In concluding that the African quest for self-determination ran its course by the liberation of the continent from foreign rule, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) decided that the boundaries inherited from colonialism were not to be tampered with
It is lamented that the principle of self-determination, like the one the Southern Sudan put into action, is being viewed negatively in Arab and African countries. No sooner than Massoud Brazani of the Kurdish Democratic Party asked for a referendum for his people to vote on future relations with Iraq than nationalists of various stripes saw in the Kurdish demand the “Pandora box” they anticipated to be opened by Sudan referendum. After origination in great minds, President Wilson’s 14-point (1918) and Lenin’s principle of self-determination, and inspiring the African nationalists in fighting for the freedom of their countries, the principle was left to gather dust.
In concluding that the African quest for self-determination ran its course by the liberation of the continent from foreign rule, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) decided that the boundaries inherited from colonialism were not to be tampered with.
Nigeria’s Biafra, established by secessionists in the east part of the country, was censured by the OAU that gave full support to the government of Nigeria to suppress the “rogue” break-away state. Similarly, the OAU never sanctioned the separatist movement in the Southern Sudan although individual states did. This African double-standard attitude adopted by the OAU respecting self-determination is perennial with the principle. Wilson’s advocacy for the principle during the Versailles peace treaty was viewed with mixed feeling: “none of the peacemakers saw it as applying to their own empire—only to the empire they had defeated”.
In being viewed as a “haram” (forbidden) exercise, self-determination remained an undeveloped concept cherished by fringe circles in the continent. It was frowned upon as one frowns upon marriage dissolution . In fact the divorce metaphor is in-built in the principle. Lenin said that support for self-determination “should not be equated with encouraging separation, because that would be as foolish and hypocritical as accusing those who advocate freedom of divorce of encouraging the destruction of family ties.” The divorce metaphor is common in Sudanese discourse about the referendum where the Koranic injunction on setting a divorced wife free on equitable terms (2: 231) is frequently quoted.
Dissolution of a dysfunctional country is supposed to be a sign of acumen and courage. The Americans have been credited for it by Alex Tocqueville. Their gallant struggle for independence from the British in 1778 did not impress him as much as their realism and modesty in renegotiating their disintegrating country in the Constitutional Conference in Philadelphia (1786) to build a “perfect union.” The Sudanese have not been lucky as the Americans in having a Tocqueville to praise their farsightedness. Instead, they have been derided as a failed people. Regrettably, this alleged failure is grossly misrepresented by attributing it to the incompatibility of African and Arabs, Muslims and Christians/pagans in the country. Although these cultural terms are undeniably integral to the Sudan problem, they are its froth. The underlying nationalists’ failure to renegotiate the inherited colony to the satisfaction of its various communities, a failure Sudanese have in common with the rest of former colonies, is hardly taken into account.
A cursory overview of the history of independent Sudan will reveal a multifaceted engagement with decolonization characterized by 1) nationalist elites in government who failed to come to grips with the mission of decolonization. In refusing to acknowledge the diversity of the country, they, following the letter of nationalist tenets, wanted to unify the country exclusively around their Arab and Muslim culture. Unlike nationalists elsewhere however they were too fragmented to wield the nation by force. In less than two years these secular elites had to cede power to the military and religious nationalism; 2) Nationalities on the margin that never ceased to demand full citizenship. The Southern nationalists made these claim in 1955; a year before Sudan independence. The Beja in Eastern Sudan followed in 1957. Next came the Nuba (of Kodofan) and Darfur nationalists in 1965. The means deployed to achieve parity in the country ranged from civil disobedience to rising up in arms in a protracted civil war; 3) a national democratic movement from below that hosted these national grievances in addition to those suffered by women, workers, students, and farmers. The high point of this democratic movement was the 1964 October Revolution which toppled a military junta opening the way to meaningful, radical changes. The revolution broke out in the context of protests waged by students against the junta’s failed policies in the South. A government never seen before or after in Sudan was formed representing workers, farmers and the professionals. Women were enfranchised, young people eighteen years of age were given the right to vote, and the Round Table Conference was held in 1965 to discuss the Southern Sudan problem. The right to self-determination to the South (and a lesser procedure to give the Nuba and Blue Nile people voice in determining their national affiliation whether to the north or the south of Sudan) resulted from relentless political investment of a freedom-loving people who risked going beyond the politics of hegemonic elites of a dominant minority.
Sudan has been plagued by a lose-lose situation. It has been condemned by political analysts for being perpetually on the brink of collapsing as a nation. It has always met the annual Failing States Index criteria in several important categories. But these same analysts condemn it for averting its collapse by a remedy of a last resort; self-determination. This antidote is seen as a political virus that will invade body politics. I can see nothing wrong with my people who came to self-determination after a long dragging of feet. The error is on the side of political analysts rather who view national unions in matrimonial terms with the attending shame and feeling of worthlessness when marriages break up. The Sudanese will be vindicated when the political science of nation-imagining (not nation-building) finds its modern-day Tocqueville.