The Two Sudans

During the Cold War, Khartoum was very successful at frustrating solidarity by other Africans for South Sudan's independence struggle.

Malakal, South Sudan, 2016. Image credit JC McIlwaine for UN Photo via Flickr CC.

Sebabatso Manoeli’s recent book, Sudan’s “Southern Problem:” Race Rhetoric and International Relations, 1961-1991, arrives nearly 10 years after the partition of South Sudan from Sudan. In the context of Sudan, it comes alongside a major historical shift that has resuscitated the question of Sudan’s “Africanness.” For South Sudan, this text accompanies important conflict resolutions that may represent the final chapter of prolonged armed conflict. Drawing attention to the three decades after Sudan’s independence from Britain in 1956—both the internal ideological debates as well as the knowledge production that emerged to house them (booklets, quarterly journals, international conferences, etc)—highlights the particularities of Sudan’s insufficiently post-colonial political landscape in which the Arab/African dyad reconfigured and sustained the binaries of colonialism without the presence of a European settler population.

Manoeli’s text is an extremely valuable contribution to our understanding of South Sudanese intellectual and political history. She takes a microscope to the vast array of thinkers in the now two Sudans who have thought through Sudan’s “Southern Problem,” i.e., the question of secession, racial difference within an African context, and the extent to which decolonial borders are effective vehicles for political community after the formal end of British colonialism. She offers a genealogical interpretation of the international war of position waged between the Sudanese state and its rebels in the south. With apartheid South Africa as the author’s own analytical backdrop and a crucial element in the southern rebels’ “repertoire of analogies,” Manoeli depicts a struggle between two interest networks as each competes to defeat the outlook of the other and institutionalize their own racial-cartographic imagination of Sudan as common sense.

Central to the battle for ideological hegemony between the Sudanese state and the southern rebels was the question of racial difference as it emerged at the juncture of “Arabness,” “Africanness,” and the compatibility of Pan-Africanism with Pan-Arabism. Manoeli tells us that the exemplar of the southern separatist rhetoric was the Sudan African National Union (SANU), a political party organized by southern Sudanese in-exile, headquartered in present-day Kinshasa. While she reminds us that multiple other mobilizations emerged particularly in the aftermath of SANU’s dissolution in 1965, it was SANU’s interpretation of the “southern problem,” as a practically Manichean battle over identity and geography, that maintained discursive ascendancy. On the side of the government, Manoeli traces the evolution of the state’s rhetoric. What began as a reliance on the legacy of British administrative policy as the root cause of Sudan’s racial-geographic identity crisis, transformed into a complex strategy exemplified in the 1969 international conference in Khartoum. Through hosting the African continent’s leading liberation movements (SWAPO, ANC, FRELIMO, ZANU), the Sudanese state “firmly associated itself with the Pan-Africanist audiences that SANU sought to influence.” For Manoeli, this was a strategic re-direction of international spotlight away from the state’s own behavior, onto its material support for, and ideological alignment with, Pan-African and Pan-Arab networks.

As the struggle for what Manoel calls “diplomatic capital” between the government and the rebels continued through the Cold War, the ascendance of international socialism served to prioritize class struggle and anti-imperialism over the reconciliation of contested racial divides. The SPLM/A used this transformation strategically, Manoeli argues, to position itself as the true standard bearer of the socialist vision for liberation. Their position at the margins positioned them better than the compromised Khartoum elites leading the Sudanese government. The “southern problem” became representative of a broader question of unequally distributed resources that could include all of Sudan’s marginalized communities (Darfur is one example), rather than solely the south. This shift allowed the SPLM to hold onto the “southern rebel narrative of dispossession but apply it to a broader, heterogenous periphery and a deracialised core.” Its anti-colonial and anti-capitalist vision of nationalism, as expressed in the SPLM’s Manifesto from the early 1980s, rendered the movement legible to the audiences of African liberation movements that had been sympathetic with the Sudanese government in the decades immediately after independence from Britain. By tracing this oscillation between race and class in the resistant discourse generated in the south, Manoeli provides the opportunity to think through them dialectically through a genealogy of southern Sudanese political thought.

This text provides a window into the nature of public debate in Sudan regarding the evolving shape of the “southern problem.” Manoeli opens up a number of areas of inquiry that call for their own space of reflection, namely: race, gender, global solidarity, and the question of who shapes agenda/s of southern Sudanese political action. While the leadership of SANU did not offer their own conception of race, how might we begin to explore processes of racialization in contexts where race links to religion, language, and geography while destabilizing visible somatic difference and understandings of kinship and heritage? Despite the lack of women’s voices in this text, what questions can we ask of the anti-colonial masculine imaginary and how the struggle for international legitimacy upholds the patriarchal form of the nation-state? In light of the cynical position of left-critical anti-imperial politics vis-a-vis African secession movements, what are the stakes for building solidarity with and taking seriously the intellectual history of such mobilizations? As we think through how different individuals and groups claimed to represent the political agenda of southern Sudan, does this represent a custodial approach to a politics of uplifting silent masses or is, for example, establishing support with international African liberation movements a form of constituency building?

There are clear resonances between Manoeli’s text and Elleni Zeleke’s recent (2019) book, Ethiopia in Theory: Revolution and Knowledge Production, 1964-2016. Both are committed to tracing a genealogy of African knowledge production that compels readers to grapple with the historical dynamics between political action and the concepts that undergird that action. Not dissimilar from Ethiopia, South Sudan’s intellectual contributions to political thought in post-colonial Africa, as well as their place in the broad international theater of the Cold War, are often under-theorized by the more well-known intellectual histories of West and Southern Africa. Manoeli’s deep engagement with the competing narratives of the Sudanese government and its southern rebels during its civil wars provides a generative platform from which to imagine the future of the now two Sudans.

Further Reading

‘The media and war-mongering’

Journalist Maggie Fick is covering South Sudan’s self-determination referendum for the AP. She’s only one of hundreds of other reporters who have set up camp, for what The New York Times correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman described …