I hate to Choose: Personal reflections on the referendum
Sunday 21 November 2010.
By Amir Idris
November 21, 2010 — Much of the current discussion around the forthcoming referendum on the future of the southern
Sudan focuses on the political challenges of the post-referendum era. However, very little discussion focuses on how a vote for separation might affect individuals with multiple identities. It is undeniable that unity has not been made attractive to the people of southern
Sudan, but the debate on the impact of the referendum should not be limited to the changing nature of the relationships between the north and the south in the post-referendum era. It would be far more insightful and educative if we could consider the status and the reactions of those individuals who possess multiple identities in Sudanese societies. Such individuals do not easily identify with either the north or the south but belong to and embrace both. My personal experience speaks to this reality.
I was born and raised in the north by two parents who came from two different worlds. My father came from southern
Sudan and my mother was born and raised in the north. I married a woman who is a southern Sudanese. Our two children are proud to define themselves as Canadian. I feel hopeful about the future of our common humanity when I watch my little daughter playing with her school friends. Differences in skin color, tradition, and religion do not prevent them from playing together; instead their differences are translated into educational opportunities. Their cultural and racial differences become sources of strength rather than weakness.
Sadly, not all societies have managed to reconcile their differences in a way that embraces our common humanity. In the case of
Sudan, the failure of managing ethnic, racial and religious differences led to civil wars and displacement. During the mid- 1970s, I was able to meet my aunt for the first time in my life. It was also a memorable moment for my father who was reunited with his sister after many decades of separation. The irony is that this historical reunion became possible not as a result of a personal choice but rather as a consequence of the military regime’s policy of aggression and discrimination toward the people of southern
Sudan. Like hundreds of thousands of southern Sudanese civilians forced to flee the south, my aunt left Wau to Wed Medani, where her brother had lived for decades. Her long painful journey to the north not only made me realize the extent of the human suffering in the south, but also the determination of those who were subjected to oppression and racism to make the north their refuge.
Growing up in a family with multiple identities and experiences gave me the opportunity to observe how different cultures and traditions can coexist and be reconciled in a shared space. This shared space has been made and remade by all members of the family in spite of their cultural, traditional, and religious differences. Living in exile since 1990 has also introduced me to an intellectual space that is free from the constraints of culture, tradition, and boundaries. This new intellectual space enables me to think beyond the boundaries of race, religion, and nationalism and regionalism.
For many years, I have made the question of political violence in
Sudan my academic vocation with the intention of contributing to a better understanding of our political problems. I have consistently argued for a new way of thinking that allows Sudanese to address their national problem and to seek alternative options to perfect their polity in a way makes unity a desirable option. But the existing Sudanese state makes this possibility unattainable. The failure of the state to embrace diversity and cherish values of justice, equality, freedom and inclusive citizenship has led to cycles of conflicts with serious human consequences. The outcome of this process is the hardening of group identities at the expense of individual identities. The ideal solution in my view is the cultivation of a new state that has the capacity to embrace individuals or groups who want to create a destiny with
Sudan. In contrast, the policies of the current government have pushed many groups and individuals to take refuge in politicized conflictual group identities. Thus, citizenship is defined either along ethnic lines as the case in south or racially as in the north.
But in reality, the cost of keeping the country united without transforming its political and ideological foundations is too costly. Millions have lost their lives in the south and hundreds of thousands in
Darfur. It is therefore quite understandable to me if the people of southern
Sudan should decide to separate from the north. Whatever the people of southern
Sudan decide on January 9, 2011 should be respected and fully implemented. I also hope that neither the people of the south nor those of the north would interpret the result of the referendum as a racialized choice. After all, the futures of the south and the north are deeply linked. I for one feel comfortable with my multiple identities, and I would hate to be forced to choose one over the others in a post referendum era. I would rather quit if I have to.
Amir Idris is Associate Professor of African Studies and Associate Chair of the Department of African and African American Studies,
New York City. He can be reached at [email protected]