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The winds of change blow...again

Richard Dowden on the creation of a new Sudan

Africa's newest country, currently known as Southern Sudan, perhaps to be re-named in July of this year when it celebrates its independence, is its newest child, born not without some birth pangs. Only days after Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir accepted the referendum results granting independence to Southern Sudan, there has been fighting between renegade general George Athor, the Sudanese Liberation Army and the official army of the South, with reports of over 100 deaths (February 2011). Southern Sudan is already one of the poorest and least economically developed states in Africa with much conflict between and within its more than 200 ethnic groups. Despite this, this oil-rich region has shown remarkable unanimity and determination to secede from the North and make its own way to independence.

On my first visit to Sudan - more than 25 years ago - I took a bus from Khartoum down the Nile to Renk, a trip from the Islamic, Arabic-speaking north to the culturally African south which is more diverse in its variety of religious faith. Two striking things have stayed with me from the trip. Firstly, there was no road between north and south. Somewhere south of Kosti the road disappeared and the driver had a choice of tracks through the bush. The second thing was a conversation with a police chief - a senior officer. He was a tall black Southerner and he told me without my asking that the south should be independent. The northerners, he said, called Southerners abyid - slaves, and treated them as second class citizens.

I was astonished to find a government official, a senior policeman, expressing his views in support of the rebels he was supposed to be fighting against. Since then I have never doubted that, if given the chance, the vast majority of Southerners would vote for independence.

Oddly however the mainly southern rebel movement, the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army, was not fighting for separation. Officially they opposed it - instead they were fighting for a united, democratic, secular Sudan. The movement had come into existence when President Nimeiri had made Sudan an Islamic republic. But talk to any Southerner about what they were fighting for, and sooner or later they would talk about the oppressive racism of the northern Sudanese.

That anger was certainly justified by what I had seen in Khartoum over the last few decades. The only Southerners I saw there in government offices were people making tea or sweeping the floors and paths with grass brooms. There was one southern minister - a token gesture by a government made up of Northern, Arabic-speaking Muslim Sudanese, drawn almost exclusively from the towns on the Nile, north of the capital. They had inherited Sudan from the British as a 'possession' - and that is what it really is, a conquered territory from the time of Ottoman and then Anglo Egyptian rule. And these inheritors have continued to run it like their personal fiefdom, treating the Southerners as well as other ethnic groups like the Darfurians, Bejas and others as their subjects.

Though overwhelmingly southern in its make up, the SPLA's ideological position brought it a lot of support among Khartoum's intellectual middle class as well as trades unionists and Communists and support from other regions fighting for more autonomy. That's what progressive elements in the Northern Sudan will now lose - the support of the South. So the opposition to the Islamists will be hugely reduced in size. On the other hand they will be encouraged by the South's victory and may feel that the Bashir regime is weakened by separation.

This is now inevitable. In January Southerners voted by 98.83% for independence. The only questions now are whether there is the capacity to run and develop a state that has had no development since the 1950s - and precious little before that. And whether the disputed areas such as Abyei will result in a major war between north and south. Oil is the key. The prospect of wealth and development might prevent or cause that war. Sudan will need intense diplomatic involvement for many years to come. This is not the time for the world to say 'That's Sudan sorted' and walk away.

Published with permission from the Journal of the Royal African Society