The question of identity revisited: the challenge of nation-building in the new South Sudan

The ability to allow an inclusive social fabric to flourish will determine the success of the new state.

My inspiration to write on this topic came in October, a time of extreme optimism for the relations between the two Sudans who had just emerged from tense proxy battles in the region along the new borders. Salva Kiir, South Sudan’s new president, made his first visit to Khartoum in his capacity as head of state. Alongside an article reporting his visit were facts and figures about the new nation, and the text of an early version of the ‘Land of Cush’ national anthem, which hails South Sudan as the ‘origin of world’s civilizations.’

I found this odd as the ‘Kush’ being referred to seemed indicative of the Cushitic kingdoms which extended from the first cataract to the fourth cataract in the North of Sudan. It would indeed later expand, but in the opposite direction, encroaching into Egypt in the 7th century. The Cushitic ancestors of civilisation had largely remained confined to these regions and were the first point of contact with the Arabs who would start a series of intense migrations from the 12th century onwards.  

Why the confusion? It is not, I think, the result of a flawed understanding of history; rather it seems suggestive of the prolonged contact with the northern brother, which cannot – and ought not – be quick to escape the memory of the new nation.

Some have characterised Northern Sudanese society as one of confused identity, from which structural political flaws have followed. Francis Deng, a veteran civil servant and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, is a chief advocate of this position. In his book ‘ The War of Visions: Conflict of Identities In the Sudan’ Deng  accuses Northern Sudanese of imposing upon themselves a ‘mistaken identity,’ in which the Arab component assumed an exaggerated role in shaping the national identity and was instrumental in Sudan’s foreign policy which sided heavily with the Arab and Islamic Bloc. The latter part of the argument is undeniable, but the essence of the former I feel to be an inaccurate depiction: the Sudanese identity is not inclusive or exclusive on purely ethnic or religious grounds, but rather has been one based on an on-going struggle between centre and periphery.

The disgruntled and disenfranchised are often times not different from their ruling counterparts in Khartoum in any respect, save for geographical distance from the capital. Developments in Darfur point clearly to the growing resentment of Arabic speaking tribes, aware of the opportunistic arming and mobilisation of their kin by both government and opposition with little tangible long-term benefit in return. There has certainly been an imposition of a monopolised view of the Sudan from the Riverian Arab-dominated governments in Khartoum, but this has more to do with the natural bias of those in power than a systematic program to rid Sudan of influences outside the scope of what these individuals deem to be ‘Sudanese.’ Alex de Waal has noted that genocide was an inappropriate label for the conflict in Darfur, since institutional racism was absent from Sudanese cities. People, regardless of their background, could pursue employment and education without fear of dismissal or termination on purely ethnic, racial or religious grounds.

The need to actively ‘construct’ a new identity more true to its African element, as some in Sudan advocate, is farcical. We need only look under our own noses to find it. One need only look at the diversity of the faces one encounters in Khartoum, or the names of certain areas in the tri-town city such as ‘tooti’,  ‘garri’ , or ‘karrari’, which clearly indicate the Mahasi Nubian heritage of its earliest settlers.

The Southern Sudanese presence too was massive in the capital city. Fleeing their marginalised regions, many came to Khartoum and other cities in the North in search of better opportunities, and ultimately comprised roughly one-third of the city’s inhabitants up until the referendum period in early and mid 2011 . As a result, Arabic became a necessary tool in engaging with institutions and individuals in the capital and around the country. The new national identity of South Sudan cannot ignore this contact, indeed Joseph Abuk who chaired the committee for the creation of the ‘Land of Cush’ national anthem, is about to begin creating South Sudan's first international theatre production – in Juba Arabic.

The challenge has not been the recognition of diversity per se, for this is already apparent. Rather, the challenge is to embrace fully the paradigm of the Westphalian nation state, which measures successful nation building on the grounds of a transparent and fair political process, guaranteeing fundamental freedoms.  These freedoms are essential to allow a thriving civil society to partake of and participate in an exchange of culture and identity that has shaped and must continue to shape this land.

Kiir and Bashir’s vows never to return to war at the end of Kiir’s visit have been proven paper-thin. Both sides have resorted to butting heads once again, with regards to transit fees for oil as well as the flinging of accusations of misconduct at the UN following the recent eruption of violence on the border between the two.

Despite the constant state of struggle and strife with the northern neighbour, southerners must not allow feelings of contempt towards it to hamper any efforts at cooperation, as the need for mutual interdependence is beyond dispute. The lines may have been drawn on the map, but the placenta is certainly still intact:  this contact has left a mark in both nations that will not fade in the foreseeable future.

The greatest hurdle facing South Sudan is not so much developmental or fiscal in nature, but rather internal and institutional: the ability to allow an inclusive social fabric to flourish will determine the success of the new state. It’s no secret that tribal tensions have already surfaced after less than a year of independence. Due to the sensitivity of the issue, the new nation must invest trust in social institutions that reflect the true character of the Southern Sudanese who have undoubtedly been shaped by Western, Afro-Arab Islamism, and ‘unadulterated’ domestic influences. Understanding this hybridity in an uninhibited manner is the healthy path to the construction of a national identity true to its roots, but also willing to embrace the fruits of its cross-cultural exchanges.

About the author

Elfadil Ibrahim is from Sudan, a recent graduate of the University of Aberdeen with an LLM in oil and gas law.