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The danger of a racialized debate on the referendum

By Amir Idris

September 30, 2010 — The world has been watching with mounting fear the racialized public debate on the future of Sudan. The peoples of southern Sudan are expected to vote on whether they remain in a united Sudan or to opt for separation on January 9th 2011. In recent weeks, the tone of the public debate in the country in particular in the north has been colored by religious and racial tendencies that might endanger the future relations between the north and the south after the referendum. The recent public statement made by the NCP Minister of Information in the Government of National Unity threatening to strip southerners who live in the north of their social, economic and political rights if the result of the referendum confirms separation is a deliberate incitement for violent confrontation.

Proponents of both unity and separation have often emphasized race and religion as the sole criteria for making a choice between unity and separation. Invoking race and religion in the debate about the referendum shifts the focus from politics to issues of place of origin and the racial identity of individuals. This unfortunate mode of debate has been reflected on the rising language of fear, intimidation and discrimination which has the potential to plunge the entire country into uncontrollable communal violence with unimaginable consequences.

The right to self determination for the peoples of southern Sudan which was stipulated in the CPA is not a racialized right as many seem to believe. Rather it is a political right which was designed to address a political problem - the failure of the existing state in formulating an inclusive national project that would have embraced diversity and unity. The root causes of the Sudan’s multiple crises are political rather than racial and religious. The racialized discourse on referendum along North and South, African and Arab divides is indeed a recipe for unmanageable political disaster that might destroy the fabric of the entire society. In turn, the process of national reconciliation and rebuilding of both regions would become a difficult task in the post-referendum period.

It is undeniable that unity has not been made attractive to the peoples of southern Sudan. Those who advocate unity should accept that maintaining territorial unity without fundamental transformation of the existing state is unlikely to succeed. But the unity of the country can always be restored in the future if we view separation as one of the mechanisms that could be used to alter the nature and meaning of the state in order to make unity the more desirable option.

Whatever the peoples of southern Sudan choose to do, it should not be seen as a vote against a specific racial group. Rather, their choice should be respected and interpreted as a political choice informed by their own historical experiences against oppression, discrimination and exclusion. After all, the separation of southern Sudan is not the end of history as many in the north seem to interpret; rather it is the beginning of a long process of redefining their identities and polity. For the peoples of southern Sudan, separation could be seen as an opportunity for charting their own destiny and rebuilding their societies after many decades of civil wars, imposed upon them by a series of ruthless northern- based regimes. For northerners, it would be helpful and constructive to view separation as a process of purification and reflection on what has gone wrong. In other words, it is an opportunity to reconstruct a new vision of polity that could make unity a desirable choice in the future.

Of course, these processes of purification, self-reflection, and the remaking of identities and polity, will not be successful in an environment of fear, intimidation and hostility articulated through a language of race and religion. History has taught us that the use of violent language to spread fear and to intimidate those who are categorized by the ruling elites as the “other” in multiethnic societies only leads to political violence with far reaching human consequences.

Amir Idris is Associate Professor of African Studies and Associate Chair of the Department of African and African American Studies, Fordham University, New York City. He can be reached at idris@fordham.edu

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