The Sudanese circle of violence: exploitation of cultural identities

Photo: Vít Hassan/Flickr  (CC BY-NC)

Photo: Vít Hassan/Flickr (CC BY-NC)

By Iona Mulder -

In 1983, a civil war started in the former Sudan. Two parties, the Northern government in the capital Khartoum and a Southern coalition called the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), fought each other to retain and gain more political authority and control over the natural resources of Sudan. The civil war was extremely violent, with a tremendous amount of civil suffering: an estimated two million civilians died and around four million people were displaced. In January 2005 – after twenty-two years of fighting- a peace agreement made an official end to the war. Included in the peace agreement was the possibility for the South to become independent on the basis of a referendum that would be held in July 2011. Unfortunately, the peace agreement did not end the violence in Sudan. The civil population remained target of plunder and killings. Furthermore, after the South of Sudan became independent in 2011, a new conflict started in this new nation.

How is this possible? Why do the people of Sudan, as well as in many other regions in the world, keep fighting with each other? Why does Sudan face such difficulties in bringing peace and stability? In my view, one of the most important insights to understand war, crimes against humanity, and genocide, is that the process that creates the social environment in which people can hurt and kill each other, starts with the creation of ‘the Other’. In other words, with the social exclusion of one group from a society. In this process, ‘the Other’ is defined as a dangerous enemy and is dehumanized, creating an atmosphere of ‘us’ against ‘them’. To understand this process of creating ‘the Other’ helps to grasp the origin and causes of a conflict.

The civil wars in Sudan and South-Sudan are often explained as conflicts between different cultural identities based on race, religion, ethnicity or region. On that account, the civil war in former Sudan was a clash between people with an African and/ or Christian identity living in the Southern region, Darfur, the Nile area, and the Nuba Mountains – the latter three also have a large Muslim population – on the one side, and the Northern regions, who consider themselves Arabic and Muslims, on the other side. For the civil war in the young nation of South-Sudan it is often believed to be a conflict between the Dinka and Nuer, the two main ethnic groups living there.

It is true that the conflicts took place between groups that are identified by themselves and others as mentioned above. However, the process of creating the atmosphere of ‘us’ against ‘the Other’ in general does not begin as rivalry between cultural identities, but between political – regional, national and international – elites. When a society is in a crisis situation- for example in the case of an underdeveloped state with a weak government as Sudan – political leaders use the patterns of existing cultural identities to create a so-called in-group. They do this to develop a support platform for their power and to generate material gain. To strengthen the in-group, they classify an out-group and define them as the enemy that endangers the in-group. This out-group can be appointed from outside the society, but also from within.  The idea/myth is created that by defeating or annihilating this out-group, the problems of the in-group will be solved. The prospect of a better future will generate support for the political elites. Their tactics to create this division is to facilitate and allow the humiliation, suppression, plundering and killing of the outsiders for the benefits of the insiders.

The motivation of individuals or communities to become part of an in-group are therefore based on opportunism and/or fear. On the one hand, people might be driven by fear to be appointed in their society as ‘the Other’. On the other hand, they can be scared to become a victim of an out-group;  hence the need for protection. The book What is the What of Dave Eggers provides a clear analysis of this process in the situation in Sudan. The book is an autobiographic story of Sudanese Valentino Achak Deng. As a boy he fled from his village and found himself wandering through Sudan with a large group of other minors in search of a safe-heaven. In the following part, one of the elder boys in the group, named Dut, explains the political situation in which the villages of Valentino was raided:

“So General Dahab used a strategy familiar to many governments before this: he armed others to do the work of the army. In this case, he provided tens of thousands of Arab men, the Baggara among them, with automatic weapons. – Why didn’t the government have to pay these men? I asked. – Well, that’s a good question. The Baggara had long fought with the Dinka over grazing pastures and other matters. You probably know this. For many years there has been relative peace between the southern tribes and the Arab tribes, but it was General Dahab’s idea to break this peace, to inspire hatred in the Baggara. When they gave them these weapons, the Baggara knew they had great advantage over the Dinka. This upset the balance we’ve lived with for many years. But how would the government pay all these men. It was simple. They told the horsemen that in exchange for their service, they were authorized to plunder all they want along the way. General Dahd told them to visit upon any Dinka village along the rail lines, and to take what wished – livestock, food, anything from the markets, and even people.”

The fighting in Sudan continues for the reason that political elites on all levels of society exploit the Sudanese cultural diversity for their own goals, not because these cultural identities are unable to live respectfully side by side. Only if a government will be able to gain enough power to create a monopoly of violence and at the same time will respect the cultural diversity of Sudan, the possibility will rise to truly end the violence in Sudan. This is probably not a prospect for the near future, as many – national as well as international – people in power want their share of Sudanese natural resources. Until then the Sudanese people – North and South -have to live in the complex web of hostile cultural identities, that are defined by opportunism and fear. That is what is happing now in Sudan.

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Iona Mulder

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