Official Representations of the Nation: Comparing the Postage Stamps of Sudan and Burkina Faso
Kevane, Michael, African Studies Quarterly
Abstract: An analysis of the imagery on postage stamps suggests that regimes in Sudan and Burkina Faso have pursued very different strategies in representing the nation. Sudan's stamps focus on the political center and dominant elite (current regime, Khartoum politicians, and Arab and Islamic identity) while Burkina Faso's stamps focus on society (artists, multiple ethnic groups, and development). Sudan's stamps build an image of the nation as being about the northern-dominated regime in Khartoum (whether military or parliamentary); Burkina Faso's stamps project an image of the nation as multi-ethnic and development-oriented.
The sovereign state of Sudan, as a stamp-issuing entity, has chosen over the past fifty years to not honor on its postage stamps any person from the southern region of the country. This is a sharp fact that cuts through the rhetoric that the dominant northern elite deploys to ward off separatist sentiment in the south. This rhetoric is that the Sudan is a land of many peoples, but one country, with a shared hybrid Afro-Arab identity. If that were the case, then why have there been no southern, African heroes on the stamps of the country? Consideration of the images on the postage stamps of Sudan reveals another fact. In contrast with many other African states, Sudan issues shockingly few stamps that celebrate the multi-cultural make-up of the country. Many African states regularly issue postage stamp series that represent cultural icons and images from major ethnic and cultural groups; Sudan has done so only once (and ironically under the regime considered by most to be least tolerant of difference).
This paper compares the imagery on postage stamps of Sudan and Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso's imagery offers a counterpoint to that of Sudan, a "what might have been." Both countries straddle the Sahel zone and livelihoods through much of the colonial and post-colonial periods have been secured through rainfed small-scale agriculture and rearing of livestock. Both countries contain large numbers of ethnic groups and languages. In Burkina Faso, the Mossi ethnic group dominates the country in terms of population. In Sudan, ethnic groups thinking of themselves as Arab dominate the population. Both countries have sizable Muslim populations, but well-educated Christian elites often have constituted a powerful minority (more regional in Sudan, more national in Burkina Faso).
The categorization and coding suggest that the two countries, through successive regimes, have sent very different messages on their stamps. Burkina Faso's political regimes have emphasized multicultural tolerance, while Sudan's political regimes encode an Arab, Islamic, and northern Sudanese identity for the country. Students of Sudan's colonial and post-colonial history will not be surprised by this observation.  They may, however, find it useful and stimulating. The content analysis of postage stamps offers striking and irrefutable complementary evidence of the non-inclusive character of Sudanese regimes since independence. There are other quasi-objective indicators of regime strategies that might also be analyzed (street names, media content, public statuary, etc). There is a clear lacuna of sociological analyses of the impact of state-produced imagery in Sudan and the civil society response. Also lacking, in the corpus of Sudan studies, are analyses of the icons and songs of the Southern People's Liberation Army (SPLA), and the role of images of "Dr. John" (as many southerners refer to the late John Garang, leader of the SPLA for two decades) as symbols of the aspirations of people in the South, or at least those the SPLA wants to promote.
A number of researchers have analyzed postage stamps in their efforts to illustrate the representational strategies of regimes. A recent issue of African Arts was devoted to the imagery on African postage stamps.  Igor Cusack, in his analysis of the stamps of Lusophone Africa, argues that, "stamps are carriers of potent images of the dominant ideologies of the state . …