Two Sudans: Nationalism, Self-Determination and Democracy
I have found the exchanges between Khalid al Nur and Abd al-Wahab Abdalla illuminating, both in terms of the current state of political discourse in Sudan, and also the deeper controversies that are reflected in the disagreements.
As mentioned by Jamaledin in a recent comment, Khalid has certainly touched a nerve in terms of the state of mind of many northern Sudanese, who are belatedly and reluctantly waking up to the imminence of the southern exercise in self-determination, and the secessionist leanings of most southerners. While the right wing can take solace in the arguments, articulated by al Intibaha, that the Muslim, Arab-oriented north can better find its identity and make progress if separated from the south, there has been no comparable argument put forward from the northern left, that sees positive outcomes from southern separation. The secularist, democratic left appears to be in denial, or in fear.
The implication of Khalid’s argument is that the northern liberals and leftists will only “discover” the south some years hence, when the south has separated. I.e., this political grouping, already out of power for so long, will face many more years in the wilderness. It needs to gain an intellectual mastery of the challenge of self-determination before it can regain the political initiative.
Imagine a campaign in the run up to the referendum next January, with a “unity” camp facing a “secession” camp. The Unity Campaign might be led by a host of northern politicians including most of the NCP leadership, along with a good number from the SPLM Northern Sector and the secularist left. The Secession Campaign will doubtless be headed by southern separatists, some in the SPLM, some outside it. But will their only northern counterparts be drawn from the rejectionist right? Will any democratic liberals and leftists from the north campaign for the southerners to vote to secede?
I am drawn to Abd al-Wahab’s critique (and I think that some of Khalid’s criticisms do not hit the mark). I find his orthodox Marxism to be a breath of fresh air, reminding us of the vigour of Sudanese political science debate some years ago. He lands some hard punches on the liberation movements and their allies, who have too-readily surrendered the prospect of mobilizing supporters in central Sudan in favour of an often-oversimplified centre-periphery analysis. And I agree that the separation of the south, and even the fragmentation of Sudan as a whole, can be fully compatible with the interests of those who control the state.
But Abd al-Wahab seems to fall into a trap, common to many old-school Marxists, of making nationalist or ethnic politics either epiphenomenal or at best subordinate to class factors. This surely underestimates the power of nationalist sentiment and the capacity for nationalist mobilization, even in countries with very poor political infrastructure (as in southern Sudan). Throughout the 20th century, decolonization one of the principal causes of the left. Should Abd al-Wahab not address the argument that southern Sudan is, at least in part, an instance of internal colonization? Should he not welcome self-determination as the culmination of a long southern struggle, and support it?
Abd al-Wahab may be correct that southern nationalism is reactive and defensive. How could it be otherwise given the history of southern Sudan? There are many such nationalisms around the world.
Perhaps one should also mount a similar analysis of Sudanese nationalism, which many would prefer to describe as a “northern” nationalism. Sudan won its independence, not through a nationalist popular struggle, but through political deal-making among the sectarian and secular elites, and between them and Britain. The commitment to a referendum on independence or unity with Egypt was short-circuited by the decision, backed by Britain and the U.S., to recognize a decision on sovereignty made by the Constituent Assembly. The decision was made through parliamentary deal-making, with at least one of the promises””to consider a federal system””quickly dishonoured, while the prime minister who steered the motion through, had been elected on a unionist ticket. There was no defining nationalist moment for Sudan, no common vision for the identity of the country.
In addition to the conflict with the south, there have been recurrent political crises internal to the northern Sudanese political establishment, associated with the unrealized search for the symbols and structures of political legitimacy. As a result, northern Sudanese nationalism has been readily co-opted by political Islam. The weakness of nationalist sentiment is shown by the readiness of many to welcome international intervention. It is only in response to the prospect of southern secession that we see the emergence of a broad-based northern-based nationalism.
Let me ask the Sudanese liberals and members of the secular left: can you develop an argument that runs like this: not only do the southerners have the right to secede, but should they choose to do so, we will celebrate this and build upon it as a step towards the democratization of all parts of Sudan?