Afro-Arab War in the Sudan;
Africa’s Longest War and Its Roots by Kwesi Prah
Published in Vol. 2 No. 3 March 2002 edition of ‘The Scholar’, Journal of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) of Nigeria, Ibadan, Nigeria
Africa today is home to more conflict, war and refugees than any other continent in the world. In our post-colonial or neo-colonial experience, these wars on African soil have in the main been civil wars. Inter-state wars have been relatively few. In recent time, the biggest and most significant of these conflicts of an inter-state kind has been the Ethiopian/Eritrean war.
African wars have in the past tended to be isolated and relatively, contained, affairs. However over the past decade this reality has changed dramatically. With the emergence of the politically and territorially inter-locking conflict in the Great Lakes area of Africa, this area, particularly the Congo, has become the vortex of a condition of increasingly generalised war in which about a third of Africa has to various degrees been drawn into this scenario on different sides of the regionalised conflict. One implication of this is that, if all of us are involved in this situation of increasingly generalised war, then all of us will need to be part of the search for peace and the terms of the peace.
However, of all the wars plaguing the peace in contemporary Africa, the Sudanese civil war has been the oldest and in many ways the most threatening of the relationship between the Arab north of Africa and the African south of the Sahara. Together with the racial tensions and slavery of Africans by Arabs in Mauritania and the Sudan, this makes the Afro-Arab borderlands one of the most strategically explosive flashpoints on the African continent, with profound implications for the future.
The Torit Mutiny and its Aftermath
The Sudanese civil war has the curious, historical record of being a war started before the departure of the colonial power at the closing stages of the colonial history of the Sudan. In other words, Britain saw the beginnings of the conflict but for various reasons decided to leave the problem unresolved before independence was inaugurated in the country. The conflict as we know it today started on the 17th August 1955 with the Torit Mutiny. At the closing stages of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium in the arrangement to hand over state power to the new rulers of the country, the Southern Sudanese garrison in Torit became suspicious of the intentions of the Northern Sudanese Arab officer corps which commanded the garrison. The immediate point of conflict was the fear by the Southerners that they were going to be transferred and disarmed in order for the new Arabists elite to gain control over them and the national interest they represented as African soldiers in the south of the country. The troops broke ranks when they were ordered to disarm and shooting started with fire directed against the Arab officer corps. The Mutiny was brought under control but the rebellion which had started spread to different parts of the south on both the east bank and the west bank of the Nile. The principal leaders of the rebellion were Latada in the Latuka/Acholi border area on the east bank and on the west bank under the leadership of Ali Gbatala in the areas of the south just north of the Congo border. This insurgency continued through the first years of independence until the emergence of the Anya Anya Movement under the political leadership of the Sudan African National Union (SANU). The main figures who had worked towards the emergence of the Anya Anya Movement were Joseph Oduho, William Deng and Father Saturnino Lohure. African nationalists have, by and large, consistently demanded the creation of a separate state for the Africans of the Sudan. The argument now is for the principle of self-determination to be applied in the Sudan. We do well to remember the point made Lord Raglan who, soon after the outbreak of war in the Sudan following the Torit Mutiny, argued that:
The Sudan as it exists now, is an artificial creation of the British Government. It is a great chunk of Africa and it happens that the inhabitants of the Southern half are totally different from the inhabitants of the Northern half. There is no good reason why, without their consent, the Southerners should be placed under the domination of the North. The Government was informed that if these people were placed under the domination of the North without adequate precautions there would be trouble; but the Government chose to ignore this warning completely.
The National Question
The Sudanese conflict is often simplistically described as a north-south war between an Arab-Muslim north and an African-Christian and Animist south. This categorization is not only simplistic but also grossly misleading. In fact the majority of the people in the north are also Africans with a great proportion of them Arabized. In other words, their African cultures have been subverted, usurped and replaced by Arab/Islamic cultural habits. One of the most incisive historians on the Sudan, Sir Harold Mac Michael writes that
For instance, to take the northern sector, among the nomadic camel-owning Arabs of northern Kordofan, most of whose forebears entered the country between the tenth and the sixteenth centuries, there are more ancient negroid settlements in the hills of Kaga; in northern Darfur there are Arab tribes interspersed with old negroid communities, mostly Fur, but in some areas of more westernly origin; in the Red Sea hills the Hadendoa, Bisharin and BeniAmer have little Arab blood in their veins and speak a language of their own; along the river-banks in Dongola are the ancient Nubian elements, partly Arab, as a result of the infiltrations and settlements of the centuries that followed the Arab conquest of Egypt, and partly cognate to the people of Upper Egypt. In the central sector comprising Darfur, Kordofan, the erstwhile provinces of the White and blue Niles, Kassala and half of Dar Fund, the inhabitants are semi-nomadic, with large herds of camels, sheep and cattle, but with numerous settled villages and small towns, subsisting on cultivation and trade and the picking of gum from the acacia forests.
Furthermore, in the Nuba mountains of Southern Kordofan, which area is technically in the North, the inhabitants are Africans some of whom have been Islamised. This has not prevented the government in the North from pursuing a campaign of ethnic cleansing in this area. The excuse is that the Islam practised here is not “authentic”. To the east of this region, the Fund, Hamag, Berta, Ingessana, Burun and other groups are African. As I have elsewhere argued, most Northern Sudanese who claim Arab antecedents fall into two broad groupings. The first of these are the Arabized Nubians made up of the Barabra and the Jaali. They are in the main sedentary cultivators huddled along the Nile. The second group are the Juhayna, who are nomadic and seminomadic nationalitites. Among the Jaali in particular, Nubian dialiects still persist here and there but this language is dying out of favour of Arabic. Modern linguistic studies show that Nubian or Nobiin, belongs to the Eastern Sudanic cluster of languages, Dair, Dilling, Midob, Birgin, Didinga-Murle, Barea, Ingessana, Nyimang, Temerin, Tama, Daju and Liguri. By and large, the Arabized Northern Sudanese are ashamed of and underrate their African roots. Most of the so-called Arabs of the Sudan are an admixture of local Africans, Arab settlers, and imported slaves. It is among the Nubians that the denial of African nationality is most prevalent.
The media, by frequently over-simplifying the issues which characterise the Sudanese civil war and describing the conflict as a Muslim against Christian and Animist war, are not helping to focus the minds of people on the correct answers to the crisis in Sudan. Again Mac Michael bears good testimony. He pointed out rightly that:
It is true that the line of division, geographical, ethnical and cultural, between the predominantly Arab north and the purely negroid south is well marked and obvious … on the other hand, the ingrained Arab habit of raiding the south for slaves, in part for export to Egypt and Arabia, and in even greater part for domestic purposes, has existed for centuries and reached its peak in the nineteenth century under Egyptian and Dervish auspices. This had led to widespread racial miscegenation, with the result, illustrated by complexions and features, that few, if any, Arab’ families can claim to have no admixture of the black in their composition. The causes which have led to this merger are by no means forgotten or forgiven by the Southerners, and the fear of their recrudescence when British control is removed is not dead; but the very fact that the merger has taken place on so wide a scale provides at least some warrant, additional to that derived from economic and administrative considerations, for the claim that the whole country must now be considered as a single indivisible whole.
The only census in the Sudan which gave an indication of the proportions of Africans and Arabs in the Sudan was held on the eve of independence. In this census 39% of the population claimed to be Arabs. The rest of the people are Africans. Even these figures need to be looked at with doubt and caution because in a county where it is socially and politically more favourable to claim an Arab identity, it is to be expected that more people would claim Arab identity than is actually the case.
War and an Elusive Peace
The first phase of the civil war ran from 1955 – 1972 at which point the World Council of Churches and Haile Selassie of Ethiopia brokered a peace settlement which has come to be known as the Addis Ababa Agreement. This settlement was intended to bring lasting peace to the Sudan. However, this peace did not last and in 1975 when the integration process of former Anya Anya insurgents into the Sudanese Army broke down at Akobo the beginnings of a new growing insurgency was under way. The insurgents who emerged out of the Akobo incident under the political leadership then of Gordon Muortat Mayen formed the beginnings and the basis of Anya Anya 2. One needs however to remember that some of the insurgents from the first phase of the civil was never abandoned the armed struggle. In fact, Ali Gbatala’s group, Aggrey Laden’s faction, Gordon Muortat’s following, never accepted the Addis Ababa Agreement. Looking back, the Addis Ababa Agreement appears to have been more a brittle truce than peace.
So when in 1983 it became clear that the Numeiri regime was, systematically tearing down the terms of the Addis Ababa Agreement, the basis for a fully fledged second phase of the civil war was created. Numeiri re-divided the south, rescinded the provisions and powers of the Regional Assembly of the south and started introducing Sharia Law. It is difficult to understand whether with these moves the Khartoum government did not realize that it was pushing the country into increased warfare. I recall that, during the late months of 1983, war fever gripped the south and talk of secession or splitting the country into two became common. In a document/press release put out by a group of southern Sudanese academics based in the University of Juba, they made the following points:
There is a well-known saying that war is an extension of politics by other means. In other words, when the political objects of a people can no longer be achieved peacefully, we resort to war in order to achieve those political objectives. The present military struggles in the Sudan between the Anya Anya2 and the Sudanese armed forces have broken out because the Sudanese government has piece by piece dismantled the Addis Ababa agreement which was the political solution reached between the Sudanese government and the Africans of the Southern Sudan. The peace which was achieved between the two sides after 17 years war has been negated. This has caused us to go back to the battlefield again. The fundamental reason why this conflict exists is the national oppression of the African people of the Sudan. Although we the Africans both in the North and the South form the overwhelming majority of the population, our languages, cultures and influence in government is suppressed. We are culturally and politically being steadily pushed into accepting the dominance of Arabic culture. This process is so systematic that many African nationalities in the West and Eastern Sudan have virtually lost their languages, culture and identity. The minority rule of Arab settlers in the Sudan has been the root cause of our problems. There is no truth whatsoever in the argument put forward by the apologists of the Arab minority government that religion, or more precisely the Islam-Christian division is the source of our problems. Indeed, throughout Africa, both religions are professed by millions of Africans, and this has never made them Arabs. It is also a well-known fact that many African nationalists in the Sudan are Muslims. The use of religion to explain our conflict is simply a ploy to divide the ranks of the African people to the fact of Arab national oppression. This situation has been very much worsened recently by the attempt of the Numeiri regime to impose Sharia Law on the whole country by decree. Freedom of belief and religious practice is a human right in all civilized societies. Islamic law cannot therefore be imposed on non-Muslims. Indeed, not all Muslims will even accept Sharia Law if given the freedom to decide. For centuries the African people of the Sudan have resisted Arab settler domination and we shall continue to do so until we are free.
Since 1983 the war has continued uninterruptedly to the present day. Various attempts to bring the war to an end have failed, and the excessive factionalism, ethnicism and poor democratic practice within the African resistance led by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA)/Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) has made it difficult for the African resistance to make consistent and steady headway. Frequently the level of internecine conflict has temporarily crippled the war efforts of the African resistance. Peter Adwok Nyaba has drawn attention to the fact that since 1983 differences between various enthnicities and factions in the African resistance have wreaked devastation on the capacity of the resistance to sustain the war. He notes that, several splinter groups and Sudanese government sponsored militia have emerged in the political arena complicating further the ethnic, religious, linguistic and other cultural differences amongst the Africans. Adwok Nyaba has written that
Now, after eighteen years of this destructive war and armed struggle against the oppressive Arab dominated regimes that came and went in Khartoum; and after ten years of internecine ethnic rivalry, conflicts and fractricidal wars, south Sudan stands at a precarious cross-roads that raises the spectre of a military defeat by the north. South Sudanese people are now more divided along ethnic lines than at any other time in their history. Even within the same nationality fragmentation and conflicts have become the order eroding the ethnic fabrics that have kept the people together for ages. This situation, if not rectified urgently, will jeopardise not only the attainment of peace and harmony but also south Sudan’s path to self-government, statehood and nationhood.
Water, Oil and War
Further complicating the situation are the issues of water, and oil which has been found in large quantities in the Sudan. Indeed, in my recollection, from the years I spent in the Sudan during the early 1980’s, the discovery of oil in the Southern Sudan was an important factor in inducing Numeri to re-divide the South. In a recent article by John Luk, he writes that:
Egypt’s fears of a new state coming into existence in the Nile Basin that can stake new claims on the existing water allocations are real … Egypt’s negative stance towards the right of self-determination for South Sudan is dictated by her strategic need for water in the Nile Basin. The Sudanese state is the only country of the ten Nile Basin states that has a binding agreement with Egypt for the joint utilisation of the Nile waters. This agreement commits the two states to act together when facing any water claims from other riparian states. Egypt is therefore very comfortable with this arrangement with Sudan and would not accept it to be interfered with by any internal political factors in the Sudan that may cause the dismemberment of the Sudanese state.
Even more crucial to the future of the Sudan is the question of the large deposits of oil which have been found in the South of the country and, for which currently many international interests are jumping in to win oil and profits. In order to make these areas safe for oil prospecting, the Sudanese government is ethnically cleansing all areas which have oil deposits. In a recent report dated October 2001, released by a number of international agencies including Canadian Auto Workers Union, Steelworkers Humanity Fund, The Simmons Foundation, United Church of Canada and World Vision Canada, it is stated that “the investigators found that there was an increase in the number of recorded helicopter gunship attacks on settlements in or near the oil consortium. The attacks are part of what appears to be a renewed Government of Sudan strategy to displace indigenous non-Arab inhabitants from specific rural areas of the oil region in order to clear and secure territory for oil development.”
The ultimate question for the Sudan however is whether the government will allow the African people of the Sudan who form the majority of the population the right to self-determination. As things stand this looks unlikely, unless African countries and other members of the international community are willing and ready to put pressure on the Sudanese government to undertake a referendum on the question of self-determination for the Sudanese Africans. Libya and Egypt do not favour the idea of the possibility of a break-up of the Sudan. John Luk makes the added observations that:
Egypt’s strong stance for the unity of the Sudan is well stated in the recent peace initiative, which she presented jointly with Libya to the parties to the Sudan conflict. The preamble of the nine points proposal made reference to the “historic responsibility to preserve unity, security, and stability of the Sudan”, and immediately the first principle of the joint Libyan-Egyptian memorandum calls for the “preservation of the unity of the Sudan land and people”. Consistently with this position, the memorandum deliberately ignored and made no reference to the right of self-determination for South Sudan, notwithstanding the fact that self-determination is concretely embodied in the IGAD Declaration of Principle (DoP) and has been recognised by all the Sudanese political forces including the government of Sudan.
There are other strategic implications of the Sudanese situation for Africa. In all maps of the Arab League, the southern-most border of the Arab world is indicated as the northern border of Uganda. It is unlikely that Africans in the long run will accept the expansion of the Arab world on to the equator in Africa.
Sudan Sensitisation Project (SSP)