Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

After Decades of Civil War, Can Sudan Survive Peace?

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

After Decades of Civil War, Can Sudan Survive Peace?

Article excerpt

Andrew Hammond is a free-lance journalist based in Cairo.

Since obtaining independence from Britain in 1956 Sudan has seen almost nothing but fighting between successive governments in Khartoum and the south. Now peace talks between the two sides have offered a way out which eventually could lead to Africa's largest state being split in two. The euphoria felt in Khartoum by northerners and southerners alike has given way to deep pondering about where it all went wrong in a country that, on paper, possesses all the ingredients for an affluent future--water, oil and fertile land, as well as a population that hasn't expanded beyond the country's capabilities.

A government walkout from the peace talks in early September, after the southern rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) gained an important garrison town in the far south in continuing hostilities, shows that the end of the road hasn't yet been reached. After 19 years of fighting that has killed two million people, displaced four million and kept Sudan's development standing still, however, observers reckon there's little will on either side to push this war much further. In case any party is tempted to think otherwise, international pressure on them to sue for peace has never been greater--not least from the United States, seen as the key player in bringing about the breakthrough interim agreement the government and SPLA reached in July. The deal offers southerners a referendum on their future following six years of autonomy, and a waiver on the Islamic shariah law observed in the north, which has sharply drawn into focus the cultural differences between Sudan's northern and southern regions.

The civil war always was in part a war over Sudan's identity. Since independence, Muslim, Arab and Arabized elites in the north--Nubian and Arab tribes living along the River Nile from the north down to the Khartoum area--have formed the country's politically dominant cultural group. Peoples in the east and west complain, as do the southerners, of political and economic marginalization. Unlike the southerners, however, they have been part of the Arab-Islamic cultural system for centuries.

For the north, this Arab-Islamic identity has been essential to the complicated process of state-building in a country with over 500 tribes and 150 languages. But there is a cultural price to pay for this. According to Amin Abu-Manqa, head of Khartoum University's Afro-Asian Studies Institute, languages have died out in recent decades because of neglect by authorities who only recognize the importance of Arabic, as the holy language of Islam which unites the country. One of the extinct tongues is that of the Gule people, from an area southwest of Khartoum. Although of West African origin--a vestige of Sudan's route on the historic Saharan pilgrimage trail to Mecca--they played a key role in Sudan's Arab-Islamic history, forming the Funj Sultanate which ruled for 300 years. "Now they say they are Arabs," said Abu-Manqa, who estimates that 65 percent of Sudanese today speak only Arabic, compared to 51 percent in 1956. "It's a social aspiration to be from the Arabs and the Prophet's house," he continued. "The great number of languages could be a blessing, or it could be a curse if we don't know how to deal with it wisely. If we stamp them out we deprive ourselves and the world of their richness. So the smaller languages should be recorded because they are endangered."

The Islamist government which came to power in 1989 and intensified the war in the south has been in many ways the worst enemy of many of Sudan's indigenous cultures. The dialects of the Nubians, the original indigenous ethnic group along the Nile in north Sudan, also are losing ground to Arabic, said Nubia specialist Khidir Abdelkarim. Like the modern Egyptians, modern Nubians--a sister people to the ancient Egyptians--consider themselves an integral part of the Arab world. Khartoum's National Museum offers a poor commemoration of Nubian civilization compared to the state-of-the-art Nubian Museum in Aswan in southern Egypt, or even to Khartoum's Presidential Palace Museum, with artifacts from the period of British colonial rule. …

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