The new on-off war between Sudan and South Sudan has attracted much international attention, particularly because President Omar Bashir of Sudan has recently begun to use some disturbing words. Bashir, not one to shy away from a good play on words or a punchy slogan, has encouraged and popularised the use of the term hashara – insect – in reference to the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), a play on the term haraka (movement). This term has been taken up by enthusiastic proponents of this state propaganda in violence and personal attacks on Southerners in the north, and in inflammatory op-eds in the more enthusiastically pro-war newspapers in Khartoum. (See on Bloomberg and at Human Rights Watch.)
This rhetoric – explained well by Magdi at StillSUDAN – has been well-publicised, partly because of the easy parallels with the Rwandan genocidaire use of the term “cockroaches.” The focus on this nastily entomological preoccupation of northern Sudan, however, should not distract from the overall seachange in rhetoric in both Sudans since the independence of the South last year on 9 July 2011. Both sides (to varying extents) are moving towards a more violent, racist and inflammatory language.
This does not mean that the Southern politicians are openly engaging in the same kind of up-front incitement as Bashir and his supporters. While Bashir reserves his more virulent speeches for less reported events within Sudan, the SPLA has engaged in a more international-oriented type of terminology, accusing the North of planning ‘genocide’ and ‘Islamisation’ ideas that buy into international – and often evangelical and right-wing – biases and fears. This is a more politically “acceptable” level of fear-mongering, particularly in NGO and UN-heavy South Sudan; however, away from these public pronouncements, Southern rhetoric is less self-consciously measured. Southerners returning from other countries, particularly the north, have been called jellaba – exploitative northern traders – and Arabs; some have been called sell-outs and disloyal. The Ministry of Energy and Mining hung bright red posters around its compound in Juba for South Sudan’s independence day in 2011 calling the northern Sudanese ‘traders of slavery,’ colonisers and even ‘the cursed devil.’ Racial explanations of the current crisis are now far more acceptable in many circles, or at least more prevalent, as this language permeates both north and south.
While Bashir’s rhetoric is arguably nastier, both Sudan and South Sudan’s authoritarian and military-led governments have persistently (and often successfully) mobilised this racial and jingoistic rhetoric since the beginning of the civil wars in the mid-1960s; terms abd/abeed (slaves), farkh (descendants of slaves), slave traders, jellaba and colonialists have loaded historical legacies of their own. Tracing these terms provides a visible historical barometer of politics and tensions.
This rhetoric is often racist, but more importantly it is mobilising and uniting, while also polarising each side. As the undeclared war has escalated between Sudan and South Sudan, this language has become at least internally socially acceptable to some – for example, Sudan Tribune’s comments pages are proving difficult to control, despite being the preserve of the English-speaking, online and often diaspora Sudanese minority (see here) The CPA period from 2005-2011 – much like the 1972-1983 period under the Addis Ababa peace agreement – has been a temporary hiatus from the overt public use of this language. The insects were put on ice.
Nicki is a PhD student at Durham University, researching the recent history of Southern Sudanese communities and their political activity in greater Khartoum, Sudan. You can read more of her work here.