Reviving the ‘New Sudan’ vision

In the face of growing unrest, former statesmen John Garang’s vision could serve as a banner of unity.

John Garang Statue
The late Sudanese politician John Garang reframed the overarching narrative about Sudan’s internal conflicts [EPA]

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – John Garang, the Southern Sudanese Christian rebel-turned-statesman, was arguably one of the best and most charismatic leaders Sudan has had. He surely had many flaws, but one of his greatest contributions was his “New Sudan” vision, which widely appealed to many Sudanese, even in the predominantly Muslim Arab north.

What Garang essentially did was reframe the overarching narrative about Sudan’s internal conflicts and struggles. Rather than talk in terms of either the counter-productive Arab Muslim north versus African Christian south narrative or Darfur’s Arab versus African tribes storyline, he took an honourable stance and made an important valid observation.

He affirmed Sudan’s pluralistic nature and mixed identity, and emphasised the crucial fact that all Sudanese citizens, regardless of their backgrounds, were suffering under a murderous and repressive dictatorship. He was a staunch opponent who had been battling Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s regime in Khartoum for nearly two decades.

Al-Bashir’s regime came to power in 1989 after he and his former ally, the Islamist leader, Hassan al-Turabi, deposed a democratically elected government in a coup. Under him, the country has witnessed a series of unjust policies and murderous practices. He has shut down newspapers critical of government actions. Many of the government’s critics were tortured in what came to be called Ghost Houses. In 1990, 28 dissenting military officers were executed after a mock trial. Corruption has spread.

Worse, the government’s propaganda machine beat the drums of war and instigated fighting against the southern Sudanese in a conflict that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands. Then again in 2003, Darfur erupted in a rebellion that was met by the government in a conflict that claimed at least 200,000 deaths due to war, famine, and disease, according to UN estimates.

The Southerners, the Darfurians, the Nuba of Southern Kordofan and the Ingessana of the Blue Nile, have often been at the receiving end of al-Bashir and his entourage’s brutality. They have been one of the greatest victims of his regime’s abuse of religion and divisive policy of tribalism.

This was, and still is, strongly reflected in Western media coverage of Sudan and the attention directed by US advocacy groups to those causes. Unfortunately, in the process, both Western media and advocacy groups have reinforced the dichotomies and helped spread the aforementioned counter-productive narratives along with simplistic explanations. They have also unintentionally alienated many Northern Sudanese opposed to al-Bashir and his morally bankrupt policies who now feel that their identity is unfairly under attack.

One must not overlook the suffering happening elsewhere in Sudan, such as in the north and in the heart of Khartoum. Let us not forget the January 2005 massacre of the Beja youth by government security forces in the Red Sea city of Port Sudan, in which more than 20 peaceful Beja protesters – including women and children – were reportedly shot dead and hundreds were arrested. Their crime? Protesting years of injustice and the marginalisation of their people, and demanding democracy and development.

Let us also not forget the oppression of the Arab Rashaida in eastern Sudan. Or the Kajbar massacre of 2007 in the upper north, in which peaceful Manaseer and Nubian demonstrators protesting the construction of the large Merowe Dam were injured and killed by security forces.

The dam has since destroyed the protesters’ communities; it has displaced them and flooded their homes without adequate compensation from the government. It has also drowned Sudanese pharaonic antiquities and historic sites dating back thousands of years before they had even been fully excavated. Such is the wonderful mindset and attitude of the beloved ruling regime.

The vision

Again, as Garang correctly noted, all Sudanese are suffering under the same dictatorship. He acknowledged the reality and charismatically advocated for a “New Sudan” on the basis of a civil and pluralistic democratic state that would affirm the rights, dignity and freedom of all citizens.

It was a powerful vision that united many dissidents together against Omar al-Bashir’s regime, and attracted some northern opposition parties to the cause too. Sadly, this powerful notion of a “New Sudan” seemed to have died with John Garang, when he perished in a suspicious plane crash in 2005. And now after the separation and independence of South Sudan in July 2011, the vision seems forgotten, and its relevance in the eyes of many of Sudanese compatriots gone – but this is a mistake.

As a marketing and digital media professional, I pay special attention to narratives, and observe the power which well-crafted and valid stories with integrity can have in mobilising the masses and bringing about effective change.

But slogans alone are useless. Protesters with slogans about the self-interest of their own group limit their sphere of influence. Only determined protesters who can set aside differences and rally behind a large, inspiring and inclusive vision that unites everyone to fight for a common cause can have a powerful effect – and that’s the key element anti-government Sudanese dissidents of all stripes lack right now.

Rising dissent

Anti-government sentiments around Sudan have been at an all-time high in recent years, and there’s increasing visible dissent against al-Bashir’s ruling party. After the separation of South Sudan and the loss of oil revenues, growing protests led by different groups against worsening economic conditions and various forms of repression have been taking place more frequently across the country.

In October 2011, about 2,000 university students in the eastern state of Kassala protested for more than two weeks against rising costs of living and expensive education fees, calling for the fall of the regime. They were met with a brutal crackdown in which some students were run over by a government-owned Land Cruiser.

Various groups … have shown with their defiant acts that the fear barrier is crumbling for an increasing number of Sudanese. And when or if that reaches critical mass, there’s a real chance for change, but it will require a powerful and unifying vision.

In Khartoum, citizens angry over inflation also took to the streets in small protests. For their part, the Manaseer, enraged by the displacement of tens of thousands of their community members after the construction of the Merowe Dam, launched a fierce but peaceful demonstration that addressed al-Bashir directly, demanding their rights or else for him to “get lost”.

Students also demonstrated against university mismanagement in Kosti University, south of the capital. At the University of Khartoum, the largest and oldest university in Sudan, students protested in solidarity with the Manaseer and in late December, a group of 16,000 launched a coordinated sit-in to protest government repression and police brutality. They, too, were met by tear gas and brute force.

And numerous students in Khartoum who support Darfur’s rebels clashed with pro-government students after the authorities announced the killing of the Darfurian rebel leader, Khalil Ibrahim. Furthermore, armed rebel groups in the east, south and west are reportedly coordinating to form a unified front in the fight against Khartoum.

The road ahead

Still, it seems doubtful that we’ll witness large scale regime-change any time soon, like we did in Libya or Tunisia, for numerous reasons – many of which have been highlighted by Elfadil Ibrahim in “Why Sudan is yet to see an Arab Spring“.

Nonetheless, the possibility for partial change remains very real, given the worsening conditions and protests that are spreading and occurring more frequently.

Various groups – and lately the courageous Sudanese political activist, Mohamed Hassan Alim Boushi – have shown with their defiant acts that the fear barrier is crumbling for an increasing number of Sudanese. And when or if that reaches critical mass, there’s a real chance for change, but it will require a powerful and unifying vision.

John Garang may be dead, but his vision need not die along with him. Now, more than ever, we need to revive it.

Amir Ahmad Nasr is a digital media and marketing consultant, Sudanese blogger at The Sudanese Thinker, and the curator of The Future of Islam In the Age of New Media

Follow him on Twitter: @SudaneseThinker

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.