Two protracted civil wars have ravaged Sudan, which faces armed rebellion and other serious challenges.
Meanwhile, South Sudan, which seceded two years ago with Sudan’s consent following a referendum, is subjected to increasing tensions that are further weakening a fragile economy.
A three-day conference at York University last week looked at the bleak conditions in the two countries and what can be done to achieve some semblance of stability and end the armed conflicts, human rights violations and rising refugee rates.
It’s estimated that nearly 2.5 million people have been killed and five million displaced in 25 years of civil wars.
In the keynote address on the opening day, South Sudan permanent representative to the United Nations, Francis Deng, provided a historical context that has led to the enormous difficulties the countries face.
“What makes diversity conflictual is not the mere fact of differences but the manner in which we manage or mismanage our differences,” said Deng. “And usually it’s a question of dichotomizing or dividing groups into the in-group who enjoys the dignity of citizenship and all the rights that accrue from that and the out-group that is discriminated against, marginalized, excluded and denied the rights to citizenship and dignity of belonging.
“It’s in that context that I … focus on the issue of national identity that has characterized Sudan. At the core of the crisis are two distortions, one of which is that the group in control at the centre which in essence is an integrated African-Arab element hybrid race that perceives itself as Arabs and then adapts an extremist version of Islam which contrasts with the African general approach to Islam as a reinforcement of that identity of Arabs. The second distortion is that this already distorted self-perception of what is in essence a minority within the large picture of the country is then projected to be the framework of the national identity despite the fact that you are dealing with a country of immense racial, ethnic and religious diversity.
“If you became a Muslim or you could trace or construct an origin that’s related to the Arab world, particularly Saudi Arabia, then you were treated with dignity and respect and elevated. But if you were Black, you were viewed with indignity and in fact seen as a legitimate target for slavery.”
Deng said it was with ambivalence that he attended celebrations to mark South Sudan’s independence on July 9, 2011.
“On the one hand, there was understandable euphoria about the South having achieved its goals,” said Deng, who is the author of 40 books. “I also felt that without the problems in the North being resolved and a new Sudan being achieved, the relations between the two countries will continue to be affected. That’s where we are. It’s a situation that’s challenging both countries and really threatening not only their internal peace, security and stability, but their co-operation for the betterment of their own peoples. I still think that given the right conditions, the possibility of a return to unity in some form of association is still possible. For that to happen, the two countries must solve their internal problems in order for the relations to shift from tension and hostility to a new basis for nation building.”
The York Centre for Refugee Studies organized the conference.