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Farewell my country that never was

My country Sudan has failed

Ali Belail , Saturday 22 Jan 2011

It is sad but it is not shocking. The failure was always inevitable but you had to be a southerner to know that. It is hard to resist the urge to blame; to think of all the years and opportunities that were squandered and blame even more. Perhaps it was a country that never made sense. For it to have made any sense required us all Sudanese to swear allegiance to something bigger and more important. It couldn't be the tribe because there are so many. It couldn't be the race because there are so many. It couldn't be religion because there are so many. It could only be an idea that would encompass all those things.

A conundrum, but one that other nations like India, Brazil and Malaysia faced and -- fundamentally-solved.

A multitude of ethnic groups, tribes, religions and languages, the largest country in Africa and the potential to be one of the richest countries in the region. More than that: to be the country where all this worked. But not Sudan. For that the blame must rest on the north: the so- called Arab Muslim North. More specifically, the elite who have ruled Sudan since independence and squandered every opportunity to challenge and address Sudan's (or rather the north's) overriding condition: a type of racism that is unique to Sudan.

Contrary to what many in Western media will tell you: religion was not a factor in the north's dispute with the south until 1983 and only became a major factor when the current regime in Khartoum came to power in 1989 and thrust Islam as the central force in Sudanese politics. In political terms: it was a dispute about an elite that never devolved power nor seriously sought to develop any region of Sudan save a very small core. And therein lay Sudan's ailment: an ethno-centric elite that was and remains ill at ease with its mixed African Arab heritage.

Picture this: it is sometime in the 1970s and I am at some family event in Khartoum. My aunt (who is quite dark herself) who is the keeper of my family's heritage whispers in my ear and points to a very dark man in the crowd. "He was one of your grandfather's 'Farkh' " (slave). He is Muslim too. He eats with my family, jokes and talks and visits with them. But he would probably never be able to marry from them. Why? Because he is not pure; he has slave blood. Should I generalise? I shall and not even cautiously.

The Northern (Muslim Arab) population is predominantly "dark" by any and all standards. To deflect from that fact, northerners conjured a system that calibrates colour so that it was not -- and is not -- uncommon to hear people describing other people as "Blueish [black]", [Greenish [Black], Redish (to refer to someone with fairly fair skin colour), Halabi (derived from Laban (milk) or possibly the Syrian city of Halab) to refer to those who are fair (probably of Egyptian, Syrian or other light skinned stock) and the second worst of all gradations: "slave" which could describe any of the hues of black. A southerner was simply called a "southerner". You needn't bother which ethnic group: Dinka, Nuer or Sholuk or any other. They were outside the range of the calibration system. They almost didn't exist -- one saw right through them.

For the so called Arabs, they vied for the closest link to an ancestor from the Arabian Peninsula. The closer, the purer, the better. Yet we are all mostly shades of black or dark brown at best. Where that came from is never explored.

This obsession with lineage and race could only be challenged through a comprehensive vision: education, media and development. The 1970s during Numeiri's rule was a hopeful time when there was peace with the South and the beginnings of a social, cultural and political integration between the two sides but it did not last. In 1983 Numeiri reneged on the 1972 peace agreement and its core condition of decentralization and kicked off Sudan's adventure with political Islam. And the war commenced.

It is hard to think of any other elite that failed so consistently and decisively. Not the great statesmen at independence (Azhari and Mahjoub); not Aboud; not Sadeg Al-Mahdi; not Numeiri who squandered his regime's potential; not Sadeg Al-Mahdi again (miraculously) and certainly not the neo fascist so called Islamic regime of Bashir; none of them recognized that Sudan's diversity was the clue that would bind it all together. Meanwhile, the Sudanese people and more specifically the Northerners were left without a vision of a country which they would share with other Sudanese. Instead, they all reveled in their abject tribalism and ethnocentrism and without doubt racism.

I find myself searching for some streak of hope in the future of Sudan but it would be folly and illusory to instill hope where none has grown and none could without a seismic shift in the politics of this country. It is difficult to see how that can prevail (Tunisia comparisons aside) before another slice of Sudan goes.

Instead, it is almost a compulsive urge that seeks to blame even more because none of those to blame thought this day will come. They: the northerners (elite and all), Egypt which seems to be in some kind of dazed state of denial and typically and farcically making last minute, short sighted gestures hopelessly trailing behind events. For Egypt and what's left of Sudan, the last 50 years will soon seem like a honeymoon.

The secession of southern Sudan will happen for reasons that prevailed for 50 odd years. These reasons still remain in the north which is by no means the homogeneous entity that the term "Muslim Arab North" -- so common in the media -- suggests. Darfur will perhaps be even more perplexing and mystifying because the ethnic, racial, cultural and religious links with the "centre" are far more blurred and yet an insidious prejudice exists inextricably entwined in that relationship which ultimately does not bode well for a unified north Sudan.

British colonial rule was harsh in drawing up Sudan and in its administrative policies during the occupation. Divide they did. But in the end to say that Sudan as it existed made no sense can only be an acknowledgement of the failure not only of a visionless ineffectual political elite but perhaps even, a failure in the most basic human prerequisite: to treat others as human.

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