Sudan needs to address racial tension to build sustainable peace
10 August 2017: Discrimination against non-Arabs in Sudan is a major problem, says Quscondy Abdulshafi – and the conflict won’t end until the persecution stops.
Non-Arab Sudanese have been increasingly discriminated against in a number of policy measures. Obscured by the war and political instability, this institutional exclusion and racial tension persists in Sudan. Lingering structural discrimination and socio-cultural marginalisation against African ethnic groups are a major factor for deteriorating racial tensions and conflict. Both the government and civil society have so far failed to address the growing problem of this social divide. Achieving sustainable peace in Sudan requires dealing with the socially rooted causes of the existing conflicts in Sudan’s peripheries.
Supporting local initiatives and helping them to grow to at regional or national level could promote social dialogue and reduce racial tension. To foster effective inter-communal dialogue, this article suggests an active engagement with youth-led initiatives, Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and traditional tribal leaders. It is important to engage with all of these groups to build sustainable peace.
Causes of social injustice
There are several causes of existing racial tension in Sudan. These include historical and colonial legacies and social, economic, political and environmental issues. For the purpose of this article, I discuss the formal institutional exclusion of African ethnic groups by the ruling elites as the major factor for the existing inequalities.
From independence in 1956, Sudanese ruling elites wanted to join the Arab nations and so joined the League of Arab States (LAS). This decision was based on the questionable fact that the majority of Sudanese are Arabs and Muslims. Therefore, joining of the LAS was followed by segregationist policies intended to ‘Arabise’ the country, resulting in the social, political, economic and cultural marginalisation of African citizens, and wars in South Sudan, Blue Nile and Kordofan in 1983.
After General Bashir seized power in a military coup in 1989, his ruling party introduced its first political manifesto. Named the ‘Civilization Project,’ this was an ideological venture geared towards the Arabisation of Sudan, targeting non-Arabs cultures and identities. The Civilization Project was intentionally designed to create social disparities to the disadvantage of non-Arabs, thus leading to poverty, conflicts, mass displacement and migration from rural to urban areas.
The consequences of state policy
Regarding the long-standing civil war in South Sudan and its expansion to Eastern Sudan in the 1990s and Darfur in 2003, it is important to note that the war-torn areas are predominantly populated by non-Arabs. More disturbingly, the government in all its wars mobilised and armed Arabs to carry out offensives against Africans alongside military forces.
In terms of IDPs, the majority of these in urban centres live in camps and slums, and depend on low-income jobs such as tea selling, shoe polishing, local alcohol brewing, roadside trading and other disadvantaged jobs. The government introduced the Public Order Act 1995, and other subsequent Sharia laws, to target the livelihood of those communities. Raids in slums and cities against street vendors, tea sellers, and local alcohol brewers are still in practice. IDPs are continuously jailed, their property confiscated, businesses hindered and in several cases publicly lashed.
In December 2010, President Bashir publicly stated that after the cessation of South Sudan there would be no room for diversity and the identity of Sudan will only be Arabic and Islam. Such practices caused serious grievances, fear, and hatred among the Africans, against what they call “Jallaba”, loosely defined as Arabs from the centre and northern areas of Sudan.
While political solutions might help to end the war through power sharing and development, these socially constructed issues need social dialogue and community engagement. Despite the lack of government interest in addressing the issue of growing racial tension, it is high time for peacebuilding efforts to support social dialogue initiatives and foster understanding by promoting solidarity and positive social interaction among communities.
Due to the dictatorship and the limited space for civil society, peacebuilding efforts should concentrate on supporting and engaging with locally connected groups and initiatives, working in this constrained environment.
Working with young people
62% of Sudan's population is between 15 to 24 years old, while 20% of the total young population are unemployed, according to the UNFPA in 2013. After international critiques against crimes committed in Darfur, the government introduced the Voluntary and Humanitarian Work (Organization) Act, 2006. This law further restricted the already limited civil society space.
Because of high unemployment, the youth became strong challengers of the status quo. Since 2010 youth volunteers have implemented successful nationwide initiatives.
For example, Girifna (Fed Up) 2010 supports free and fair elections. The organisation Nafeer responded to a flood in 2014 by fundraising and offering assistance to those affected, and the November 27 movement was a call for civil disobedience against austerity measures. Currently, the most impactful initiatives are the ones led by youth. Despite the divisive social setting, these show that young people can bridge gaps in society.
There are around two million IDPs in Darfur alone, 1.7 million in Khartoum, and a similar number in Blue Nile and South Kordofan states. These IDPs are direct victims of the war in the areas of Darfur, Blue Nile, and Kordofan. They have experienced unimaginable kinds of violence. These IDPs, particularly those in larger camps in Darfur, face situations of total isolation from the outside world, no connection to other fellow citizens in different regions, and no interaction with government or even mainstream civil society or pro-government media outlets.
For IDPs, peaceful coexistence in Sudan remains an unanswered wish. A robust social dialogue must be able to penetrate, actively engage, and add the voices of IDPs to shaping the national social and political agenda.
Traditional and tribal leaders
Due to the diminishing role of the state as the result of tribal politicisation in Sudan by the current government, the people, particularly in rural settings, are more influenced by their tribes. Therefore, including traditional tribal leaders into peace dialogues can be of great value for sustainable peace in Sudan.
Racial discrimination in Sudan in protected and promoted by the current government regime as a divide and rule strategy to fuel the war in the peripheries. The limited space for civil society does not allow any government actors to influence the policies. Working with young people, traditional leaders and IDPs, despite the challenges and limitations, remains the most efficient way to bring the issue of racism into policy agenda and promote understanding.