Sora - a female name from South Sudan, meaning revolution.
SORA - a revolution in global awareness. A revolution of knowledge

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Using Sudan as a case study, did the state fail in the Third World? If so, why? By Sam Rodgers
An exploration of the debate of why the conflict in Sudan continues and what post-colonial theory has to add.

Imposed borders bring imposing problems. The idea of statehood is, in much of the Third World, inextricably linked with a history of colonial rule and, in turn, a complex web of contentious reasons for the state’s success or failure. This essay firstly describes Sudan’s ongoing struggle with the status of statehood, then explores the language of state failure, and finally, lists and critiques the reasons why the Sudanese state has, as the essay discovers, failed only in part. A deconstruction of “failure” is as important to this essay as the substantive discussion not least because of the ambiguous meaning it carries in discussion of post-colonial states. For Sudan, there are innumerable reasons for the partial failure of the state, many of which relate to the plethora of possible nations within the Republic of Sudan as it is today. Reno proposes the idea of a ‘nation without a state’ as a necessary prerequisite for determining the failure or otherwise of a state. Prima facie, this idea of internal separation seems to apply to Sudan. It seems most appropriate that Sudan be referred to as what one might call a Siamese twin state: one state with two (or perhaps more) functioning bodies without present means of separating them effectively. However, decolonisation and the imposition of foreign values and systems on the Sudanese people is not the exclusive reason for its ongoing civil war. The essay contends that an intermeshed conglomeration of reasons lies behind the partial failure of the Republic of Sudan to date. In the words of the eminent scholar, Douglas Johnson ‘no one single factor can account for the profound divide… of the Sudan’. In short, therefore, the state did (and continues to) fail, in part, in the Sudan. The reasons for this failure are numerous and complex. Moreover, a simple post-colonial analysis, like the religious depiction most often used for Sudan, is overly simplistic.

Sudan has been colonised by the Turks, the Egyptians and the British successively. Historical treatise concur that the colonial rule, as sporadic and unorthodox as it was, preceded along similar lines to the “glory, god and gold” formulation adopted elsewhere in Africa. Since but also before Sudan’s independence in 1956 there have been “conflicts [which] embrace peace rarely, often temporarily as opposing sides reconcile and rescind with depressing regularity.” Over time and since formal decolonisation, the conflict in Sudan has become increasingly fractured. Where, in the immediate post-colonial period, it was most accurately characterised as a North-South conflict, it is now fought on many fronts, including the factional and intertribal tensions that exist within the North and the South themselves. It is no coincidence that the predominating lines of conflict today accord with the colonial lines imposed by the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium. When the Republic of Sudan was created, it was united despite the vast social and cultural differences between the Northern and Southern communities and their sub-groups. As far back as 1947, there was doubt about the union that ensued and caused the birth of this Siamese twin state. Interestingly, these early reservations were not directed against the idea of union itself but against the pace at which it occurred. The most senior Southern chief of the time argued that, “a hurried union would result in a violent divorce”. Modern Sudanese history has proven him partly right. The violence has been persistent but the divorce has been an illusive “solution”. Indicative is the growth of the Sudanese Diaspora which has been widespread. Today, as warring parties re-engage, there is discussion about a referendum (scheduled for 2010) in which the people of Sudan will vote to decide on either a Nigerian-style federation or the final separation of “New Sudan” as a distinct state. Reno cites South Sudan as a key example of “the inevitable birth of new states in Africa”. If secession eventuated, it would be hard to argue that the Republic of Sudan had succeeded. However, the enquiry here is whether the state has failed in Sudan, as it is at present and as it would stay in the likely outcome of the birth of a federated state. Thus, Sudan’s colourful colonial history demonstrates as clearly as many others how and why a state may fail in the Third World.

Defining a failed state is contentious: failure is infinite in description. Failure means the underachievement of goals or expectations. The natural corollary question is, therefore, what is achievement in statehood? What of those regions like Somaliland who bear all the hallmarks of a “successful state” without being a nation at all? Like Cabinda and Angola it seems, a culture of antagonistic dependence has developed in Sudan. The North relies upon the South for its natural resources, the South on the North for agreements to realise the wealth in oil and water. Gross calls this “South-South colonialism”. Johnson describes the phenomenon as “internal colonialism”. Either way, it is hard to reconcile the idea of a failed (and therefore divided state) against a backdrop of such inter-dependence. The inter-dependence between North and South tends towards the conclusion that the state has not failed in Sudan. Even though, antagonism suggests failure, dependence accords with success.

Failure is not necessarily an absolute term. Its etymology indicates that the term is subjective. Thus, while a Third World nation may not receive all the benefits that are supposed to be attached to statehood, the concept may not have “failed” them. Kigaya, says just this of Sudan. “Sudan has not achieved the unity or stability of Western States, but it has not failed.” Moreover, to the extent that statehood is supposed, under international law, to imply equal membership in the sphere of international diplomacy, the statehood concept has been a success in Sudan simply because it does retain international personality. Paradoxically, the geographic regions that are engulfed in states are the ones most failed by the concept simply because they are excluded from it. These nations, like “New Sudan”, are not states at all. Here perhaps is the failure since non-states (Reno’s “nations”) are the ones who fail to attain the rights attached to statehood even though they deserve to utilise them more than the formalised state that engulfs them.

Gross argues that a state has failed when “its central government cannot claim effective control over its nationals”. Reno equates failure with human rights violations. Indeed, the existence of civil war, although a determinant of a previously “collapsed state”, is not necessarily a marker of a failed existing state. With the Sudanese situation, as in the United States before it, internal conflict is not an absolute determinant of the failure of the State. On balance, Sudan’s civil war is not assisting its unity as a state although nor is it causing the absolute failure of the statehood concept. The state of Sudan is not a success but nor is it a complete failure. Assuming, as one must, that partial failure is in the consideration of the topic of this essay, one must next assess the reasons for its failure.

Thus, on the conclusion that the state of Sudan has partially failed, it is necessary to examine the reasons for this failure. As previously stated, the reasons are infinite in number and complexity. With this in mind, an examination of the key reasons follows. Most especially, the essay finds that commentators cite with greatest regularity that religious difference, identification with different subject positions and representations, foreign intervention in neo-colonial forms and a concoction of self-perpetuating misgivings all result in the partial failure described above.

Until recently, writings on Sudan have focussed upon the ‘North and South, Muslim and Christian, ‘Arab’ and ‘African’” dichotomisation of the ongoing civil war. Johnson describes the oversimplification of Sudan’s demise as ‘an atavistic return to the Heart of Darkness style of explanation’. In this respect, Conrad can be taken to task for his comment in that very text that “the meaning of an episode is not inside like a kernel but outside enveloping a tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze.” For Sudan, superficiality is not accurately reflective: the kernel holds the truth. As evidence Johnson argues that the length of the civil war ‘is testimony to the intractability of the underlying causes of the conflict’: the chances of the war being caused by such simple juxtaposition were necessarily slim. To borrow Conrad’s words again, the textured reasoning now favoured to explore the failure of the Sudanese state is ‘at least a choice of nightmares’.

Religion is the most oft-cited reason for the failure of the Sudanese state. Johnson goes so far as to say that ‘a religious divide was imposed on the country which was not, in inspiration or intention, religious.’ In his view, the Christian–Muslim interpretation of the conflict in Sudan is a manifestation of the external interests affecting the perception and perpetuation of rivalry within Sudan. This unorthodox view claims that foreign interests use religious tension to further economic ambitions and to substantiate religious propaganda. In fact, John Gerang himself, the would-be advocate of a Christian state has repeatedly ‘articulated his vision of a united, democratic and secular Sudan’. Thus, although the religious divide between the major warring parties is the first port-of-call for most commentators on Sudan, it is, in fact no longer a key ingredient in the fundamental divisions that have caused the partial failure of Sudan.

A singular focus on identities, like that on religion, can mask the nuances of the failure of statehood in Sudan. Within Sudan’s borders there are at least two peoples who identify with, fight for and believe in the independent existence of a distinct national identity. However, these identities do not accord with the national identity. Regardless, the personal affiliations of individuals and groups of people in both the North and South are an ongoing source of motivation for the continuation of the armed struggles. As is human nature generally, when pride and self-respect are challenged, the desire to respond is difficult to resist. In the case of Sudan, the rhetoric on all sides of the conflict plays directly into this weakness. Johnson warns against overemphasising this as a factor in the Sudan conflict. In comments about the current US envoy to Sudan, John Danforth he notes that “like so many Americans he sees the Sudan’s politics in terms of America’s own preoccupation with identity politics and minority rights’. He argues that the West uses identity politics to obscure the fact that the conflict is as much about the basic human needs for security, food and pride in self as it is about the “sexier” issues of identity, nationalism and post-colonial statehood. Thus while the role of identity politics cannot be underestimated, like religion, it is only a part of the undercurrent in the Sudanese conflict.

None of Sudan’s colonisers influenced Sudan’s fluctuating affinity with statehood enough to claim causative agency for the ongoing civil war. Even so the assumption that colonial rule was the sole “root cause” of state failure in Sudan remains the default response of many international commentators. This commentary goes that, because the colonial powers drew false boundaries to serve their own political and strategic objectives, the state obtains an “illusion of a united homogenous country”. In part, this is true. Makec, among others, notes those judicial decisions where Anglicised values were imposed upon indigenous and customary legal relationships without regard to the Sudanese-ness of the case. Similarly, Lesch notes that the Southern secessionist approach contends that the ‘initial formation of the country was illegitimate and coerced.’ Britain is widely criticised for leaving Sudan before it had completely dismembered the ‘institutionalisation of inequalities’ in the Sudan. This, among other examples has drawn Reno to query whether, in contrast to the subsequent success of many states in Latin America, ‘there was too little colonisation in Africa or too much?’ Regrettably, further discussion of this inquiry is beyond the scope of this essay. However, ‘the origins of Sudan’s current problems predate the unequal legacy of the colonial system’. Thus, one of the reasons for the partial failure of the state of Sudan are the colonial impositions. Although, these in concert with other causes resulted in Sudan’s failure as a state.

The discovery of oil in the South is now widely viewed as a reason for the continuing war. This discovery did, of course, bring about the introduction in earnest of “resource colonialism”. Like Cabinda, the United States-based Chevron Oil Company initially exploited South Sudan. Johnson also cites the ‘interests of foreign government and investors in the Sudan’s natural and mineral resources’ as a reason for its failure to attain lasting peace. Notable amongst the agitating states are the United States, Israel and Egypt. While resource colonialism is regarded as a reason for a state to fail, eminent Africanist, Duffield, has suggested that ‘peace [which may only result from secession of the South] will probably accelerate the commercial exploitation of the South by the North.’ Thus, it remains unclear if Sudan’s statehood is a casualty of the rise of foreign interest in its resources or whether these foreign interests operate outside the statehood debate.

In addition to resource colonialism, Sudan has also been the subject of, if you will, “blackmail colonialism”. Since the late nineties, Sudan has been repeatedly threatened by America that without its unconditional assistance in the “War on Terror”, Sudan will be excluded from future offers of financial aid, the golden carrot. Indeed it could be argued that, in 1998 and under the Clinton Administration, Sudan was the first ‘reel’ victims of this war. The imperialist practices of the United States that run behind so much of the “War of Terror” rhetoric was most clearly directed at Sudan in late 1997 when a State Department official stated that ‘our basic policy is to try to isolate Sudan and contain the threat to neighbouring states.’ It seems likely that the continuing intervention of outsiders on the internal affairs, as fractured as they are, is a pivotal cause of the perpetuation of conflict in Sudan.

What one might term the “memory of the departed” is also a motivating force in Sudan’s conflict. This motivation is embodied in the underlying idea ‘that there is an implied historical obligation to act in hate [such that] what ensues is a self perpetuating reciprocity’. This occurs on two levels. Firstly, for those still in Sudan, there is a desire to promote the ideals for which their friends and family have fought and died for or fought for and left in exasperation or desperation. Secondly, there are those who are no longer in Sudan who return funds to the organizations who used to enjoy their support in person. These donations from the Diaspora are dedicated to the furtherance of the war as it was when the person left Sudan and withdrew their direct involvement in the conflict. The state of Sudan’s partial failure is therefore attributable to the immutable memory of the war in memoriam of “the departed”.

Sudan brings its own set of complexities that challenge the notions that are the template of the statehood concept. As elsewhere, those who insist on Sudan’s success as a nation state are those who dominate it. ‘Religion, local perceptions of race and social status, economic exploitation and colonial and post-colonial interventions are all elements in the Sudan’s current civil war, but none, by itself, fully explains it.’ As Gerang himself has noted, ‘any struggle [presumably including his own] must be anchored in history’. Identifying the factors that have brought about the failure in Sudan’s history therefore serve to explain why the state has failed. The case study of Sudan and the grotesque number of casualties of its partial failure as a state give credence to the argument that not only did the state fail in the Third World: it failed the Third World. That is the tragedy of ‘the other’; the subtext of post-colonial struggle.


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Collins English Dictionary (3rd ed., 1992), England

Conrad, J., Heart of Darkness, Oxford University Press, (1983) Great Britain

Graff, Henry F. America; The glorious republic. Houghton Press, (1985) Boston

Gross, D., ‘State Collapse and the “New Colonialism’ presented at “Africa on a Global Stage”, African Studies Association of Australasia and the Pacific Annual Conference 2003, Flinders University (Adelaide, South Australia, 1 October 2003)

Harjay, T., ‘Festina Lente: Slavery Policy and Practice in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan’ in Miers, S., and Klein, M., (eds) Slavery and Colonial Rule in Africa, Frank Cass (1999), London

Harris, D. J., Cases and Materials on International Law, (5th ed., 1998), London

Johnson, D., The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil War, The International African Institute (2003), Great Britain

Lesch, A. & Wondu, S., Battle for Peace in Sudan, University Press of America (2000), Maryland

Lesch, A., The Sudan: Contested national identities, James Curry Ltd (1998), Oxford

Reno, Assoc. Prof. W., ‘African Resistance, Colonialism and Contemporary Intervention’ presented at “Africa on a Global Stage”, African Studies Association of Australasia and the Pacific Annual Conference 2003, Flinders University (Adelaide, South Australia, 1 October 2003)

Roberts, M., ‘Haunted: The Historical Possession of the Democratic Republic of Congo’ presented at “Africa on a Global Stage”, African Studies Association of Australasia and the Pacific Annual Conference 2003, Flinders University (Adelaide, South Australia, 1 October 2003)

Ware, Prof. H., ‘Poverty and Development’ presented at “Africa on a Global Stage”, African Studies Association of Australasia and the Pacific Annual Conference 2003, Flinders University (Adelaide, South Australia, 2 October 2003)

Weber, C., “IR: The Resurrection or New Frontiers of Incorporation”, European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 5(4)

Wells, J., ‘Cabinda and Somaliland – A Comparative Study of Statehood and Independence’ presented at “Africa on a Global Stage”, African Studies Association of Australasia and the Pacific Annual Conference 2003, Flinders University (Adelaide, South Australia, 1 October 2003)

Wuol Makec, J., The Customary Law of the People of the Dinka People of Sudan, Afroworld Publishing, (1988), London

Interview with anonymous, Sudanese Refugee from South Sudan, Embassy Hotel, (Adelaide, 30 September 2003)

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