This Sunday, about 4 million Sudanese in the war-torn Southern part of the country will go to the polls to cast their ballots in a referendum to decide if they should remain a part of Africa's largest country or become the continent's newest nation.
The debate over maintaining Sudan as a unitary state or separating the nation into two is an old one. It is the result of two civil wars that have raged between the North and South for all but 15 of Sudan's 55 years of independence from Egypt and the U.K. It is, perhaps, the most contentious foreign policy question among black Americans since the Angolan Civil War.
Sudan's upcoming referendum has sharply divided African Americans interested in affairs on the continent. And it has called into question past African-American support of African governments, from Idi Amin's Uganda to Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe.
For black Americans, there are two conflicting currents in the issue of Southern Sudan. There is a strong religious affinity on one side; on the other, a strong sense of racial unity.
On the religious side are many African-American Muslims, including the largest faction of the original Nation of Islam, led by Louis Farrakhan. They espouse a religious solidarity with the Sudanese government of Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has held power in Khartoum since he staged a military coup in 1989. Western forces, they argue, are conspiring to undermine Islam. On the opposite side arguing for racial unity are mainly black Christian leaders like the Rev. Al Sharpton and talk-show host Joe Madison, who insist that Southern Sudan is experiencing "genocide by attrition."
Farrakhan has visited Sudan several times and has vigorously rejected charges of slavery there. "While I stand here in the Sudan, there is a war going on, and that war is against Islam," Farrakhan said at a Khartoum press conference in 1994. "And it is headed by the government of the United States of America and the powers of the West. They know that only the unity of Islam will prevent Western hegemony over the world. There is no other force in existence to stop that but Islam." His stand has not wavered since. In recent years, Farrakhan has claimed that there is a Western campaign against Sudan, as well as Iran, based on oil and Zionism.
Can Independence Cure Corruption?
Much African-American Muslim support for the Sudanese government has not diminished, even though Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for his role in prosecuting the government's campaign against dark-skinned, non-Arab Muslims in Darfur.
Hodari Abdul-Ali, an African-American Orthodox Muslim and former consultant to the Sudanese ambassador, is the executive director of the Give Peace a Chance Coalition in Washington, D.C. The group has sponsored several fact-finding trips by African Americans to Sudan. "The impending breakup of the Sudan is nothing but a disaster for Africa, for the African Diaspora and for Sudan," Abdul-Ali asserts.
Many of the same charges have been leveled at the Bashir regime, long regarded by some foreign policy experts as one of Africa's most brutal, repressive and corrupt.
Like Farrakhan, Abdul-Ali and others in the Arab and Muslim worlds blame Sudan's predicament on the West, specifically the United States. They argue that Washington has reneged on promises to support the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, end severe economic sanctions on Khartoum and remove Sudan from the list of nations supporting international terrorism.
"People on the outside don't understand that the U.S. makes promises," says Ali. "They are encouraging the Southern Sudan to separate because of the oil. But mark my words: Five years from now, the Southern Sudanese will look up and be in worse shape than they are now."
That may be true, but it largely obscures the roots of the second civil war. The Addis Ababa Agreement ended the first civil war in 1972, granting a large degree of autonomy to the South, including freedom of religion. Ten years later, then-Sudanese President Jaafar Numeiri abrogated the pact, split the South into three provinces and established Shariah, or Islamic law, over the whole country. Armed resistance in the South began soon after.
Dr. James Sulton, an African American, is a former president of the Sudan Studies Association. He says that before the start of the second civil war, many African Americans labored under a "cultural myopia" that made them reluctant to criticize African governments because they were African governments.
"The Sudan turned the tide back then," adds Sulton, "because Jaafar Numeiri proved to be more hostile to the Southern Sudanese than any other colonial government could ever be. Numeiri's successors, including Sadiq al-Mahdi, continued Khartoum's war on the South."
A Complex Mix of Race and Religion
Over the years, African-American support for Southern Sudan, if not for outright independence, has gradually increased. Sharpton and Madison, leaders in the Khartoum opposition, have also visited Sudan, leading missions and staging protest marches outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, highlighting the ongoing problem of slavery of dark-skinned Southern Sudanese — most of whom are non-Muslims.
Yet Sudan's tortured internal racial politics are often confusing. What defines one as a "Sudanese Arab" — a member of the group in power — and a so-called black African (a member of the oppressed group) is often elastic, since skin color alone is not the sole determinant of "race" or "culture." It is common for so-called Sudanese Arabs to have dark skin, as it is for non-Arab Southern Sudanese to be Muslims. Moreover, Arabic is the lingua franca throughout the North and much of the South.
Given Sudanese politics, where continuous duplicity is the rule — producing a dizzying history of co-optation, alliances and counter-alliances between, and often among, Southerners and Northerners — it is often difficult to tell who is on which side, from one moment to the next. But it is the power and primacy of Arab identity that has ruled Sudan, ever since the first Arabs crossed into Africa from the Arabian Peninsula and migrated south along the Nile a thousand years ago.
The current divide over Sudan brings back memories of another contentious foreign policy question among African Americans. In 1975, as Angola was emerging from Portuguese colonial rule, three nationalist movements vied for power. All three appealed to African Americans for moral, political and financial support, prompting them to choose sides.
Many black nationalists gravitated toward the alliance of the FNLA (the National Front for the Liberation of Angola) and UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola). The MPLA (the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), a multiracial, Marxist-Leninist movement, was favored by African Americans who shared its ideological bent.
The FNLA-UNITA alliance effectively lost much of its support among the African-American community once its military ties to the CIA and apartheid South Africa were exposed. The MPLA, supported by Soviet arms and Cuban troops, won the war and, almost by default, the battle for most African-American hearts and minds.
In the end, the debate over Sudan, like Angola, may be nothing more than a historical footnote. Independence for Southern Sudan appears as imminent as it does inevitable. After six days of voting, official results must be certified within 30 days. Sixty percent of eligible voters must cast ballots for the vote to be judged as valid.
Already, many Southern Sudanese are voting with their feet. According to the United Nations, at least 75,000 Southerners have already returned to their home region in recent weeks from the North. Many more are expected to follow. Some have come back to vote in the referendum, while others say they have left for good, fearing a violent public backlash in the North.
Most of Sudan's oil reserves are located in what could become an independent Southern Sudan, while the pipelines run through the North. A common border remains to be demarcated. And many expect that Khartoum will not relinquish the oil fields, or their significant revenues, without a fight. Sulton, formerly of the Sudan Studies Association, is one of them.
"We may be on the verge of the worst civil war of the decade," warns Sulton, "even as the decade begins."
Sunni M. Khalid is the managing news editor at WYPR-FM and has reported extensively throughout Africa and the Middle East.