Seen from the confines of Sudan’s capital Khartoum, South Sudan easily seems a world apart. Northernern tend to ignore Sudan’s role in the South’s conundrum. The comfort of distance is thus pared with an element of denial, argues our guest author.This is Part II of the article. Read Part I here.
I have encountered many intersecting viewpoints from Sudan to events in its nearest neighbour, ranging from pity, feelings of inevitability and predetermination of events to schadenfreude. Each of these demands closer inspection. What is perhaps most fascinating, though is the distance that some Sudanese now exhibit when talking about the ‘South’. Note that the Arabic translation of South Sudan ‘Janoub Al-Sudan’ is the same as the phrase for southern Sudan, as the region was then. Thus the way that south Sudan is referred to today has not changed since the war(s), the most recent and comparatively most successful peace process and the secession. Even today ‘Al-Janoub’ (the south) is largely used to designate South Sudan despite a new southern Sudan itself becoming (a) more and more complicated and contracted conflict zone(s). Yet the ease with which one can cut out ‘Al-Sudan’ from the title is and had been a vehicle for linguistically catalysed distancing in the minds and mouths of the Sudanese.
Doomed to fail?
Those who pay close attention to peace processes will know that the inorganic way in which they are conducted and the inevitable way that they ignore sometimes significant players in favour of the most amenable, well-armed or financially resourceful belligerents can sow the seeds of its downfall. Indeed the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was an accord that fell into this very same trap. Specifically, it failed to recognise that the rights issues which underpin the majority of Sudan’s political and social problems to this day were marginalised in favour of a quickie-pact between inherently undemocratic armed groups which were somehow expected to form democratic civil governments in the course of only six years.
The North-South conflict has long been ham-fistedly framed as an ethnic struggle through jungle warfare between unsophisticated groups. In fact at its longest these groups waged wars for 22 years over citizenship rights and access, wars fought with modern weaponry on all battlefields: on land, in the minds of their constituents and through advocacy campaigns on an international level. Little recognition is then given to the fact that military leaders of any kind rarely make decent civilian leaders. Thus there is unfortunately an element of inevitability to the events in South Sudan – that grievances left unaddressed and unresolved will beget war in an environment where violence breeds in fertile ground – bereft of rights architecture and accountability to citizens. The Sudanese were very conscious of this fact; even in the face of the initial post-independence elation and the subsequent gold rush that saw international companies and humanitarian agencies alike migrate southwards as if a perpetual peace had suddenly taken hold of ‘the South’. It is tragic that the international community seemingly with all its components (political, economic, humanitarian) fell for the very erroneous narrative that they had been peddling for years in order to secure their own importance and presence in the region – one where the north and south are cast as belligerent binaries where the rule of one without the other would guarantee peace in the respective territories.
Of course the southern factions that are currently fighting not unlike factions north of the border, have grievances that vastly pre-date and were not addressed by the CPA process or since partition. Ironically, processes of democratisation and nation-building that have taken place in some sense or other in both Sudan’s Second Republic and the world’s newest nation are reminiscent of post-colonial Sudan of the 1950s, though the recent conflicts showed much faster escalation into violence. 48 years after independence from the British, the same notions of pre-mature self-determination of South Sudan is echoed now in Khartoum (and perhaps secretly in the West) and potentially informed by emotions around the ‘forced partition’ between the two states. Tellingly too there has been little acknowledgement in Khartoum of the role that northern politics and history played in southern conflicts, the footprints of which can still be seen on southern sands.
Comfort of distance coupled with an element of denial
The comfort of distance is therefore coupled with a certain element of denial and the comfort of personal and general security. Poverty, war- and aid-fatigue are perhaps more an affliction of the relatively poor than the rich – in such situations getting involved and even having the time to care is a luxury for some. Spiralling crime rates and cases of assault and rape of children and vulnerable people that go hand in hand with widening gaps of opportunities between people may signal more pressure for change ahead of next year’s elections or they may – as the president’s speech a few weeks ago – suggest more of the same. The fall-out from the September riots – the cases of missing protestors detained by police and security forces, the increased mistrust of government apparatus by those who cared little for it before, the realisation amongst activists that they have to go it alone make their way without the old guard – is on-going for many.
Internationally too, the distance between the war, famine and disaster affected people and those on the outside has long been a fundraising issue, even for acute disasters. This trend then is not unique to the two Sudans and neither is it often incidental such as the overall planned decrease in foreign aid and a delay in the debt-forgiveness initiative that started before the 2008 worldwide recession. Physical and emotional distance too from the halls of Whitehall, Washington and Brussels has given Sudan’s major donors the space (and comfort) to retreat into their own issues at home.
Civil initiative is needed to escape the conflict trap
However, more effort must be made by erstwhile compatriots in Sudan and South Sudan to heal the rifts that their leaders have distorted and capitalised on and that the international community has wittingly or unwittingly fostered. If recent history is anything to go by, the animosity between the centre and periphery only breeds more deep-seated resentments and a perpetuation of the conflict trap, which has benefited few on either side of the border. Similarly on a practical level, the catalysed rural to urban migration as well as the inevitable refugee flows to large cities, particularly Khartoum, may create the necessary critical mass to make social movements count.
It still amazes me how many people in Khartoum – who are reasonably more privileged that those in other states – are unhappy with the status quo but too afraid to engage in processes that may effect meaningful change. Ordinary Sudanese have long been observers in their own and the rest of Sudan’s fate and their limited influence in comparison to China, the regional body the Inter-Governmental Authority for Development IGAD and the West is unlikely to change this. The ruling National Congress Party’s security apparatus, unfettered, well-funded and vicious, is of course the perfect discouragement for even the most eager champions of social justice. But distance, particularly economic chasms between ‘classes’, plays a critical ‘divide and conquer’ role here too.
For now at least the ties that bind North and South – history, language and oil – are still tangible and as similar fates look set to befall the two countries as they struggle to carve out new identities in spite of each other, they will need to be reminded of how close they are and of how inter-cooperation between the two will become imperative. However, Khartoum has become very adept at playing the long game and as the world cynically awaits the victory of Machar or Kiir as their respective forces unravel and the humanitarian situation disintegrates, there may be precious little to salvage.
The author is known to and trusted by the editors and wishes to remain anonymous.