Originally appeared in the Huffington Post on 1/19/2011
Sudan’s Best and Worst of Times
It is the best of times in the Sudan. It is the worst of times in the Sudan. It is the happiest day in the Sudan. It is the saddest day in the Sudan. It is referendum for the Sudan. It is requiem for Africa.
South Sudan just finished voting in a referendum, part of a deal made in 2005 to end a civil war that dates back over one-half century. The Southern Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC) says the final results will be announced on February 14; but no one really believes there will be one united Sudan by July 2011. By then, South Sudan will be Africa’s newest state.
In a recent speech at Khartoum University, Thabo Mbeki, former South African president and Chairperson of the African Union High-level Implementation Panel on Sudan, alluded to the causes of the current breakup of the Sudan: “As all of us know, a year ahead of your independence, in 1955, a rebellion broke out in Southern Sudan. The essential reason for the rebellion was that your compatriots in the South saw the impending independence as a threat to them, which they elected to oppose by resorting to the weapons of war.” There is a lot more to the South Sudanese “rebellion” than a delayed rendezvous with the legacy of British colonialism. In some ways it could be argued that the “imperfect” decolonization of the Sudan, which did not necessarily follow the boundaries of ethnic and linguistic group settlement, led to decades of conflict and civil wars and the current breakup.
Many of the problems leading to the referendum are also rooted in post-independence Sudanese history — irreconcilable religious differences, economic exploitation and discrimination. The central Sudanese government’s imposition of “Arabism” and “Islamism” (sharia law) on the South Sudanese and rampant discrimination against them are said to be a sustaining cause of the civil war. South Sudan is believed to hold much of the potential wealth of the Sudan including oil. Yet the majority of South Sudanese people languished in abject poverty for decades, while their northern compatriots benefitted disproportionately.
Whether the people of South Sudan will secede and form their own state is a question only they can decide. They certainly have the legal right under international law to self-determination, a principle enshrined in the U.N. Charter. Their vote will be the final word on the issue. The focus now is on what is likely to happen after South Sudan becomes independent. Those who seem to be in the know sound optimistic. Mbeki says, “Both the Government of Sudan and the SPLM have made the solemn and vitally important commitment that should the people of South Sudan vote for secession, they will work to ensure the emergence and peaceful coexistence of two viable states.” The tea leaves readers and pundits are predicting doom and gloom. They say the Sudan will be transformed into a hardline theocratic state ruled under sharia law. There will be renewed violence in Darfur, South Kurdofan and Eastern Sudan. There will be endless civil wars that will cause more deaths and destruction according to the modern day seers.
To some extent, the pessimism over Sudan’s future may have some merit. Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir’s told the New York Times recently about his post-secession plans: “We’ll change the Constitution. Shariah and Islam will be the main source for the Constitution, Islam the official religion and Arabic the official language.” Bashir’s plan goes beyond establishing a theocratic state. There will be no tolerance of diversity of any kind in Bashir’s “new Sudan”. He says, “If South Sudan secedes, we will change the Constitution, and at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity.” Bashir’s warning is not only shocking but deeply troubling. The message undoubtedly will cause great alarm among secularists, Southern Sudanese living in the north who voted for unity and Sudanese of different faiths, viewpoints, beliefs and ideologies. In post-secession Sudan, diversity, tolerance, compromise and reconciliation will be crimes against the state. It is all eerily reminiscent of the ideas of another guy who 70 years ago talked about “organic unity” and the “common welfare of the Volk”. Sudanese opposition leaders are issuing their own ultimata. Sadiq al-Mahdi, leader of the Umma Party, issued a demand for a new constitution and elections; in the alternative, he promised to work for the overthrow of Bashir’s regime. Other opposition leaders seem to be following along the same line. There is a rocky road ahead for the Sudan, both south and north.
From Pan-Africanism to Afro-Fascism?
The outcome of the South Sudanese referendum is not in doubt, but where Africa is headed in the second decade of the 21st Century is very much in doubt. Last week, Tunisian dictator Ben Ali packed up and left after 23 years of corrupt dictatorial rule. President Obama “applauded the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people” in driving out the dictator. Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo is still holed up in Abidjan taunting U.N. peacekeepers and playing round-robin with various African leaders. Over in the Horn of Africa, Meles Zenawi is carting off businessmen and merchants to jail for allegedly price-gouging the public and economic sabotage. What in the world is happening to Africa?
When African countries cast off the yoke of colonialism, their future seemed bright and limitless. Independence leaders thought in terms of Pan-Africanism and the political and economic unification of native Africans and those of African heritage into a “global African community”. Pan-Africanism represented a return to African values and traditions in the struggle against neo-colonialism, imperialism, racism and the rest of it. Its core value was the unity of all African peoples.
The founding fathers of post-independence Africa all believed in the dream of African unity. Ethiopia’s H.I.M. Haile Selassie, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Guinea’s Ahmed Sékou Touré, Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser were all declared Pan-Africanists. On the occasion of the establishment of the permanent headquarters of the Organization for African Unity (OAU) in Addis Ababa on May 25, 1963, H.I.M. Haile Selassie made the most compelling case for African unity:
We look to the vision of an Africa not merely free but united. In facing this new challenge, we can take comfort and encouragement from the lessons of the past. We know that there are differences among us. Africans enjoy different cultures, distinctive values, special attributes. But we also know that unity can be and has been attained among men of the most disparate origins, that differences of race, of religion, of culture, of tradition, are no insuperable obstacle to the coming together of peoples. History teaches us that unity is strength, and cautions us to submerge and overcome our differences in the quest for common goals, to strive, with all our combined strength, for the path to true African brotherhood and unity…. Our efforts as free men must be to establish new relationships, devoid of any resentment and hostility, restored to our belief and faith in ourselves as individuals, dealing on a basis of equality with other equally free peoples.
Pan-Africanism is dead. A new ideology today is sweeping over Africa. Africa’s home grown dictators are furiously beating the drums of “tribal nationalism” all over the continent to cling to power. In many parts of Africa today ideologies of “ethnic identity”, “ethnic purity,” “ethnic homelands”, ethnic cleansing and tribal chauvinism have become fashionable. In Ivory Coast, an ideological war has been waged over ‘Ivoirité (‘Ivorian-ness’) since the 1990s. Proponents of this perverted ideology argue that the country’s problems are rooted in the contamination of genuine Ivorian identity by outsiders who have been allowed to freely immigrate into the country. Immigrants, even those who have been there for generations, and refugees from the neighboring countries including Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and Liberia are singled out and blamed for the country’s problems and persecuted. Professor Gbagbo even tried to tar and feather the winner of the recent election Alassane Ouattara (whose father is allegedly Burkinabe) as a not having true Ivorian identity. Gbagbo has used religion to divide Ivorians regionally into north and south.
In Ethiopia, tribal politics has been repackaged in a fancy wrapper called “ethnic federalism.” Zenawi has segregated the Ethiopian people by ethno-tribal classification like cattle in grotesque regional political units called “kilils” (reservations) or glorified apartheid-style Bantustans or tribal homelands. This sinister perversion of the concept of federalism has enabled a few cunning dictators to oppress, divide and rule some 80 million people for nearly two decades. South of the border in Kenya, in the aftermath of the 2007 elections, over 600 thousand Kenyans were displaced as a result of ethnic motivated hatred and violence. Over 1,500 were massacred. Kenya continues to arrest and detain untold numbers of Ethiopian refugees that have fled the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi. What more can be said about Rwanda that has not already been said.
It is not only the worst-governed African countries that are having problems with “Africanity”. South Africa has been skating on the slippery slope of xenophobia. Immigrants from Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia have been attacked by mobs. According to a study by the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP): “The ANC government – in its attempts to overcome the divides of the past and build new forms of social cohesion… embarked on an aggressive and inclusive nation-building project. One unanticipated by-product of this project has been a growth in intolerance towards outsiders… Violence against foreign citizens and African refugees has become increasingly common and communities are divided by hostility and suspicion.” Among the member countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), South Africans expressed the harshest and most punitive anti-foreigner sentiments in the study. How ironic for a country that was under apartheid less than two decades ago.
Whether it is the “kilil” ideology practiced in Ethiopia or the “Ivorite” of Ivory Coast, the central aim of these weird ideologies is to enable power hungry and bloodthirsty African dictators to cling to power by dividing Africans along ethnic, linguistic, tribal, racial and religious lines. Fellow Africans are foreigners to be arrested, jailed, displaced, deported and blamed for whatever goes wrong under the watch of the dictators. The old Pan-African ideas of common African history, suffering, struggle, heritage and legacy are gone. There is no unifying sense African brotherhood or sisterhood. Africa’s contemporary leaders, or more appropriately, hyenas in designer suits and uniforms, have made Africans strangers to each other and rendered Africa a “dog-eat-dog” continent.
In 2009, in Accra, Ghana, President Obama blasted identity politics as a canker in the African body politics:
We all have many identities – of tribe and ethnicity; of religion and nationality. But defining oneself in opposition to someone who belongs to a different tribe, or who worships a different prophet, has no place in the 21st century…. In my father’s life, it was partly tribalism and patronage in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch derailed his career, and we know that this kind of corruption is a daily fact of life for far too many.
For what little it is worth, for the last few years I have preached from my cyber soapbox against those in Africa who have used the politics of ethnicity to cling to power. I firmly believe that our humanity is more important than our ethnicity, nationality, sovereignty or even Africanity! As an unreformed Pan-Africanist, I also believe that Africans are not prisoners to be kept behind tribal walls, ethnic enclaves, Ivorite, kilils, Bantustans, apartheid or whatever divisive and repressive ideology is manufactured by dictators, but free men and women who are captains of their destines in one un-walled Africa that belongs to all equally. “Tear down the walls of tribalism and ethnicity in Africa,” I say.
It is necessary to come up with a counter-ideology to withstand the rising tide of Afro-Fascism. Perhaps we can learn from Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s ideas of “Ubuntu”, the essence of being human. Tutu explained: “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.” I believe “Ubuntu” provides a sound philosophical basis for the development of a human rights culture for the African continent based on a common African belief of “belonging to a greater whole.” To this end, Tutu taught, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” More specifically, Africa.
“Afri-Cans” and “Afri-Cannots”
As for South Sudan, the future holds many dangers and opportunities. Africans have fought their way out of colonialism and become independent. Some have seceded from the post-independence states, but it is questionable if they have succeeded. How many African countries are better off today than they were prior to independence? Before secession? As the old saying goes: “Be careful what you wish for. You may receive it.” We wish the people of South and North Sudan a future of hope, peace, prosperity and reconciliation.
I am no longer sure if Afri-Cans are able to “unite for the benefit of their people”, as Bob Marley pleaded. But I am sure that Afri-Cannot continue to have tribal wars, ethnic domination, corruption, inflation and repression as Fela Kuti warned, and expect to be viable in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century. In 1963, H.I.M. Haile Selassie reminded his colleagues:
Today, Africa has emerged from this dark passage [of colonialism]. Our Armageddon is past. Africa has been reborn as a free continent and Africans have been reborn as free men…. Those men who refused to accept the judgment passed upon them by the colonisers, who held unswervingly through the darkest hours to a vision of an Africa emancipated from political, economic, and spiritual domination, will be remembered and revered wherever Africans meet…. Their deeds are written in history.
It is said that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it. I am afraid Africa’s Armageddon is yet to come. Africa has been re-enslaved by home grown dictators, and Africans have become prisoners of thugs, criminals, gangsters, fugitives and outlaws who have seized and cling to power like parasitic ticks on a milk cow. Cry for the beloved continent!