A Civil Society Deferred: We – the “˜Sudanese’ – have not been Liberated Yet – By Abdullahi Gallab
On July 9, 2011, South Sudan became the world’s newest state. If “all dates are conventional” as Burno Latour says, 2011 and 1821 (the date of the “˜creation’ of Sudan under Egyptian rule,) are “a little less so than some.” The creation of this new state will have an impact not just within the remaining part of the Sudan, East, West, Central and the Horn of Africa””as South Sudan forges new relationships with its regional neighbors””but also for the wider international community. The Sudan, the largest country in Africa and formerly in the Middle East, remained broadly within its pre-July 2011 borders and human composition since 1821. And, the Sudanese as a nation or historic people, have existed within imagined borders and real complex past experiences for a far longer time than that.
The Sudanese human experience””before the founding of the Sudan as a geographical and human space””has transformed into a series of complex developments and different forms of interrelationships. The different modes and systems of development, and their environments, have created the Sudanese as a people. Significant human experiences have moulded and shaped the Sudanese mutual encounter with time and place, have acted together and separately to internally and externally provoke violence, allowing for systems of domination of nature and over each other, means of production of and modes of regulation. There is more to the Sudanese experience in its complexity than meets the eye.
From the creation of the Sudan in 1821 the Sudanese saw their lifeworld colonized, civil experience constrained, and evolution of their society deferred. The declaration issued on July 9, 2011, splitting North and South Sudan, occurred as a result of the Islamist regime’s attempt to exercise a tighter grip over the Sudanese lifeworld. They have split Sudan into two states, and turned the rest of the country into hot or cold battle grounds between the regime and other Sudanese groups. Are we now ready to look back into this long and complex human experience and ask how the Sudanese civil society has been deferred and ask the most serious question are we””the Sudanese people””been liberated yet?
Liberation comes in many different ways, yet here it would be qualified not only from totalitarian rule itself, but alsofrom two distinctive practices which must be well-defined if they are to become germane. This is the liberation from a myriad series of contrivances and mentalities of “˜totalist’ politics, ideologies and systems; and from the devices-the state-created to give effect to such rule.
Every now and then we have been reminded of what most Sudanese people and observers describe as the “Sudanese dilemma.” Alexis de Tocqueville would have explained the “Sudanese dilemma” as a reflection of the sharp contradictions between, on the one hand, the spontaneous vitality of the Sudanese social life “” the tendency to create associations that lies at the heart of civil society””and, on the other hand, the different forms of violence that the Sudanese have historically experienced. There can be no doubting that ripping of the country into two republics is an outcome of a crisis the Sudan has been undergoing for a considerable period of time. It is almost equally clear that this crisis is serious enough to threaten the country with fragmentation. But, similar as to with other serious situations, the diagnosis of the Sudanese condition and its consequences is at the heart of an Sudanese and non-Sudanese academicians’ inquiry and of intellectuals’ and knowledge workers’ ijtihad.
In our search for an explanation, we have to consider the accumulative and singular role the central state has played in the Sudanese life since 1821. From the time of the Ottoman Wali [viceroy] – Mohammed Ali’s invasion of the Sudan and the creation of a centralized state in 1821, to the current totalitarian rule of the Islamists (1989–present). The state in its different formations has delineated, focusing on (a) the charters of the conventions of hidden and manifest structures of violence and (b) the all-embracing and monopolizing power over all means of a brand authority by which the conduct of the population is governed, disciplined and coerced. The state emerged and continued to act as a vessel for extraction, a major manufacturer of inequalities, racial engineering and social stratification on a grandiose scale. Its public and heavy hand has always been a silhouette in the shadows and a hound in the light of these developments.
Stated more precisely, the state within its different formations and designations through time, became a secular Tertullian theology: “I believe it because it is absurd and I know it because it is impossible.” Going against that state or persuasion of any act of resistance to its tyrannical grip would most likely be considered as heresy that should be dealt with in the most violent manner. The surge of peaceful or violent resistance to state designs must always not only be criminalized but also be destroyed as an enemy force. The state during the Turkiyya period (1821–1875), during the Mahdiyya period (1875–1898), under British colonial rule (1898–1956) and under every form of military rule (1958–1964 and 1969–1985) continued to be the central focus of all these forms of conduct from the center that grew and intensified through time.
Within its rhizome-like nature, the state is based upon a system originally established by colonizing powers and military rule. The two types of Colonialism the Sudan experienced – al-Turkiyya al-Sabiqa (1821–1875) and al-Turkiyya al-lahiqa (1898–1956) as the Sudanese describe them – constituted a continuum of historical events that shared guiding differentialist ideologies. Each operated within its own historical and material circumstances. Together they contributed to the construction of the conditions that deeply affected the creation of the country’s center and its margins. Al-Turkiyya al-Sabiqa established the boundaries of what would become the contemporary state of the Sudan. Khartoum was built as a new capital in 1830 and, around it and firmly connected to it; the center grew faster than other parts of the country.
It was the Turko-Egyptian colonial regime that first mapped the confines of Sudanese peoplehood. According to these confines, the southern part of the country was ruled as an “open district” where slavery became a function of the state. Simultaneously, the northern part of the country was ruled as a “closed district” for heavy taxation. That regime came to an end, Khartoum was destroyed and Major-General Charles Gordon, Governor General of the Sudan, was killed when the army of the Mahdist revolution stormed the city in 1885. For a majority of Sudanese, the end of the Turkiyya with the Mahdist revolution was the core of a political and religious culture of resistance that was supposed to curate the inner soul of the people who were, in contrast, opposed to all forms of colonialism. Khartoum symbolized, to the British crusader’s mind and their collective memory, a Golgotha of sorts, and its ruined palace represented Gordon’s crucifix. So, their second coming was characterized with vengeance and the masses of Sudanese who were “˜saved from death’ by Kitchener’s oppression had fallen back into exploitation and marginalization.
The residue of that abuse and oppression, exercised by the two colonial states, piled up in the collective memory and the popular consciousness that shaped individual and group worldviews. All versions of violence experienced by that state against the Sudanese continued to have their distant historical resonance. Yet the nature and intensity of each form of violence, together with the territorial differentiation that emerged out of that experience, planted and maintained something that has reached beyond generalities and generations. Most importantly, that experience – which entailed certain racist postures as auto-referential impulses that lead to the construction of different, real and imagined communities and districts that could be colonized and opened up to different systems of subjugation – were also subjected or “closed” to another form of subjugation as during the British colonial period. That situation produced what I would call a form of homo-referential impulse.
A homo-referential impulse and its different forms of prejudice emerges when that particular practice of auto-referential racism nominates some of those who were subjected to prejudice and colonization and they begin to see themselves as different from other groups within their same human milieu. Colourism, which is typically characterized in the Sudanese case by how dark one’s skin colour is, is one aspect of that impulse. Khudra dogaga – that is, fine black skin color in comparison to coarse blackness – as an example, makes colourism a moral predicament as the first would maintain the greatest social distance from the second. Moreover, the psychological fixation surrounding colourism, as a way of thinking and acting for the creation of social distance, has made of that homo-deferential impulse the “last taboo” among the Sudanese, who have discriminated against one another for decades. Because it has long been considered unmentionable, it has always been denied and never mentioned within the national discourse.
The focus of such a differentiation, which ranks groups and individuals in terms of specific and sometimes imagined phenotypic characteristics and attributes, reflects a subtle way of social positioning of those particular and comparable groups and individuals, riverians or shamaliyyin (from Northern Sudan), garaba (Western Sudanese), Nuba (from the Nuba mountains region), Ghanobiyyin (from South Sudan) and halab (from Turkish, Egyptian or Levant origin). Like other types of prejudice, homo-referential impulses and its consequential production of the social zoning of the other, which can be traced back to the time and auto-differential racism of the Turkiyya colonial experience, are historically and culturally rooted, socially learned and self-regulating in response to different or new conditions, confrontations or structural situations. A tremendous progressive trend in this respect was clear during the Mahdiyya period toward al-Khalifa Abdullahi and those who were called alwalad al-Gharib of Western Sudan. Remnants of that period’s expressive culture are still alive. It has been even clearer in the attitudes of some of the ruling groups of the Islamists towards the Darfurian members of the party and South Sudanese citizens who were not members of the party.
The above attitude reflected itself in three aggregates of identity management. The first reflects itself in the social status, aptitude, ethnic relations and attitudes that qualify or disqualify individuals and groups from (or for) certain rewards. These groups within their distinctive regional and ethnic characteristics and backgrounds came to be housed in a collective imagined stratum within the changing Islamist structure as a less worthy class. The enormity of the feelings of that group and the consequences of such actions added to the grievances of the Darfurians towards the state and their fellow Islamists and served only to further their call to arms against the regime. The status inconsistency between those Darfurians’ achieved and ascribed status located them in “a place of involuntary exile.” Daud Bolad’s ill-fated dissention and Khalil Ibrahim’s bitter fight against the regime stand as a prime example of the effects of this development. [See the First Islamist Republic: Development and Disintegration of Islamism in the Sudan]
The second – the homo-referential attitude toward the South as a peoplehood and the Nuba of the southern region of Kurdofan, who are all Sudanese citizens in the first place and who include Muslims – nevertheless were subjected to jihad instigated by the Islamist state and propagated by its media. The third is the Islamists’ homo-referential impulse’s hidden language highlighting certain tribes’ superiority – organised and fashioned within the daily conversations and jokes but which became the end-result of notions and actions that rank these tribes according to position of power. This conduct supports very specific forms of what is described by the Sudanese as tribal domination and tribal damnation – as the Islamist state continued to be the prime distributor of rewards and inequalities. The promotion of the tribe among the Islamists represents a phenomenon which is psychological rather than physical, exclusionary rather than inclusionary, and to some extent an absurd tribal supremacist agenda in which the association of the individuals to a group accentuates belonging to a communality that binds together some of those competing groups within the ranks of the Islamists.
All this leads to an even bigger issue: the colonizing of religion in general and Islam in particular. The colonial state created in and of itself a new religious entity via its monopoly and control over the Sudanese open religious space. The state could deploy its authority strategically to regulate, impose certain rules and roles and deny access to particular religious fields and markets. The enforced social, political and religious fragmentation turned different religious representations into appendages of the state after making a distinction between “good” Islam, which would be accommodated, and “bad” Islam, which should not be tolerated.
The policy of regulating orthodox Islam occurred while vigorously combating what they called the heretical sects of Sufi Islam, which “cannot be allowed to be re-established, as they generally formed centres of unorthodox fanaticism.” The promotion of that form of orthodox Islam as a state religion and the later evolution of this policy – as reflected in the government’s integration of Islamic studies into the curriculum at Gordon Memorial College and in the institutionalization of the orthodox “”˜ulamÄ'” as the only interpreters of Islam, produced an uneasy and a continuing ideological conflict between what was perceived as modern and official Islam, which is perceived as orthodox, and that brand of Islam that is described as traditional, backward looking and anti-modern, composed of “heretical sects” namely, Sufis. As a consequence of that disposition, the Sufi majority was relegated to a minority status in terms of stratification of power, privilege and prestige. At the same time, such attitudes towards other forms of Islam remained recurrent within the consequent developments in the Sudanese political arena, and continues to play an important role in the political theory and practice of different strands of Islamism, community of the state and civilian and military regimes.
Not only was Islam regulated, but Christianity was as well. At the beginning of the colonial British rule, some administrators opposed missionary work for the protection of the primordial communities. As the colonized mosque was organized, the church was amalgamated in and proliferated as one of the departments of the state. As Francis Wingate, founder of the colonial state in the Sudan and the its longest reigning Governor General until 1916, claimed at the construction of the Khartoum Cathedral, it “would, more than anything else, prove to the oriental mind the permanent nature of our occupation.”
The post-colonial state and its surrogate mother (the Sudanese community of the state – the heir of the British community of the state) inherited all that and added to it. The current regime, which is a strange mix between Islamist totalitarianism and militarism, added to the colonization of religion new and additional factors by declaring jihad against what they labeled as the alliance of pagans and their supporting crusaders and communists in the south of the country. Those who were tormented with such aggressions were, in the first place, Sudanese citizens. The Islamist state upgraded the capacity of the state apparatus of torture – which was sponsored as a mode of “divine” conduct and practice – to deal with its opponents in the northern part of the country.
The Sudan gained its independence from Britain in 1956, but the Sudanese have not been liberated yet from the colonizing and after-colonization effects of a state designed to carry out the duties of oppression, production of racial difference and a major manufacturer of inequality.
Hence, this multi-faceted chain of events – the collective grievances, the hierarchies of discontent that have been reflecting themselves for centuries – is in its essence a quest for change. An opportunity availed itself for a negotiated comprehensive peace agreement that would incorporate the collective demands of the Sudanese for rebuilding their Sudanese nation, state and a new socio-political order. Yet, “the chariot that leads to [such] victory is of another kind.”
The Sudanese of the Southern Sudan decided to liberate themselves from an oppressive regime and a state that has a long track record of violence and an uneven distribution of power and material resources that resulted in inequalities””a state that only brought to the Sudanese people dictators and misery.
Although the debate over the after effects of peril facing the Sudan as a country stretches and sidesteps forward by the minute, one might say that, although the Southern Sudanese have walked away from the regime and its state, they have not walked away from the Sudanese fields of action. One would agree with many that, when an understanding of the Sudanese consciousness is able to influence their walk out of the current regime and its oppressive state, a new and a trustworthy debate might become a starting point to initiate and evoke the virtue of a new Sudan, bigger than what the colonial borders mapped out in their day. Was there a missed opportunity? Yes; but nonetheless, the wind of change is blowing all over the Middle East and Africa. The street’s chant for freedom – al-sha”˜b yurid isqÄt al-nizÄm (The people want to bring down the regime) – could materialize into al-sha”˜b yurid taqier al-nizÄm (The people want to change the regime).
The Sudanese, who are experienced in leading successful uprisings and civil disobedience movements against dictatorial rule (which they did in 1964 and again in 1985), are certainly able to do it for a third time to finally liberate themselves from the tyranny and totalitarianism of the inherited state and its current and similar regimes. Then, perhaps, there would be a new opportunity for building a new Sudan out of the Sudanese collective order and its emerging good society. By that time, surely, the Sudanese “habits of the heart” that ameliorated and molded the Sudanese character and its deeper sense of civility (not the state or its regimes) would help them examine themselves, create new political communities, produce a new social contract and thus ultimately support and maintain conditions of democracy, freedom, equality and human dignity. Then, the gentler side of the Sudanese life, and the people’s propensity for it, would, should and maybe will, as Alexis de Tocqueville describes, “spontaneously [help create] the bonds of friendship, trust and cooperation that lie at the heart of civil society.” The dominant impulse by that time, I would say, will be that a change for the State of South Sudan will also be a change for the new Sudanese Sudan.
Let us keep our fingers crossed.
Formerly a journalist, Abdullahi Gallab (PhD) teaches Islamic studies in the African and African American studies and religious studies department at Arizona State University. His major research areas include current Islamist movements in Africa and the Middle East. His first book, The First Islamist Republic: Development and Disintegration of Islamism in the Sudan was published in 2008