Due to its denigration of African culture Arabia, since it’s incursion into Africa, has seen the continent as a civilization vacuum waiting to be filled by Arab culture and Islam.
The painful fact is that it was only with the initiation of the current peace process between Khartoum, in central Sudan and Juba in south Sudan and the international focus on the genocide in Darfur, that it became apparent to the public at large, that from Mauritania on the Atlantic coast, moving eastwards to Sudan on the Red Sea, despite careful concealment, that a system of apartheid was in operation in the Afro-Arab Borderlands, where Africa meets Arabia, in places such as Mali and Niger, which border on southern Algeria and southern Libya.
The potential for fighting arising from such a situation has manifested itself already in parts of Sudan, in Niger and in the on-going conflicts in the Sahel, involving groups such as the Touaregs in Mali and Niger. Concerned persons such as Prof Helmi Sharawy of the Arab Research Centre for Arab-African Studies and Documentation (ARAASD ) in Cairo, Egypt and Prof Kwesi Prah of the Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS) in Cape Town, as well as Prof Dani Nabudere of the Marcus Garvey Pan-African Institute (MPAI ) in Mbale in Uganda, have been working towards the creation of a security mechanism to prevent conflict, by way of dialogue. Meetings have taken place between progressive Arabs and progressive Africans to find common ground and to implement restorative justice, by way of dispute resolution strategies, in a situation of historical opposition and mistrust. The former Chairperson of the African Union (AU) Prof Alfa Konare convened such a meeting of scholars in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia towards the formulation of ‘A Strategic Geopolitical Vision of Afro-Arab Relations’ from 11-12th May 2004 at the headquarters of the AU, in order to determine the various views and to look at potential solutions, by way of a civilization dialogue. It is all too apparent that some would wish to intensify the divisions and exploit them. Such forces have had the upper hand in the past. Only protracted, laboured, internal solutions, within the area, will help in the long term.
As the deep rooted historical problems of the Borderlands receive better understanding, well meaning people of peace will be obliged to find ways and means to handle an area of Pan-African affairs, where black Africans, due to their geopolitical weaknesses, have been in denial since self government came about in Africa in the mid-1950s. Indeed these skewered relations date back a millennia, from the initial interaction between the two peoples. It was only with the Darfur issue emerging as a genocide, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, that the organization for Pan-African unity, formerly called the Organization for African Unity (OAU), now known as the African Union (AU), concerned itself with developments in the Borderlands. Formerly these were off-limits. During the long years of war in south Sudan starting in 1955, the fighting there was not a matter of concern for the Pan-African body. The south Sudan conflict was said to be an Arab issue, for decision by the Arab League only. Such a view was supported by Libya.
Paradoxically, as it may appear, it was the Republican Administration of George Bush in the USA, which championed the cause of the Darfuri against the genocide and pushed the international community to conclude the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between Khartoum and Juba. History will draw its own conclusions as to why it was Bush and not the previous Clinton Democrat Administration which opted for peace in South Sudan. The Democrats did nothing to stop the war in South Sudan or to decisively intervene in the Sudan issue. They are remembered for bombing a civilian target in Khartoum, which was a pharmaceutical factory. They failed to concern themselves with the lives of the marginalized millions living in the Borderlands and were part of the cover-up. The last Democrat Administration in the USA saw central Africa, the Great Lakes and particularly the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in flames. The Democrats were part of the problem, not part of the solution. This might have been the most murderous period in the self-government era in this area of Africa. The policies in this area of the incoming Obama Administration have yet to receive clarity.
On the 22nd February 2003 the Drammeh Institute in New York and CASAS convened the Conference on Arab-led Slavery of Africans in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was attended by scholars from around the world, especially from Sudan and Mauritania. Conference stated that after centuries of silence and non-expression, it was time to speak out on the inequities visited against Africans in their relations with Arabs. It recognized the need to overcome collective amnesia and the need for research on African interaction with Arabs, the Ottomans and the Turks, all of whom played a key role in making north Africa what it is today. Conference promoted closer relations with the eastern Diaspora in Arabia, the Gulf states and points eastwards. It censored the implementation of genocide in Sudan and charged Arab societies with the ethnocide of African people through forced cultural Arabization processes over a millennia. Finally the conference called for the institution of a civilization dialogue between the Arab and African people.
Such a dialogue needs to take place between those living in the Borderlands, such as in Mauritania and in Sudan, with those in that area who profess to be Arabs. Some might assume that, for example, Afro-Brazilians, could conduct such a dialogue with the Arabs of the area. This would not be helpful. Neither would it assist if, for example, South Africans dialogued with Arabs. Africans in general, as has been said, have been in denial on these issues, and some still are. It is those who have felt the effects of the expansionist hegemony over a millennia, not the African Union, who can best begin a process of possible reconciliation, as seen in southern Africa.
Such a dialogue will, as and when initiated in an organized fashion, be fraught with difficulties and take centuries to have effect. The current Government of National Unity (GONU) in Khartoum, Sudan, illustrates that the attempt at cohabitation of the National Islamic Front (NIF)/National Congress Party (NCP) of Omar el Bashir in Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in Juba, South Sudan, has been anything but harmonious. The relationship has been characterized by deceit, lies and betrayal by Khartoum from day one.
Finally, the civilization dialogue between the African and the Arab must be conducted on a basis of strict equality and mutual respect. Such a dialogue, once its existence is formerly established, will take place in both formal and informal settings, where people meet formally and informally. It will need to be worked towards deliberately and continuously. At the moment Arab superiority to the African is a given, both in the Arab world and internationally. This explains China’s position on the Sudan issue, where due to economic interests, China is the principal defender of the Khartoum government and its main supplier of weapons. Another surprisingly vocal supporter of Bashir and Khartoum has been Tabor Mbeki.
The current international positioning for and against Khartoum, in the issue by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of the Writ against President Bashir of Sudan, needs to be carefully scrutinized and followed. These manoeuvres do not just reflect support for a despot, but relate to initial positioning on the broad issue of Afro-Arab future relations and their global implication. What happens in Sudan today has application, for example, in Mauritania and the rest of the Afro-Arab Borderlands tomorrow. The domination of Arabs in this area was in the past a ‘given ‘ in the geo-political discourse. The facts of the area were difficult to locate ( the ratio of Arab to African in Sudan is concealed by the government of Sudan – the same applies in the rest of the Borderlands, right across to Mauritania ) and the area was not subject to analysis in the international media, being ‘off-limits ‘ for discussion in the west and east, in so-called ‘traditional diplomacy’. The well being of the area was determined by the neo-colonial arrangements left by the departing external actors, who monopolized developments in the area according to their own interests. The first generation of post-colonial leaders, such as Sekou Toure and Modibo Keita abided by these rules and did not seek to interfere with the colonial dispensation in the Borderlands.
What broke the mould was the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) of South Sudan, lead by Dr John Garang de Mabior, fighting on behalf of all the marginalized people of Sudan, including the Darfuri, the Beja of the east, the Nubians in the north of the country and others. The SPLA together with the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) forced Khartoum to sign the CPA. This changed the course of history and the strategic balance in the Borderlands, from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, creating the opportunity to open the Borderlands to public scrutiny - an area which had been shut off from view. This led to the Darfur ‘rebellion’ and the further ramifications which are underway. The significance of the CPA, which cost three millon+ lives and long years of war, should be compared with the implications of the battle of Cuito Cunavale in Angola for Southern Africa. In the instance of the CPA the military struggles took longer due to international marginalization and indifference to the loss of African lives and was undertaken by Africans. In the international relations of the period 1950s-2005 the events in South Sudan did not feature in the media. The implications of this are that the resolution of issues such as Darfur and the Borderlands in general will have to be done by African actors, not by external players. Until Africans are strong enough the area, including Somalia, will remain war prone. Indeed this lesson should have been long learnt in the Congo basin. All these mean that the Pan-African body, the AU alone, has to be up to the historical responsibilities it faces. Gone are the days of external solutions. There is no other option to peaceful co-existence, combined with a preparedness to met force with force.
B.F.Bankie, former Researcher, Kush Institution, Juba, South Sudan