Why Sudan’s referendum matters

In Development, Genocide, Global Issues, Religion on January 11, 2011 at 10:17 pm

Sudan's potential split is an ethnic, political, social and tribal issue.

There’s a lot of talk going on about Sudan’s upcoming referendum that will determine if the South becomes its independent state. But I didn’t really understand why it is being referred to as “historic”. And since my alma mater, Annandale High School, is having a STAND benefit concert on Friday, I think I owe it to myself to understand this country and its current situation better.

Coptic frescoes like this one indicate how important Christianity was to the Nubian empire

Sudan is not just home to Darfur, which is why most people know about it. It’s the largest country in Africa (2,505,813 sq km), and is located next to the red sea. In the ancient years, this area was known for its rich resources; Egyptians depended on the land of Cush for commodities like gold, carnelian stone, incense, ivory and slaves. Cush was incorporated into the Egyptian empire, but its influence soon fell. The independent kingdom of Cush developed around 750 BCE, and was involved in several clashes with Egypt, Abyssinia and Assyria. The religious tension Sudan faces today has roots in the history of the Cush region. Due to its contact with Egypt, the Cush empire practiced the Coptic language, used in Egypt, and elites also adopted Egyptian gods and goddesses for everyday workshop. As this area later became part of the Nubian empire, conversion to Christianity began with the Egyptian Coptics in the 6th century. Nubian kings adopted Monophysite Christianity, renewing their ties to Egypt and the Coptic patriarch in Alexandria. Trade via the Mediterranean also flourished, and the church encouraged literacy throughout the empire. Elements of Greek also crept into the Nubian language, since Greek was commonly used for liturgy. Thus, until the 7th century, Nubia was a predominantly Christian empire.

Islamic influence spread via Arab traders and intermarriage.

Surprisingly enough, Islamic influence did not appear in Nubia and North Africa via proper proselytizing. Islam came after Prophet Mohammed’s death in 632 AD. The Arabs invaded Nubia in 642 and 652, but the Nubians resisted. Arab influence came not from invasion, but from the influx of Arab nomads and contact with Arab traders and seafarers–ties that had lasted since the beginning of time. When Arabs took over Egypt under the Byzantine Empire, treaties ensured peace on the Nubian front. Along with the Arab contact, intermarriage and assimilation ensued, since Egypt was always closely-tied to Nubia. Muslims became the majority around the 16th century. In 1881, Muhammed Ahmad declares himself al-Mahdi, the awaited guide, and with popular support, began his conquest of Sudan, returning it to Islamic roots and Shariah law. This Islamic rule was the first Sudanese government.

The British in Sudan spelled disaster for the South.

This religious history is further complicated by Sudan’s history as a colony. The British began to take interest in the region in 1869, when the Suez Canal was opened, and Britain had free access to India and the Far East. Britain and France established a debt commission to manage Egypt’s fiscal affairs, essentially controlling Egypt. By 1899, Britain and Egypt established a Condominium Agreement that gave them control over Sudan, and the Darfur region was added to this annexation in 1916, after Darfur was formally conquered. France was kicked out of Southern Sudan in 1899 also. The British wanted to modernize Sudan by introducing European technology and making it more “civilized”, but majority of Southern Sudan’s provinces were rural and undeveloped, and the British did nothing for them. Britain went as far as to say “Southern Sudan was not ready for the modern world“. Like every other country conquered by Britain, the crown imposed a “divide-and-conquer” policy in Sudan: the Closed Districts Ordinances of 1920s, which made sure that Southern Sudan remained isolated and underdeveloped. The Passports and Permits Ordinance of 1922 enforced that everyone travelling between the North and South had a passport and stated valid reason for the travel. Christian missionaries took over the three Southern provinces (Equatoria, Bahr al Ghazal, and Upper Nile), educating the schools under subsidies provided by the British. The administration expelled Arab traders and prohibited practicing Arabic customs, even wearing Arab clothing. The highlight of British repression of Southern Sudan was the Juba Conference of 1947, when the British handpicked 13 delegates to represent Southern Sudan and accept that administration of the South was being handed over to the North. This further separated the North and South, isolating the South in a poverty-stricken, uneducated present.

Sudan has suffered of political tyranny from 1956 till present.

Sudan FINALLY gained independence in 1956, but politically, it was just as unstable as the Congo. And this meant nothing to South: they still had no voice in the government. Over the next 50 years, Sudan underwent several coalition governments and military coups. Political parties in power included the Umma (Mahdists, Islamic party), Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the National Islamic Front and the Communist Party. Military leaders included General Ibrahim Abboud (1958), Ja’far Numeri (1969), and most recently, Omer al-Bashir (1989). Under both the British and the Northern Khartoum regime, Southern Sudan has not developed, and “the Sudan has been plunged into continous state of political, constitutional, economic and military crisis till today“. Northern Sudan has created a Sudanese identity that is ARABIC and ISLAMIC, and does not include Southern Sudan’s Christian and rural population.

The Janjaweed's massacre of Darfurians is a direct result of the North/South split.

This identity clash has been the origin of several pressure points between the North and the South. There are several fault lines here, including religious, ethnic, and tribal differences. It has resulted in the Yei, Maridi and Kodok Massacres in 1964, Juba, Wau, Torit, Warajwok, Bor, Akobo Massacres in 1965, Dhaein Massacre 1987/88, Wau Massacre in 1987, and the Jebelien Massacre in 1989/90–all of which have resulted in thousands of fatalities. The climate of violence in mainland Sudan has resonated also in the Darfur genocide, which was mainly caused by ethnic and resource-based differences. The Janjaweed, Arab militiamen on horseback, have been at odds with the African farmers (darker-skinned) for a long while in the region, arguing over water and land. When the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement began combating the Sudanese government in 2003, the Janjaweed began pillaging ethnically African towns [Sudan is a melting pot of tribes. 5 – 10% of the population is ethnically West-African, mainly the Zaghawa, Masalit, and Fur tribes. Many of the other tribes came from migrations around Africa, from returning Mecca pilgrims, etc.] causing the UN and the US to declare genocide in the country.

Hopefully the referendum of 2011 will result in a peaceful two-state solution.

This is why the referendum is so important to the future of Sudan. Southern Sudan has never before had a say in what happens to its own country- it has never been able to self-determine its future. Now, for the first time in over 100 years, Southern Sudan has a voice. This is why so many people are migrating from the North to return to the South — a homecoming of sorts. If it chooses to secede, the people will have to fashion their own government from scratch. The separation creates serious predicaments for the future, including what will happen to North Sudan? The entire country currently depends on oil, 75% of which is located in the south. How will both governments manage inflation, and become a successful economy? Will they be able to rise beyond tribal and religious lines to unite and function as two separate countries? I hope to find answers to these questions in the near future, along with many Southern Sudanese.

Here’s a wonderful video by Al Jazeera titled Sudan: History of a Broken Land, which offers a terse explanation and importance of the referendum.

Thanks for reading, and I hope to hear headlines of a peaceful 2-state solution soon. 🙂

  1. […] took over the three Southern provinces (Equatoria, Bahr al Ghazal … Read the original post: Why Sudan's referendum matters « Yes I Care: My Take on the World Share and […]

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