Letters from African journalists, Zeinab Mohammed Salih writes about the horrific racial abuse black people experience in Sudan.
Warning: Offensive language ahead
As anti-racism protests swept through various parts of the planet following African-American George Floyd’s death in police custody within the US, Sudan appeared to be during a completely different world.
There was little take-up in Sudan of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Many social media users from Sudan hurled racial abuse at a famous black Sudanese footballer, Issam Abdulraheem, and a light-skinned Arab make-up artist, Reem Khougli, following their marriage.
“Seriously girl, this is often haram [Arabic for forbidden]… a queen marries her slave,” one man commented on Facebook after seeing a photograph of the couple.
There were dozens of comparable comments – not surprising during a country where many Sudanese who see themselves as Arabs, instead of Africans, routinely use the word “slave”, and other derogatory words, to explain black people.
Sudan has always been dominated by a light-skinned, Arabic-speaking elite, while black Africans within the south and west of the country have faced discrimination and marginalization.
It is common for newspapers to publish racial slurs, including the word “slave”.
A few weeks ago, an Islamist columnist at Al-Intibaha, a daily newspaper supportive of ex-President Omar al-Bashir, who doesn’t approve of girls playing football, mentioned the feminine coach of the Gunners, a well-known youth team for women, as a slave.
And most media outlets describe petty criminals within the capital, Khartoum, as “negros” as there seemed to be poor and not ethnically Arab.
When Abdulraheem was asked about the racial abuse hurled at him and his wife, he said: “I couldn’t post more pictures on my social media pages for fear of receiving more [abuse].”
Instead, the 29-year-old and his 24-year-old wife did a Facebook live during their honeymoon, saying they were crazy and their race was irrelevant.
Few black faces
In another recent instance, the top of a women’s rights group, No To Women Oppression, commented on a photograph showing a young Black man together with his white European wife by saying that the lady, in choosing her husband, may are trying to find the creature missing on the evolutionary ladder between humans and monkeys.
Following an outcry, Ihsan Fagiri announced her resignation, but No To Women Oppression refused to simply accept it, saying she didn’t mean it.
Racism is insidious in Sudan, historically and since independence when most senior positions are filled by people from the north – the Arab and Nubian ethnic groups.
Almost all senior military officers are from these communities, which has also allowed them to use their influence to dominate the business.
Today if you enter any department or bank in Khartoum, you’ll rarely see a Black in a crucial role.
There are not any reliable statistics on the ethnic breakdown of Sudan’s population, including their relative wealth, but a Darfuri-based rebel group fighting for the rights of black people estimates that 60% of Khartoum residents are black.
Slave traders ‘glorified’
The racism goes back to the founding of Khartoum in 1821 as a marketplace for slaves.
By the last half of the century, about two-thirds of the city’s population was enslaved.
Sudan became one among the foremost active slave-raiding zones in Africa, with slaves transported from the south to the north, and to Egypt, the center East, and therefore the Mediterranean regions.
Slave traders are still glorified – a street within the heart of the capital is known as after al-Zubair Pasha Rahma, whose 19th Century trading empire stretched to parts of what’s now the Central African Republic and Chad.
Historians say he mainly captured women from the modern-day Sudanese areas of Blue Nile and therefore the Nuba Mountains, also as South Sudan and Ethiopia’s Oromia region. He was also known for his slave army, made from captives from South Sudan, which fought for the Ottomans.
Another street is known as after Osman Digna – a slaver and military commander, whose lucrative business was curtailed by the then-British colonial administration when it moved to outlaw slavery.
The practice was only officially abolished in 1924, but the choice faced strong resistance from the most Arab and Islamic leaders of that era, among them Abdelrahman al-Mahdi and Ali al-Mirghani, who many believe had slaves performing on the vast tracts of land they owned along the Nile.
Sudanese Journalist Zeinab Muhammad Salih said,” THE SUPERIORITY COMPLEX OF MANY ARABS LIES AT THE HEART OF SOME OF THE WORST CONFLICTS IN SUDAN”
They wrote to the colonial administration urging them to not abolish slavery, but their request was ignored.
The two men, alongside Unionist and Umma, their political parties, continued to wield enormous influence after independence, entrenching notions of Arab superiority within the new state by reserving most jobs for Arabs and failing to develop areas inhabited by black people.
Mahdi’s grandson, Sadiq al-Mahdi, served as prime minister from 1966 to 1967, and again from 1986 to 1989, when Mirghani’s son, Ahmed, became president during a coalition government the 2 men had formed.
Two Sudanese academics, Suliman Baldo and Ushari Mahoumd, publicly alleged in 1987 that they had uncovered evidence of some northern-based Arab groups enslaving black people from the south. they assert these groups were armed by Sadiq al-Mahdi’s military – and were the genesis of the Janjaweed militias, which were later accused of group action in Darfur.
The transitional government was formed by the military and therefore the civilian groups that led the 2019 revolution, but it’s unclear whether it’s genuinely committed to tackling the structural racism within the Sudanese state.
The Sudanese Congress Party (SCP), a key member of the civilian arm of the govt, says that a law has been proposed to criminalize hate speech. The punishment for using racial slurs would be five years in jail, told by SCP spokesman Mohamed Hassan Arabi.
But many black people are uneasy about the military’s role in government, given it had been a part of Mr. Bashir’s regime.
One of the few black ministers, Steven Amin Arno, quit within two months of taking office, saying during a resignation letter which appeared on social media that no-one was taking note of him.
The government didn’t discuss his allegations, which he says proves his point.