By Mahmoud A. Suleiman
April 7, 2008 — Since Sudan gained independence in the year 1956 and until today successive Sudanese governments by and large have not recognized that the Sudanese people are multiracial, multicultural and multi-religious. Based on that, they imposed on all mono-culture through a process of Arabisation and Islamisation in complete disregard for anyone else’s opinion and applied a planned institutional racism that continued to reside in their policies, procedures, operations covertly or overtly. This has inevitably led to endless military coups, unabated civil wars and unresolved conflicts, sadly, with consequent loss of life and damaged livelihood of survivors. Moreover, the country remained underdeveloped despite its potential and resourcefulness. Many analysts call in a sincere and serious intention that we the Sudanese must recognise now that the question of identity in Sudan needs a substantive debate in a meaningful way to arrive at the fundamentals with the view to pull the country out from the abyss into which it has degraded to and salvage it from the blight which hampered its progress.
Sudan is a multicultural motherland of nearly 600 ethnic groups and tribes who speak over 400 diverse Nilotic, Nilo-Hamitic, Sudanic tribal languages and dialects, Arabic being the lingua franca, despite the use of English by many of the elite. Many Sudanese are multilingual. The programme of Arabisation that has been adopted by the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party (NIF/NCP) is in process. Studies indicate that some of Sudan’s smaller ethnic and linguistic groups became extinct through migration which played a part, as migrants often forget their native tongue when they move to an area dominated by another language. Some linguistic groups were absorbed by accommodation, others by conflict. The Population according to the year 1999 estimate is 34,475,690. For centuries, many Arab tribes of Sudan had intermarried and gradually mixed with the indigenous black people who had already been living there. Thus, the Sudanese Arabs do look African in appearance while retaining their original Arab heritage. According to The World Factbook, the primary religions of Sudan are Islam (approx. 70%), Christianity (approx. 5%) and traditional indigenous religions (approx. 25%). Sunni Muslims predominate in the north, while the south contains most of the followers of Christianity and traditional indigenous religions (animists). Sudanese culture melds the behaviours, practices, and beliefs of all those ethnic and tribal groups, communicating in different languages and dialects, in a region microcosmic of Africa, with geographic extremes varying from sandy desert to tropical forest. The River Nile, the longest river in the world, traversing the one million square miles of Sudan from south to north.
The name Sudan comes etymologically from the Arabic Bilad as-Sudan, "Land of the blacks", a term originally referred to most of the Sahel region. That term previously had servile connotation. Nevertheless, history has demonstrated that no single racial or ethnic group has a monopoly on human creativity and initiative especially in a world of increasingly fluid mobility. Since religion and ethnicity have been so significant in defining communal identity in Sudan, issues such as racial discrimination and disparity in wealth distribution and power sharing between the hegemonic elites from the Northern region and the rest of the population, have been seen by many as inseparable from them. One would wonder how best Sudanese national identity can be restructured.
Identity and its concept are controversial notions, and have been key factors in conflicts that haunted Sudan. Identity will determine the success or failure of any peace accord between the rebel groups in Darfur or elsewhere in the marginalised parts of the country, and the (NIF) government. Identity and citizenship are two sides of one coin in building a modern state. Nevertheless, it is high time for the Sudanese to recognise and admit that their country is inhabited by people of multiple identities and that citizenship maybe the common base that guarantees to preserve the rights for all members of the public in Sudan. The Two most important objectives of the New Sudan’s revolutionary generation in the 21st Century are freedom, and acceptance of the other. The people of this country bear no grudge, antagonism or discrimination against other Sudanese or people from other states around the globe because of their religious affiliation, colour, race or culture. Sudan as a multi-religious, multicultural and multiethnic seeks to achieve cultural and religious tolerance and respect which are essential parameters for peace-building and lasting friendship.
Former leader of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLM/A), late Dr. John Garang de Mabior was quoted by Nora Boustany on Friday, February 11, 2005; Page A21 in the Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A15683-2005Feb10.html) as said “We were obviously African . . . but this is the issue of identity. We don’t know who we are, and that underlies the ambiguity. I am only gathering momentum to rediscover ourselves, to evolve the Sudanese identity that incorporates all of us, irrespective of tribe, religion or race." He, furthermore, said that since 1956, when Sudan was freed from foreign mandate powers, the country has "failed to find itself and to have a soul," "Various governments have come and gone, and the Sudanese have looked for their identity elsewhere — in Christianity, in the Arab world, in scenarios of an Islamic state. But we did not ask ourselves: What made us Sudanese?" "Now we have a possibility to fundamentally change Sudan, of putting our country back together again and achieving our vision for the new Sudan. It is payback time for the SPLA, to the people who have suffered, to deliver, to build schools and hospitals, to have the new Sudan we have fought for," he said. "That’s how nations are built. They are born out of struggle." Garang has offered to intercede in Darfur at a rally in southern Sudan by saying: "We will work for peace for Darfur," "We cannot have peace in one part of the country and war in another." Dr. Riek Machar Teny-Dhurgon writes in his SOUTH SUDAN: a History of Political Domination- a Case of Self-Determination: “The crisis of national identity is a creation of North Sudan which defines the Sudanese identity in Arab and Islamic terms. The North political elites consider the Sudanese citizenship as a transition to full integration into the Arab identity. This undermines the right of the vast African majority to whose identity should be fully embodied in the character of the state”. More recently, His Excellency James Wani Igga, Speaker for South Sudan Legislative Assembly and Deputy Chairman of the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) was reported to have said that the SPLM/A is keen on the unity of Sudan but believes that the unity is shrouded by several obstacles and risks, most of which are financial and administrative corruption, spread of tribalism and along with religious segregation and racism. He called for the eradication of these evils in order to enjoy a stable unified Sudan.
Koang Tut Jing (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes in the Sudaneseonline.com his article entitled: Besides tribalism political favouritism a grave concern in New Sudan “We grew up absorbing the importance of equality and justice from the SPLM/A leaders. Today, justice and equality remain as what many in the New Sudan endured the adverse conditions during the struggle. Yet we never escaped the negative impacts of political favouritism and tribalism despite sharing a common cause.” Mr. Jing asks: “If we cannot care for those without relatives in the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) or the Government of National Unity (GNU), what would be the consequences in the long run? We are creating criminals and robbers unknowingly.”
The identity of the Sudanese people should be based on the concept of citizenship which is intricately bound with aspirations of belonging to a new society and the desire of maintaining former cultural traditions rather than on the components of identity such as ethnicity, faith, culture, age, sexual orientation, gender, race, ability (or disability), and class or otherwise since everyone has multiple identities. Moreover, the relative importance and compatibility of those attributes differ in various times and circumstances. Citizenship is the only path to achieve the rights and duties. Nevertheless, regrettably, the Arabised Sudanese Elites never question this because they want so eagerly and earnestly to be identified as Arabs. They behave as though they were more Arab than the Arabs in their intense quest and devotion to that goal. Sadly, and in bitter reality, they get ridiculed and laughed at by the very people they thought are their brothers or cousins and with whom they share common ancestry. When Sudan applied to join the Arab League, the regional organization of Arab States in the Middle East and North Africa in Jan 19, 1956 to become the 9th member and part of the trend to PAN-ARAB Nationalism, some member Arab countries of which Lebanon was one, initially felt uncomfortable and opposed candidly; they probably thought the Sudanese were too dark to be Arabs!
Key elements of identity whether they are the village, region, or country of birth and ancestral attachment can greatly contribute to conflict intractability. Identities vary in many other ways. They are self-designations and also attributions made about other persons. Moreover, identities can endure for generations or change with shifting situations. They can exclude or include. Everyone has multiple identities, their relative importance and compatibility differs in various times and circumstances.
Analysts believe that inclusive approach to citizenship has to be sustained through discarding ethnic (racial), religious and other cultural aspects if the Sudanese want to live as a unified, harmonious and multicultural nation in a united Sudan. Nonetheless, some ultra – Arabised elements in the ruling (NCP) such as President Omer Hassan Ahmed el Beshir’s maternal uncle, the infamous Arab cultural supremacist bigot, El Tayeb Mustafa Abdel Rahman, who is given free rein, signifying that separation is seen as a policy and his counterpart racist self-proclaimed philosopher of the current regime, Hassan Makki Mohammed Ahmed, who portrayed Khartoum as a city besieged by black people and invented and popularized the derogatory term ‘Black Belt’ ?????? ??????alhizam Alaswad), referring to those non-Arabs from Western Sudan and the Southern Sudan living in the outskirts of Khartoum, seem not inclined to do so. They remain posing unprecedented challenge assuming without evidence that they are the descendants of Abbas, the paternal uncle of The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). It is high time to tell these supremacists to let us just call a spade a spade! Sudan should grant citizenship on the basis of commitment in which duties come before equal rights and justice for all as an incentive. The threat of denial of citizenship is rife. It is incumbent upon us to strengthen fellow- Citizenship, tolerance and equality in rights and duties. This country until not long ago, prior to the (NIF) military Coup d’état in 1989, had enjoyed to some extent unsurpassed record of multicultural harmony and integration. The quasi neo-Nazi fascist attitude adopted by the repugnant supremacist elements in the NIF/NCP is totally alien to our country. Those who devoted themselves to promote Fascist theories are bunches akin to the ‘Pot Calling the Kettle Black’!
It is said: “Identity is bound to divide, Citizenship can unite”. When the UK National Identity Cards Scheme was proposed and the British government was pushing ahead with legislation for a national identity card despite widespread opposition from the media, politicians, and the public, the Bill sets out more than fifty categories of information required for the register! Identity is bound to categorise people along the lines of religion, race, culture, language and other components of it. The Sudanese should not continue to experience an Identity crisis! Let us embrace citizenship as a Good Samaritan and a Saviour that keeps our continent-sized country together from disintegrating into Balkanized ethnic cantons by being thrashed out!
The current jiggly debate about whether Sudan is an Arab or an African or an Afro-Arab country" L`arabite et l`africanite du Soudan” is thought by many observers as a sterile and farce. As well it is considered mere waste of effort and time to no avail. The answer that loaded question maybe: “Neither nor, we are just SUDANESE and that is enough!” Will the people in Sudan come into terms with their citizenship identity and accept each other irrespective of their diverse other identities, as Sudanese Citizens? Will those Arabised supremacists in the NIF/NCP try to overcome their inferiority complex and submit to the fact that they are like anyone else on this land are Sudanese by being citizens? These are Sixty-four dollar questions ($64 questions) await for answers in sincerity.
Dr. Mahmoud A. Suleiman is the Deputy Chairman of the General Congress for Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). He can be reached at email@example.com