Discovering South Sudan: The Dilemma of Sudanese Democrats
Twenty years ago Dr. Abdel Wahab el-Affendi wrote an article “Discovering the South” which described how Sudanese Islamists were trying to come to terms with the distinct cultural and religious identity of the Southerners within Sudan. It may seem ironic to re-use el-Affendi’s title to describe the problems faced by Sudan’s democratic secularists in dealing with the South. Isn’t it the case that the secular modernizing Northern parties and civil society organizations are the natural allies of the South? Ever since the 1965 Roundtable at the University of Khartoum, have these two groups not made common cause against religious bigotry and racism in Sudan?
My thesis is that the Northern left has used the Southerners in support of its own struggle for democracy in the North, but has neglected the Southerners’ own legitimate demands for democracy in the South. Because the left has wanted a strong South on its side, it has supported strong Southern leaders irrespective of their democratic credentials. This is a short-sighted approach which and its result will be to leave both Northern and Southern democrats weaker. Just as the Islamists saw Southerners as the human raw material for Islamization so too the democrats see them as the brawn to back up the secular elites’ brain, to bring about a democratic and pluralistic modern Sudan. The Islamists have learned their mistake already and discovered that the South is not part of their Islamic republic. The democratic left will only “discover the South” too late – when it has seceded.
The secular modernist left in Sudan has a long and principled history of resistance to, in succession, the colonial occupier, the sectarian parties, and the Islamist-security-finance machine which has ruled the country for the last 21 years. Crushed by repression, and weakened by the undermining of the middle class, since the partial liberalization post-CPA, the secular left has been forced to ally itself with unlikely partners such as the sectarians and western donors, and even dallied with a most doctrinaire wing of the Islamists, in the form of Turabi’s PCP. But its most consistent alliance has been with the Southerners especially the SPLM.
The South has been the historic anchor of Sudanese opposition to the Arab and Islamist trend. The Southerners, simply by their existence as a distinct racial and cultural group, have been the knock-down argument for socio-cultural pluralism, and for civil and political rights. The two civil wars in the South have proven that the Southerners will fight to the death in preference to submitting to an Arab-Islamic state.
In the CPA, the Southerners gained a big victory for themselves (the referendum on unity or secession) and an important gain for the whole country (the elections). The SPLM achieved what the Northern opposition parties signally failed to do. No wonder the Northern opposition are so desperate to cling to the coat tails of the SPLM. But all along, have the secular leftists really understood the South? Or have they taken the SPLM and the Southerners for granted?
The elections are a wake-up call for the secular Sudanese left. The SPLM didn’t turn into such a reliable ally after all. Salva Kiir even said publicly that he had cast his presidential ballot for Omar al Bashir. More disturbingly, some on the democratic left are wondering whether the SPLM is really a democratic movement after all.
The elections in Southern Sudan were a scandal. Whatever violations the NCP perpetrated in the North, the SPLM/SPLA did in the South, except it transgressed more publicly. Nobody believes that there was anything but flagrant fraud in the elections in four or five states in the South. But the spokesmen of the democratic left are shutting their eyes to these abuses which were just as bad as anything the NCP did in the North.
Moniem al Jak, founder of the Sudan Democracy First Group, published his latest excoriation of the NCP’s rigging of the election. Position Paper no. 5, dated 4 May, follows on from the many instances of fraud detailed in the previous papers to conclude that the elections represent a threat to the stability of Sudan, and they should not be recognized. But when Moniem turns to the elections in the South he is turned into an apologist for the SPLM/SPLA (I am using the old twin terminology deliberately).
“The conduct of elections in Southern Sudan were not a matter of high political significance compared with the major challenges that have been facing the government in the interim period, such as, for example, the establishment of stability after decades of war and creating the appropriate environment for the referendum. Although elections were relatively an imposition on South Sudan, and despite electoral irregularities, violence and restrictions on freedoms that certainly hampered the process, the people of South Sudan did succeed in the conducting the first comprehensive poll to elect their representatives at all levels across the South.”
That’s all he has to say on the fact that the SPLM/SPLA robbed the people of their democratic choice in as many as half of all the states of Southern Sudan. Instead, Moniem turns straightaway to predict that the NCP will now manipulate and obstruct the implementation of the CPA, saying that the elections “have put the fox in charge of the hen house.” He may be right that the NCP is out to rig the referendum (though how it can do it if the SPLM/SPLA is in control in the South remains to be seen.) But I fail to see how the elections in the South make Salva Kiir into a chicken.
Moniem minimizes the rigging and fraud committed by the SPLM/SPLA, and accepts the 10% vote for al Bashir in Southern Sudan as though this were a validated figure. Due to the SPLM/SPLA’s interference in the vote we cannot say if this is true or not. He describes the referendum on unity or secession as “a sacred absolute”, but fails to see the real lesson from the manipulation of last month’s election in Southern Sudan. What the results show is that whatever the SPLM/SPLA decides should be the result in the South, will be the result in the South. The conjuring up of last-minute votes in Unity and Equatoria is an abject lesson in SPLM/SPLA-style democracy. The 10% official count for al Bashir shows that the NCP cannot rig the results in the South – only the SPLM/SPLA can do that.
At the end of the day, what Moniem fails to see is that the people of Southern Sudan are entitled to democracy no less than the people in the North. There are no excuses for democratic failings in Southern Sudan just as there are none in Northern Sudan. Moniem’s excuse that the Southerners had more important things on their mind than elections smacks of the same hypocrisy of the international community’s in excusing substandard elections because they are a step on the path of CPA implementation.
A similar theme is espoused by al Haj Warrag, who was chief adviser to Yasir Arman’s campaign for the presidency. Writing in Ajras al Huriya on 6 April, he lamented that the Southerners had failed to see that they needed to unite with the Northern opposition against the NCP. He indicated that he had expected that a fraudulent election would lead to a popular uprising, but with the Southerners holding onto to Bashir’s promise of a fair referendum (which al Haj dismisses as a false promise) that option was no longer on the cards. Instead, al Haj argues that the uprising will now take place in January 2011. At the appointed date, he expects that al Bashir will rig the referendum for unity (ignoring the fact that he could only get 10% of the votes this time) or stop it from happening at all, which will force the Southerners in Khartoum onto the streets to join hands with the Northern opposition to overthrow the regime.
What al Haj fails to acknowledge is that the average Southerner is no less suspicious of the sectarian parties than they are of the NCP, and do not trust the Northern left either. Sudan’s democratic regimes in the past were not favourable to the South and in fact the only peace agreements signed with the South have been signed by military rulers.
Some leaders of the democratic left simply cannot understand that the Southerners want separation. One story doing the rounds at the moment is that the United States is conspiring to divide Sudan. Let me tell my colleagues that it is the Southerners who want to divide Sudan! Some cannot see that the Southerners want democracy too but have not found any Northerners who genuinely support democracy in the South.
Next year, the Northern secular left, may at last come to realize that their Southern compatriots would much rather rule themselves instead of entrusting themselves to unreliable allies in the North and being the junior partners in a democratic coalition. Like other decolonized peoples the Southerners will learn how to govern the only way that anyone has ever done it which is by practicing government. With independence, the Northerners of all political persuasions will begin to see the Southerners for who they actually are, and not see them for who the Northerners want them to be.