The referendum planned in Sudan, geographically Africa’s largest country, for January 2011 under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in 2005 raises the issue of the merits of unity versus partition. The agreement stipulated that the people of the south should have the right to decide on whether to become independent or remain in a united Sudan, although efforts would be made to make unity attractive.
This raises the question: What are the root causes of what started as a north-south conflict, but has now become much more widespread throughout the country?
A key word to understanding the conflicts in Sudan is marginalisation. The centre — the government in Khartoum — has marginalised the peripheries, and the peripheries also happen to possess identity factors that distinguish them, or divide them, from the centre, factors that relate to race, ethnicity and culture, and, for the south, religion.
Sudan features two distinctive identities. The identity of the north is one of assimilation through a long history in which, if you were a Muslim, spoke Arabic, were culturally Arabised and could trace or imagine your ancestry as coming from Arabia, you were elevated to a higher status. But if you were a heathen — a black — you were denigrated and thus became a legitimate target for slavery. By and large the peoples of the north, despite the fact that they were not all Arab, became assimilated by a self-perception of Arabism.
The people of the south developed an identity of resistance to the north. Both sides denied having anything in common, and their history of hostilities made them become even more determined not to see anything in common.
With independence from British colonial rule in 1956, the north assumed the position of the British as the rulers. For the south, this meant a substitution of external colonialism by internal colonialism and they rebelled against it. The first phase of the struggle ended with a compromise in 1972 — autonomy — which was abrogated 10 years later, so the war started again.
The second war from 1983 sought to free the country from its identity crisis. For Sudan had become identified as an Arab-Muslim country at a time when the south remained largely African and non-Muslim, and elements in the north — in the Nuba Mountains, Southern Blue Nile, and Darfur — did not see themselves as, and were not, Arab, and yet were classified as such.
In response to the crisis, a vision of a “New Sudan” was fostered by John Garang, the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in the south, who was martyred in a helicopter crash in July 2005. This vision, which ended up with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, solved the southern problem, in part by giving the south the right to self-determination.
But by now, the vision of a “New Sudan” had transcended the North-south divide — the different peoples of the north had begun to discover the distortions of identity, and the fact that they were not the Arabs they had been made to believe they were. First, the Nuba Mountains joined the SPLM rebellion, and then the Blue Nile. The Darfurians tried to join in 1992, were crushed, and then tried again in 2003 in what is now a continuing rebellion, in which about three million people have died.
We now have a situation in which it is critically important that the CPA is honoured and the right of self-determination for the south is exercised through the referendum scheduled for January 2011 and the outcome of the referendum respected.
In addition to its specific provisions, the CPA challenges the country to continue to pursue the vision of a “New Sudan”, so that the idea of transforming Sudan to be just — to cater for equality for all groups — would continue to be pursued.
It is likely that if the right solutions are not found now, rebellions will persist or erupt in parts of the North and, if they do, the south will be pulled in because it shares a common purpose with such rebellions.
In reality, unity and secession are degrees of ongoing relationships that can be strengthened or weakened, according to the will of the people and their leaders.
Because the north and the south will continue to interact after January 2011 and, if they remain at peace, will cooperate even more than they have done in the past, they could actually become closer than they have ever been, which could leave open the potential for the reunification of Sudan.
The referendum should not be seen as the end of the story, but rather as an important step in a continuing quest for genuine comprehensive peace and unity in Sudan.
Dr Francis Deng is the special adviser to the United Nations secretary-general on the prevention of genocide, and the author of Sudan at the Brink: Self-Determination and National Unity (Fordham, 2010). This is an edited excerpt from a recent talk hosted by the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town.