Gérard Prunier, the prominent French historian of East Africa, published a piece in the New York Times on 5 May under the title ‘In Sudan: Give War a Chance’ reposted on Sudan Tribune. Prunier presented his readers with a Rwandan history of Sudan as it were. In his mind the ills of Sudan stem from an essential racial conflict between Arabs and Africans, one that the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) could not resolve since only religion was considered in its fashioning. The CPA, wrote Prunier, “was signed by only two sides: the Muslim north and the Christian south. That left fully one-third of the Sudanese people - the African Muslims - without a political leg to stand on”. From this premise Prunier arrived at the conclusion that the way ahead is to support the African Muslim rebels fighting the government in alliance with the southern Christians. “War is a tragic affair, but the brave Sudanese men who have chosen it as a last resort deserve to be allowed to find their own way toward a Sudanese Spring, even if it is a violent one”, he opined. What Prunier is advocating for, without reservations, is a race war where the Sudanese fight it out to redemption as Africans and Arabs. He, I suppose, would have the privilege to observe, count the dead, and eventually publish a bestseller.
Race has been and continues to be invoked by Khartoum’s rulers and their rebel contenders in the Sudanese peripheries. It was exactly in the terms that Prunier now advocates that the Khartoum regime portrayed the confrontation with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) in the 1983-2005 round of the Sudanese civil war fought predominantly in southern Sudan but with lasting extensions in the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile of northern Sudan, areas where the SPLA/M found similarly aggrieved allies among the Nuba and the Ingessena. The SPLA/M’s attempt to open a front in Darfur among the Fur and the Masalit was not as successful. An invading SPLA force of Dinka under the joint command of Abd al-Aziz al-Hilu, an ethnic Maslati and the man who now leads the northern faction of the SPLA/M in South Kordofan, and Dawoud Yahia Bolad, an ethnic Fur and disaffected Islamist, was rapidly crushed by a force of locally recruited Bani Halba in 1991. The invocation of race in Darfur demonstrated its full wrath in the war that began in 2003.
What deserves investigation is not only the resort to race by rebel groups seeking to solidify and extend their constituencies or by a government threatened by an arc of rebellions but the brave resistance of a critical mass of the Sudanese to the lure of racist mobilisation. In Darfur, where racial polarization in northern Sudan proved most devastating, the Rizeigat of South Darfur preferred to preserve the peace with their Fur neighbours over Khartoum’s war commission, even after rebel fighters of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) raided Dar Rizeigat in 2004. Angered by the brazen defiance of the Rizeigat nazir, Said Madibbu, Khartoum upgraded the sheikh of the neighbouring Maaliya, traditionally a client of the Rizeigat chieftaincy, to the rank of nazir in 2005. The government intervention empowered the Maaliya to claim land ownership rights in areas that the Rizeigat consider to be under lease to the Maaliya but ultimately their own. What followed was a neglected chapter of Darfur’s ‘other war’ to use Julie Flint’s depiction. The Rizeigat and the Maaliya, two peoples that classify under Prunier’s Muslim Arabs, engaged in episodic deadly raids until a settlement was reached between the two sides with cynical government mediation in 2009.
The distinction between the readiness of the northern Rizeigat, the landless camel nomads of northern Darfur, to serve Khartoum’s purposes and the unwillingness of their kin, the southern Rizeigat, the land-endowed cattle nomads of southern Darfur, to do the same might appear to Prunier and those who share his views an insignificant detail that does not disturb the race blueprint. To the Sudanese who are ready to imagine a future beyond the determinacy of war it bespeaks of the harsh political economy that underlies the country’s incessant conflicts.