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Distinguished Diplomat Says Sudan Still Plagued With Prejudice

There’s growing enmity between the Sudanese government in Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). According to the former rebels, President Omar al-Bashir’s government is reneging on the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). In 2005, the document ended a 21-year civil war that killed and displaced millions of Sudanese. But the SPLM says Khartoum is now showing little willingness to move towards free and fair elections, which in terms of the CPA are scheduled for 2009. The party recently suspended its involvement in Sudan’s Government of National Unity in protest. The SPLM says the al-Bashir administration still appears unwilling to reconcile with the people of Southern Sudan. Darren Taylor reports in the third part of our series focusing on the region.

SPLM Deputy Secretary General, Anne Itto, says reconciliation in Sudan remains but a “distant dream” at this stage.

“If people don’t reconcile and heal, you can’t even talk about democracy. You can’t even talk about elections if people don’t reconcile, because voting for elections means sitting down and agreeing.... If there is insecurity, or there is no reconciliation and healing, then you can’t think about a new Sudan,” she states.

Dr. Francis Deng, Special Advisor to the United Nations Secretary General for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities, says Sudanese leaders have some “very tough choices” to make in the near future if further conflict in Southern Sudan is to be avoided.

The distinguished diplomat has served in various capacities at the UN since 1967, and recently spoke about the situation in Sudan with regard to the CPA in his personal capacity.

Deng says the roots of Sudan’s present crisis are to be found in the country’s history of racial oppression. He’s in a unique position to comment about the context of the country’s present problems: A member of Southern Sudan’s largest ethnic group, the Dinka, Deng was educated in both the African-Christianized South and the Arab-Islamic North.

“If we talk about the causes of the conflict of Sudan, the word that comes to mind most often is marginalization. But I think it is even worse than marginalization because it is active discrimination based on a history whereby if you became a Muslim, and Arabic speaking, and culturally Arabized - you were elevated to a status of dignity and as a citizen who enjoys the rights and duties of citizenship,” he explains.

“But if you were a black, and a heathen, you were a legitimate target for slavery.”

As a result of this situation, Deng says, there are still many black people in Sudan who prefer to see themselves as ‘Arabs’.

“And who wouldn’t take the opportunity of a situation that allows you to enhance yourself, by doing a few things – changing religion, learning the language, culturally absorbing, and then fantasizing, or imagining that your ancestor came from Arabia?” he poses.

“To this day, there are some blacks in the Sudan who are just as black as I am – if that is possible – who still speak about ‘our Arab ancestors.’”

At the same time, Deng says, many Sudanese – especially in the South - started a “reverse movement” whereby everything linked to Arabs and Islam was “looked down upon as a symbol of something depraved.”

He says this tension between the races in Sudan remains unresolved, and is at the heart of the current impasse around the CPA.

Sudan, he insists, remains a country “torn apart” as a result of a “simplification” which characterized the war as being between black Christians in the South and Arab Muslims in the North.

This was never the case, Deng maintains, with plenty of so-called ‘Arab’ Muslims joining the SPLM to fight against Khartoum’s troops.

He says there are also plenty of Arabs in Northern Sudan who oppose President Omar al-Bashir’s hard-line National Congress Party, but that they have no voice because of the lack of political freedom in Khartoum.

Officials from the Sudanese government did not respond to a number of requests for comment about this article.

Deng says the Sudanese have so far “not done a good job” on national reconciliation and healing.

“Without this, it will be very difficult for the whole of Sudan to come together, and work towards a new Sudan. When you have a long war, when different races have been fighting, it’s essential that you have a national reconciliation effort, like in South Africa, so people will accept the past, and at least begin to move on,” he reasons.

Although Deng says it’s important for people to forgive, he urges them never to forget the past.

“It is only through history that we’re able to learn,” he quips.

While the CPA has resulted in significant gains for people in Southern Sudan, says Deng, the same can’t be said for those living in the contested regions of Abyei, Southern Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains – areas largely populated by Sudanese of the Muslim faith, who had joined with the SPLM during the war.

When he recently visited these areas, Deng says inhabitants told him they felt that the SPLM had “abandoned” them.

“They felt a sense of betrayal. That we (the people of the marginalized areas) had become virtually part of the South, in the war, now the South goes and gives itself the right to secede, and leaves us where?”

Many Sudanese living in the contested regions fear incorporation into the North, as they think it could lead to persecution by Khartoum as a result of their previous alliance with the Southern rebels.

In terms of the CPA, Sudan’s borders must be redrawn, but no formal decisions have yet been taken about this.

Others in the disputed regions, says Deng, refuse to believe that the SPLM has forsaken them. But they insist that should this happen, they will continue their struggle for freedom from oppression – alone, if need be.

The veteran diplomat says the Khartoum government in particular is on the threshold of major decisions with regard to reconciliation in Sudan, and he has the following advice for it: “If you are strong, and you are being threatened to be transformed out of power, you have the choice of either having the wisdom to say: In order for the nation to come together, in order for us to work for the ideals – even if it means I give in – let’s go along with the transformation.”

But there are plenty of analysts who say that, given Khartoum’s lack of willingness to implement democratic reforms in the past, this would be a major surprise. Deng’s response is that “miracles” are indeed possible.

“Who would have thought the white South Africans would come to that wisdom, under apartheid, but they did! And it was not simply a question of being magnanimous; it was a question of recognizing that in the long run it was in their own interests – not only to accommodate – but to be fair and just to the black majority.”

Of course, says Deng: there’s always the possibility that President al-Bashir will continue to resist change that would ultimately better the lives of all Sudanese, no matter their ethnic origins or religions.

“(The government could say) I will fight, I will hold to the status quo as much as I can,” he acknowledges.

But he’s convinced that the authorities in Khartoum find themselves today at a similar crossroads to that faced by South Africa’s former white minority National Party government in the late 1980s. Like the founders of apartheid, he says, President al-Bashir’s administration has a choice: It can cleave on to power against the wishes of the majority, risking more bloodshed, or it can make the necessary sacrifices to allow true democracy to take root in Sudan and in so doing create a better life for millions.