Making the separation of Southern Sudan thinkable

Category: Writing aboard the Kenya Airways: A story on coming to Rwanda for the first time
Published on Friday, 21 May 2010 17:57
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Dr. Idris

(New York)  - I have been reading recent commentaries and analyses written by Sudanese and non-Sudanese about the future of the Sudan. According to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which was signed in 2005, the people of Southern Sudan are expected to vote in January 2011 either to remain in a united Sudan or to separate and create their own independent state. The exercise of the right of self-determination has been agreed upon regionally and internationally after two decades of civil war which cost the lives of more than 2 million people and the displacement of more than four million from Southern Sudan. Indeed, the CPA was a product of a long and painful struggle with, many sacrifices made by the people of Southern Sudan, rather than an offer made by the ruling National Congress Party (NCP).

I am struck by the lack of a sense of history and the absence of political memory in much of the current public discourse. Very little effort has been made to make the unthinkable thinkable. Without any consideration to the history and the politics of the Sudan’s crisis, much of the discussion seems to follow two lines of argument: opposition to the whole idea of separation or the casting of doubt over the viability of the South’s survival as an independent state.

The first line of argument advocates the importance of keeping the country united without providing any concrete and workable national strategy to make consensual unity a reality. Its core argument is colored by an emotional appeal that reproduces a set of invented glories about the Sudan’s history and culture which in reality cannot be sustained by an examination of the living experiences of Sudanese people. The proponents of this argument, from both the left and the right, do not acknowledge the underlying reasons why the people of Southern Sudan have reached this critical juncture of having to make a choice between unity and separation. It’s in fact a product of long historical and political processes shaped by particular forms of oppression, namely slavery, European colonialism, Arab-driven nationalism, and policies of Arabization and Islamization, among others.

These different forms of oppression not only shaped the relationships among Southern Sudanese people but they have also led Southern Sudanese to formulate views and visions about the rest of the country, in particular the North, the center of economic and political power in the Sudan. Whether we like it or not, the experiences of the people of Southern Sudan have shaped their political identities in opposition to the political reality of the North. After all, people must make choices based on their real circumstances rather than on an emotional appeal to an abstract idea of territorial unity.
The second line of argument claims that the people of Southern Sudan will not be able to run their own affairs in an independent state. This is not a new argument. It has been directly borrowed from European colonial text books about all colonized people, in particular Africans. This argument has two messages: one is a purely racist bias and the other is based on the denial of the existence of a rich institutional history in the region. The first message originates from a racist claim that states that there has been an absence of history and culture in Southern Sudan until recent times. It reproduces the idea that Southern Sudanese people have no history prior to the arrival of ‘Arabs’ and Europeans. The South is portrayed as an empty historical space which needed to be filled and shaped by Islam, Arab culture as well as Christianity and European cultural values and attitudes.

The second message of the argument questions the ability of Southern Sudanese to independently run their own affairs. The proponents of this position seem to believe that the history of Southern Sudan begins and ends with colonialism. The rich pre-colonial histories of the region have been written off as part of an imagined prehistorical era of darkness. In reality, however, the skills of constructing a new and independent state cannot be given or imposed by outsiders; it needs to be cultivated through a process of nation-building and state-building. The people of Southern Sudan have not been given the opportunity to do so in the past five decades. During the second half of the 20th century, many other colonized people in Africa and around the world struggled to liberate themselves from the shackles of colonialism and internal oppression and have successfully managed to overcome their own internal weaknesses, rebuilding their societies from the ashes of war and destruction. The people of Southern Sudan are not an exception.

Instead of wasting our intellectual energy on demonizing Southern Sudanese people by denying their history, culture, and resourcefulness in a way that makes both separation unmanageable and territorial unity undesirable, we urgently need to redirect our discussion to the question of how to make the processes of separation and unity a peaceful and a meaningful exercise for all Sudanese. After all, the separation of the South might not be the last time territorial unity is challenged if the same circumstances that are pushing the South to make the choice between unity and separation continue to exist in other parts of the country such as in Darfur.

Amir Idris is Associate Professor of African Studies and Associate Chair of the Department of African and African American Studies, Fordham University, New York City. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.