(Musa Adam Abdul-Jalil): The Peace Research Institute of the University of Khartoum and UNAMID (United Nations African Union Mission in Darfur)

organized in Feb.2014 a very important workshop under the theme of: Together We Stand Divided We Fall; Understanding the Tribal Conflicts of Darfur. In this Workshop very important studies were presented and we will publish today the second paper and others will follow soon.


One may start by asking a broad question: Why do ethnic loyalties continue to influence the political process in Sudan to the present day? When Sudan gained its independence half a century ago, the modern educated elite who were associated with the struggle for independence perceived a future for their country that is free of the influence of tribal loyalties in public life. Not surprising, they branded native administration as an obstacle to the development of a modern state on the assumption that it promotes “tribalism”. Consequently, the abolition of native administration was high on the agenda of all modernist
forces; both in the far right and far left of the political spectrum. This is in line with what other researchers have noticed in many African countries. One would largely agree with what Woods (1994: 466) has stated “following independence Africa’s ruling elites sought to suppress all forms of ethnic affiliation and independent associational activity. They justified their actions on the basis that tribalism and ethnicity were detrimental to national unity and economic development”. The material for this paper is based on extended interviews with key informants and relevant secondary literature on Sudan and Darfur in addition to the author’s livelong experience as a member of and a researcher on Sudanese society.

Since the early1990s the general attitude of the people in Sudan towards the issue of expressing tribal loyalties in public space has radically changed (at least in large urban centres where the idea of nationhood was most spread) to the effect that it is no longer considered objectionable for a person to be asked about his/her tribal identity in a government office upon demand of services such as education or health. As a reminder of the changing attitude, a new organizational structure for promoting tribal solidarity and representation has appeared amongst the majority of Darfurian tribes that is known as “shura council”. It is a form of voluntary association in which segments of an ethnic group are represented and is expected to act like a tribal parliament that develops strategies and act as a pressure group (lobby) regarding the interests of the group. Shura councils have been found by educated elite who operate largely from the national capital; with branches in the state capitals.
As such it can be considered an urban phenomenon. It is not however coincidental that shura councils are recognized by the government as legitimate representatives of their people. Many members of these associations are also members of the ruling party and some even hold ministerial office. Such unexpected developments certainly require the attention of researchers who are interested in studying directions of change in the political and social arenas in Sudan.

Anthropologists studying African societies have long noticed the distinctive features of life in the newly formed urban centres in the continent. One of the features that attracted their attention was the formation of ethnic based voluntary associations by migrants. The dominant trend in the literature largely represented by the writings of British social anthropologists in the 1950s and 1960s considers these associations as an adaptive mechanism to the new urban setting by providing basis for solidarity and some sort of social security in the absence of many functions that are supposed to be catered for by modern state and non-state agencies (see little, 1957,Gluckman, 1958, Parkin, 1966 and Kerri, 1976). This approach or paradigm has been labelled as “instrumentalist”.

Another common paradigm that appeared in 1960s and 1970s was largely advocated by political scientists such as Wallerstein, 1960, and Bates, 1974. It considers ethnic associations as a manifestation of competition for political power. Urban elite from disadvantaged groups would mobilize fellow migrants and their rural populace in order to secure rights or gain privileges accorded by the state. This approach looks at ethnicity essentially as a political resource. The role of educated elite is instrumental in this kind of processes since they are the ones who understand the workings of modern institutions of governance that sanction political power.

Although the phenomenon of the tribal shura councils under discussion in this paper supports the main assumptions of the above-mentioned approaches, it resonates more with the idea of ethnicity as a political resource. Ethnic voluntary associations did exist in Khartoum since the dawn of independence taking pretty much similar forms to those known in other parts of Africa. Some of them are based on territorial identification with villages or regional areas while others are clearly based
on identification with primordial entities such as clans or tribes. Of course in rural areas the two criteria may coincide or .crosscut depending on the specific situation. Darfur region has been suffering from negligence, lack of development and marginalization that caused the educated elite to pose questions regarding how the country is run. They formed a lobby group in 1964 under the name of “Darfur Development Front” which mobilised all the people of the region towards a common political goal. Shura councils have appeared very recently (from mid 1990s) and have therefore been largely associated with the ongoing widespread conflict on the one hand and the recognition of a totalitarian regime on the other. Moreover they mobilise people along tribal primordial identities rather than territorial / regional identity (i.e. more exclusionary and divisive). It is important to notice from the outset that this new type of associations has not replaced the old more socially oriented associations but are constantly trying to incorporate them in a manner that retains a certain division of labour between them.

After the end of the Second World War, there was an expectation that Africa’s modern educated elite who played an important role in the struggle to gain independence for their respective countries from European colonial rule will deliver the goods of “development” and “democracy” as critical components of a modern nation state. The ascendance to power of figures such as Nkrumah of Ghana, Kaunda of Zambia and Nyerere of Tanzania was met with considerable optimism both in Africa and worldwide. Several decades after independence most African countries are still suffering from poverty, political instability and civil wars that are mostly coached in ethnic terms. It is therefore legitimate to ask a basic question: Why have Africa’s educated elite failed so far in their mission; and to what extent can ethnicity be responsible for that failure?

Modernization is a model that educated African elite were eager to introduce to their societies. Accordingly, traditional leaders (i.e. traditional elites) were considered the greatest obstacle in the way of modernization programmes. Members of the educated elite were antagonistic towards traditional chiefs and other native leaders considering them as a part of the colonial legacy that their societies should rid themselves from. Consequently, politics of exclusion was practiced against the traditional elite in the majority of the newly independent African states. With the advent of independence, the idea of a modern “nation-state” became the only acceptable model according to which educated Africans could imagine the future of their “liberated” societies. Because such a model contradicts with the promotion of tribal identities, most educated elites of the 1960s condemned tribal or ethnic identification especially in urban centres. In Sudan, this theme was clearly expressed in the writings of intellectuals and speeches of politicians before and after independence.

Surprisingly several decades after independence the educated elite in many African countries have come to accept the idea of identification with their ethnic groups more than ever before. Having allied with traditional leaders, some university graduates are now tribal representatives. In Sudan this trend is very clear when it comes to considering the case of Darfur. Nowadays many groups there try to have educated persons occupying native administration posts within the tribal structure. School teachers, retired police and army officers as well as other categories of retired government employees are now among native administration cadres there. Moreover new ethnic associations known as “shura councils” are being formed in which educated elite play a central role.

In Sudan ethnic groups / tribes have always played important political roles in the context of the state. The old pre-colonial kingdoms of Sinnar and Darfur were based on tribal alliances (O’Fahey and Spaulding, 1974). In fact the state administrative structure itself was couched in ethnic language; for example in Darfur the term dar (meaning homeland) was an administrative unit with a reference to the dominant identity group in charge of the territory. The popular Mahdist Revolution that united the various social components in order to resist foreign rule in Sudan and give the country its current shape owed part of its success to the tribal factor as well. The constitution of the army and recruitment of fighters was done on ethnic basis.
Having overthrown the Mahdist rule the new colonial authorities also relied on tribal structures to keep law and order at the peripheries of a modern state. As a result, the modern state structure at the central level became heavily depended on traditional tribal structures at the grassroots level. The policy of indirect rule was a clear expression of recognition of the potential importance of ethnic identities in the political process at the wider level of the state.

It is a well-known fact that most states in Africa have been shaped by colonial forces with very little consideration to the history and culture of diverse societies brought together to form a unitary state. Since the lifetime of the newly formed modern states was short enough to allow the process of national integration to bear tangible fruits, it is not surprising to find that most African states witnessed the interference of ethnicity in national politics soon after independence. Where political parties dominated the scene they were also heavily affected by ethnic allegiance. Of course, in every single case of a newly
independent African state the educated elite have tried to adopt what they considered the model of a modern nation state with its institutions of cabinet, house of representatives, elections ceremonials, and slogans of democracy. It goes without saying that these concepts rarely took roots in African societies. This is demonstrated by the fact that most countries in the continent are in the tail of indexes relating to good governance, rule of law, freedom of expression and transparency which are prominent characteristics of a modern state. One of the most important features associated with African countries’ poor performance in these indexes is the strong embeddedness of ethnicity in national politics. Although conflicts and civil wars in many. African states have been described in terms of the language of ethnicity, it is more realistic to say that such dynamics reflect problems of post-colonial state-building. In the words of one researcher.

“Yet, ethnicity has been a crucial factor in state construction and failure, and the emergence of ethnic nationalism as one of
the arrowheads (or fallouts) of recent and on-going transitions in many countries implies that there is no running away from the problem. Indeed, there are already a number of state reconstruction projects, notably in Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa, that privilege ethnicity.”
Nevertheless ethnicity cannot be considered an independent variable but rather a reflection of more subtle factors underlying political process in these countries. One would agree with the statement by Berman (1998: 310) that “The understanding of ethnicity as socially constructed focuses on it notas a fixed primordial identity but as the protean outcome of the continuous and generally conflict-ridden interaction of political, economic and cultural forces both external and internal to developing ethnic communities.” Thus any understanding of ethnic phenomena in African countries should be situated in the context of state operations in order to be comprehensive.

Educated elite in Sudan and the challenge of emancipation from tribal loyalties

When Sudan gained its independence half of a century ago, the modern educated elite who were associated with early nationalist movement and the struggle for independence perceived a future Sudan that is free of the influence of tribal loyalties in public life. Emancipation from tribal loyalties was considered a precondition for promoting national integration. Given the country’s ethnic and cultural diversity, it was thought that the best way to unite the population of Sudan towards a common national identity is to undermine primordial loyalties (i.e. tribal) on the assumption that it becomes an obstacle achieving true national integration.
Early Sudanese nationalists looked towards Arab and Muslim world for a model of national identity around which to unite the country’s diverse population. In its modern form Arabism and Islamism grew stronger during the Anglo-Egyptian rule in the Sudan. Educated Sudanese in the 1920s and 1930s - the majority of whom were from riverian parts of the country - started developing modern nationalism. Sudan Graduates Congress which pioneered the struggle for independence oriented the country’s educational system towards Arab and Islamic culture. With the advent of independence joining the Arab league was the first foreign relations task of the government. The profound effect of Egypt’s influence in this endeavour cannot be overestimated. As stated by Aguda (1973: 177) “Indeed, the predominance of the Arab Sudanese in the country’s culture, politics, administration, commerce, and industry makes it de facto an Arab state”. School curriculum, media, art, drama and songs were all utilised to that end. Nevertheless, it is clearly noticeable to any observer of Sudanese society that ethnic/tribal loyalties continue to influence the political process in the country to the present day.
One of the significant features of Sudanese nationalism in the 20th century is the disapproval of the educated elite toward straditional sources of authority. Not surprising, they branded native administration as an obstacle to the development of a modern state. The abolition of native administration was high on the agenda of most modernist political groups. The most serious blows to native administration came in 1964 and 1970. Following the 1964 October uprising a resolution was made by a leftist-dominated caretaker government to abolish the system. However, as the government was short-lived, the resolution was not implemented because national elections brought a conservative government which ignored the resolution. But another radical government ascended to power in 1969 and it was the government that removed most paramount chiefs in northern Sudan from office. Since 1964 the demoralized native administrators have become less effective in carrying out their traditional role of maintaining law and order and resolving disputes among individuals. They were further weakened by the central government tampering with the native courts under the pretext of the need for separating legal and administrative tasks.

In 1971 Nimeiri’s military regime passed the People’s Local Government Act which divided the region into regional, district and area councils. This local administration replaced the native administration and abolished the jurisdiction and administrative authority of the tribal leaders. Some say this re-organization was the first factor that triggered tribal conflicts on a wider scale in Darfur. In southern Darfur province alone, 16 different rural council border disputes and conflicts occurred soon after the implementation of this act. This Act meant that a locality belonging to one tribe could be controlled by another. The government had thus promoted tribal competition. Morton (2004) argues that the weakening of the native administration has contributed significantly to increased conflict in Darfur. The critical weakness in modernizing administration lay in the change of emphasis from their previous judicial role (maintaining law and order) to their administrative role, to which political mobilization has lately been added.

In practice, however, tribal leaders continued to be acknowledged heads of their groups, and the tribe became a political base to promote its members to senior positions in local councils, as well as members of the regional and national assemblies. Ethnic allegiance and increasing polarization are said to have permeated every corner of government office, as members of the group are considered representatives of their tribes hence they are supposed to work for the interests of their tribal folk. This has been a sort vertical ethnic expansion, from the local level to the regional and even national levels. Prior to abolishing native administration, the Niumeiri regime had already dissolved all political parties in the Sudan. The vacuum was filled with an emerging new social and political force - the Sudanese Socialist Union and its organizations; the only recognized party by then. These organizations were led by the rural elite such as teachers, small traders, government employees who occupied the scene in Darfur resulting in the emergence of new leadership. This leadership played a critical role in shaping the political scene in Darfur in the years following the promulgation of the Regional Government Act of 1980. They were given responsibility for services in Darfur but with wholly inadequate resources.
In 1987, during the second democratic era, native administration was re-established on a limited scale especially in Darfur and Kordofan. This period was short lived and by 1989 the National Islamic Front seized power in Sudan through a military coup of the National Salvation Revolution “Ingaz” which introduced new policies for dealing with all traditional institutions of authority in Sudan. The policies of the new regime have profound effects on invigorating the role of ethnicity in Sudanese politics as we shall see in the next two sections.