x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Sudan was already divided, but we didn't know it then

The people of Sudan were divided long before the referendum confirmed the split between north and south.

Two years ago, when I was still a student at the University of Khartoum, one of our professors asked us to write a paper about different languages and dialects. When I returned to the student hostel where I was staying, the first thing I did was log on to the internet.

But as I was searching, it occurred to me: wasn't it weird to be fishing around on the internet for information about my own country? Maybe it would be easier if I just asked a friend from the south about the different dialects. Then, I realised, I didn't have one.

That lesson got me thinking, not just about language differences, but about this serious gap that even then separated the north and the south. Why did we always use the terms "southerner" and "northerner" when we were talking about citizens of the same country? What had happened so that there was almost no trace of a social contract between us?

After thinking about it for a long time, it was obvious to me that not only was Sudan already split in two, but as a people we tended to avoid serious consideration of it. In the public sphere, people usually did not even talk about relations between the north and the south. Even two years ago, most did not think about the consequences of secession, which would prove to be one of the most important decisions in the country's history.

Certainly when I was studying in Sudan, the possibility of a split was never a big concern for me. Many people in the north had the same attitude. The majority were just too absorbed in their daily lives to think about political issues and debates that barely touched on their livelihoods.

Perhaps we were careless because we didn't believe it would affect us as individuals. Whatever the reason, we stayed in our homes and didn't see the need to adjust our lives according to politics.

Although I haven't been in Sudan since 2009, my friends and relatives, not to mention the online social networks and forums, inform me that many northerners have begun adopting some pretty negative views since the referendum on the south's breakaway.

Many people in the north backed separation, some even saying that southerners had been nothing but trouble. It's not easy to forget the years of war and the many tragedies that ensued.

"It will give us more space in the capital if they go home"; "they always relied too much on us"; "moreover, they actually hate us". Many people in the north, especially the younger generation, have said these things. And many older people supported secession just to move past the psychological ordeal and legacy of racism that has poisoned the relationship.

There are less emotional arguments as well, which point out that Sudan would be stronger if it remained united. If oil revenues could be shared fairly, it could cement the country's unity. About 85 per cent of proven reserves are in the south, while the north has the processing and distribution network

The more cautious viewpoint also argues that separation could be a contagion that infects other regions like Darfur, and eventually might further split the country into smaller and smaller weak political blocs.

But the real concern - which only a few are aware of - is that the ruling party in Khartoum, the National Congress, may seize the opportunity to impose a version of Sharia law in the Muslim-majority north. The regime would acquire more authority at the expense of individual freedoms.

Today, as the separation is becoming a reality, I have started to believe that the south was right. Why should Sudan remain one country when there is this unbridgeable gap in society and culture? I consider myself as an example, one of many in the north who for so long ignored the south. The same is surely true for many people in the south.

No one knows the future of the two Sudans. Many in the north say that the split was engineered by foreign forces and that southerners will one day want to reunify. It may be wishful thinking, but there may be elements of truth as well.

There are basic institutions that are still lacking in the south. It is hard to imagine a successful country that does not have schools or hospitals serving its people across the countryside. There can be little doubt that southern Sudan rushed to independence, not towards a clear goal, but away from a country that they never felt a part of.

 

Fatima Saeed is an intern on The National's translation desk