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  • Conflict and Politics of Identity in Sudan
  • Harvey Glickman
Idris, Amir H . 2005. Conflict and Politics of Identity in Sudan. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 141 pp. $59.95 (cloth)

The centrality of the clash of identities to the analysis of the problems of Sudan has been cited since the 1970s, notably in pioneering research by Dunstan Wai (1973, 1981) and Francis Deng (1973, 1995). Idris builds on this work, and adds broader analytical commentary of his own. An informed reader may agree with his analysis, but a gap remains between solutions and strategies for implementation that eschew group compromise and conciliation and instead opt for the installation of a territorial civic consciousness and a national citizenship.

There are multiple overlapping clan and community identities, but the author, now a professor at Fordham University in New York, sees the source of continuing conflict as the attempt by a racialized state to impose its ideology on a diverse society: "an ideology of hierarchy, which assigned a subordinate status for the people of the southern Sudan was historically constructed and politically institutionalized" (p. 4). He sees little difference in civilian and military regimes in Sudan, and he sees Mahdism, which created the Islamic state in Sudan in the 19th century, as having rigidified Arab slaving of the south and west, and indeed serving as the precursor of the Islamized state of today, one that continues the political imposition of racial identities. The civil war in Southern Sudan dramatized a supposed African-Arab split in the country, but Idris rues the regional autonomy inherent in the federalism that putative solutions have fostered. These solutions contribute to variations in constitutional democracy, but he believes that concentration on institutions contributing to democracy is at worst wrongheaded, or at best premature. Instead, he directs our attention to the unresolved crisis in the postcolonial state—a crisis that has misleadingly been analyzed via race and ethnicity, rather than through the unresolved master issue of civic citizenship.

Idris arranges his discussion to cover related and overlapping topics in chapters dealing with state formation via unresolved colonial issues. These topics include administrative leadership, the treatment of the south, the growth of nationalism via imposed arabized identity, and the identity crisis in the conflicts in Darfur and between north and south. A chapter is [End Page 127] inserted on exile politics. In Cairo in 1996–1997, Idris conducted research among southern Sudanese exiles, from whom he discovered that a "national" identity becomes more paramount in exile: tribal identities break down when faced with Egyptian attitudes similar to the Sudanese arabized elite—and indeed, Christianity assumes more importance as southern Sudanese exiles try to distinguish themselves from other African refugees and from the northern Sudanese. (Idris draws on the analysis of refugee life among the Palestinians by Edward Said [1993], pp. 62–63.) A preliminary conclusion is that a single southern Sudanese identity is misconceived; ethnic categories undergo change over time. Thus, there is a chance that regional federalism and separation may not be the final answer in Sudan: there is a chance for a new civic and national identity.

There is nevertheless something of a problem in defining the source of all basic difficulties as structural. First, it appears as precolonial slavery, a heritage barely addressed in the colonial state: "neither those who are included nor those who are excluded from the realm of democratic citizenship in the post-colonial state are ready to acknowledge the legacy of slavery in the contemporary discussion on political conflict and the disintegration of the post-colonial state in the Sudan" (p. 5). This discussion is followed by the discourse of the colonial regime, which essentially ignored subjugated peoples, especially those outside the riverine elite, based in Khartoum. This is carried forward by the successor independence regime, which made of race and ethnicity political categories. Idris follows Mahmood Mamdani (1996) there, noting that the regime imposed an ideology of hierarchy, which it institutionalized: "neither culture nor race is at the heart of the current conflict, rather it is the racialized state that transformed these cultural identities into political ones through the practice of slavery in the precolonial period, and state sponsored Islamization and...


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pp. 127-129
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