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Analyses South Sudan

Opinion: Noe-Mahdism, and the National identity crisis in South Sudan 

By Makneth Aciek,

Juba, South Sudan.

Members of Muslim community in South Sudan capital, Juba, holding ruku prayers during IFTAR breakfast at the Freedom Hall(Photo credit: courtesy image/Nyamilepedia)
Members of Muslim community in South Sudan capital, Juba, holding ruku prayers during IFTAR breakfast at the Freedom Hall(Photo credit: courtesy image/Nyamilepedia)

May 26, 2021 — Modern Sudan as an identity was forged on the furnace of slave trades and military slavery. The arrival of Muhammad Ali dynasty in the Sudan exposed the African peoples, particularly those around the upper Nile regions to exploitation and intensified slave raids. Majority of black slaves were incorporated into the Egyptian army as the jihddiya (regular forces). These African slaves  struggled for a definition of their place within the Turco-Egyptian public space! They played a significant role in the history of African peoples by advancing the concept of Sudanese nationalism. The idea of Sudan as political identity was born and prospered under the stimulation of racial solidarity and shared blackness.

These black men in the Turco-Egyptian armies established a broader trans-tribal self identification, and formed a block against Turks and Arabs oppression. When they mutinied against Turco- Egyptian authorities in 1864-65 at Kassala, they organized their battalions according to categories such as Nilotic, Nuba, Fur and “Muwallad” (literally, the black slaves born inside northern Sudan).

 The most conspicuous event in which the black solidarity was expressed by the slave soldiers was the mutiny against the Mahdist state in El Obeid in 1885-7. The black soldiers initially played a huge role in Mahdist war against Turco-Egyptian; virtually the black soldiers who once fought in Egyptian army were the only fighting force well versed in the use of firearms. It is reported that in the subsequent Mahdist battles, the black soldiers were put in the forefront, while the Arabs stayed in the rear. After the war, the Mahdist State discriminated against them, and subjected them to Islamic laws. Black soldiers expressed their hostility towards the Mahdist and Islamic doctrines, the domestic slaves joined them and freed the slaves in chains, and celebrated by drinking and dancing. The struggle of Sudanese peoples has always been waged in the ideals of Pan-Africanism!.

After the time of Turco-Egyptian rule, the common use of the word “Sudanese” referred to black peoples who had been uprooted from their homelands and carried away as slaves; those who considered themselves as free members of society in Sudan  used the names of their ethnic groups for identification. In the first few years following the conquest of the Sudan by the Anglo-Egyptian troops and the advent of the Condominium regime, the British colonial master coined a phrase, “Negroid but Detribalized” to describe the African peoples of ex-slave stock, who traced their origin back to tribes in the South or the Nuba Mountains but had settled in the North.

The detribalized negroid who returned to Sudan with a condominium army in 1898 attempted at building a national movement to which they believed black people were the “real Sudanese”, and as such should rule the country and enjoy the spoils of power. This alarmed the British colonial authorities, as a consequence they retired many black soldiers from the service and started referring to detribalized ex-slaves as “troublesome collection”. As a ploy to get rid of blacks huge population in big town like Khartoum and Omdurman, the British colonial authorities under the condominium government rendered black peoples unemployable, declared them a menace to the law abiding members of the urban societies, and introduced the Vagabonds Ordinance in 1905 .

After the defeat of Mahdists State by Anglo- Egyptian, and re-conquest of the sudan; the remaining Mahdists were under the careful watch of British. During the First World War the Ottoman Sultan called for a Jihad against British throughout the Middle East; since Mahdists were anti-Turkish, the British collaborated with them. Abd al Rahman al-Mahdi was supported by British to rally his late father’s supporters. The Movement he formed was known as Neo-Mahdist for it built on the beliefs of old Mahdists but aimed at different goals.

Since then the British colonial masters chose to favor the minority Neo-Mahdists and marginalized the black peoples, the condominium government adopted strange policies in order to curtail the influence of detribalized ex-slaves in Sudanese societies. Some parts of Blue Nile, Nuba Mountains, Darfur and Southern Sudan were declared Closed Districts and persons from outside those districts had to be issued a permit to enter. The Closed Districts Ordinance was in major part, a ploy to cut off the influx of newly detribalized blacks into native communities, both in the North and South. The available historical evidence suggests that the then so-called Southern policy which isolated the South from the North was implemented to defend the tribal order established by colonial authorities among native communities from the influence of detribalized black nationalists. It was not about stopping the Arabization and Islamization of the south, as always pointed out.

The colonial authorities continued to favor the Neo- Mahdist, and when the possibility of Sudan as national entity was discussed, the Neo-Mahdists idea was to reinvent the Sudanese nation and Sudanese people; the detribalized blacks were opposed to this kind of nationalism. They called for the unity of the Nile Valley, and advocated for the creation of Sudanese nation founded on a non racial basis. This was expressed explicitly by the Revolution of 1924 led by Ali Abd al-Latif, a detribalized black born of a Nuba father and a Dinka Mother.

 The British oppressed the position of black peoples and promoted Neo- Mahdism as the major aspect of forming Sudanese nationalism. The  Neo-Mahdists, in the process of imagining nationalism came up with the idea of “Al-Sudan al- Jadid” (New Sudan), according to which the term Sudanese only referred to political and economic elite in the North, whose members identified themselves as Arab, and the process of becoming Sudanese referred to the adoption of Islam and habits of this Neo-Mahdist elite. The peoples who rejected this parochial version of Sudan were referred to as infidels, and this was the genesis of Sudan’s North-South civil wars. During Sudan’s second civil war, Dr John Garang, the founding Chairman of SPLM/A challenged the Neo-Mahdist version of New Sudan, and envisioned a Secular New Sudan which is inclusive of all Sudanese people regardless of race or religion. Many peoples in the Sudan whose  national identities were considered second rate joined the SPLM/A and used the Vision of secular New Sudan as a mean of political expression.

Who are the South Sudanese? the word Southerner or South Sudanese in deeper sense is merely a distinctive appellation to distinguish those who live 

within the boundaries of Mahdist State (1885-1899) from those who do not. Many parts of today South Sudan were not in hands of Mahdist, particularly Equatoria, the southernmost province. Until today the legacy of the Mahdist state is being used to define South Sudan National identity. The common sentiment among Neo-Mahdist elite which refers to some section of Equatoria communities as foreigners, part of it can be explained in term of Mahdist history

Many features of contemporary South Sudan  encourage discriminations because the political elites are using the inhuman imagery of Neo-Mahdism to craft nationhood. The definition of who a South Sudanese is, has somehow shifted from what it used to be during the time of liberation struggle to physical appearance (traditional marks in the forehead), language and ancestry. The processes of identifying South Sudan’s citizens and borders are based merely on vernacular notions of identity and belonging, rather than on legal documentations!  

It is apparent that the independence of South Sudan was a gift of NCP; a concession Khartoum made to maintain Islamic state. The option of excluding troublesome Southern Sudan from an Islamic state and its territories was a common topic of debate among Sudanese Islamists in the late 1970s and 1980s. After taking power in 1989, President Omar al-Bashir openly raised the possibility of‬southern secession; their argument was that only when southern Sudanese have separated would it be possible to establish a truly Arab Islamic state.

After the death of Dr. John Garang, the CPA was adulterated and implemented according to the wishes of Neo-Mahdist Sudan, and the course of black peoples in the Sudan was betrayed; the people of Abyei, Nuba Mountain and Blue Nile became collateral casualties. The Southerners who claimed to have voted 98.9% for secession did not understand the kind deception they were in! The vehemence of their emotions was largely based on ignorance and false hope. The outcome of referendum did not give South Sudanese freedom and dignity, it instead produced strange result: two countries, one system

As it is now South Sudan is clothed in shapes more suitable to the ideology of Mahdist Sudan, the government in juba is run by those that have strong socio-cultural link with Islamic North and NCP. Majority of civil servants working in government institutions came from the then corrupt Southern Sudan Coordination Council (SSCC), a Neo-Mahdist institution created during Sudan’s North-South wars.

The internecine fighting going on in South Sudan today can be attributed to Neo-Mahdist lack of ideas to manage diversity; the policy of exclusion, both politically and economically, forced many South Sudanese to seek solidarity within the social insurance system of tribal identities. It is the same Noe-Mahdist’s mentality of exclusion which is derailing the full implementation of R-ARCSS! The general neglect of public security provisions in peace agreement reflects this elite’s commitment to maintain the status-quo.

Our peoples should stop being mere onlookers and grasp the reality of the South Sudan crisis, it is the peoples who should be the sole creators of history in our young nation, and they are the ones entitled to set the pace of its movement. Our peoples must unite against tribalism and realize that their survival depends on the degree of harmony among themselves. tribal nationalists can never carry out a truly liberating revolution, because they are themselves unfree.

To get away from the tormenting path of Neo-Mahdism, we need a purposeful leadership that has a vision of how to place our local masses  at the centre of political projects without recourse to ethnicity.

The author is a concerned South Sudanese citizen. He can be reached for more information through email at mkdagoot@gmail.com


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