Home | Comment & Analysis    Thursday 31 October 2019

Secularism, self-determination, peace and the vision of New Sudan


By Yasir Arman

I have come across a statement, so inappropriate, I consider it unprecedented in my 30 years of involvement in peace negotiations. One negotiating team official spokesperson declared that their demand for ‘ self-determination’ is actually ‘negotiating tactic’. If we translate this to everyday language, it is as if a man takes a cow to sell in the market, and tells prospective buyers that his asking price is a 100 pounds, but would accept 50 pounds. Who, in this case, is likely to offer him more than the lower price?

How could a negotiator so freely expose his bottom line? More noteworthy, perhaps, is this unscrupulous use of polarizing issues has a political as well as ethical implication, particularly at a time of revolution and change. In our camp, we have always maintained that the right to self-determination is a democratic right that can’t be isolated from the existing realities of the geography and the political vision giving substance to it. Raising this demand in the Two-Areas is beset with many complications. We can enumerate some of them here.

1. Setting out such demand on an ethnic basis divides local inhabitants on a basis other than citizenship, and erases this very notion of citizenship. This leads to ethnic conflict and prolonging the war, whilst the purpose of the right to self-determination is to reach lasting peace and to abandon the vicious rounds of endless war.

2. The Two-Areas, unlike the situation in South Sudan, contain Arab and non-Arab tribes that do not aspire to self-determination, which makes their situation complex.

3. The geographical boundaries of South Sudan already had been settled in regional and international deliberations, and whose clear demarcation favoured the right to self-determination.

4. To push the right to self-determination blows away any basis for building an all-Sudan movement, and leaves SPLM-N members outside the Two-Areas fighting a battle without a cause. At the same time, it weaponizes the New Sudan vision itself as a device to divide Sudan rather than a vision for positive change and for building a new Sudan.

5. The local inhabitants, who meant to enjoy such a right, are not likely to take a uniform stance toward it. Ancient ethnic groups, like the Nuba, played a historical role in unifying Sudan, but most of whom live outside the geographical boundaries of the Nuba Mountains.

6. In the Blue Nile region, local inhabitants in whose name the right to self-determination is invoked are fewer in number than the other locals entitled to vote in a referendum conferring such a right. Additionally, there’s no common border between the Two-Areas, which would inevitably pile further divisions within the SPLM-N on top of existing ones.
So, who exactly does this strategy meant to serve?

7. The current regional and international situation, particularly our immediate neighbours, do not support such a demand. The statement made by the Vice President of the Republic of South Sudan has been direct and definitive in this regard.

8. Such call will also isolate the demands of the Two-Areas from the broad forces in Sudanese Society and deprives it of the sympathy of national democratic forces with deep links with the SPLM-N.

9. Ethnicity-based right to self-determination contradicts the New Sudan Vision and the unity of Africa, whose geography is saturated with ethnic diversity, and will act to splinter the continent further in the interest of neo-colonialism. I have discussed this in details in a position paper on the renewal of the SPLM-N, entitled, Toward a Rebirth of the New Sudan Vision: Issues of National Liberation in the World Today published 2017.

10. Despite raising the demand for such a right, those behind it excluded from their delegation to the peace talks important local actors and field commanders who led the armed resistance; and included, by contrast, individuals from outside the Two-Areas. They also tabled issues for discussion unrelated to the Two-Areas in a way that casts doubts about their seriousness regarding the talks.

11. The SPLM-N today needs to reinstate the primacy of its vision of a new Sudan, not least because it tenets has been recalled back through the slogans Sudanese December revolution, in its chant of ‘the people want the building of a new Sudan’. The SPLM-N must work toward its reunification, and toward the unity of Sudan. It will not be able to attract Sudanese women and men to its ranks, nor will it be able to create strategic relations with the new emerging social forces, except through returning to its initial foundational moment and rededicate itself anew to the unity of Sudan on a new basis.

As for the question of the secular state: it is the right demand at the wrong time. The SPLM-N is a secular organisation, and so its new Sudan vision. But secularism could never be a condition for ending the war, nor necessarily a condition for the return of the displaced and refugees. They, could not alone take upon themselves paying the cost of a secular Sudan in isolation from the rest of the Sudanese political forces. Peace in itself is only a landmark on the pathway to a civilian and a secular state.

This issue should be introduced in the same manner as we did in Addis Ababa during the 18 rounds of negotiations between 2011 and 2016. It should be tabled on the basis of giving the peoples of the Two-Areas their full right to legislative autonomy. This is the only viable and practical approach. Strategic matters should not be bandied about for the purpose of tactical manoeuvring. When the South included in their declaration of principles the right to self-determination in opposition to ’Sharia Law’, the South meant it. Given its makeup and its well-known history, the demand was not a manoeuvre.

If the current demand is genuinely strategic, it would only prolong the war in the Two-Areas and would forgo a rare chance for a well-deserved settlement for the peoples of the Two-Areas, earned by dint of their own sacrifices. They have a just cause in their own right, it is not a replica of other experiences. The experience of the South is not amenable to copying and pasting on a Sudan canvass.

Raising the issue of secularism without careful consideration, at this juncture is a rallying cry for uniting the Islamist and aiding the emergence of extremist currents amongst them. We ought to always deal in a principled way with moderate Islamist currents interested in change, and work to isolate extremist currents that work to push Sudan toward collapse, and always using the false notion of secularism for counter mobilisation against democracy and progress. These currents are never moved by their conscience to deliver to the poor, and never desist despoiling the faith and the righteous life. And before anything else, they have damaged both Islam and Sudan.

The author is the Deputy-Chairman of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North led by Malik Agar

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