Home | Comment & Analysis    Friday 9 July 2010

Northern elites and their destructive delusions

By Ahmed Elzobier

July 8, 2010 — The wise Messiriyyah tribal leader Babu Nimer is famously quoted as saying, during independence time, that “the British have put us in a car without horn, headlights or brakes”, and indeed without a driver. When the definitive documentary is made about Sudan in the twenty-first century the director should not try hard to make it exciting or dramatic. For since independence the elites have failed miserably to understand the nature of their own country. They have literarily dragged the nation into the abyss. They especially failed to perceive southern Sudan as a region of coherent societies, each with its own culture and history, because that would take a leap of empathy that few, if any, of the northern elites could make, then or now.

History is not always kind to fools. Some of the country’s “educated” elites, in addition to their lack of vision, tend to take any worthless ideology seriously; they are gullible and naïve. No one knows why but maybe it’s the vastness of the place, their insecure identity, maybe their vanity and false self-importance – whatever it is, the cost the country has paid remains high. Any known or unknown, significant or insignificant, dim or dull brand of ideology that is developed in the Arab and Islamic world somehow finds it shockingly easy to establish a branch in Sudan and recruit followers.

Arab nationalism, when it was fashionable, found some of the trusting Sudanese elites to be very willing customers despite their country’s ethnic reality. The Ba’th Party and its two factions from Syria and Iraq were established in Sudan. A Nasirite Socialist Party named after Egypt’s late, charismatic leader, Gamal Abdel Nasir, has its followers in Khartoum. Most mainstream political elites of the 1940s and 50s were influenced by Egypt and in the last 10 years before independence they were consumed by a single issue – unity with Egypt.

The Libyan-sponsored Peoples’ Conferences reflecting the Libyan leader’s amusing and childish thoughts, one way or another find foothold in Sudan. Ansar al-Sunnah, inspired by the conservative Wahabi school of Islamic thought in Saudi Arabia, have their followers in Sudan and they are growing stronger while fighting the very peaceful Sudanese Sufi type of Islam. Even their archrival, the Shia sect, has established some branches in Sudan. All shades and colours of Islamic extremist ideology now have their foot soldiers in the country. Also, the communist party of Sudan was largely influenced by Arab communism more than that of the rest of the world or Africa. Al-Baqir al-Afif Mukhtar, in his excellent paper, A Dilemma of a Black People with a White Culture, similarly noted that “It is remarkable that almost every political party in the Arab world has a branch in Northern Sudan”. In a nutshell, any charlatan with a few smoke and mirror tricks has been able to manipulate some of the susceptible elites in the north.

The biggest and most dangerous trick of them all is the Muslim Brothers movement – “Islam is the solution” is their slogan. Their recruitment strategy utilizes a mixture of standard brainwashing techniques and mind control, from which some eventually wake up to find the whole project was a joke… those who remain are left to vegetate. Their easiest prey were the young, vulnerable and naive northern Sudanese and most of the current leaders of the Islamic movement joined at the tender age of 15–17. The Ideology was developed in Egypt in the 1920s, exported to Sudan 20 years later, and remained insignificant till they joined Numrie’s regime in 1977. More importantly, they were financed in the 1970s by some Gulf countries, mainly rich Saudi zealots, and successfully took power in Sudan in 1989.

The Islamic movement of Sudan holds one of the most extreme positions on cultural diversity in the country, for them it is a nightmare or a "burden", as expressed by Al Turabi. Some of these elites essentially despise their own people, “these are the people we’ve got in this country,” responded Al Bahsir, angrily, to some of the critics of the failure of their Islamisation project in Sudan. Such politicians are only looking for people to fit their abstract ideology, to conform to their own brand of thinking. Once the theory fails, as it usually does, to change the reality and things start to fall apart, the absolutists tend to accuse the whole society, slag people off and blame everyone but themselves. They attribute their failures to the country’s corrupt morality and disturbing diversity. In an ideal situation that might be less painful, these professional ideologues could hire some people as guinea pigs, rent a piece of land somewhere to tinker around with their experiment, test their ideology, and see if it works. But please do not try it on a real-time, complex human society because the outcome, as we know now from Sudan’s tragic experiment, is always disastrous.

Ultimately, the Islamic movement of Sudan had always perceived southern Sudan as hindrance to their Islamic state project. Abdelwahab El-Affendi, a prominent Islamist, wrote in 1990, “When southern support was again important in propping up the [Nimeiri] regime, serious debate started among the Islamists about allowing the South to secede, if that was necessary for the setting up of an Islamic state in Sudan.” This debate took place in the mid-1970s, after the Addis Ababa agreement in March 1972 brought peace in Southern Sudan that lasted for 10 years. Sudanese academic Muhammad Mahmoud, similarly noticed that “Sudan’s great diversity and its present intractable political, economic and social problems have confronted the Ikhwan [Muslim brothers] with serious dilemmas that are increasingly proving recalcitrant." Indeed they had two options to southern Sudan, either forcefully subdued or cut-off from the rest of the country.

Furthermore, it is no secret that the ultimate aim of many Arab and Islamic countries, and some of their institutions that operate in Sudan, is to use the country as a springboard to spread Islam and Arab culture in Africa, in fairness you can’t blame them alone. It is the northern elites of poor and marginal Sudan who have accepted the indignity of being merely agents in these endeavours. Literally, the country rented itself out for an imperial mission and is now paying a very heavy price. On 18 May 1997 the Attorney General at the time, Abdel Aziz Shido, in a statement addressing the Arab parliamentarian conference said, “We appeal to the Arab nations to protect the Islamic regime in Sudan, in order to protect Islam and Arabism from the attack of Africanism and Christianity.” Dr Ghazi Atabani, former advisor to the Sudanese president, shocked the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) at an Eastern Africa meeting in the mid-1990s when he told the bewildered African leaders that their [Sudan’s] Islamization mission is not just stopping in Sudan but will reach into the heart of Africa. As Manosur Khalid in his book, Elites in Sudan Addiction to Failure elegantly put it, “The lines that separate megalomania from arrogance had gradually disappeared when earthly powers professed heavenly claims.”

The reality is that Sudan is a marginal country in the Arab and Muslim world, no matter how we delude ourselves, this is the harsh truth. Any amateur boxer knows that you cannot punch above your weight, and to compensate for this, certain deluded figures always assume a position even more radical than the real owners of the culture. Al-Baqir al-Afif Mukhtar further noted in his paper that "The Arabs of the Middle East, and especially those of the Arab Peninsula, and the Fertile Crescent, represent the in-group of the Arab identity that Northerners aspire to. These ‘real Arabs’ occupy the center stage of this identity and enjoy the power of legitimizing or de-legitimizing the peripheries’ claims." Lebanon representative in 1956 was more honest and aware of our true none-Arab identity as he refused the admission of Sudan into the Arab League when pressured by Egypt. He then adjusted his proposal to say that the new body should be named the Arab League and Sudan.

The extreme position on Arabism or Islamism manifested by some northern elites, in addition to its embarrassing nature, is a desperate attempt for recognition and acceptance. Many northern elites even become addicted to the paternalistic and patronising nature of the relationship. Some remain endlessly lost, trying desperately to find answers to the convoluted question of whether they are Arab or African, both or none. Some went hopelessly wild about the whole issue, such as the late poet Salah Ahmed Ibrahim when he claimed that the Sudanese are the Arab of the Arab i.e. the original Arab! Francis Deng in his book, War of Visions: Conflict of Identities in the Sudan, noted that the tendency of Northern Sudanese to exaggerate Arabism and Islam and to look down on the blacks as slaves was “a deep-seated inferiority complex, or, to put it in reverse, a superiority complex as a compensational device for their obvious marginality as Arabs”.

The irony in northern Sudan has no limits, because there are pockets of genuinely Arab tribes such as the Rashida in the east and some small tribes in central and western Sudan, but they remain marginalised and despised by the Arabised elites of the country. The word Arabi (an Arab) to this day means "the uncivilised". Deng rightly noted that Northern Sudanese racism and cultural chauvinism, therefore, condemns both the very dark and the very light.

So a more disturbing picture has started to emerge, the Arabised elites literally hijack other people’s culture and identity, despise and marginalise the real Arab minority within the country, and oppress, in its name, any non-Arab and non-Muslims. My friend Michael from Mauritius, of a mixed descent, has the same dilemma but at least he is more honest, he says he hates the African, the French and the Indians, and he told me once, "I think I hate myself."

The author is a Sudan Tribune journalist. He can be reached at ahmed.elzobir@gmail.com