A View of Abdullahi Gallab’s A CIVIL SOCIETY DEFERRED from a precolonial perspective – By Jay Spaulding

“Men make their own history, “ wrote a famous individual long ago, “but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Subsequent historians have endeavored to elaborate hierarchies of historical causation within which diverse material, socioeconomic  and conceptual entities are seen to constrain the exercise of free will. Nowhere has the examination of constraint received greater attention than among the colonized communities of the not-so-distant past, including the Sudan. One of the virtues of Abdullahi Gallab’s A CIVIL SOCIETY DEFERRED lies in the author’s mastery of a wide variety of theorists of historical causation and colonial constraint. The wealth of their insights has allowed him to rearrange largely familiar information about the Sudan into an original and impressive interpretive architecture. His approach, the opposite of reductionist, resonates at many levels of understanding. A second virtue of A CIVIL SOCIETY DEFERRED is that the author knows, profits from, and builds upon the efforts of previous Sudan scholarship. The book consciously joins and illuminates an extended ongoing discussion.

The author’s central effort is to discern the colonial origins of the current Sudanese state.  Few will challenge this thesis, and other contributors to this discussion will undoubtedly address the theme at length. But is there anything that one might add to perhaps embellish  A CIVIL SOCIETY DEFERRED from the remote perspective of precolonial Sudanese history? I would like to propose two ideas for possible consideration.

One important principle of precolonial state government in the polyethnic kingdoms of northern and central Sudan was collective responsibility; groups of people were normally charged with policing themselves and would be punished as a group for the offenses of individual deviants. Such punishment was not necessarily overtly and fatally violent; fines assessed in livestock were common, for example, but so was enslavement, and raw violence was certainly one possible mode of tactical engagement.  Examples of group punishment during the Turkish period and the Mahdiyya indicate the survival of the principle throughout the nineteenth century. Twentieth-century Anglo-Egyptian authorities, when faced with tax recalcitrance, illegal acquisition of firearms,  or various forms of unrest among (for example) the Anuak, Nuba or Ingessana, did not even attempt to arrest and administer justice upon actual perpetrators—they sent in a punitive patrol  and started shooting. How different was the response of the current Khartoum government to questionable behavior by individuals of the Zaghawa, Fur and Masalit? The point is that by the 1990s what had been normal policy of Sudanese governments for centuries would now be interpreted by outsiders against an entirely different standard of acceptable government behavior. Justice would now be read in terms of universal individual human rights, and politics in terms of a presumption of the right of self determination for virtually any identifiable ethnic community. (The real lesson was that the process of colonial and post-colonial marginalization described so eloquently in A CIVIL SOCIETY DEFERRED had sapped the ability of impoverished and powerless rural communities to carry out their traditionally expected self-regulating functions.)

A second issue rooted in the precolonial past that may have some bearing on contemporary events lies in what Abdullahi Gallab felicitously calls the “theater of power” (p. 80). Consider: among the buildings of colonial Khartoum, situated in the sequence of prestigious structures that lined the lower Blue Nile bank (Gordon College, the Anglican cathedral, the government palace) was the small but quite elegant Khartoum zoo, housing a few creatures, mostly Sudanese, conspicuous among which were lions. From the perspective of deep history the presence of lions adjoining the government palace appears all but inevitable; financial records of the Mahdiyya reveal that in its years as the Sudanese capital Omdurman too had its resident lions of state, while the traveler Theodoro Krump observed the royal lions of the early eighteenth century at the great capital city of his own day, Sinnar. Significantly, to confirm Abdullahi Gallab’s emphasis upon the twentieth-century colonial acceleration of violence, the occupants of the Anglo-Egyptian government palace were not content to keep a few lions of state in proximate confinement; they rejoiced in the issue of permits to alien big-game hunters who flocked to the Sudan from remote corners of the globe for the specific purpose of killing more lions. The lives of ALL Sudanese lions were thus subject to the new masters of the palace.

The open and theatrical display of power, including acts of violence, has been a longstanding feature of Sudanese government.  In the kingdom of Sinnar, for example, any litigant had the right to appeal his case to the court of the high king; however, such appeals were discouraged by making them perilous – all appeals to the sultan thereby became capital cases. Visitors from across three centuries witnessed and recorded the memorably violent spectacle that followed. “Whoever commits a fault, be it great or small, is slain,” wrote David Reubeni early in the sixteenth century, “and every day they have courts of justice.”  Or again, in the interval  1700-1702, while Theodoro Krump was serving as court physician to the `Abdallab mānjil who governed the important northern province of the kingdom of Sinnar, he had occasion frequently to watch the administration of corporal punishments .  Krump’s account, otherwise written in German and Church Latin, actually shifted to Arabic to record the unforgettable commands by which the governor began and ended the punishment:  udrubu (“beat him”) and yakfi (“it is enough”).  Flogging remained a common punishment throughout the colonial age, and the practice survives today.  Yet here again, a changing international interpretive context imposes new meanings. Public whippings still take place in the Sudan, but now they are recorded on cell phones and transmitted worldwide on YouTube.  From a distant and lofty journalistic pulpit Nobel laureate Toni Morrison speaks to and for a woman thus punished.  The world recoils in horror from a fairly standard skit in the time-honored Sudanese “theater of power.” (Yet that same world seems to accept state violence as long as it remains hidden. The United States, like the Sudan, still has a death penalty, but American executions take place in seclusion before a limited panel of witnesses, while Mahmud Muhammad Taha is hanged in the capital city’s public square.) The fact of state violence is common to many lands; what distinguishes Sudanese practice from some others is its theatricality—an enduring legacy of precolonial culture exploited rather than abolished by colonialism.

Looking toward the future, perhaps the recognition of the deep historical roots of some longstanding and distinctively Sudanese governmental practices that have now become controversial will allow a thoroughgoing reconsideration and possible revision of civil rights and obligations in the new century. The invaluable insights of Abdullahi Gallab will certainly stimulate and facilitate this process.

Dr. Jay Spaulding is a professor of History at Kean University, USA.

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