidation of Sudan as a state dominated by a riverain Arabic-speaking elite is both a story of historical accidents and a long and bloody tragedy for large sections of the Sudanese people.

Racism and orientation towards the Arab world (especially Egypt) has been latent in Sudan since the treaty of 31 A.H. (A.D. 652) in which the Christian Nubian kingdom accepted peace with the Moslems, at the price of an annual payment of 360 slaves. The slaves were taken from Nubia’s southern peripheries, entrenching a tradition of hunting black people that lasted for more than a dozen centuries and indeed continues today.

In the nineteenth century most of Sudan’s indigenous states were destroyed by a process of commercial-imperial expansion under the auspices of Egypt and metropolitan powers--which later came to exercise direct imperial rule over Sudan. This period of aggressive expansion and metropolitan imperialism was closely associated with the dominance of Arabism. The disruptions inflicted on Sudan during this period, and in particulary the slave trade, mean that the population of Sudan is very racially mixed. One result of this mixing is that racial categories make little sense: most ‘Arabs’ in Sudan have African blood in them.

Since the 19th century there has been a powerful process of Arabisation in Sudan. The dominance of the riverain elite in Sudanese politics for more than a century is a fact. Many of the riverine elite see this ‘Arab’ dominance as both desirable and inevitable, and indeed it has gained a sort of air of inevitability. But if we look closer this is because of historic circumstance.There is no predestined course of history that ensures that the riverain elite are either entitled or predestined to exercise their current dominant role in the country. A different course of events could, for example, have created a country much more like Nigeria--with a Moslem majority, but a country with no doubt at all in its mind that it is 100% African.

Before the current ruling class of riverain Sudanese Arabs came to a dominant position, along with their specific social and cultural agenda and their claim to an Arab genealogy, Sudanese politics had been dominated by others (in particular in the 18th century the Fur and Funj) who had different characteristics and outlook. These were African states in a particular historical tradition, with elements in common with neighbouring African countries. To some extent, Arabisation was already making serious inroads into their political cultures, associated with the adoption of Islam and trade with Egypt and the Arab world, but this was a slow and incremental process. But when the Egyptians and their riverain Sudanese proteges overthrew the old order, they replaced it with something radically different. British imperialism reinforced this new form of state power. A new conjunction of power, money and ideology proved extraordinarily powerful in shaping a new vision of Sudan, oriented towards the Arab world.

Since the 1820s, and especially since independence in 1956, Sudanese Arabs based in the riverain core of the country have:

  • Had control of the state or at the very least privileged access to it and its institutions.
  • Had money behind them, first from the colonial powers, subsequently from the state, currently not only from the state but from the Sudanese expatriates in the Gulf and from Arab investors and banks.
  • Had immense ideological power. Because Arabic is the dominant language in Sudan, the Sudanese Arabs have a vast cultural resource behind them in the form of the Arab media, books and educational materials, etc. The privileged status of Arabic in the Islamic religion is also an enormous boost. No other culture in Sudan can compete with this ideological power.

Under these circumstances, it is unsurprising that there has been a steady process variously known as Arabisation, Islamisation and ‘Sudanisation’. These are processes, of assimilating to the dominant culture. This involves the adoption of ‘Arab’ dress, manners, customs, religion, commerce and values by non-Arab people, in rejection of their own indigenous cultures.

There has also been a process of the ‘Arabisation’ of northern riverain culture. This culture has many African elements within it, partially submerged but still important. In recent decades these elements have been downplayed, and the more conventional ‘Arab’ elements have been emphasised. One important reason for this is the large-scale migration of Sudanese to the Arab states. Northern Sudanese have found themselves subjected to Arab racism there, and have responded by stressing their Arab credentials, emphasising Arab cultural traits at the expense of African ones. This has unfortunate implications for the sense of national unity in Sudan.

The last fifteen years of war have witnessed a process of cultural awakening, particularly in the South and the Nuba Mountains, but also in southern Blue Nile and to some extent among the Beja and in Darfur. In the South, the spread of Christianity during the last ten years has been very marked. Even though Christianity is often replacing traditional religions and aspects of customary culture that go with it, the Christian religion is seen by many Southerners as a means of affirming their distinctive identity and finding spiritual solace in a time of destruction. In the Nuba Mountains, the SPLA leadership has taken great care to foster a revival of traditional Nuba cultures. The strength and vivacity of these customs are one of the pillars of the resistance to the government in this region. These processes of reviving old cultures and forging new, locally-rooted cultures, are likely to continue. In the South and the Nuba Mountains, at the very minimum, the assimilationist ethic has revealed its limitations. To be blunt: when assimilationism becomes genocidal, it is completely unacceptable, and creates the conditions for its own demise.

However, in other parts of Sudan, and among certain sections of the Southern and Nuba populace, the process of Arab-Islamic assimilation is likely to continue. It is not possible for government to intervene effectively in this aspect of national life, even if it wanted to. As education and the media spread, it is likely that the influence of the Arab world and Arab culture will become more and more pervasive throughout the Arabic-speaking parts of Sudan.

There are also enduring, valid and positive reasons why many non-Arab people want to assimilate to the dominant culture. Assimilation can bring the following benefits:

  • Opportunities for education and communication. The use of a sophisticated international language (Arabic) as Sudan’s national language brings with it numerous advantages. Students who are well educated in Arabic have immediate access to a rich culture and literature, to international media, and can interact on relatively equal terms with citizens of the Arab world.
  • Opportunities for careers. If all are citizens with broadly the same cultural background and linguistic skills, then careers in government, the professions, commerce etc are equally open to all. In most multi-cultural and multi-ethnic nations, citizens from the most highly-valued cultural background continue to do best, irrespective of the national policy towards minorities. Without assimilation, minorities can live in ghettoes where they do not have good access to career opportunities.
  • A sense of common nationhood. In many multi-ethnic nations, there has been a growing category of people who have no identifiable ethnic origin, or who disclaim any such origins. In former Yugoslavia there were ‘Yugoslavs’ who could not be categorised as Serb, Croat, Moslem, Macedonian or whatever. In Ethiopia, some citizens reject any ethnic labelling. It is notable that in Sudanese history, many assimilated non-Arabs have played key roles, beginning with Ali Abdel Latif in the 1920s. For such people, being de-tribalised ‘Sudanese’ was a mark of legitimacy and belonging. When, in the 1920s, the British began to reverse their policy of promoting an educated Sudanese elite, in favour of tribally-based ‘native administration’, there was no place for such assimilated nationalists. Indeed that was one of the aims of the British policy: divide and rule. This left the divisions in Sudan entrenched and deepened: the northern riverain areas continued to receive the benefits of development and education while the rest, especially the Closed Districts, were left to stagnate. It is possible that if the British had accepted that Sudan would achieve independence, and that it was preferable to build up a more nationally-representative educated elite, today’s debate on the marginalised peoples of Sudan would have simply been bypassed.

The assimilationist ethic cannot therefore be rejected outright. It has important values in terms of building a shared national culture and set of values.

But Sudanese history has shown that assimilation has two faces. Dominant groups have long abused the concept in pursuit of their own power, and this abuse has in turn given rise to violent conflict, and the growth of a counter-ethic of reviving local cultures. In extremis, assimilationism has given rise to genocidal violence against some minority peoples. What sort of assimilationism can be considered acceptable? We can specify some basic characteristics of a positive assimilationism:

  • It should be non-violent. People who wish to assimilate should do so voluntarily and without any threat of violence or coercion. This is absolutely fundamental. There is such a bad recent history of violent assimilation, including mass killing, that very strong guarantees on the peacefulness and voluntariness of future assimilation will be needed if marginalised people are to take the idea seriously.
  • It should be non-racist. Colour of skin, ancestry, religion or region of origin should be irrelevant to the ‘Sudanese’ credentials of a citizen.
  • Assimilation is not just a one-way process. Indigenous cultures should have the best chance to compete with the dominant Arab culture. The best aspects of indigenous cultures should be recognised and affirmed, and when possible integrated into the dominant culture. Related to this is the importance of northern Sudanese recognising and celebrating their own African traditions.

Without these three conditions, at the absolute minimum, there will be continued war. Marginalised people have taken the gun to defend their cultures and at times their very existence, and will continue to do so. Some marginalised peoples who have not, so far, taken up armed resistance (e.g. people in Darfur) are on the point of doing so. It follows that no peace deal can work unless it recognises this basic fact.

Teaching a balanced history of Sudan will be one of the challenges of the future. If the next generation of Sudanese is to grow up with a more tolerant ethic, they will have to be educated to value and celebrate the diversity of their country, and to appreciate the importance of voluntary and non-violent political processes including cultural change and assimilation.

The Leftist Position: Is it an Ethnic Issue or a Socio-Economic One?

Many democrats, secularists and leftists in Sudan maintain that the basic national issue is not ethnic diversity and the issue of identity, but of social and economic imbalances (unequal development and class dominance). Many learned theses and incisive critiques have been written on Sudan’s unequal development and how class structures have emerged from the concentration of capital in the riverain region, etc. Meanwhile, many Southerners, Nuba and other marginalised peoples maintain that ethnic and cultural identity is central to the question of Sudan today. For example, Francis Deng’s recent book is entitled ‘War of Visions’. This reflects another powerful theme in Sudanese scholarship, the multiple identities of Sudan.

It is an important question whether Sudan suffers from a socio-economic problem that has generated an ethnic dimension, or whether the identity issue itself is fundamental.

If Sudan’s problem is basically a socio-economic problem, then this makes constitutional unity unproblematic. The difficulty lies in sharing out the national wealth. The problems can be overcome by better economic development and a secular national constitution. Insofar as there are any constitutional measures to protect particular groups, these are merely transitory measures needed while these minorities grow in confidence, education and development. There is no need for an ‘identity policy’: questions of language, education, culture, and decentralisation of power are merely technical issues.

By contrast, if it is an ethnic or identity problem, then Sudan needs an identity policy as a fundamental plank of any new political dispensation. A democratic government will need to make policies on political and administrative decentralisation, language, religion, culture and other issues central to a future constitution. A new constitution must derive its legitimacy (at least in part) from recognising ethnic realities. The question then arises, how deeply should ethnicity be recognised and encouraged? Does Sudan want to follow the Ugandan path of giving cultural and social legitimacy to ethnicity, but prohibiting the formation of ethnically-based parties? Or does it want to go to the other extreme, as seen in Ethiopia, where ethnically-based units of governance have become the building-blocks of a federation, each one having the right of self-determination up to and including secession?

In the meantime we can provide a provisional answer to the basic question of this section. Sudan’s problem is both a socio-economic and an identity issue. It follows that Sudan needs both a set of policies that will begin to eradicate the socio-economic inequalities that exist in the country, and an identity policy.

Some of the components of a more equitable socio-economic policy can be specified. They include the following:

  • Development planning to prioritise neglected areas, especially remote rural areas. This should operate for both state-sector planned development and the private sector. The provision of transport infrastructure is important but not sufficient. Without investment in rural areas, the provision of roads may simply become the means for the more efficient extraction of resources from these areas
  • A tax structure that encourages private sector investment in rural areas will assist with this priority.
  • Providing financial services to remote areas is also important, so that migrants can send money home safely and efficiently, and rural people can invest their savings and obtain credit.
  • Provision of essential social services to neglected areas, including schools, health clinics and law and order services. The provision of good schools is an essential component of evening out the legacies of unequal development.
  • Positive discrimination in terms of educational places, career opportunities and the like in favour of people from neglected areas

It may be that, over time, as Sudan develops, identity politics will disappear. But the worldwide upsurge in identity politics, from central Africa to the Balkans to central Asia, suggests otherwise. Nimeiri tried to overcome identity politics in Sudan with a single party system that also emphasised the regions, but he abandoned the attempt. Single party rule (or indeed Ugandan-style ‘no party democracy’) is no longer an acceptable option in Sudan. Moreover, the legacy of the current war will mean that identity politics remains deep-rooted. The war was caused in part by the conjunction of unequal socio-economic development and identity politics. In the Nuba Mountains, for example, many people joined the SPLA precisely because they felt their identities were not recognised and appreciated. Their land was confiscated by ‘legal’ procedures that they felt were deeply unjust, and their educational opportunities were thwarted by under-investment in rural schools; and these discriminatory policies were overlain by pronouncements at all levels that the Nuba were not considered first-class citizens of Sudan. Even assuming peace, development and good will all round, it will take at least a generation before this legacy is removed. For the forseeable future, socio-economic inequalities in Sudan will continue to reflect established ethnic identities and ethnic tensions.

It follows that Sudan needs an identity policy as an intrinsic part of a peace settlement. There will have to be some formal acknowledgement of the diverse identities of Sudanese citizens and an attempt to build a true multi-cultural citizenship.

But at the same time, there is much that is valid in the socio-economic critique. It is also true that unequal socio-economic development is at the root of the conflict as well as conflicting identities. The SPLA recognised this at the outset of its war, hence its stress on a united Sudan with equal access for all to national wealth. In the 1970s, while Southerners’ political ambitions were largely restricted to competing for office in Juba, they were systematically denied a fair share of the national wealth. It is vital to recognise that no identity policy can succeed if there is not a more equitable distribution of national wealth. People from rural areas will not be enthusiastic about an identity policy that merely enables them to be educated in their own languages and to celebrate traditional festivals with traditional dances, if this is not matched by control over resources and access to educational and other opportunities.

Liberal Rights and Communal Values

Liberals are always uncomfortable in the face of ethnicity and the particularist values that come in its wake. Enlightenment values stress universal rights and freedoms, and enlightenment thinkers have always struggled against the constraints imposed by ethnic or national particularities, especially when they are combined with religious or cultural intolerance. In recent times, liberal human rights activists have feared that recognition of social and economic rights could give legitimacy to socialist states that suppress civil and political liberties, claiming that this suppression is necessary to promote socio-economic development. Similarly, they have feared that too-explicit recognition of cultural rights could give a carte-blanche to those who wish to repress basic freedoms in the name of, for example, ‘Asian values’ or various forms of politicised religion including Islamic extremism.

Sudan since Independence is an excellent example of how liberal fears of ethnic or religious particularism have been counter-productive.

Sudanese liberals have feared that giving special treatment for minorities will lead to separatism. This was the basis for denying special status for the South in the decades after 1947: federalism was seen as one short step from separation. In fact experience suggests that the reverse was true. The Addis Ababa agreement of 1972 led to the virtual disappearance of organised separatist sentiment in Southern Sudan. Today, the politics of separatism is strong and gaining in legitimacy, both internally and internationally. No constitutional formulae can reverse this fact: the most that a constitution can do is enable very different constituencies to live together in peace, or to separate amicably if that is the wish of one section of the citizenship.

The situation for the minorities in the north is more complex as separatism is not on the cards for most, and is a very remote possibility even for the best-organised of them, such as the Nuba. What are the perils of awarding special status to these minorities? We can provisionally identify several dangers.

  • Political fragmentation along ethnic lines. The problems of ethnic politics are plain for all to see in (among other cases) former Yugoslavia and the Trans-Caucasus. Many Ethiopians also fear that their country’s experiment in ethnic federalism has given rise to narrow ethno-nationalisms that may tear the country apart. Most concerns about ethnic politics arise when citizens begin to feel that they are being forced to adopt an ethnic identity, or that ethnicity is becoming the most important label attached to a citizen.
  • Ethnic cleansing or other human rights abuses perpetrated in the name of creating ethnically homogenous regions. All processes of nation-building involve some form of assimilation to an ethnic or national ideal. But when ethnic identity is one of the main criteria for citizenship--or even the overriding criterion--then there is the danger that there may also be a process of exclusion, of denying residents the rights of citizens, or expelling them altogether. In countries in which ethnicity has become highly politicised, it is often very difficult for citizens of one ethnicity to live as full members of the community with all their rights respected in a region dominated by another ethnic group. This has been a common complaint in Ethiopia, one of the more ethnically tolerant countries. In more extreme cases there has been ethnic cleansing.
  • Repression of civil and political rights in the name of cultural rights. If an ethnic, cultural or religious group is awarded the right of self-government according to cultural or religious norms that it considers customary or divinely-sanctioned, then this may sanction violations of human rights. For example, many cultures and religions oppress or exploit women, or award inferior social status to members of certain groups or castes. Another option is that a minority might choose to be governed by religious laws that are incompatible with human rights, for example a certain strict interpretation of Islamic law. This possibility is very real in the case of Ethiopia, where a group such as the Afar has strong political leanings towards the sharia, and the situation might arise in which an ethnic region introduces legislation that is contrary to the federal government’s commitment to universal values of human rights. In a future democratic Sudan it is possible that, for example, the followers certain Sufi orders would adopt a very restrictive interpretation of Islam that denies fundamental rights to women. The NIF position on Islamic law both during the democratic period and the dictatorship has been that it should be implemented in the North where the majority are Moslems and not the South, opening the door to this kind of regionalism.

These dangers are greatest when an ethnic factor is made rigid. If a constitution goes too far in specifying the exact nature of ethnicity and the exact rights of ethnic groups, it may remove the possibility for a flexible, give-and-take approach to ethnicity, and make these dangers more likely. On the other hand, groups that have a deep and recent experience of oppression on the basis of ethnicity are unlikely to be content with anything short of a very strong guarantee on their collective rights. When collective survival is at issue, people are ready to sacrifice some individual civil and political liberties.

This analysis has a number of consequences. One is that it implies that parties based on religion (such as the NIF) may in fact be happier with recognising some cultural and religious rights to minorities than liberals would be. For example, NIF ideologues who recognise that their project of an Islamic state cannot be imposed upon non-Moslems may acknowledge the realistic political limits of what they can achieve, and award special status to minorities, based upon their cultural or religious specificities. The right to maintain these exclusivist cultural and religious practices would be the reward for accepting second-class citizenship in a country dominated by the NIF.

For Sudanese liberals, however, the choices are more complex and the dilemmas no less pressing. The current opposition to the NIF is a coalition of liberals and leftists who believe in universal citizenship allied with marginalised ethnic groups that are fighting for recognition and autonomy for their specific societies and cultures. The various marginalised groups often adhere to very contrasting sets of values. For example, the strict conservative Islam of the followers of Ali Betay in eastern Sudan contrasts with the relaxed religious pluralism of many parts of the Nuba Mountains. The Beja Congress and the Nuba opposition are in alliance because neither makes any claims on the allegiance of the other. But when it comes to the liberals, there are potential contradictions that may arise. Liberals are concerned with all citizens. For example, how are Sudanese liberals to react to the restrictions on women encountered in the Hamush Koreb area?

Responding to this challenge will be one of the major tasks facing a future democratic government in Sudan. Liberal ideals are laudable, but for too long they have been the camouflage used by the dominant riverain elite to protect their position, and the marginalised peoples are no longer prepared to take protestations of universal rights at face value. The marginalised are demanding full recognition and political participation.

It follows that for Sudan, liberal ideals must be tempered by a recognition of the deep injustices inflicted on the minority or marginalised peoples of the country. The deep historical hurts and injustices that have been inflicted over the centuries, and continue to be inflicted today, cannot simply be righted by an assertion of liberal rights. Even if that assertion is totally sincere and genuine, it will be many years before the marginalised groups in Sudan are ready to trust the goodwill of the riverain peoples of the north, or indeed any government in Khartoum. Any democratic constitution in Sudan will require very strong safeguards for the communal rights of the marginalised peoples. A balance between local identity and national integration is required.

Given the current state of mutual distrust between different Sudanese communities, any constitution is likely to be ‘work in progress’ as much as a finished product. It will have to be designed to take the strain of enduring structural conflict between competing sets of rights and competing visions of the future of the country. There will have to be give and take; space for compromise; processes for different communities to work out their differences and discover their common interests.

Local Ethnic Relations

Before moving to the details of recommendations, it is important to digress into the question of regional and local ethnic relations in Sudan. Ethnic and identity politics in Sudan is generally discussed solely at the national level. Often it is grossly over-simplified to ‘north-south’ and sometimes the marginalised peoples are included too. The main subject for analysis is access to the machinery of state power in Khartoum and how this has been used to manipulate identities, and how competition to gain access to that power is channelled along ethnic lines. These are valid concerns. However, other dimensions to ethnic relations in Sudan must not be overlooked. There are many more localised ethnic disputes and competitions for power.

Among the many cases of localised ethnic competition in Sudan are the following:

  • Nuba-Baggara in South Kordofan.
  • Beja-Arab in eastern Sudan.
  • Fur-Arab-Zaghawa in many parts of Darfur.
  • Funj-Fellata-Arab in southern Blue Nile.
  • Disputes between members of the Baggara confederation in southern Darfur and southern Kordofan.
  • Dinka-Nuer, Dinka-Fertit and other conflicts in parts of Southern Sudan.
  • Nilotic-Equatorian conflict that occurred in Southern Sudan in the 1970s and early 1980s and may resurface again.

and many others too numerous to mention.

A policy of regionalisation, decentralisation or federation will not necessarily resolve these disputes. Indeed some of the disputes may intensify because new centres of power are created. The logic of regionalisation and division means that the regionally dominant group welcomes regionalisation because it has the chance to dominate that region. Smaller groups will be in favour of unified government because (for example) the Masalit may think they have a better chance of fair representation in Khartoum than in el Fasher. Alternatively these small groups may press for further decentralisation, so that (taking the same example) El Geneina becomes its own region with its own government and capital. But then minorities within that region such as the Daju may demand further decentralisation.

The logic of division was witnessed in the South during the debate over the redivision of the Southern Region into three in the early 1980s. Similarly, Nimeiri’s policy of regionalisation created regional centres of competition for power which, for example, helped intensify local disputes in Kordofan and Darfur.

The experience of Ethiopia also has similarities. When the policy of regionalisation was adopted after 1991, smaller groups wanted either unity or more radical decentralisation. But then experience of regional autonomy led some smaller groups to amalgamate to form bigger blocs to pursue their interests better.

The logic of respecting minority rights creates dilemmas at a local level. Having acknowledged the right of a large minority to administer or govern itself, it is logical to acknowledge the same right to a small minority. This is only consistent: it would be hypocritical to award rights to larger ethnicities and deny them to smaller ones.

A further complication is that smaller groups are vulnerable to local administrations dominated by their larger neighbours, especially once the principle of ethnicity as a principle for political organisation has been adopted. It also creates problems for dispersed or nomadic peoples, who do not have a coherent bloc of territory they can call their own. One of the particular issues that is likely to arise from ethnic politics in Sudan is the status of the Fellata: what is their status and where do they belong? Under any liberal criteria, the Fellata are entitled to Sudanese citizenship, but ethnic politics is likely to deny them a full place, creating tension and grievance.

In addition, as the units of administration become smaller and smaller, complexities and problems multiply. There is the danger of ever-more complicated administrative systems. There is also the danger that as more and more local groups are granted recognition, this amounts to affording some recognition to native authorities and tribal homelands (dars). But as the units grow smaller, the dangers of local dictatorships grow larger. Within a relatively small rural area, a tribal chief or nazir can exercise dictatorial control that would be impossible in a large region that included cities with educated people. It is important to avoid the situation in which local chiefs have absolute rule over their subjects and justify it in the name of local autonomy.

A further problem is the definition of groups. In segmentary societies, such as the Nilotic peoples and the Arab tribes, it is always possible for one subgroup to claim that it is entitled to political autonomy, should it be strong enough to challenge the leadership of the larger group to which it belongs. In south-west Kordofan, for example, should all Arab tribes be united? Or all Baggara? Or should the Misiriya have their own dar? Or should the Misiriya be split into Humr and Zurug? Or split even further? There is no simple answer to these questions. Other groups, such as the Nuba and Fertit, are composed of collections of smaller groups, some of which may see their interest best served by opting out of the larger conglomeration. In Sudan, no ethnic category is fixed for ever, and once ethnicity is politicised, it is likely to become less stable, with groups splitting or uniting depending upon political interest. No scientific anthropology can determine that such-and-such groups are destined to remain together while other groups are always destined to remain separate: as the political landscape changes, ethnicity will also be subject to change.

It follows that no system of local devolution of power can operate on a hard-and-fast basis. Any system that provides for minority rights at a local level must have several checks, balances and guarantees built into it. These might include the following:

  • Strong constraints on the exercise of power by local administrations, so that (for example) they cannot restrict local rights to residence and employment on the basis of ethnicity alone.
  • A national level human rights commission that can take up cases referred to it by any citizen, and which will have the power to enforce national level human rights legislation at a regional or local level.
  • A minorities commission at the national level that can investigate alleged abuses of the rights of local ethnic groups, and provide redress for them using the courts or administrative mechanisms. However, it is important that the right to define a group, and to define who is entitled to be a member of that group, remains with the group itself. There should never be a situation in which a ‘nationalities board’ such as those established in Stalin’s USSR is able to define ethnic groups and dictate how they should be handled.

Making an Identity Policy Real

The complexities of developing an identity policy for Sudan are such that it is tempting to discard the enterprise altogether and instead argue that liberal civil and political rights for all, combined with more equitable socio-economic development, will solve the problem. Unfortunately, this is not correct. It must be repeated, once again, that one of the main reasons for the current war in Sudan is that the attempts by successive governments in Khartoum to avoid having an identity policy have led to profound tension and bitterness among the marginalised peoples.

One of the most encouraging developments in the 1990s has been that both the NIF and the sectarian parties have recognised the right of Southern Sudan to self-determination. This is a historic victory for the Southern peoples. It is a recognition that Sudan needs an identity policy. It may have come to late to save the unity of Sudan, but at least this recognition should make it possible for the South to secede peacefully, should its people vote that way in a free and fair referendum. This recognition also carries with it an implicit acknowledgement that other minorities--notably the Nuba, Beja, Darfur people and southern Blue Nile people--also have legitimate claims for their special identities to be respected. And indeed the NIF has taken some steps towards recognising indigenous languages.

A certain amount of symbolic action will be required for a new democratic government to prove its credentials in terms of building a realistic identity policy for Sudan. Among these chiefly-symbolic acts are the following:

  • The historic injustices perpetrated against marginal people need to be publicly acknowledged. There is an emerging international custom of apologising for the crimes of one’s ancestors: Japan has apologised for its treatment of prisoners of war in World War II, the US Government is apologising for its role in the slave trade, the Pope has (almost) apologised for the Vatican’s failure to help the Jews during the Holocaust, etc. The Sudan Government, which has historically been a government of the riverain elite, has its own apologies to make. The first step is to recognise officially that there is a problem of racism, which needs to be tackled. This may require symbolic action such as renaming streets (Zubeir Pasha Street in Khartoum can become Prophet Ngun Deng Street etc). Declarations of Jihad need to be very publicly repudiated.
  • Legislation against racism and racial discrimination is required. This is standard in democratic societies. In Sudan, racial abuse (e.g. use of the term ‘abid; etc) remains commonplace. Not all uses of such terms are abusive nor meant as such, but there is a sufficiently strong derogatory connotation to these words that they should be outlawed if at all possible. The government, using the media and educational institutions, should also make clear that it is politically and socially unacceptable to use racist terms. Instead, a moral pressure to be ‘politically correct’ is called for.
  • A national and regional policy on the media and culture that stresses the values of indigenous cultures. Traditional cultural practices such as music, dancing, clothing etc may appear to be a frivolous concern where issues of life and death are concerned, but this is not so. For many people in marginal areas, these aspects of life are profoundly important: these rituals and celebrations are how their communities are held together and maintain their sense of identity. Much racism is based upon despising exactly these cultural differences. Gaining national respect and legitimacy for these cultural activities can help create a genuine multi-culturalism in Sudan.
  • There are ethnic groups in Sudan whose tribal names were historically imposed from outside and which have derogatory connotations. Most of these are in the Nuba Mountains and southern Blue Nile but there are other cases elsewhere. Examples are Kawalib, Masakin, Ghulfan, Watawit, etc. None of these names correspond to how the members of these groups refer to themselves in their own languages. They were simply names imposed by arrogant and ignorant outsiders, often slave raiders. An opportunity should be provided for these groups to re-name themselves, after which the old imposed names should be discarded. There are many historical precedents for this, including the effective abolition of the term ‘nigger’ in America, the replacement of ‘Galla’ by ‘Oromo’ in Ethiopia and ‘Baria’ by ‘Nara’ in Eritrea.

But action at the level of social and cultural recognition cannot be enough. Race and ethnic relations in Sudan is a matter of politics. For the reasons outlined in this paper, this is a complicated and fundamentally ambiguous enterprise. There are virtues in devolution of power to small units and the creation of local administrative territories based on ethnic factors. But there are also dangers in this policy, and virtues in peaceable assimilation, equitable socio-economic development, and liberal human rights. The challenge for a democratic Sudan is to find a workable balance between these competing, and sometimes incompatible, rights.

Achieving this balance may require a constitution that is less like a set of scales than a gyroscope. Scales remain in balance when the weights on each side are exactly equal: the slightest shift will cause them to go off balance. A gyroscope remains in balance by perpetually moving: even a major shift in weights will merely force it into a temporary adjustment before it regains its balanced movement. If we recognise that ethnic identity is a dynamic and not a static factor in Sudanese politics, then we have taken the first step in recognising how such a balance can be achieved.

Most of the measures that will be necessary for this balance to be achieved have already been mentioned, or are discussed in detail in the other issue papers. This paper will conclude by enumerating some of the issues that have not been fully addressed so far:

  • A policy of decentralisation and regionalisation that puts many cultural resources (media, primary education etc) in the hands of local authorities, along with administrative authority.
  • Anti-racist legislation and education for law-enforcement institutions. The level of institutionalised racism in the police and prison service, for example, is scandalous and requires strong action to remedy it. There has never been a programme of anti-racist training in the police or prisons.
  • Affirmative action in favour of the marginalised, including quotas for education and employment etc.
  • A new language policy that encourages the use of indigenous languages. Also, Juba Arabic and other Afro-Arab dialects should be regarded as a respectable means of communication and not a subject of ridicule.
  • A new religious policy including official recognition of ‘noble spiritual beliefs’ and other traditional religions, and public education about their values using the media and the education system.
  • Recognition of customary law including customary land rights.

The most important point is, however, that a democratic constitution will need to allow for a continuing political process, in which the different political agendas of different groups with different conceptions of their rights can be accomodated. The greatest mistake in race relations and ethnic politics is to allow a rigid framework to develop.