No sooner had Massoud Barazani of the Kurdish Democratic Party asked for a referendum for his people to vote on future relations with Iraq than nationalists of various stripes saw in the Kurdish demand the “Pandora box” they anticipated to be opened by the Sudan referendum.
The call for self-determination that in the 20th century inspired African nationalists in fighting for freedom in their countries has been left to gather dust. The Organisation for African Unity (OAU) long ago decided that the boundaries inherited from colonialism were not to be tampered with. Nigeria’s Biafra, established by secessionists in the eastern part of the country, was censured by the OAU that gave full support to the government of Nigeria to suppress the “rogue” break-away state. Similarly, the OAU never sanctioned the separatist movement in South Sudan, although individual states did.
This African double-standard is in keeping with the origin of the principle: President Wilson’s advocacy for self-determination during the Versailles peace conference was viewed with mixed feelings: “none of the peacemakers saw it as applying to their own empire — only to the empire they had defeated.”
In being viewed as a forbidden exercise, self-determination remained an undeveloped concept cherished by fringe circles on the continent. It was frowned upon as one frowns upon divorce. In fact, the divorce metaphor is in-built: Lenin said that support for self-determination “should not be equated with encouraging separation, because that would be as foolish and hypocritical as accusing those who advocate freedom of divorce of encouraging the destruction of family ties.” The divorce metaphor is common in Sudanese discourse about the referendum where the Quranic injunction on setting a divorced wife free on equitable terms (2: 231) is frequently quoted.
Dissolution of a dysfunctional country is supposed to be a sign of acumen and courage. The Americans have been credited for it by Alexis de Tocqueville. Their gallant struggle for independence from the British in 1778 did not impress him as much as their realism and modesty in renegotiating their disintegrating country in the Constitutional Conference in Philadelphia (1786). The Sudanese have not been as lucky as the Americans in having a Tocqueville to praise their farsightedness. Instead, they have been derided as a failed people. Regrettably, this alleged failure is grossly misrepresented by attributing it to the incompatibility of African and Arabs, Muslims and Christians/pagans in the country. Although these cultural realities are undeniably integral to the Sudan problem, they are its froth. The nationalists’ failure to renegotiate the inherited colony to the satisfaction of its various communities, a failure Sudanese have in common with the rest of former colonies, is hardly taken into account.
A cursory overview of the history of independent Sudan will reveal a multifaceted engagement with decolonisation characterized by: 1) nationalist elites in government who failed to come to grips with the mission of decolonisation. In refusing to acknowledge the diversity of the country they, following the letter of nationalist tenets, wanted to unify the country exclusively around their Arab and Muslim culture. Unlike nationalists elsewhere, however, they were too fragmented to wield the nation by force. In less than two years these secular elites had to cede power to military and religious nationalism; 2) Nationalities on the margin that never ceased to demand full citizenship. The southern nationalists made these claims in 1955, a year before Sudan independence. The Beja in Eastern Sudan followed in 1957. Next came the Nuba (of Kodofan) and Darfur nationalists in 1965. The means deployed to achieve parity in the country ranged from civil disobedience to rising up in arms in protracted civil wars; 3) A national democratic movement from below that hosted these national grievances in addition to those suffered by women, workers, students, and farmers. The high point of this democratic movement was the 1964 October Revolution that toppled a military junta opening the way to meaningful, radical changes. The revolution broke out in the context of protests waged by students against the junta’s failed policies in the south. A government never seen before or after in Sudan was formed representing workers, farmers and professionals. Women were enfranchised, young people were given the right to vote at 18, and the Round Table Conference was held in 1965 to discuss the Southern Sudan problem. The right to self-determination of the South (and a lesser procedure to give the Nuba and Blue Nile people voice in determining their national affiliation, whether to the north or the south of Sudan) resulted from the relentless political investment of a freedom-loving people who risked going beyond the politics of hegemonic elites and a dominant minority.
Sudan has been plagued by a lose-lose situation. It has been condemned by political analysts for being perpetually on the brink of collapsing as a nation. It has always met the criteria of the annual Failed States Index in several important categories. But these same analysts condemn it for averting its collapse by a remedy of a last resort: self-determination. This antidote is seen as a political virus that will invade the body politic.
I can see nothing wrong with my people coming to self-determination after a long period of dragging their feet. The error is on the side of political analysts who view national union in matrimonial terms with the attending shame and feeling of worthlessness when marriages break up. The Sudanese will be vindicated when the political science of nation-imagining (not nation-building) finds its modern-day Tocqueville.
The writer is emeritus professor of African and Islamic history, the University of Missouri-Columbia. He ran against President Omar Al-Bashir in the 2010 Sudanese presidential elections.