Can Darfur Claim the Right of Self Determination?
There is a small but growing minority view among Darfurians, that their region is entitled to self-determination with the option of independence. This issue will be discussed for sure in the coming year. The biggest case against self-determination is that it is a Pandora’s Box: once it is opened, chaos will ensue throughout Sudan and beyond. But with the referendum on self-determination in the south less than a year away, the box is – intellectually at least – already open.
The case for self-determination can be made on the basis of one or more arguments, including history, oppression, ethnic distinctiveness, and equal treatment. These arguments don’t necessarily match the international lawyers’ categories and logic, but they resonate among Sudanese, and for that reason should be opened for discussion.
The Historical Argument
Two kinds of historical argument have been used in support of cases of self-determination in Africa. One is that existing states comprise historically distinct entities roped together in an arbitrary manner. (This would be the historical argument for Darfurian self-determination.) The other is that at independence, territories that were governed separately under colonial rule were bound together in unequal relationships. (This is part of the southern Sudanese case for self-determination and is the argument for the Somaliland Republic.)
Darfur was an independent state until 1916. It has a history of more than three hundred years of continuous independent government, within more or less the same boundaries. This was interrupted in 1874 by the army of Zubeir Rahma, acting as a rogue agent of the Egyptian government. Twenty four years of incomplete control of the province from Khartoum and Omdurman followed until the restoration of the Fur Sultanate by Ali Dinar in 1898. In important respects, therefore, Darfur is an older and more cohesive unit than Sudan as a whole.
When historians such as Sean O’Fahey speak of “˜Darfur’s future with Sudan’ it reflects a strong sense of this history, and the historic relationship between Darfur and the riverain states as equals. Instead of a subordinate entity within northern Sudan, according to this logic Darfur should be seen as a co-equal partner in a composite Sudanese identity that is tripartite (or multi-partite). Instead of “˜the politics of two Sudans’ (to use the title of Deng Ruay’s book), we would have the politics of many Sudans and instead of just a north-south axis of Sudanese identity we would also consider an east-west axis too. One of the tragedies of the last five years is that Darfur, which should act as a stabilizing factor in Sudan’s north-south and “˜African’-“˜Arab’ polarities, has been neutralized as a constructive force in Sudanese identity politics. If southern Sudanese assert their separate identity, keeping only a looser association with the north, Darfurians may similarly prefer to contemplate a future with — but not within — the greater Sudan.
On the other hand, while Darfur was the most recent case of a hitherto independent state being incorporated into a colonial territory, it was hardly the only one. If this logic is applied to Darfur on the basis that it was self-governing 94 years ago, comparable cases can be made for a host of other African kingdoms and peoples. In fact, Dar Masalit might make a stronger case as it was self-governing as late as 1922 and was absorbed into Sudan by agreement and not by conquest. If Darfur is entitled to self-determination, every aggrieved group in Africa that can lay claim to a pre-colonial history of self-government, may feel entitled to claim independence. This is a recipe for turmoil.
Proponents of self-determination in Darfur will argue that the repercussions elsewhere have no bearing on whether they should exercise their rights. However, self-determination is a collective and political right, rather than a fundamental individual right.
Along with the south and the Nuba Mountains, Darfur was a “˜closed district’ for most of the colonial era. To that degree, it was administered differently, and unequally, from the central part of Sudan. This is a version of the southern Sudanese case for self-determination, which rests in part on an argument that, at independence, the territory had been administered separately, and was incorporated into the Republic of Sudan at independence unequally and on false pretences. But the differences between Darfur and other northern provinces were minor compared to those between north and south – for example, the same laws applied. (It also contrasts with the Somaliland experience, which consisted in a different colonial ruler (Britain) to the rest of Somalia (Italy).) Might differential administrative arrangements internal to a colonial authority comprise an argument for a separate sovereignty? In Darfur’s case, this seems to be a stretch.
The Oppression Argument
There is no doubt that Darfur has been neglected over many decades, in terms of economic development and social services. All human development indicators show that Darfur is deprived relative to the central part of Sudan. Neglect was one of the rationales for the 2003 insurrection and is a powerful argument for reform leading to increased development and social spending in Darfur.
Neglect itself is not a strong argument for self-determination. The balance of resource flow between Darfur and central Sudan is not altogether clear. The domestic tax base within Darfur is weak. Even if Darfur were to claim all of the tax income from its livestock and agriculture, the total might not exceed the allocations that the states receive from central government. An independent Darfur would have no claim on revenues from oil extracted in southern Sudan or Kordofan, or other national revenues including from cotton production – much of which is grown in Gezira by Darfurians. Millions of people of Darfurian origin live and work in central Sudan and would not be advantaged if Darfur were to claim independence. An independent Darfur would be poor, remote, landlocked, and with very modest development prospects. Most likely it would be heavily reliant on the support of the international community.
Advocates of self-determination will surely make reference to the gross human rights abuses committed during the recent war. The common experience of violent repression, including massacre and forced displacement, can generate a legitimate demand for a separate state as a protector. The extreme form of this argument follows from defining the abuses as genocide. If indeed Darfurians has been the victims of genocide perpetrated by the Khartoum government, then how can they be expected to remain in the same state as their oppressors?
The difficulties with this argument include the fact that the war in Darfur was, in part, an internal war within Darfur, and there are large and powerful constituencies that would be strongly opposed to any claim of self-determination. Asserting self-determination would most probably revive armed conflict, and a sovereign Darfurian state might pursue an aim to be guarantor of the rights of one community, by repressing or expelling its rivals.
The Ethnic Distinctiveness Argument
The case for self-determination for the south is partly founded on the ethnic, cultural, racial and religious distinctiveness of southerners as compared to the north. This is both the ethno-nationalist and communist argument for self-determination: groups identified as “˜nations’ are entitled to some form of statehood. It is on this basis that the constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia awards the right of self-determination, under very limited circumstances, to its constituent “˜nations’. (It was while this constitutional experiment was being launched, in the early 1990s, that IGAD included the right to self-determination in the draft Declaration of Principles for resolving the Sudanese conflict.)
The ethno-nationalist is not only powerful among southern Sudanese, but it is also the argument that resonates most strongly in the north, especially among Islamists and those most determined to see Sudan as a culturally Arab nation. The separation of the south would be a major, possibly fatal, blow to the concept of Sudan as a diverse nation. It is the presence of the south within the Republic that keeps the centrifugal tendencies in the north in check.
The people of Darfur can certainly claim that they have a distinct identity in comparison to those from other parts of Sudan, based on their long pre-colonial history. However, the ethnic differences within Darfur are as great as, or greater than, any such differences. Their stronger claim is based on their distinct historical political tradition, not their ethnic distinctiveness.
Within Darfur, a claim to distinctiveness will arise from certain communities that have come to identify themselves as “˜African’, and in particular the Fur. Any claim to self-determination spearheaded by the Fur would smack of a return to the Fur sultanate, and would raise fears among all the other communities in Darfur (especially the Arabs) that this is no more than an attempt to resurrect Fur domination. Alternatively, it could result either in an argument for self-determination for the Fur (and perhaps some other “˜African’ groups) only, and therefore a division of Darfur, or for self-determination for all ethnic groups in Darfur. If the case for separation in the south is made on ethnic lines, this could have dangerously provocative echoes in Darfur.
The Equal Treatment Argument
The SPLM first formally adopted the goal of self-determination at the Abuja talks in 1992. The demand arose from an agreement between different SPLM factions. It was declared without John Garang’s prior agreement, and to his considerable annoyance. Self-determination was formalized in the IGAD Declaration of Principles two years later, with IGAD member states anticipating that the form of self-determination would be closer to the Ethiopian model than the Eritrean one. In the aftermath of this, there was vigorous discussion on whether the Nuba were entitled to self-determination as well.
One of the arguments in favour of a wider granting of self-determination – including the Nuba, Blue Nile, Beja and Darfur – was that if the right were universally recognized it would become “˜internal self-determination’ closer to the Ethiopian model, rather than an escalator to separation. (This was the argument put forward in the 1999 Kampala conference “˜human rights in the transition in Sudan.’)
The SPLM-Umma Party agreement of 1994 and the NDA’s Asmara Agreement of 1995 both restricted the right of self-determination to the southerners. This intensified the argument within the opposition and aligned civil society groups. Groups such as Nuba Mountains Solidarity Abroad made their case based primarily on the demand for equal treatment with the south: the Nuba SPLA had fought just as hard and for the same cause as their southern brethren, and the Nuba were, like the southerners, a distinct “˜African’ people oppressed by successive governments in the north. The SPLM leadership was uncomfortable with this argument and avoided dealing with it, up to the Karen negotiations for the “˜three areas’ protocol that became part of the CPA. In this protocol, the Nuba won only administrative autonomy and power sharing for South Kordofan State followed by a “˜popular consultation’ towards the end of the Interim Period.
One of the difficulties of the Nuba argument is that South Kordofan is not ethnically homogenous. It is not possible to make a simple geographical demarcation between “˜Nuba’ and “˜Arab’ or somehow to annex the Nuba-inhabited localities to southern Sudan. In addition, since South Kordofan was extended to include most of former West Kordofan in 2005, the Nuba do not even constitute a demographic majority.
The Nuba argument for self-determination will certainly rear its head during 2010, along with a (less well rehearsed claim) by some SPLM supporters in Blue Nile. In turn that will spark the argument that, if the Nuba are claiming self-determination, Darfur is entitled to equal treatment.
Writing on this blog, Noah Kodi remarked that “˜The true meaning of “self determination” is a people taking charge of their own destiny and forging their vision of a common future. In Sudan today “self determination” is becoming the road to fragmentation and ruin.’
This is a serious warning. At the very minimum, it is important that those who raise the slogan of self-determination make clear the basis for their claim, and contemplate the consequences of their manifesto.