Sudanese cannot agree on their common identity, but up to now they have not disagreed on who counts as a Sudanese. The first disagreement may yet divide the country. But partition should not be a reason to tear up the precious and under-appreciated consensus on who is a member of the Sudanese community.
Since the independence of the Republic of Sudan half a century ago, the identity of the Sudanese nation and state has never been clear. Independence meant different things to different people. Was it a prelude to union with Egypt? Was it a prelude to a federal system of government? Was it Sudan’s second independence–a resurrection of the 19th century Mahdist state? Was Sudan to be a secular modern state? These questions, unresolved at independence in 1956, were not resolved by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and remain unresolved today.
Despite all the internal wars which the Sudanese people have fought in their search for a collective identity for their nation, and the fact that some ideologies have been inherently discriminatory, no political party has ever mobilized to try to exclude another group from being Sudanese altogether. Sudanese do not disagree on the fact that they are all Sudanese.
Where there are disagreements on citizenship–such as recent immigrants across Sudan’s western border–they serve to show the underlying strength of the consensus on who counts as Sudanese. Vast numbers of Sudanese citizens have ancestry traceable to west Africa, and Sudan has been accommodating to them all. An important if little-known chapter in the SPLM’s history was its Pan-African Brigade which included citizens of other African countries ready to make common cause in building a New Sudan. No nation in Africa has been more hospitable to incomers.
Will this common, expansive identity change with the southern Sudanese vote on self-determination, in little more than a year? I expect not. Should the south separate, the identity question will not be resolved, and the debate on the identity or identities of the Sudanese nation or nations will continue.
Should the southerners choose independence, what will the new country be called? Obvious names include “South Sudan” and “New Sudan”, both names that reaffirm the southerners’ attachment to a common Sudanese identity.
Whatever happens between now and the referendum, and in the aftermath of the referendum and possible partition of the country, it is essential that ordinary citizens of Sudan should not become the victims. Violation of citizenship rights is one of the most common abuses in the aftermath of partition or separation. Africa is no stranger to such abuses, and there has been a vibrant debate on the topic of citizenship rights on the African Arguments blog, following on the recent publication of Bronwen Manby’s book, Struggles for Citizenship in Africa.
In 2004, Egypt and Sudan agreed the “four freedoms”: freedom of movement, residence, ownership and work in either country. Some Sudanese see this as a model for a future agreement between north and independent south. I doubt whether this would be sufficient to guarantee full respect for human rights of southerners in the north and northerners in the south, and for members of those communities that straddle the internal boundary. I hope that something stronger could be agreed: a common citizenship of north and south.
How this would work, I am not at all sure. The complexities of any state partition are formidable. It is important that citizenship issues are discussed now, and agreements are reached in the next twelve months.