War, Development and Identity Politics in Sudan

Interview with Robert Shaloub

by Lisa Hajjar
published in MER200

Sudan’s colonial history of Turco-Egyptian and Anglo-Egyptian rule paved the way for highly unstable and divisive relations throughout the country. Since independence, civil war between governments based in Khartoum and rebel movements operating in the south has raged for three of the last four decades. There are several overlapping fault lines that explain the ongoing war. First, Sudan is divided between an Arab north and an African south and west. Second, Sudan is divided between a Muslim north and west and a south where Christian and traditional faiths dominate. Third, the north has historically extracted resources from its southern periphery without investing in it, a pattern which dates back at least to the colonial period. The civil war started in 1955. In 1972, the government of Sudan and the southern rebels concluded the Addis Ababa agreement, which gave the south regional autonomy. There followed 11 years of relative peace until President Ja‘afar al-Numayri unilaterally abrogated the agreement and decreed shari‘a law over the whole country. The war began again in 1983 pitting successive governments in Khartoum against the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) in the south. The current government in Khartoum is headed by Gen. Omar al-Bashir and is dominated by the National Islamic Front of Hasan al-Turabi. In 1991, the SPLM split into two factions. The splinter South Sudan Independence Movement signed an agreement on April 11, 1996, with the government of Sudan, ceasing hostilities. The SPLM remains the main fighting force in the south opposing the Khartoum government. Since 1994, it has undergone a series of reforms with the stated intent of separating its civilian and military wings, broadening its popular base and making it more accountable to southern Sudanese. Lisa Hajjar spoke by telephone with Robert Shaloub (pseudonym), an NGO worker in southern Sudan, on April 15, 1996.

How important are religious and ethnic differences for understanding the war in Sudan?

First of all, the whole Christian-Muslim split in Sudan is not the only factor contributing to war. It is not primarily a religious war, but a racial-cultural war which the north presents as a religious war because the majority of Sudanese are Muslim, while at the same time the majority are African. The northern Arab elite uses African Muslims to fight African Christians or believers of traditional religions to maintain its position of power in Khartoum.

Has the SPLM in the south had similar success? For example, do African Muslims identify with them along racial lines?

The official line of the SPLM calls for a pluralistic, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. They have a measure of credibility because they have Muslims fighting for them. The Nuba, for example, are mostly Muslim and they are fighting on the side of the SPLA but they are also African. But the SPLM has its own internal ethnic divisions.

Do those aligned with the SPLM see identity as an underlying issue in the conflict or is it more about the way state power is used in the process of governance?

The problem stems from the way Sudan is governed. Most people within the SPLM would only consider a separate south or a separate national identity after all other alternatives had failed. They are really fighting for a just, plural Sudan. The reality, however, is that on both sides of the conflict, people are appealing to lesser sentiments, including ethnicity, as a way to rally support for their cause.

How would you describe divisions within the SPLM?

Essentially, the SPLM started as a military movement supported by the Ethiopian regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. When they came out of Ethiopia, they had a string of military successes. They basically felt that they were going to win the war quickly and they would worry later about building a civilian base and an administration that could take care of civilian affairs. They never cultivated the civilian population, and in fact they alienated quite a lot of it. In the early years of the movement, there were definitely autocratic problems. A split occurred in 1991, allegedly because of this lack of democracy or accountability within the movement, and quickly degenerated into a split along ethnic lines between the two largest groups in Sudan, the Nuer and the Dinka. But the end result of all that turmoil, the fall of Mengistu, and the support of other governments in the region if the SPLM reforms, is that the SPLM leadership recognized that it couldn’t just continue the purely military movement that fails to build a civilian base and administer its territory in a way that is acceptable. So, since 1994, they have undergone a process of reform, which has started to bring them closer to the civilian population that they are purporting to defend and work for.

Southern Sudan desperately lacks infrastructure. Do development organizations primarily do relief work? How are international organizations reaching the population in southern Sudan?

There have been two exciting developments over the last two years: One is that we have moved away from an exclusively relief agenda. It is a complex emergency situation; some parts of Sudan are very stable and some parts are not. Relief is still needed in the unstable areas, but we have been able to begin large-scale economic rehabilitation in some parts of Sudan including developing markets, reintroducing barter economies, trying to use whatever cash economies are available to create a distribution of services and goods, trying to create a market for surplus production in agriculture and so on.

More exciting is the relationship between some members of the international community -- some NGOs and UN agencies -- and the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association (SRRA), the humanitarian wing of the SPLM, in terms of the process of reform which the SPLM began in 1994. The SRRA/SPLM is asking what kind of society they want to see develop within a united Sudan and how the civil authority should be organized so that it respects individual rights and distinct communities. Not that it has succeeded yet, but it is realizing that to gain credibility and be an entity that the international community is willing to work with, and one that is going to have the support of the local population, it has to reform itself. Several NGOs and some UN agencies are providing resources, people and finances to encourage this process of reform. Again, in most cases, this is not a political choice but, rather, a reflection that good governance in the south is critical to alleviating the suffering of the southern Sudanese.

Is development in the south coordinated with Khartoum or is it being done separately, from the areas outside the control of the state?

The UN has a consortium called Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS). International agencies working in Sudan belong either to its northern or southern sectors. So the government in the north, through OLS, is aware of what is going on in the south. On the ground, though, you have significant territory under rebel administration for almost a decade now. For those working on the ground, whatever agreements you reach -- on what products to develop and what roads to build or repair -- are made with the rebel administration. It is not a question of political choice -- they control the territory and therefore you work with them.

It was in Ethiopia that the question of state sovereignty was first challenged by development organizations when they did cross-border relief work. Does relief that goes to southern Sudan raise a similar issue of state sovereignty? In the development world today, how is that question being considered?

Operation Lifeline Sudan is the first time that a sovereign government gave permission to the international community to operate across the border in rebel-held areas. Sudan agreed back in 1988 when Sadiq al-Mahdi was in power to avoid completely losing control of the situation. The government has been able to use its control to curtail and frustrate some activities in the southern sector of OLS -- the sector served from Kenya and Uganda that works in primarily rebel-held areas. Because of this, there are several NGOs that already operate outside of OLS, and if those NGOs within OLS continue to be frustrated, they could eventually face a situation in which they can no longer function under OLS and therefore be compelled to move outside the OLS legal umbrella to operate in southern Sudan.

There is, more or less, a sense that the SPLM represents the southern minority within the country. How would you contrast the SPLM aspirations for civil society as opposed to what the Sudanese government is offering? What are the visions for change in a post-war Sudan?

The SPLM argue that they are being portrayed as representing a minority because, strictly speaking, southerners are a minority. But they argue that looking at the conflict along racial or ethnic lines, and looking at the level of support that the current government enjoys even among Arab Muslim northerners, a majority of Sudanese are for change and there are several constituencies that reflect that need for change. In meetings held recently in Eritrea, an alliance called the National Democratic Alliance was forged between the northern opposition parties in Sudan and the SPLM. They would argue, therefore, that actually it is the government which represents a minority at this point in time.

The human rights situation in government-controlled areas has been challenged by a lot of human rights organizations. How would you, as someone who works in the south, describe the human rights record of the SPLM in the areas it rules?

There has been extensive reporting about the nature of human rights violations on both sides of the conflict, with specific focus on the government because their violations have been on a very large scale. But the SPLM, and particularly the SPLA in this case, have been responsible for significant human rights abuses. The process of reform entered into by the SPLM has resulted in a greater awareness in the SPLA of the need to curtail abuses. The leadership, if not necessarily the lower-level commanders, realize that they need a better human rights record to get the regional and international recognition and support that they would like to have. If only for that reason, they have taken steps to curtail abuses of human rights. Comparatively, the frequency of violations is lower in 1996 than in 1993.

Many people who are regarded as southerners are living in Khartoum and other areas in the north. How do issues of identity -- race, religion and so on -- play out in Khartoum and other areas under government control?

The SPLM/SPLA as the mainstream rebel movement has never advocated a separate state in southern Sudan because there are as many southerners in the north as there are in the south and some of the ethnic groups fighting on the side of the south, such as the Nuba, are part of the north. Unless you change the definition of what it means to be Sudanese and obliterate these north-south distinctions, southerners living in the north are going to be left stranded. The stated political aim of the SPLM is to rethink civil society in Sudan. This will mean being a Sudanese is a state of mind rather than a particular cultural identity or religion.

The SPLM would want, then, to repeal the application of shari‘a law to non-Muslims and to limit the applicability of shari‘a to personal status matters like marriage, inheritance and so on.

Right. The SPLM does not object to Muslim Sudanese being governed by shari‘a law as long as it does not affect non-Muslim Sudanese in any part of Sudan, including the north.

Are there any established personal status laws advocated by the SPLM? Is there a set code that they would prefer to use for their own marriages and other personal status issues?

Until recently the SPLM has organized itself as a military force at war. Little thought has been given to how to administer the territory under their control. After the Chukudum convention in 1994 initiated a process of reform, however, the SPLM set up a separate judiciary, at least formally, and some within that judicial branch have begun developing laws governing the different aspects of personal life. Like most of Africa, the laws are derived from a combination of colonial regulations and customary tribal law.

How would you describe the situation for women in the south?

In this process of reform in the SPLM, there is a fair amount of lip service being given to the need to make women more active in the development of civil society. The SPLM realizes that the international community sees this as evidence of democratization and therefore feels the need to upgrade the status of women in SPLM-held areas. The practical reality, though, is that it is not as high on their agenda as the need to establish a better ethnic balance among southerners to stabilize the population base in the areas that they are controlling.

Are there any women’s organizations, such as cooperatives, functioning in the south for women-centered development policies or strategies?

Several NGOs work on a small scale with women’s groups on economic activities that increase their income or meet their consumption needs, and have specific activities targeting women. But that is at a local, grassroots level. There is no real movement to reflect the political needs of women at a larger level. There is an association of educated, middle-class Sudanese women in Nairobi, called Sudanese Women’s Voices for Peace, which is addressing itself to the need for intra-south reconciliation, moving away from the ethnic clashes that happened after the split of the SPLM in 1991.

What are the prospects for an end to the civil war and some kind of transformation in Sudanese politics in the coming years?

If the SPLM is serious about its reforms, it will be presenting a credible alternative to the government of Sudan, and I think the result will be that it will get more support both from the region and internationally. The question is whether the SPLM could gain enough support to force some kind of settlement or create the type of military balance which would force the government in Khartoum to come to the bargaining table. The option of an independent southern Sudan is impossible if only because Egypt would never allow it.

Are there any prospective allies among the Arab states that would align themselves with the SPLM in opposition to the current government?

Sensitivities that go beyond the Sudan -- as in the Eritrea-Yemen conflict, for example -- make obtaining allies difficult. Governments such as Egypt, which have no reason to like the present government in Khartoum, may be discreetly supportive of the SPLM. But they are only supportive in as far as they want an irritant to keep the Khartoum government bothered. Egypt would never offer any kind of significant support which would allow the southerners to govern themselves effectively or decisively win the war.

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