The Multiple Faces
of the Sudan

by Pinyoun

To understand the Sudan,* we must review its many faces. To do otherwise is to oversimplify – a typical response to Sudan and, for that matter, all of Africa.

Sudan’s current government in Khartoum considers itself Arab, Islamic, northern. The origins of these faces go way back. Under Turko-Egyptian rule (1821-1883) northern slave traders traveled deep into southern Sudan to capture indigenous Africans.

In 1898 Britain became the second occupier. It tried to eliminate slave trade (but was oppressive in other ways). Colonial control was pervasive. It partitioned off the South and took 49 years to share governance with northern Sudan. In 1947, after ruling Sudan as two countries for almost 50 years, the British abruptly withdrew. They provided no safeguards for the South, turning it over to the North.

Some think of the North as one cultural entity, but the North is diverse. There are a number of non-Arab African Muslim groups. Although marginalized in terms of power, they have recently been aroused and encouraged by the liberation ovement in the South.


1. To save the people of Darfur, humanitarian inter-vention involving aid and peacekeeping forces is needed. Such intervention must be done sensitively and in partnership with the UN and the African Union to respect the difficult history Sudan has experienced with colonial intervention and border incursions .
2. The US government should: a. urge its western allies to curtail the sale of armaments;b. show as much concern for the non-Arab Muslim Africans in Darfur as it has for the non-Arab Christians in South-ern Sudan;c. refrain from posing this political conflict as simply a Christian vs. Muslim struggle.
3. To explore how to support the local Sudanese re-fugee community, call Petero Afet, of the Sudanese Community Association of Central New York, 426-1044.

In the South there are indigenous Africans and these include English-speaking Christians. The southern tribes were semi-independent from the North during British rule, but since 1947 most of the tribes have fought for self-determination. Although they are unified around seeking liberation, there are diverse and sometimes conflicting forces in this southern coalition.

The tribes have coalesced under the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and its military wing, The Sudan People’s Liberation Army. For the past 20 years the SPLM/SPLA has fought the North politically and militarily. Its leaders have been the core negotiators for the South.

In meetings in Nairobi, the Khartoum government and the SPLM/SPLA have signed a preliminary peace treaty that provides for a six-year waiting period followed by a referendum to allow southerners to decide whether to be part of a united Sudan or to attain self-rule. The negotiations also provide for merging the northern military and the rebel fighters, sharing oil revenues, and sharing political offices.

The face of the Darfur region in Western Sudan has emerged recently and tragically. This profile is non-Arab/African Muslims distant from Khartoum, poor, but encouraged by the political gains of the southern tribes. Now they want some form of self-determination. It is the people of Darfur who are dying by the thousands and receiving the belated attention of human rights groups and governments around the world.

This brief review reveals a minority, but militarily powerful, Arab/Muslim government — a government surrounded by marginalized northern African/Muslims and southern African indigenous and Christian peoples, who together compose a majority.

Just off this public political stage loom powerful, shadowy, self-serving non-Sudanese faces. These include the Muslim fundamentalists in northern Africa and beyond who support the Khartoum government. They also include the foreign companies in the South from Canada, France and Russia. These provide armaments to the Khartoum government so as to control the South’s oil.

The US has waded into the fray, having long ago drawn a “line of resistance” just north of southern Sudan to counter the so-called Muslim wave from the North. Plus, the Bush administration is responding to the US conservative Christian movement with deep missionary roots in southern Sudan.

And in the near future there will be yet another face to consider: the growing Sudanese diaspora mostly in the US, Canada and Australia. Here in Syracuse there are almost 300 Sudanese (the “lost boys” and their families) who are very connected to the people and political organizations of southern Sudan. They have a vision for their homeland and are sending money home.

The “lost boys” are working in Syracuse and educating themselves for careers that will help their people. They love the US and see themselves as people of two countries. They will not be distracted from their final goal: a free and self-determining southern Sudan, and if possible, a free and self-determining total Sudan.

Bless these Sudanese people on their journey!

Pinyoun is a friend of the local Sudanese community.

* A key source is Francis Deng. See, for example, his War of Visions: Conflict of Identities in the Sudan (Brookings, 1995). Deng is the foremost Dinka scholar and special envoy to internally displaced peoples for Koffi Annan, UN.