The Break-up of Sudan

By Mohamed El Mokhtar

On the one hand one cannot but express a sigh of relief and share the joy and happiness of the peoples of south Sudan who are, now, freely exercising their legitimate right to self-determination and defining, at last, the configuration of their own independent, and let’s all hope viable, state after decades of prolonged wars, senseless bloodletting, large scale displacements and all kind of undeserved suffering.

On the other hand, it’s quite sad and heart-breaking indeed to see, or contemplate powerlessly, these days, an unusual Arab country as original and potentially promising as Sudan falling apart in this manner and for such preposterous reasons as religious intolerance, racism and exclusion.

Sudan, this rare masterpiece of ethnic diversity endowed with unparalleled assets (geo-strategic centrality, important arable landmass, plenty of water, huge reserves of oil, lot of minerals…); this exceptional and colorful land, this rare kaleidoscope of ancient cultures, of civilizations and traditions, this awesome mosaic of peoples and languages, living under an ecological rainbow of beauty; this sub-continental country, a true jewel of nature, provided with such a talented intelligentsia, could not, after half a century of political independence, nurture a sense of common national identity, or cultivate a modern concept of citizenship; worse, it could not keep, intact, its territorial integrity for simply not have been capable of valuing, on time, that uncommon treasure : Its rich diversity.

Thus, despite its natural potential, Sudan is, alas, finally breaking up. After decades of autocratic rule and mismanagement, after a long night of nefarious plots and foreign interference, after a long succession of man-made disasters, this amazing country is, at last, splitting into two separate entities, and maybe even more, divided along ethnic and religious lines.

Beyond the fact that this hodgepodge of manufactured frontiers was, in large part, a legacy of British colonialism, there is no doubt that the current painful outcome is primarily the result of an enormous political failure; a failure of governance; a failure of leadership; a failure of integration, a failure of co-existence. It is, also and mainly, the outcome of a much deeper, and sinister, reality: The overall impotence of the Arab World.

The breakup of Sudan is not just an internal Sudanese problem. It is much bigger than that. It is an extension of a structural impotence; it’s the tragic expression of a low point of powerlessness and helplessness gripping for so long the entire region. It epitomizes, if need be, a common point, a whole mark of today’s Arab leaders: lack of vision, and worst of all, the total absence of political legitimacy. The long-term deliberate neglect of Egyptian rulers, the current ailing and senile head of state in particular, of their own southern flank, i.e., their most important geo-tragic depth, is an eloquent indication of an indisputable fact: The indifference of autocratic rulers to the wellbeing and vital interest of their own peoples.

If Mubarak were truly representative of the will of his people would have he acted as though Sudan did not exist or represent anything of vital to Egypt, to its vital national security and long term strategic interests? That’s the question. Therein lies, perhaps, the source of the problem. On cannot watch, indifferently and carelessly, its brotherly neighbor slowly drown and, all of a sudden, begin screaming heavens falling, like “Chicken Little”, after the body has sunk, as exactly has done the Egyptian political leadership as regard Sudan.

National leaderships that are inherently illegitimate and rule by illegal coercive security means are never at ease with themselves; therefore they can never think beyond the immediate horizon of their political survival. Like animals they behave in accordance with their gut feelings or survival instinct. They often camouflage their impotence by a veil of jingoistic slogans and stultifying demagoguery. They can care less about the future of their own country or its long term interests. Their sole focus is the power they have stolen and are illegally holding; staying in charge or perpetuating the incumbency of the political regime is their only and unique preoccupation. Any other task is secondary.

To get a better sense of this obsession with power, let’s ponder this grim, and really pitiful, spectacle: Hosni Mubarak, that ailing and senile autocrat, is pathetically clinging, come hell and high water, to an evanescent seat, by all means (coercion, fraud and corruption) instead of retiring, like a respected Mandela or a perceptive Senghor, and enjoying his last remaining days; doing so he hopes to delegate, before his death, the presidency of Egypt to his preferred would-be heir, the corrupt and hated son who is now a multi-billionaire, thanks to his unscrupulous business deals and paternal connections, in a country where 20% of the people live under the threshold of poverty, namely with less than a dollar a day.

When citizens are kept outside the equation of power or the process of political decision-making, when they cannot hold accountable their rulers, when they cannot get involved in shaping their own future, the result is what we see in Sudan and many other Arab countries: chronic domestic vulnerabilities, record of underachievement, sectarian violence, foreign intermingling, wide-open wounds…

But the plight of Sudan, like anywhere else, is, first of all, the result of the actions of the Sudanese themselves. One can blame, at will, the British and their colonialism, the Egyptian and their negligence, the Libyans and their past nefarious intermingling, Israel and its infinite plots, the US and its neo-imperialist plans, but none of that can take hold had it not been the mistakes of the Sudanese ruling elites themselves. From Numeiri to Turabi to El Bashir, they all set an unprecedented record of underachievement, a litany of socio-political fiascos, the least of which is the lack of a sound consensus-based and participatory system of governance.

The fact that the citizens of the country were for so long, in the South in particular, oppressed and completely disfranchised, undoubtedly explains a great deal of what is happening now. Nationhood is not an abstract phenomenon. It is a work continuously in the making; a work that requires effort and dedication, vision and leadership; most importantly, it requires the collective free will of the people. Today’ world is different from XIX century Italy or Germany or Napoleonic France where force could be used, at will, to unify a vast land or impose a cultural or linguistic identity upon a diverse group of peoples.

To forge a free nation today you need the assent of all. No identity can be unduly imposed anymore. Moreover, everyone should have a stake in the decision making process of the collectivity. The role of the state is to manage those differences not to impose blindly a mythical idea of uniformity. Its main task is to nurture a notion of collective belonging, a culture of civic citizenship, a sense of ownership, of national entitlement regardless of ethnic origin or economic class. That’s how modern statehood should be conceived and constructed.

Unfortunately that democratic ideal has been so lacking in the Arab world where as Rami Khouri put it: “The modern Arab state has been transformed heavily into a security apparatus and a facilitator of shopping malls and real estate investments because the alternative route to national stability and sustained, equitable development — democratic participation and the consent of the governed — have never been attempted on a serious basis.”

Let’s hope that the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia will be the linchpin for the long-awaited awakening of this great Nation from the Atlantic to the Euphrates; and its liberation from the chains of tyranny, the yoke of foreign domination, and the shackles of economic misery.

– Mohamed El Mokhtar Sidi Haiba is a political analyst. He contributed this article to

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