If Sudan’s domestic partitionists and their foreign backers have their way there will be a new border in Africa by the same time next year that will be as meaningless to the cattle pastoralists and other nomadic ethnic groups as the other borders created during the imperial conquest of Africa and the subsequent decolonisation decades later. For example the border between Chad and modern Sudan is an endless source of strife between communities to and fro on both sides. There is no reason that a proposed new border between a future (northern) Sudan and a new independent South Sudan will be more peaceful, on the contrary.
The border that divided Dar Fur from Wadai into separate regions belonging to different national territories of separate sovereign authorities was only agreed between the British and French colonial powers in 1924 and has in effect remained as meaningless for the majority of the people of the two regions whether they are camel nomads, cattle pastoralists, or sedentary and agriculturalists, whether they consider themselves as ‘Arab’ or ‘African’ ever since modern Sudan and Chad became independent and sovereign nations. Much of the current problems of modern Darfur and eastern Chad are related in various forms to this meaninglessness border especially for the people of the same ethnic and cultural background who live on either side.
If one was to create today a new similar border to the west between Darfur and Kordofan nearly the whole Sudan ‘specialist’ industry would not without justification argue that this would be madness creating more problems than it would solve in relation to nomadic and pastoralist ethnic groups. But it seems that the very possible creation of a new border between Kordofan and South Sudan, to focus on the main flashpoint of a future North South border, does not seem generate the same level of concern, as it should and one suspects for political reasons, as the hypothetical former suggestion would create.
The political reason is that the cattle pastoralists in question are Baqqara who for the sole reason of being Muslim and Arabic speaking are being regarded today as ‘northern’ and therefore regarded as ‘alien’ to southern Sudan and hence denied citizenship of a potential future independent South Sudan even though historically for centuries, if not longer, they have moved with their cattle following the alternating cycle of long dry and short rainy seasons from north to south and back again, spending at least half if not more on the future southern side of the border.
The question of where the Baqqara fit does not appear even to have been pushed into the wide ‘envelope’ of citizenship that deals with issues of the citizenship of southern IDPs in northern Sudan or of the wider issue of how to create a new South Sudanese citizenship of the future nation that is inclusive of and replaces existing tribal and ethnic identities, even though the danger of not solving the Baqqara question is more likely to lead to return to open warfare, likely to start as a local dispute, that can escalate and unravel eventually the CPA rather than questions of where the actual line of the topographical border demarcation will be or even the issue of (oil) wealth sharing.
One has become familiar with hearing SPLM representatives say in public and not so public meetings in the West that naturally they will generously welcome the Baqqara on their annual, seasonal and traditional north-south migration with their cattle as long as the latter accept that they are merely ‘visitors’ in another country and behave accordingly. But one has to fear for the future given what has happened along the border of South Kordofan so far and what has been said. See for instance an AFP news story of 1 August, ‘Arab nomads settling in contested Sudan region: Official’, in which SPLM Abyei administrator Deng Arop Kuoi is quoted of accusing members of the Baqqara Misseriya, who are alleged to be “close to the Khartoum government” and wanting “to settle” within the boundaries of Abyei while they are in fact on their traditional migration northwards following the rains.
While it may be understandable why opportunistic and partisan southern politicians espousing the political cause of secession of South Sudan, i.e. the partition of Sudan, and their Western activist supporters express such sentiments, it is not acceptable for supposedly academic ‘specialists’ not to speak up and correct them, or at least appear to be reluctant to do so.
And while it is unfortunately also true that many graduates of African studies from Western universities appear to be by and large ignorant of Africa’s long pre colonial history and fail to understand how much of the historical links and roots of the issues that affect post colonial Africa lie in pre colonial Africa, it appears unfortunately too that some academic Sudan ‘specialists’ who one would expect should know better choose for partisan reasons not to challenge the depiction of the Baqqara as alien or not indigenous, not only in southern Sudan but even in Darfur.
Western post graduate and post doctoral students seem to have uncritically adopted the popular media narrative set by the activist agenda of portraying the Baqqara as non indigenous because they are supposed to be the descendants of Arab Bedouin camel nomads who migrated south into the Middle Nile valley following of the Arab conquest of Egypt and the rest of northern Africa in the 7th century, and spread further west and southward, replacing their camels for cattle, even though there are marked historical ecological, economic and cultural differences between these two nomadic lifestyles; but it is not so simple like that.
The presence of Baqqara in Kordofan and Darfur is recorded in a few historical documents dating back to the 18th century; so when does one become ‘indigenous’ and is no longer ‘non indigenous’? Moreover the concept of ‘indigenousity’ or ‘authenticity’ is in Africa is poisonous concept which has led to bloody conflicts in post colonial Africa in for instance the Rift and Great Lakes regions as well in the wider Sahel belt with its ‘North-South’ conflicts, i.e. the code word for Muslim versus non Muslim, with the latter being portrayed, including in the Western media, as ‘authentic’ and the former as ‘non authentic’ or ‘non indigenous’ for being Muslim, if not Arabic, and who are often, but not always cattle pastoralists.
As Mahmood Mamdani has argued in his studies of Rwanda and Darfur the political concept of ‘(non) authenticity’ was introduced by the Western colonial powers whereby certain ethnic groups were awarded a mid ranking status in the colonial administration, turning them into ‘settlers’ as well besides the colonialists rather than ‘natives’. Post independence the concept became a political instrument to suppress certain ethnic groups in one country, some times but not always as they lived on both sides of the borders of newly independent states, and as such could find themselves deprived of citizenship in the new post colonial nations.
Chad’s first president, Tombalbaye, a Christian southerner, used the concept in his unsuccessful counter insurgency campaign in the Muslim north, whether the targeted groups were ‘Arab’ or ‘African’. The concept has been used also in the not yet solved civil war between mainly Muslim northern and mainly Christian southern Ivory Coast. Last but not least the concept has popped up in Western media reportage of the recent and ongoing conflicts on the Jos Plateau in central Nigeria between Christian ‘indigenous’ ethnic groups and ‘non indigenous’ pastoralist ‘Hausa-Fulani’.
The Jos Plateau situation is of particular interest, not only for President al Bashir castigating the Western media last March for ignoring the murders of Muslims by Christians in the ethnic violence, but also because of the position of the Fulani pastoralists who have seasonally migrated from Hausa land from time immemorial with their cattle, even before they both had become Muslim, during the dry season to the Jos Plateau as water and grazing was still available here, but with the ecological, economic and population pressures of today these resources have become scarcer also in the more favourable environment of Jos. The Fulani pastoralists also migrated westwards as far as Darfur and Kordofan known as Fellata where they are as Muslim Arabic speaking pastoralists regarded as ‘Arab’.
Cattle pastoralism in Africa evolved during the Neolithic era in the Sahara and Sahel when they were much greener and wetter and spread from there over all the plains of Africa from West Africa to East Africa into southern Africa. There is archaeological evidence of the importance of cattle pastoralism in the Middle Nile valley, such as in rock art of the type that one finds in other parts of the Sahara and Sahel, in the culture of the prehistoric peoples who left their traces and who evolved into the civilisation of the first Kushite kingdom Kerma between the third and fourth Cataract, a contemporary and competitor of Pharaohnic Egypt. Cattle remained important for there peoples and civilisations of the Middle Nile, but it is likely that desertification as the climate turned drier was one of the factors in the southward move during the second Kushite Kingdom from Napata to Meroe in the following centuries.
Cattle continued to play an important economic and cultural role in the Nubian Mediaeval Christian kingdoms, certainly in that of Alwa with its capital at Soba on the Blue Nile on the edge of Khartoum and its Muslim successor state of the Funj Sultana al Zurqa, or ‘Black Sultanate’, with its capital at Sennar, as these lands remain within the belt of seasonal rains. In his The Archaeology of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa Timothy Insoll describes the historical process of how with penetration of Islam across the Sahara African peoples and cultures adopted new cultural identities as a result of Islamisation, including Arabisation in various degrees.
Rather than Arab camel Bedouin shedding their camels in favour of cattle and African cattle pastoralists being driven southwards as a result, as SPLM ideologues and their Western activist supporter, including some academics, want to suggest, the origins of the Baqqara is more likely to be that of African pastoralists in Darfur and Kordofan who adopted Islam as their religion with all the subsequent other cultural consequences including adopting Arabic, not unlike what happened in various degrees in the central and western Sahel.
However, this is not solely an academic point or a question of academic nicety, as it has become a political point because by branding the Baqqara as non indigenous or as not ‘authentic’ African they have become strangers in their own land, and may in effect lose that part of the lands in which they traditionally live and graze their cattle south of a future north-south border part of their seasonal cycle. Many regions in modern Africa including in Sudan have suffered, and are suffering enough because one ethnic group is being branded as not authentic and being demonised because of resulting conflicts for not adding another similar type of flashpoint with similar potentially bloody consequences.