Sudan’s Wars of Identity: The Creeping Quest For A New Sudan
Overview of the Conflict
The war that erupted in Sudan on April 15, 2023, in the capital Khartoum, has spread to various parts of the country, particularly the Western region of Darfur. It is causing great suffering, destruction, and death. Thousands of people have been killed. Millions have been uprooted from their homes as internally displaced persons or have crossed international borders as refugees. The mediation efforts by regional and international actors have tended to focus on the humanitarian dimension of the crisis without due attention to the root causes of the conflict and longer-term goal of peace, security, stability and nation building. The challenge in this crisis is to see it as the most serious wake up call for the Sudanese to explore the root causes of the cumulative conflicts that have bedeviled the country since independence and to address them to achieve a genuinely inclusive and lasting peace for all the people and regions of the Sudan.
Alleviating human suffering should of course be a high priority. But the war has deeper causes that need to be addressed. It reflects an acute crisis of national identity that has deep historical roots, but whose modern manifestation started at the independence of the country in January 1st 1956, dominated by the Arab Islamic North. This generated two devastating wars of liberation by the non-Arab Christian African South against the domination of the North. This ended in the independence of South Sudan on July 9th 2011. The crisis is also having a creeping impact on other regions of the country, particularly in the marginalized areas of the Nuba Mountains, Southern Blue Nile, and Darfur. The current war is an extension of the liberation movement that led to the independence of South Sudan, but left the marginalized non-Arab regions of the North under the domination of the Arab center.
This paper presents the conflict as a manifestation of the legacy of slavery which stratified the races, religions and cultures in a manner that was grossly discriminating. The process of liberation from this dehumanizing system culminated in the secession of the South and is now threatening the survival of the remaining Sudan as a unified country. The paper argues for stopping the violence, addressing the immediate humanitarian needs, and committing to negotiate a framework for constructively managing diversity. The paper proposes a broad formula of ‘One Country, Multiple Systems’ for managing diversity within national unity. The precise number of the systems and the details of self rule envisaged for each region can be worked out to meet the requirements of the context. Participation in the national arena would be structured in such a way as to ensure inclusivity and full equality. Success in achieving the equitable accommodation of diversity in the Sudan might motivate and facilitate closer ties between Sudan and South Sudan that could conceivably lead to the restoration of some form of constitutional association.
The tendency in the dominant circles of Northern Sudan has been to shy away from discussing the history of slavery for which they bear inherited responsibility. But, to paraphrase the popular saying, those who do not know their history run the risk of repeating it. What is involved in Sudan’s history of slavery is not the risk of repeating it, but the failure to address the harmful effects of its legacy.
Slavery in the Sudan is documented as going back to time immemorial, but it’s modern manifestation began with the Turko-Egyptian rule of 1821-1885. That first colonial domination was overthrown by the religiously inspired revolution of Mohamed Ahmed, who assumed the title of The Mahdi, the Islamic Messiah. The Mahdi is credited as the first leader to have unified the country, though he did not establish effective control of the entire country, especially the Southern region. The Mahdi died shortly after his miraculous victory and was succeeded by Khalifa Abdullahi from the Ta’asha tribe in Darfur. Khalifa’s rule was resisted by the Riverain Arab tribes of the Nile Valley, who considered themselves to be representative of the dominant Arab Islamic identity of the nation and should have been the legitimate inheritors of the Mahdist state. That tension between Darfur and Center persists to this day and is an element in the current conflict. Khalifa Abdullahi’s rule was overthrown by the Anglo-Egyptian reconquest of 1898 which established the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium Administration that was effectively controlled by the British.
The Mahdiya, as the Mahdist Revolution is known, was initially welcomed in the South as a liberation movement, but when it turned out to be a perpetrator of the slave raids against the South, it was violently resisted. The Anglo-Egyptian rule ended the hostilities and governed the Sudan as two regions in one country, the Arab-Islamic North and the indigenously African South. The Christian Missionaries were encouraged and supported to proselytize and convert the population of the South to Christianity. Although the Missionaries offered basic education and rudimentary medical services in the South, the South was neglected, while the North, particularly the Central Region, progressed economically, socially, culturally and eventually politically. What is more, while slavery was abolished in its crude form, slavery-like practices were tolerated in forms that were subsumed under domestic services. These practices were popularly perceived as elements of societal stratification that sharply divided the country into North and South.
The North-South dualism prevailed until 1947 when the British Civil Secretary, James Robertson, reversed the separatist policy in favor of full national unity. When I met him in England in the early 1960s, he said that he regretted his decision and that he should have known that the North and the South were too different to be in one country. Ironically, I found myself defending his decision by saying that unity was the desired objective and that the civil war that broke out after independence was due to the failure of the Sudanese to create conditions for sustaining peace and unity.
As the country moved toward independence, the positions held by the colonial rulers were assumed by the North, except for three relatively junior administrative posts. This triggered in the South a wide spread fear that independence would simply be a replacement of foreign rule by internal colonialism, with the prospective return to the dark days of the slave raids. In August 1955, a unit of the Sudan Defense Force in Southern Sudan staged a mutiny that was halted by the intervention of the outgoing British Governor General who promised justice and the redress of Southern grievances.
Southern representatives in the National Legislative Assembly voted for the declaration of independence on January 1st, 1956, on the Northern promise that the Southern call for a federal system would be given ‘serious consideration’. The North dishonoured this promise immediately after independence. The 1955 mutiny regained momentum and progressively escalated into a full-fledged civil war whose objective was the secession of Southern Sudan. The failure of the democratically elected government to quash the rebellion led to the military coup of General Ibrahim Abboud in October, 1958, which vigorously pursued the war. But Abboud also failed to win the war. That, combined with opposition to military rule, led to his overthrow by a popular uprising in October 1964. The elected government of the traditional Islamic sectarian parties also failed to end the war. This prompted Jaafar Mohamed Nimeiri to seize power in May 1969. Nimeiri negotiated with the Southern Sudan Liberation Movement and concluded the Addis Ababa Agreement in 1972, which granted Southern Sudan regional autonomy.[i]
Intimidated by the opposition of the sectarian Islamic parties and the Muslim Brotherhood, Nimeiri unilaterally abrogated the Addis Ababa Agreement ten years later by dividing Southern Sudan into three weaker regions and imposing Islamic rule over the whole country. Nimeiri mistakenly assumed that the South had been irreversibly pacified. In June 1983, the South staged a rebellion championed by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLM/SPLA) whose declared objective was the liberation of the whole country and the creation of a New Sudan of inclusivity and equality, without discrimination on the ground of race, ethnicity, religion or culture. This vision entailed correcting the distortion of Sudan’s national identity as Arab and Islamic, when the vast majority of the populations of the country are non-Arab and even the so-called Arabs represent a racially and culturally hybrid composition.
The vision of New Sudan stipulated by the SPLM began to inspire the non-Arab regions of the North and liberally-minded Sudanese at the center. They began to join the South in the liberation struggle. The first to join were the Nuba of Southern Kordofan and the Angassana (Funj) of Southern Blue Nile. Darfur also joined the rebellion shortly after, but was crushed, only to resume in the early 2000s. The war lasted over twenty years until it was ended by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that gave the South the right of self determination, which they exercised in favor of independence in 2011. The allied rebel movements in the North however remained in the Sudan and were given the right to decide through ‘popular consultation’ how to autonomously govern themselves within national unity.
The recent eruption of the war between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Force (RSF) should therefore be viewed as a symptom of a nation still in tragic search for its soul, a process that was started by the South.
The identities that are now tearing the country apart evolved in a dynamic process of interracial and cross-cultural diffusion. Being a Muslim, Arabic speaking, and culturally Arabized, with a traceable or claimed Arab descent, elevated one to a respectable level of respect and dignity. This contrasted sharply with being a Black African and a ‘heathen’, which relegated one to the denigrated status of a legitimate target for enslavement. Slavery in Africa and the Middle East was practiced in a cultural framework in which children are valued as the continuation of Identity and influence, a form of genetic immortalization. A master’s child born of his slave woman was considered a free legitimate child of the father, equal to the children of free mothers. The system was therefore both discriminatory and liberally assimilating.[ii] This contrasted with the practice in the West, by which a master who begot a child with his slave woman considered that child his slave whom he could exploit and even sell.
The discriminatory and assimilating practice of slavery in the Sudan meant that there was much mixing in the blood and racial features of the master and slave racial groups, with culture and religion as the integrating factors. The identity of resistance in the South kept the two parts of the country apart until they were brought together by colonialism into one state in a governance system of unity in diversity. The attempt by the North to impose its assimilationist culture ignited two wars of resistance that characterized relations with the North. The first war of liberation aimed at the separation of the South from the North.
Although it lasted for seventeen years, neither party was able to win militarily. Successive governments failed to defeat the rebel movement and the Southern rebels could not impose their separatist objective on the government. Nimeiri wanted to break this cycle, but the parties needed a third party to offer a face-saving mediation that would make compromise mutually acceptable. Sudan Council of Churches in collaboration with the All Africa Council of Churches, and the facilitation of Emperor Haile Sellasie of Ethiopia, emerged as the honest brokers that mediated the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement. But the Agreement did not adequately resolve the problem of the Ngok Dinka of Abyei, an area that was contested by the North and the South.
The Ngok Dinka are Southerners racially and culturally, and had therefore been part of Southern resistance to the Northern attempt at assimilation. In 1905, they were annexed to Kordofan Province in the North by colonial government, ironically to provide them with better protection against Northern slave raiders. The Addis Ababa Agreement gave them the right to decide by plebiscite whether to remain in the North or join the South. That provision was never implemented and the people of Abyei remained under the oppression of Northern domination.
To remedy that impasse, shortly after my appointment as Ambassador to the Scandinavian countries, I recommended an alternative that offered a common ground. I proposed the autonomous development of Abyei as a model of the newly concluded peace, unity and reconciliation between the North and the South, instead of continuing to be a contested area. We secured funding for the project from USAID and invited the Harvard Institute for International Development to assist with its implementation.[iii] The proposal was however quite controversial among the various stakeholders. It appealed to both Khartoum and the regional government as a way out of their impasse over the area. But it was ambivalently received by the Ngok Dinka community whose aspiration was to join the South. And, indeed, the politicians among the Ngok Dinka opposed it as compromising Abyei’s objective of joining the South. The Missiriya saw it as favoring the Ngok Dinka against their interest in the area. The Kordofan provincial administration also resented it as interference from the center in the affairs of the province. Overall, the project proved quite successful in relatively stabilizing the situation in Abyei.
The Addis Ababa Agreement essentially granted the South political autonomy with very limited economic power or financial resources. But despite its shortcomings, the Agreement created a relatively congenial climate that could have facilitated peaceful interaction across the South-North divide to ultimately evolve an integrated national identity framework with which all Sudanese could identify on equal footing as citizens without discrimination.[iv]Unfortunately, Nimeiri unwittingly revealed in a meeting I attended that he initially saw the Addis Ababa Agreement as a tactical ploy that would make the Southern rebels put down their arms and end the rebellion, and after a period of consolidating the control of the central government and the unity of the country, be terminated, but that it had succeeded beyond their expectations. However, the increasing demand of the South for a fair share of economic power and resources, and the resistance against the increasing interference of the center in the affairs of the region, combined with the formidable opposition from the Islamists and the Sectarian parties against his military rule, prompted Nimeiri to take a preemptive move by imposing Sharia Law over the whole country.[v] Nimeiri abrogated the agreement as he had initially planned and essentially reasserted the assimilationist policies of all the previous governments.
Nimeiri’s policy of Islamisation provoked a formidable rebellion in the South under the championship of the SPLM/SPLA whose vision was the creation of a New Sudan of full equality without discrimination on the ground of race, ethnicity, religion or culture. This vision of a United New Sudan, which was the brain child of the leader of the SPLM/A, Dr. John Garang de Mabior, was highly controversial in both the South and the North. In the South, it run counter to the aspiration of most Southerners for independence from Northern domination, but was accepted because it was viewed as a tactical ploy for neutralising national, regional and international aversion to secession. In the North, it was misconstrued as threatening to turn the tables and impose the Africanisation of the Sudan against Arabism and Islam. There was also a strong indignation verging on racism about the idea of the Black Africans having the audacity to impose their vision on the Arab-Muslim national character of the country.
Nimeiri’s Islamisation agenda and opposition to his dictatorial rule led to his ouster in April 1985. The democratically elected government that succeeded him failed to end the war in the South. In June 1989, the Muslim Brothers seized power in the name of the so-called Revolution for National Salvation led by Omer Hassan Al-Bashir, a professional military officer, co-opted by the Muslim Brotherhood. Under the leadership of Dr. Hassan Al-Turabi, a brilliant lawyer with a tunnel-vision in pursuit of the Islamic agenda, the Brotherhood had transformed itself first into the Islamic Charter Front, and then into the National Congress Party in a clever ploy to foster parents national appeal.
Although the coup initially disguised its connection to the Muslim Brotherhood, and even contrived the detention of Dr. Al-Turabi together with the ousted Prime Minister Sadiq Al-Mahdi, its true Islamic colours under Turabi’s spiritual and intellectual leadership soon became manifest. I visited the country three months after the coup and was granted permission to pay a controversial visit to the ousted Prime Minister Sadiq Al-Mahdi and members of his government in detention. Turabi was still under the staged detention. In my brief meeting with him, he intimated to me that although they were not involved in the country, he sympathised with the move to break the impasse the country had been going through since independence and that he himself would adopt a more radically different path once out of detention.
And indeed, Turabi visibly emerged as the champion of the so-called revolution for national salvation. The regime pursued the Islamic agenda with a vengeance under the banner of Jihad holy war agains the South. The SPLM/A also waged its war for a New Sudan with determination and was making headways into the non-Arab areas of the North. In Darfur, the regime mobilised the Janjaweed militia of Al-Tajamuo al-Arabi, ‘The Arab Gathering’, led by Musa Hilal, as a force that terrorised the region in 2003-2004 with mass atrocities that have been determined to constitute genocide and crimes against humanity.
Although the word genocide is emotionally loaded and evokes unequivocal denial when alleged, and is in any case difficult to prove, the wars of identity that have threatened the unity of Sudan since independence can be credibly described as genocidal. Because the policies of Arab-Islamic assimilation threaten the survival of non-Muslim and non-Arab identities, it can be argued that they represent a form of religious and cultural extermination that is akin to genocide.[vi]
With the intensification of the identity conflicts in the marginalised areas of the North, the parties eventually realised that neither side could win and became amenable to a negotiated compromise. Regional efforts for ending the war needed greater support from the international community which eventually came from the United States. In 2001, a Task Force was constituted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, CSIS, in Washington to develop proposals for a US Policy for the incoming administration to end the war in the Sudan. I was honoured to co-chair the Task Force with the US diplomat, Steve Morrison.
Though initially suspected by the SPLM leaders and their allies in Washington as pro-Khartoum, the Task Force deliberated with sharp differences on the solutions for the Sudan conflict and the role of the US in the mediation. But members eventually reached a consensus and recommended a formula of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ for the interim period after which the South would decide through a referendum whether to continue with this arrangement or to become fully independent. During the interim period, efforts were to be exerted toward making unity attractive within this formula. This framework of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ was a genuine attempt to give national unity a chance and to create conditions under which the country would evolve toward a more integrated New Sudan of inclusivity and full equality. This recalls the central theme of my 1973 book, Dynamics of Identification: A Basis for National Integration in the Sudan.[vii]
In a volume I edited and published in 2010 on the prospects for the New Sudan, the contributors were still optimistic. The working title for the Volume was ‘New Sudan in the Making’. But before its publication, the tide of optimism began to shift in a negative direction. It became increasingly apparent that Islam and ArabIsm were too deeply rooted to be easily reformed toward a uniting secular Sudanese identity. In the end, I added a question mark to the title of the book which was then published under the less optimistic title ‘New Sudan in the Making?’[viii]
As the referendum was fast approaching, the United Nations Information Office @ Khartoum which was still trying to advocate for unity, organised a symposium on the prospects, which I was invited to address. I initially declined on the grounds that it was too late to make unity attractive to the voters. I was eventually persuaded to attend and I made a case for the formula of ‘One Country, Two Systems. But I also argued that prospects for preserving the unity of the country might be improved by expanding the formula to ‘One Country, Multiple Systems
The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, CPA, in which the US played a critical mediating role, was based on the framework of ‘One Country, Two Systems’. But in the end, it failed to win a unity vote in the referendum. South Sudanese overwhelmingly voted for independence, which was declared on July 9st 2011.[ix]
I was on the delegation of the UN Secretary-General that attended the independence celebration. While the South jubilantly celebrated the achievement of a goal for which they had long struggled and sacrificed, I saw that achievement as a glorious but partial accomplishment which left the New Sudan vision still pending. The three areas under Northern administration, the Ngok Dinka of Abyei, the Nuba of Southern Kordofan and the Angassana (Funj), all of whom had fought side by side with their Southern Sudanese comrades, were ambiguously covered by the CPA through some anomalous protocols that were never implemented. President Kiir said in his address that South Sudan would not abandon them, but would instead assist their cause through peaceful means. But even that peaceful support in a situation of continuing internal conflicts lwould be certain to keep the two countries bound by conflict.
History was to repeat itself on the Ngok Dinka of Abyei, who, as noted earlier, are ethnically and culturally South Sudanese, and fought gallantly in both wars for the liberation of the South. The Abyei Protocol of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement gave them the same right granted them by the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement to decide in a referendum to be conducted simultaneously with the Southern referendum whether to remain in the North or revert to South Sudan. As was the case with the right granted them by the Addis Ababa Agreement, the Abyei referendum under the CPA was never held, as it was decisively blocked by the Sudan government. Abyei therefore remains a contested area with the people continuing in a status of virtual statelessness. In the wake of recurrent violent conflicts between the Sudan and South Sudan over Abyei, the United Nations Security Council established United Nations Interim Security Force in Abyei, UNISFA.
As an aspect of history repeating itself, I came up with a proposal for the interim security and stability of Abyei as a peaceful and conciliatory meeting ground.[x] The proposal was similar to the one I made in 1973 when the Nimeiri regime failed to implement the Addis Ababa plebiscite in Abyei. This proposal also became intensely controversial. The Ngok Dinka political elites saw it as compromising the goal of Abyei reverting to the South. But the proposal met with popular support from the Ngok Dinka generally. In 2013, in collaboration with the Africa Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, we developed a formula for an interim arrangement that would grant the citizens of Abyei an autonomous status under the shared sovereignty of Sudan and South Sudan until the status of the area was finally settled. Unfortunately, the war in the Sudan broke out at the precise time when we were about to submit this formula to the two governments.
This tragic situation is inducing the massive return of internally displaced persons and refugees to return to the area, which has been our goal for decades. In that sense, the tragic crisis in the Sudan is offering an opportunity for supporting the voluntary return of the Ngok Dinka to their home land. With security provided by UNISFA, the climate is conducive to promoting the peace, security, and stability of Abyei as envisioned in our proposed formula. We have now embarked on fundraising internationally and within the Ngok Dinka Community to support the return, resettlement, and reintegration of the displaced and refugees.[xi]
The broader response to the crisis in the Sudan must be to stop the hostilities, initiate the process of mediation, and articulate the broad guiding principles toward which the peace process should be directed. South Sudan as the country most connected to the Sudan, with which it is still bound by conflict in the unfinished pursuit of the New Sudan Vision must play a major role.
The challenge for the Two Sudans has been how to replace conflict with cooperation in resolving their internal conflicts. In Bound by Conflict, published after the independence of South Sudan, I argued that unity and separation are degrees of on-going relations that could be weakened or strengthened, according to the will of the people and their leaders. The two countries were still negatively bound together by their internal conflicts that spill over their borders to adversely affect their bilateral relations. What was therefore needed was turning being bound by conflict to being bonded by cooperation in resolving their internal conflicts.[xii]
That indeed began to happen. Sudan, President Bashir personally, played a critical role in the mediation of the 2018 revitalised agreement in South Sudan. But, ironically, despite his positive role in mediating the South Sudan peace agreement, Bashir did not last long in power. The pressures of the conflicts in the Sudan and the persistent demand of return to civilian rule, triggered the massive uprising against his regime. Young people, specifically university students, supported by the professionals, have always spearheaded popular resistance to military dictatorship in the Sudan. In the uprising against Bashir, the determination and courage of the youth and women inspired sustained popular protests and engaged in various forms of civic resistance for months. Demonstrators from across classes, generations, faiths, educational levels and ethnicities continued to occupy the street infront of the military Headquarters, exposed to arrest, harassment, and eventually gunfire. With enormous sacrifice of physical endurance and even loss of lives that won international admiration, they eventually compelled the Sudan Armed Forces to oust President Omer Al-Bashir in April 2019. Dr. Abdallah Hamdouk, an economist, who had senior positions in regional and international public service, was appointed Prime Minister.x
Bashir and leading members of his regime were detained in the infamous Kober Prison. History was again to repeat itself in a remarkable way. In 1989, Colonel Bakri Hassan Salih, the member of Bashir’s coup responsible for security, who later rose to the position of First Vice President, escorted me to visit the ousted prime minister in prison. On the way, he jokingly told me that giving me permission to visit the detained former government leaders was an investment for when their turn to be detained would come, implying that I should then visit them. Their turn came thirty years later. On a visit to Khartoum, I requested from the coup leader, Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan to grant me permission to visit Bashir and his team in prison, citing the request made thirty years earlier, which to me had become a sacred obligation. I was granted permission and I paid what was a very controversial to the ousted leaders in prison.
Bashir and Bakri were brought individually to meet with me in the modest office of the prison director. In the meeting, I decided to make our conversation more substantive than merely a courtesy call. I said that seizing power by force to rule the country was a high risk adventure and that one must have a very compelling reason and objective to take such a risk. What was their compelling objective? Both appreciated the question and explained that ending the war in the South was their highest priority and that they were committed to reach an agreement with the SPLM/A even if that led to the separation of the South. Although the issue did not come up, it was well known that Bashir’s hidden agenda was getting rid of the South that had always been an obstacle to the implementation of the Arab-Islamic agenda in the country.
After Bashir’s overthrow, conflicts among the different stakeholders in the Sudan intensified. Various political stakeholders and regional liberation movements began to assert their demands on the fledging new government. It was now the turn of South Sudan to mediate the resolution of Sudan’s internal conflicts. The vision of a New Sudan, though blurred, was still a quest in the internal conflicts in Sudan. In October 2020, the Juba Agreement, which was brokered by the government of South Sudan, was concluded between the new Government and the coalition of armed rebel factions and political parties. There was a resounding call for freedom and justice, which were echoes of the call for New Sudan. The agreement partially moderated the hostilities, but tensions persisted. Differences between the army and the popular demand for civilian rule reached an impasse. The army resumed full control with General Abdel Fattah Al- Burhan, the Chief of Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), as the Chairman of the Sovereignty Council and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti) the leader of the Rapid Support Force, (RSF) as his Deputy. The civilian Prime Minister, Dr. Abdalla Hamdouk, was forced to resign in January 2022.
Some rebel movements in Darfur and the Southern Kordofan (The Nuba), for which the goal of New Sudan was still the declared objective of their struggle, did not join the Juba Agreement. There was also a call for the unification of the Army to absorb RSF into SAF. Burhan supported the proposal that the process be completed in two years, while Hemedti demanded ten years. The tension between the two armed groups and their leaders progressively escalated. As a member of a team from South Sudan that went to Khartoum shortly before the war erupted to explore ways of resolving the impasse on Abyei, we observed this tension on, but we did not foresee the explosion that took place in Khartoum on April 15, 2023.
The conflict between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) is essentially a continuation of the crisis of national Identity that has bedevilled the country in varying forms and degrees since independence. It has taken different twists and turns and the configuration of the parties has changed, but the challenge it poses for the country remains basically the same.
Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti) of RSF was one of the leaders of the Janjaweed Arab militia that devastated Darfur with the atrocities amounting to genocide. Hemedti emerged as the dominant figure and was supported by President Bashir to form RSF which became a formidable force parallel to the regular army. Granted concessions for trading in gold and other resources, he became one of the richest individuals in the country. President Al-Beshir twisted his nicknamed into Hemayti, which means ‘My Protection’. Despite his tainted past, Hemedti has recently been speaking of justice, democracy under civilian rule, and the rights of the marginalised areas. But, currently in Darfur itself, the old conflicts between his Arab tribes and the non-Arab groups have flared up. The atrocities being committed are reminiscent of the genocidal devastations of earlier conflicts.
On his part, General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan represents the army which is the core of the establishment and the symbol of national sovereignty. And yet, he himself had participated in the Darfur war against the rebels and the army he leads is said to have been heavily infiltrated and is even dominated by the Islamists.
Popular perception at home and abroad sees the war as a contest for power and wealth between the two generals. This does not address the root causes of the national identity crisis and the concerns of the constituencies tge generals purportedly represent. Any sustainable solution must go beyond stopping the violence and meeting the urgent humanitarian needs to formulate a framework of inclusivity and equality among the races, ethnicities, religions and cultures that comprise the national fabric of the country.
The paradox of addressing the crisis of national identity in conflicts is that there is a tendency to shy away from discussing racial, ethnic, religious and cultural factors in the conflict. They tend to be seen as too sensitive and intangible to be resolved. But without exposing these hidden agendas in the negotiations, they cannot be resolved or even constructively discussed.[xiii]
It is often argued that identity is largely a subjective matter of how an individual perceives himself and herself and not a matter of objective determination. This may be valid if self perception, however distorted, does not affect others. But if the distorted self perception is then projected as the identification of the nation, with discriminating implications for the citizens who do not fit the label, then it seizes to be a private affair. It is of course wrong to discriminate on any ground, but it is doubly erroneous to discriminate on ill-founded grounds of exaggerated differences that are false.
The experience of the Sudan confirms that identity is fluid and dynamic and can be flexibly constructed and reconstructed in self promotion. Islam and Arabism liberally allowed people to pass and offered incentives for passing. The main incentive was the radical change from being a target for enslavement to being a respected person fully recognised as deserving human dignity as a citizen. Those assimilationist incentives are still being offered by Arab countries in terms of material benefits of employment and substantial financial assistance to the country. Those marginalised by this assimilationist trend have engaged in the violent resistance that began in the South and have spread to the marginalised parts of the Sudan.
A major paradox of conflicts and peacemaking efforts worldwide is that wars are generated and perpetrated for a long time, inflicting mass atrocities and destruction to the physical infrastructure, when the causes of the conflict are self evident and will eventually be discussed and resolved. Why is it necessary to inflict so much suffering, death and destruction to do what from the beginning was the obvious way out of the quagmire? A case can plausibly be made for stopping the killing on the understanding that the just cause of the aggrieved party will be fairly addressed with a sense of urgency.[xiv]
While the case of Sudan may have its own peculiarities, it represents a global phenomenon. Civil wars are a manifestation of extreme form of identity conflicts. In my extensive missions around the world, pursuant to my UN mandates on internal displacement and genocide prevention, I found the affected countries acutely divided by crises of national identity. What causes conflict is not the mere differences, but the discriminatory mismanagement of diversity.
To reiterate the argument with which I began, the war currently raging in the Sudan is a symptom of a crisis that has its roots in the institution of slavery and the twin process of Arab-Islamic assimilation. This was a process which paradoxically adopted and Integrated members of the denigrated group into the privileged racial and religious category. But the communities that were raided for slaves developed a resistance identity that held at bay the process of Arab-Islamic assimilation. It also stopped the process from penetrating deeper into the African countries further South. This is often acknowledged with appreciation by Black Africans from those countries.
Although slavery in its crude form was abolished by the British, slavery-like practices dubbed as domestic were tolerated and the legacy of slavery persisted in disguised and yet degrading formations. The identity of stratifying assimilation in the North and that of resistance in the South coexisted during the colonial era. This antagonistic dualism was elevated by British colonial rule into a peaceful, though still unequal, diversity within one country. Independence reignited the agony of inequality as the modern concept of the nation state brought together diverse groups under the centralised monopoly of power by the dominant Arab-Islamic identity group that succeeded the colonial rulers. The identity of resistance in the South rose up and asserted its demand for the recognition of their human dignity that was eventually achieved through secession.
At first, the subordinated and subdued non-Arab groups in the North, primarily in the Nuba Mountains, Southern Blue Nile and Darfur, were not only removed from the liberation struggle by the South, but were in effect used as the foot soldiers by their Arab officers to fight a jihad holy war against the ‘heathens’ and ‘infidels’ in the South. Over time, the eyes of the marginalised groups in the North began to open to their Identity as Black Africans and the indignity inflicted upon their African humanity, for which the South was fighting. Although multi faced in its manifestation, the core of the war now raging in the Sudan is a belated awakening to the cause for which the Africans in the South have been struggling since independence. What is at stake is justice, equality, and human dignity for all, the core principles of the Vision of New Sudan.
The stakes in preserving the unity of the Sudan are high, not only for the country and the immediate neighbours, but for Africa, with global implications. The argument which was being used against the independence of South Sudan was that it would set an example that would threaten the preservation of the colonial borders, which was agreed upon as a cardinal principle by the Founding Fathers of the African independence movement. Although Somalia has in effect been broken up by the virtual breakaway of Somaliland and punt land, the independence of these regions has not been recognised regionally and internationally. The independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia was eventually accepted after a long liberation struggle not only as an agreed solution by the warring parties in Ethiopia, but also because of the fact that Eritrea had been a state that was incorporated into Ethiopia. The independence of South Sudan also came as justifiable not only on the grounds that the country had been governed by the British as ‘two in one’, but also as the outcome of the prolonged struggle of the South Sudanese against the Arab-Islamic domination of the North, which ended in a comprehensive peace.
The independence of Eritrea and South Sudan have however established precedents for overriding the dogmatic commitment to preserving the colonial borders. Breaking up the Sudan further would encourage the liberation movements in the neighbouring countries, such as in Tigray, Amhara, and Oromo in Ethiopia, to more confidently demand independence. This would open up Pandora’s box for similar movements in Africa. Colonial borders throughout the continent would run the risk of being torn apart. The continent would descent into chaos. This would essentially mean that the modern state planted by the colonial intervention would fall apart. But Africa can no longer revert to the pre-colonial past. The integrating middle ground must be flexible accommodation of diversity by creatively designing a governance system that recognises and equitably accommodates local and regional ethnic and cultural identities and their value-institutional peculiarities.
When we proposed the formula of ‘One Country, Two Systems’, it was our sincere hope that it was a way of saving the unity of the country. But we failed because the formula was misinterpreted as a step toward partition. As the break up of the Sudan is undesirable and inconceivable, an appropriate strategy for preserving the unity of the country might be to expand ‘One Country, Two Systems’ model that was applied to North-South relationship into ‘One Country, Multiple Systems’. This formula, if tailored to the dynamics of Sudan’s ethnic and regional composition, and the specificities of each context, might stand a better chance of success in preserving the unity and integrity of the country.[xv] The model is capable of replication elsewhere in Africa and indeed globally, as no country in the would can claim to be homogeneous without the demands of component groups for the constructive and equitable management of diversity in unity.
Dr. Francis Mading Deng was Sudan’s Ambassador to the Nordic countries, Canada and the United States; Minister of State for Foreign Affairs of Sudan; and the first Permanent Representative of South Sudan to the United Nations. He also served as Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons; and SG’s Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide. Deng holds an LL.B (honors) from Khartoum University and an LL.M and a JSD from Yale Law School and has authored or edited over forty books and numerous articles.
[i] See Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Peace and Unity in the Sudan: An African Achievement, Khartoum University Press, 1973; Dunstan M. Wai, The Southern Sudan: The Problem of National Integration, Frank Cass, 1973.
[ii] See Yusuf Fadol Hassan, The Arabs and the Sudan, Edinburgh University Press, 1967. See also Francis Mading Deng, War of Visions: Conflict of Identities in the Sudan, The Brookings Institution, 1995
[iii] Francis Mading Deng, ‘Abyei: A Bridge or a Gulf: The Ngok Dinka on Sudan’s North-South Border’, in Jay Spaulding and Stephenie Beswick, White Nile Black Blood, The Red Sea Press, 1999; David Cole and Richard Huntington, Between a Swamp and a Hard Place, Harvard Institute for International Development, Harvard University Press, 1997. See also Francis Mading Deng, Frontiers of Unity: An Experiment in Afro-Arab Cooperation, Routledge, 2010; Francis Mading Deng, Luka B. Deng Kuol, and Daniel J Deng, Editors, Abyei Between Two Sudans, Red Sea Press/Africa World Press 2020; and Francis Mading Deng, Editor, Warriors From Abyei: In the Liberation of South Sudan, Africa World Books, 2023)
[iv] See Francis Mading Deng, Dynamics of Identification: A Basis for National Integration in the Sudan, Khartoum University Press, 1973; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Peace and Unity in the Sudan: An African Achievement, Khartoum University Press, 1973.
[v] Nimeiri’s unilateral abrogation was one more violation in a long series of broken agreements by the North. Abel Alier, South Sudan: Too Many Agreements Dishonoured, Ithaca Press, 1990. See also Mansour Khalid, Nimeiri and the Revolution of Dis-May, Kegan Paul, 1985.
[vi] See Francis Mading Deng, Sudan: From Genocidal Wars to Frontiers of Peace and Unity, Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs, Occasional Paper No.3, Fordham University, 2006; Francis M. Deng, in Laura N. Beny and Sandra Hale, ‘Sudan’s Genocidal Wars’ in Sudan’s Killing Fields: Political Violence and Fragmentation, The Red Sea Press, 2015. See also Francis Mading Deng, ‘War and Genocide: Disappearing Christians of the Middle East’, Middle East Quarterly, winter, 2001, pp.12-21. And see also Marlowe, Aisha Bain, and Adam Shapiro, Darfur Dairies: Stories of Survival, Nation Books, 2006.
[vii] U.S. Policy to End Sudan’s War, Report of CSIS Task Force on U.S.-Sudan Policy, co-chaired by Francis M. Deng and J. Stephen Morrison, 2001.
[viii] Red Sea Press/Africa World Press, 2010
[ix] See Mansour Khalid, The Paradox of Two Sudans, The CPA and the Road to Partition, Africa World Press, 2015; Mohamed Ibrahim Khalil, Why South Sudan Seceded, Africa World Press, 2021; and Dhieu Mathok Diing Wol, Politics of Ethnic Discrimination in Sudan: A Justification for the Secession of South Sudan, 2nd edition, Africa World Books, 2022.
[x] Francis Mading Deng, Abyei Rising From the Ashes, DETCRO Research and Advocacy, 2022; and Abyei at a Critical Juncture, DETCRO, 2022,
[xi] ‘Raising Awareness About Abyei’s Returnees’ and ‘General Appeal to the Ngok Community for Abyei’, 2023. In partnership with dedicated individuals, we are Currently leading a fundraising campaign for the return, resettlement and reintegration of tge displaced populations and refugees from Abyei fleeing the war in Sudan and to initiate sustainable activities that approach development as self enhancement from within the community. To get involved in the Abyei Campaign, please contact Dr. Francis Deng at [email protected].
[xii] Bound by Conflict: Dilemmas of the Two Sudans, Fordham University Press, 2016.
[xiii] See Francis M. Deng, ‘What Is Not Said Is What Divides’ in Managing the Crisis in Sudan, edited by Abdel Ghaffar Mohamed and Gunnar Sorbo , University of Bergen, April 1989. Francis M. Deng, ‘Negotiating a Hidden Agenda: Sudan’s Conflict of Identities’, in I. William Zartman, Elusive Peace: Negotiating an End to Civil Wars, The Brookings Institution, 1995.
[xiv] See Fanie du Toit, When Political Transitions Work: Reconciliation as Interdependence, Oxford University Press, 2018.