Sudan has made substantial progress in recent years. Last April, Sudanese protesters managed to overthrow President Omar al-Bashir, the only ruler that the country had known since 1989. In the following months, Sudan began taking baby steps toward representative democracy through the establishment of a transitional government comprising civilian and military leaders. Sudan’s new ruling class has also moved to conclude peace treaties with a constellation of armed groups on the country’s frontiers, and the United States is starting to lift economic sanctions on Sudan.
As far as Sudan has come, the country’s new government will have to go much further if it wants to resolve the racial fissures that have long divided Sudanese society. The death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, in the United States in May led to discussions of institutional racism across the world, including in Sudan. Racism has played a central role in the country’s history of ethnic conflict and religious intolerance.
When al-Bashir seized power in a coup d’état 20 years ago, the security forces that he led were waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the peoples of Sudan’s southern territories. Al-Bashir and the generals under him saw themselves as Arab Muslims—long considered the elite ethnic group in the racial power structure that British colonialists encouraged in the decades prior to Sudan’s independence. The Black animists and Christians in the south of Sudan encountered systemic racism, leading to a rebellion that al-Bashir sought to crush with brutality.
Al-Bashir’s militiamen violated human rights on a level rarely seen since World War II, massacring, and even enslaving civilians whom they identified as Black.
Al-Bashir’s more notorious tactics included the recruitment of Arab militias whom he framed as heroes fighting a holy war against the non-Muslims of the south. Al-Bashir’s militiamen violated human rights on a level rarely seen since World War II, massacring, and even enslaving civilians whom they identified as Black. The United States concluded that the Sudanese war effort, which resulted in over two million deaths and countless war crimes, amounted to genocide.
A 2005 peace treaty signed by al-Bashir and the southern rebels inspired hopes that Sudan could bury a past marred by institutional racism and work toward a future of racial equality. The rebel leader, John Garang, embodied this vision with the ideal of New Sudan: a sovereign state founded on the values of civil rights, democracy, and secularism. Al-Bashir expressed no interest in this plan, however. South Sudan obtained independence in 2011, cleaving the country in two. In the intervening years, al-Bashir made the choice to fuel ethnic conflicts across the rest of Sudan.
Following the example of the victorious southern rebels, insurgents in the Black-majority region of Darfur in Sudan’s west launched a series of attacks against al-Bashir’s security forces in 2003. Though Darfuris—unlike their counterparts in South Sudan—identified as Muslims, a common religion did nothing to spare Darfuris from systemic racism. The Darfuri rebels struck al-Bashir in protest of their mistreatment, yet al-Bashir responded by subjecting them to far worse.
Though Darfuris—unlike their counterparts in South Sudan—identified as Muslims, a common religion did nothing to spare Darfuris from systemic racism.
In Darfur, al-Bashir turned to the same playbook that he used in South Sudan. His generals swept into the region, organizing Darfur’s Arabs into ruthless militias before setting them loose on their Black neighbors. The militiamen that would become known as the Janjaweed slaughtered rebels and civilians alike, further damaging race relations in Darfur. Al-Bashir again faced accusations of genocide from the United States and human rights groups, yet he employed the same strategy of ethnic conflict against Black rebels along the Blue Nile and in the Nuba Mountains.
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Sudan’s provisional government has attempted to repair the damage by negotiating with rebels in the regions that suffered the brunt of al-Bashir’s genocidal reign of terror, but he only aggravated tensions that preceded his rule. Arab Muslims have held power in Sudan since the British Empire left in 1956, leading to a hierarchy in which Black Sudanese have little voice even after al-Bashir departed. Sudan’s new leadership even includes generals guilty of war crimes in Darfur.
Abroad, Sudan’s overlapping Arab and Black national identities have placed the country near the bottom of the Arab world’s political and social hierarchies. In Egypt and other countries across North Africa and West Asia, celebrities have used blackface to mock Sudanese and their ability to speak Arabic. For their part, students who depart Sudan to study elsewhere in the Arab world often encounter race-based bullying. These examples of prejudice reflect the treatment that Sudan receives from Arab regional powers, which view the country as a pawn in their proxy wars.
In Egypt and other countries across North Africa and West Asia, celebrities have used blackface to mock Sudanese and their ability to speak Arabic.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have leveraged their provision of humanitarian aid to Sudan to exercise a level of influence over the country’s politics, even seeking Sudanese support for their campaign against Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen. By asking Sudan to send soldiers to Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE avoided sacrificing the lives of their own citizens. In a telling move, meanwhile, the fighters whom Sudan deployed included child soldiers from Darfur.
As Sudan has wrestled with systemic racism at home and abroad, Garang’s vision for New Sudan has become all the more prescient. “It is often forgotten that Sudan is not just north and south,” Garang warned three decades before South Sudan’s independence. “Sudan is also west, east, and center, no matter what definitions you wish to attach to these labels.” Though Sudan’s difficulties appear far from over, the promise of the country’s interim government has given Sudan a chance to redefine itself and its approach to race relations that, until now, has only created strife.
Every country is debating how to overcome institutional racism, but Sudan’s complex history has placed the country in a unique position. If Sudan’s leadership aims for the type of racial equality that al-Bashir undermined, Sudan can become a model for the region and the rest of the world.