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 The overwhelming proportion of the African people of the Sudan are concentrated in the lower rungs

of the class structure.  The small group of elevated Africans are of the bureaucratic bourgeois

element and in general lack the capital and resources to develop along independent social lines.



Race, Discrimination, Slavery, Nationalism

 and Citizenship in the Afro-Arab Borderlands

By Kwesi Kwaa Prah


This paper attempts to historically trace and raise issues concerning tensions in the Afro-Arab Borderlands, (with particular reference to the Sudan) which are generally avoided in public discussions because too many people regard these issues as sensitive and unsuitable for discussion in polite company.  They are however issues which in the light of the establishment of the African Union, the implications and goals of this institution, the ideals implicit in the creation of this institution and the historical tensions in the Afro-Arab Borderlands, are matters whose discussion cannot be wished away or indefinitely postponed.

We need to remind ourselves of the fact that, in the historical experience of Africa, two major forms of dominance have been nationally imposed.  The first of these was the cultural and political imposition arising out of the Arab conquest of North Africa which started in the 8th century A.D. with the Hejira.  The second over-lordship has arisen out of Western expansion and conquests and is of much later vintage mainly dating from the late 19th century.

The conquest of North Africa by the Arabs was a slow process, which has been steady over the centuries.  Apart from the political implications of conquest, perhaps even more important and in many ways more socio-culturally consequential has been the process of cultural denationalization of African communities in the face of Arab conquest and over-lordship, and the replacement of African cultural institutions by Arabic ones.

Possibly the most notable and far-reaching of these cultural denationalization experiences has been the case of the Berber/Tamasheq in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya.  The culture of the Berbers/Tamasheq and the languages of the people suffered subjugation and denigration from very early in the history of the Arab/African encounter.  Recent conflicts, protests, and demonstrations in Algeria highlight the historical plight of Berger national culture in the face of Arabization and dominance.  In a news item put on the BBC on Sunday the 22nd of July, 2001, the Algerian President Bouteflika during a visit to President Bush in the US announced that his government will give greater cultural rights to the Berber.

Highest tensions in Sudan and Mauritania

But possibly nowhere in the Afro-Arab Borderlands is the problem of race, class, and citizenship in such high tension between Arab and African (or possibly Arabized Africans and Africans) as the Sudan and Mauritania.  These two countries are frequently in the news for these reasons, but indeed the problem and scenario is enacted in other countries in the region including Libya, Mali, Niger, and Chad.

The situation in Mauritania is beset with nascent conflict.  The history and tradition of African enslavement by Arabized moors is old and has persisted to the present day.  In his own ornate language, writing in 1955, Gunther points out that, the Moors, “in the olden days were avid and successful slave traders; every year they descended into Senegal, and reaped a crop of human loot.”  Slavery was abolished by the French in 1905.  A second abolition was proclaimed with the independence constitution of Mauritania in 1961.  It has however continued and the tensions arising out of the enslavement of Africans in Mauritania has frequently threatened the peace between Mauritania and Senegal.  This former French colony of 2 million people probably contains the world’s largest concentration of chattels.  In 1993, the U.S. State Department estimated that up to 90,000 blacks live as the property of North African Arabs (known as Beydanes or white Moors).  Other sources add 300,000 part-time and ex-slaves, known as haratins, many of whom continue to serve their owners out of fear or need.  The local anti-slavery group ElHor (‘The Free’) estimates that there are as many as one million haratins.

According to the only Sudanese census which gave a count of Arabs and Africans in the Sudan, only 39 per cent of Sudanese regard themselves as Arab.  In spite of this fact the Sudan is regarded by most international bodies to be part of the Arab World.  This oddity is on account of the fact that the prevalent character of the Sudanese state is Arabist.  The Sudan in national terms is a minority-ruled state.  In a crucial political sense that creates comparisons with the erstwhile white minority-ruled South Africa and Namibia in Sub-Saharan Africa, however limited the scope of these comparisons may be. 

In Mauritania, the African and Arab proportions of the population is also constantly in dispute.  While African observers claim that the majority of the population is African, the Arabs make opposite assertions.

In Chad, Niger, and Mali the preponderance of the African populations are rarely disputed.  The nomadic character of these Sahelian countries further complicates definitive assessments of population sizes and African /Arab proportions.

The Sudanese conflict is often explained as simply a regionalist confrontation.  This view is as erroneous as the suggestion that it is largely a religious conflict.  While the problem bears both regionalist and religious dimensions, those features of the conflict belie the more fundamental character of the contradiction which is that the Sudan is largely made up of Africans who are homogeneously more concentrated in the South where their cultural features are also less Arabized.  The Southerners have to some degree been Christianized but most lean more profoundly on their traditional African cosmology and ritual.  In the north most of the nationalities have to a great degree been Islamized but again here Africanist beliefs are not uncommon, particularly among the Fur, Fung, and Nuba.

It is in the north that the African cultural traits have been most diminished and replaced by Arab culture.  In many areas of the north, African languages are slowly perishing in the face of Arabizing forces and influences.  The Beja who have historically resisted Arabization are increasingly being Arabized.  The Funj, Nuba, Messalit, Zaghawa and Fur, remain largely conscious of their African national identity.  However, of all the African nationalities of the North, it is particularly among the Nubians that claims of Arab identity is most rampant. 

Essentially it is possible to classify Northern Sudanese who claim Arab nationality into either one of the two groups.  On  the one hand the Jaali and the Barabra who are mainly Arabized Nubian riverian cultivators and on the other, the Juhayna who are mainly nomadic groups.  Among especially the Jaali Nubian dialects still survive in the face of increasing Arabization.

The Mauritanian case in the Afro-Arab Borderlands has interesting parallels.  French and Arabic are widely spoken.  Moors in the south speak a dialect of Arabic, Hassaniyyah, while several other African languages are spoken including those of the Pulaar, Soininke and Wolof peoples.

After independence, linguistic Arabization was pursued doggedly. There was a long dispute between the Moors and the Africans over retaining French as an official language; in 1991, Arabic became the sole official language.  The increasing pre-eminence of Arab culture and influence in the economy, politics and social life of the society has continued apace to the present.

The dominance of the Arab minority in the Sudanese political economy is practically defined in conditions of extreme underdevelopment in the South and relatively better development in the North.  Class variation has tended to run along the crucial national distinctions.  This is particularly noticeable among the elites, with African representation singularly weak among the mercantile and banking elements, judicial, and military brass.  The ranks of the lowest menial workers in Khartoum and Omdurman are well represented by Africans.

The need for the dominant groups in Sudanese society to define themselves as differently as possible from African is in some instances reduced to absurdity.  For example, as the late African nationalist leader Joseph Oduho (assassinated in March 1993 by Garang’s troops) explains:

In every passport given to any Sudanese, whether he be brown, semi-white, pitch-black, it is always said “brown” is the colour.  And on my passport it is written that I am brown, and probably if I went one day to Nigeria, they will say, brown? This man! It is one of those things . . . that you cannot know until you have lived here a long time to know the real difference between the South and the North.

The claim of Arabness in the Sudan carries with it, subjectively a notion of cultural and national superiority.  This situation has tended to encourage Arabization.

The African perception of the Arabs

Historically, in the collective psyche of the African perhaps what has crystallized most uniformly in African perceptions of the Arab is the history of slavery.  Abel Rahman Sule, a Southern Moslem who had been in the forefront of pro-federalist politics in the 1940s and 1950s, recalls his youth early this century. 

My father was a chief, the effendia who came around our village to kill elephants were Muslims.  I used to see what these people were doing.  That is how I became a Muslim.  In 1927 I was caught with arms from Ethiopia, by then I was already a Muslim.  But I was very aware of my Africaness.  When I was a kid, if I was woken late in the morning by my father, he would say “If it had been the days of the Ansars you would have been taken”.  My father always woke me up early so that in this words I am not taken by the Ansars.

The unresolved national question and its class underpinnings can be identified as the fundamental cause for the civil war.  The absence of a political arrangement which while recognizing the majority African national character of the Sudan will afford the Arab minority equal national rights constitutes a recipe for continued war.  Every single change of government in the Sudan during the past 30 years has to different degrees been prompted by considerations relating to the national question as expressed in the “Southern Problem.”  As Ambrose Ring Thiik observers:

This was started over 30 years ago because the unrealistic attitudes on the part of the Northern Sudanese who took over from the British, combined with the lack of any national consensus, prevented the working out of constitutional arrangements acceptable to the South.

Thus the African national resistance led by the SPLA/SPLM has come to represent the latest installment of Africans in the Sudan in their quest for self-determination, national liberation, and majority-rule within a constitutional formula for the whole of the Sudan.  Since 1983, the civil war has ceased to be confined to the geographical area of the South, and has spread, although weakly, to other predominantly African areas of the North, such as the Southern Kordofan region and the Southern Blue Nile area.  These developments emphasize the fact that the conflict is not merely regional but rather represents African resistance to Arab minority rule.

Till today slavery of Africans and their transportation into places like Libya as a recent American Congressional report indicated, has not ended.  In April 1996, UN Special Representative for the Sudan, Gaspar Biro, reported “an alarming increase . . .  in cases of slavery, servitude, slave trade, and forced labour.”  In June 1996, two reporters from the Baltimore Sun illegally visited the Sudan.  They produced a series of articles in the Baltimore Sun called “Witness to Slavery,” in which they documented slavery in the Sudan.  In fact, they bought two young slaves and set them free.

Demands for reparations

In connection with the mounting demands for reparations from the West for slavery and colonialism, some observers have pointed out that similar demands should be directed to the Arab countries for slavery of Africans.  A briefing provided by the General Headquarters of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and Sudan People’s Liberation on Army to the Foreign Ministers of the Frontline States of Southern Africa (SADCC Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania, Malawi, plus Swaziland Lesotho) dated 28th July 1988 drew attention to:

The re-emergence of full blown slavery in the Sudan is an inhuman act against human rights and violates all considerations for the respect of the declaration of human rights pronounced by the United Nations and the Geneva Conventions on human rights.  It is essential that organizations like the OAU, UN, Amnesty International, Anti-slavery Society in London and independent world nations that pride in the values of respect for human rights should condemn Mr Mahdi’s government for indulging in such a trade in this 20th century.

The contradictions of Sudanese society which have for decades kept the fires of war burning arise out of the fact that, the sharp class struggles run as it were parallel to the national and cultural cleavages within the society.  The overwhelming proportion of the African people of the Sudan are concentrated in the lower rungs of the class structure.  The small group of elevated Africans are of the bureaucratic bourgeois element and in general lack the capital and resources to develop along independent social lines.

My view today informed by Sudanese history as we know it is that, the Sudanese, in general, and Southerners, in particular, should democratically through a referendum, be given a chance to decide if the African areas should be separated from the Arab areas, or continue in some sort of federal arrangement.  Their decision should then be underwritten by the world body.  Complicating the Sudanese situation further is the fact that it appears that the oil reserves in the area of the Southern Sudan may equal Saudi/Gulf levels.  This has attracted a motley of external interests whose concerns may be more access to these oil reserves than the rights of the people of the Sudan.

The Sudan may ultimately be a test case for the future of Afro-Arab relations in the Borderlands.  The whipping up of Arab sentiment in favour of the policies of Arabization and war in the Sudan is in the long run a dangerous approach to the question of Afro-Arab relations in the Afro-Arab Borderlands.  The SPLM/A in 1988 declared that:

The Arab racist cry in the Sudan is clear and audible to everyone, and that is, Islam and Arabism are in danger, and that a New Zanzibar is being created in the Sudan by the SPLM/SPLA.  All we are doing in our struggle is fighting the racists and oppressors that constitute the ruling clique in Khartoum, and which exploits and survives on Islam in order to exploit and oppress the Africans in the Sudan …  It is clear from the incidence of Kurmuk and Geisan that the ruling Arab class in Khartoum are for the internationalization of the conflict in the Sudan. The government armed forces were able to recapture the two towns with the help of Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Oman Sultanate, PLO, Jordan, the Gulf States and indirectly Egypt.  The motive for the intervention of the above countries in the war in the Sudan is simply their commitment towards the support of Islam and Arabism in the Sudan.  This is being done by these Arab countries in complete disregards as to the value of the Afro-Arab solidarity on the continent.

That same year (1988), Olusegun Obasanjo and Francis Mading Deng in a report they jointly put out on a peace initiative stated that “the conflict was being increasingly internationalized, especially along Arab-African and Islamic-Christian with strategic and ideological overtones that tended to complicate and aggravate the situation.”  Africa’s longest war needs to be brought to a close.  Self-determination and democracy should be the guiding principles for settling this conflict.

This paper was presented at the UNRISD Conference on Racism and Public Policy (parallel to the World Conference Against Racism), Durban 3-5 September 2001.

Note: The conflict in Mauritania is assessed in: Garba Diallo: Mauritania – The Other Apartheid?, Uppsala, 1993, 57 p. (orders: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, P.O. Box 1703, S-751 47 Uppsala, Sweden, Fax: 018-695629)

Published in EPD, Entwicklungs – Politik, 19/2001 October, Frankfurt

posted 7 September 2008

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