Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim, PhD (1987) is an emeritus professor at the Department of History, University of Missouri in the United States. He teaches courses on African history and Islam. Professor Ibrahim’s works span the fields of history, anthropology, literature and politics. He is the author of several books in English and Arabic, among them Manichean Delirium: Decolonising the Judiciary and Islamic Revival in Sudan, 1898-1985 and Assaulting with Words: Popular Discourse and the Bridle of Shari’a (Islam). He contributes regular articles to al Ray al-‘Am, and writes a daily column for al Ahdath.
Magdi El Gizouli: In a few months from now Sudan faces a referendum on self-determination of the South. What does this development signify more than 50 years after independence?
Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim: I think there is no contradiction. We are really on the right track of independence. The referendum is not an interception of the path of independence; it is a hard won freedom to renegotiate the colonial state, a state wielded by sheer power and colonial design. Within the colonial state various peoples of different languages, cultures and religions found themselves in the prison of the colonial state. It is necessary to stop thinking of the referendum as a sign of fatigue or a sign of failure. It should be perceived as an exercise at unexplored freedom. If viewed as such it stops being a cause if confusion and helplessness, a cause to freak out. We have no reason to freak out.
Magdi El Gizouli: Well, the prevailing consensus is that secession of Southern Sudan is inevitable.
Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim: This perception is the end-product of freaking out. It is imperative to analyse, explore and understand what makes secession a must, what interests and visions underlie the call for secession. Secession is currently inevitable because the people who monopolise the discourse on national interests in the country made it so. People like you and me are surprised why the SPLM wavers on the issue of unity. The SPLM invested considerable energy over a long history of its struggle in unity. However, when everything seems to be in place for unity they start dragging their feet. In my understanding this is a consequence of the failure of governance in the South. The political elite in power does not know what to do, they are simply unprepared. What I see in the situation is a failure of governance in the South coupled with a careless regime in the North. Both, SPLM and NCP, seem to have struck a very bad alliance. The SPLM is trapped into this. This is why you and I are surprised. Paradoxically the SPLM is asking the NCP to enhance the chances of unity, a notion that is pure humbug. It simply cannot be. The NCP is hardly a party that cares for a unity of equals. It is a Unitarian block on condition that its terms are supreme. The two are just strange bedfellows.
Magdi El Gizouli: What alternatives does the SPLM have in this deadlock?
Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim: The alternative for the SPLM is being principled. They should advocate for unity, unconditionally. Only the SPLM will see the potential for unity, foremost having a Southern region with a sense of purpose, namely, crowning their relentless struggle for a citizenship and ending it on a positive note.
Magdi El Gizouli: Regarding the fate of Southern Sudan, several historians, including Robert Collins and Martin Daly, suggest that the British lacked consistent strategy towards Southern Sudan, to the point that had the Southern delegates to the Juba Conference of 1947 refused to join the North the British would have been dumbfounded. Accordingly, is the path we are on a consequence of colonial neglect or colonial design?
Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim: Probably Martin W. Daly in ‘Imperial Sudan’ said it best. Southern policy was about what the British did not want the South to get into, instead of what they envisioned for it. They knew one thing: they did not want the South to build bridges with the North. That policy was not just neglect; neglect was a consequence. The British acted on the notion that the South could not handle engaging with the North. In fact, neglect of the South started after issue of the Closed Districts Ordinance. They British only started to get interested in the South after the South started building bridges with the North in the context of the nationalist movement in the post-war period.
I was reading lately how Southern clerks were allowed to sit for the Civil Service Examination only in 1948, after the Juba Conference. Southern clerks were inspired, also provoked, by the nationalist movement in the North to demand equal pay for equal work.
You are right; the British were confused regarding the South. They brought the South to a united Sudan to argue their case when negotiating with the co-domino: Egypt.
Magdi El Gizouli: In your writings you develop an alternative history of liberation grounded in the initiatives of the early labour movement. How do you read the fate of this narrative in the current juncture of Sudan’s history?
Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim: I would like North and South to know about this history. My proposition is simply that Sudan did not have a singular nationalism (a capital-letterd Nationalism) but several nationalisms, or national movements. There was the national movement of the Gordon College graduates, and also a working class national movement, a Southern national movement, and a women national movement. I make these distinctions in order to challenge those who will take a quotation from Muhammad Ahamd Mahjub, for example, and make it sound as representative of “northern” nationalism. In doing so, they ignore taking notice of other streams of the northern nationalist movement. For instance, in the 1953 parliament Hasan al Tahir Zaroug representing the progressive nationalist movement protested during a discussion of draft constitution that wages in the South and wages given to women were unfair although the constitution called for the equality of citizens. In response, Babiker Awadalla, a Gordon graduate and the Chairman of Parliament, interrupted him by saying what did this have to do with the Constitution. Here you see two distinct visions of the future Sudan. The working class vision as represented by Hasan al Tahir Zaroug was evidently ahead of the Graduates’ version.
Magdi El Gizouli: A common denominator of conflicts in Sudan’s peripheries is the claim of citizenship versus the claim of autochthony expressed in ethnic terms, for instance the Baggara-Nuba divide in the Nuba Mountains, and the ‘Arab’-‘Zurga’ collision in Darfur. How do you foresee the unfolding of these opposed claims in the future of the Sudan(s)?
Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim: Frankly, we are at a loss, we are really lost! We are the worst enemies of ourselves. I grew up in a different expectation of racial brotherhood. I knew as a kid in Atbara that a trade union does not discriminate in terms of membership. We carried this education far into the Nuba Mountains in the great experiment of its Farmers’ Union of the 1950s as ably depicted By Dr. al-Batthani. Dr. Mustaf al-Sayyid, a neighbour in Atbara, took this racial tolerance and activism with him as a doctor to Maridi in the South in 1954. Read his book “Mashawir al-Haya “(Walks of Life), his memoirs doing contentious politics in the South. This return to the primordial shells of race and ethnicity is a cultural betrayal. It is the politics of small-mindedness fitting soulless elites. The dilemma we are facing is the fault of the elites who went bananas on the ethnic rollercoaster. Let us not ever give up on the lesson of Atbara. We sure need it when the dust of bad politics settles.
Magdi El Gizouli: Talking of the elites, you have studied the attempts at modernisation of Shari’a in Sudan. With reference to the Islamist Movement, how does the ruling faction of the Islamists relate to Shari’a today, and what role does it play in its discourse?
Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim: The role of Shari’a in today’s Sudan is like the role Marxism plays in contemporary China. Islamism and Marxism serve the two countries’ drive of nationalism and modernization. With the exception of fanatic circles, the discourse of Shari’a today serves solely as a cohesive force in the drive for modernisation. Take the last elections, for instance, where the Shari’a implementation was preached to the choir. It was an election with no ideology whatsoever. I suggest we need to look at the Islamic project as a project of modernization, where Shari’a was a rallying call, employed in a disciplinary rather than a religious sense.
Magdi El Gizouli: You argue for the relevance and utility of the Marxist discourse, how do you interpret the category ‘class’ in contemporary Sudan?
Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim: It is getting very problematic. We are witnessing a de-proletarisation of the traditional sectors of the working class, the railways and mechanical transport department of the colonial era. On the other hand other habitats of the working class are emerging but have not been checked out by radical labour organizers. I never hear about GIAD industrial complex in Marxist circles. The only thing I heard about it once is that it is fake. Remarkably, women constitute 70% or so of the working class today, that is why there is no third shift in the factories. I think my good old fellows in the Communist Party gave up on the working class. It is their loss.
Regarding the capitalist class, the Communist Party has been telling us persistently for the past 20 years that we are facing a parasitic class. No concrete socio-economic analysis is provided though. For example, why does a class insist on being parasitic for over 40 years? I guess the ijtihad door on class has been closed. I feel the signs of class consciousness and class conflict around me though. However, the only party qualified to investigate the question, namely the Communist Party, is satisfied with describing the regime as a ‘Satanic’ system of evil money lenders. Political ‘vendetta’ took the better of the Marxists. They are expected to lead the way, or else we are getting into a class society blindfolded.
Magdi El Gizouli: You are a vocal critic of the performance of the mainstream Sudanese opposition; even you suggest its ultimate demise. Where does the future line of division lie in your perspective?
Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim: the Sudanese activists and socially conscious have been postponing the day of reckoning with the futility of this opposition perhaps in a very Sudanese fashion: ride and pause perhaps an evil in waiting for you would be averted, or a good thing would happen to you. You could have missed it by not waiting. The disorganization of the opposition is an open book. Their cadres have no idea what ‘tactics’ means. A future vision is postponed until this evil regime is retired. Their total dependence on the SPLA emptied it of relevance. The opposition has only nostalgia to the good old days to provide. In the last election the regime has a better programme; at least it had tangible things to offer or brag about. The opposition is focused on toppling the regime without investing in a vision and a programme. The regime may be toppled, but what after that, we would not have a future. During the election the opposition was begging for a 15 minutes space on air. Over the course of 20 years, could they not have established a radio station or a TV channel? I think, the regime never enjoyed a proper opposition, a predicament that is going to kill the regime itself. At times the regime seems bewildered rather than amused at the incapacity of the opposition.