Darfurians in South Sudan: Negotiating belonging in two Sudans

Published: 21 Dec 2012
By: Lucy Hovil

What happens when you find you have suddenly become a foreigner in the country of your birth? This is exactly what happened to Darfurians last year who were living in South Sudan at the point at which it became the world’s newest state. As Darfur is geographically in the reduced (north) Sudan, technically they were no longer citizens in the South.

In response to this question, today IRRI is launching the Arabic version of its paper, “Darfurians in South Sudan: Negotiating belonging in two Sudans” at a discussion forum in Kampala with the Sudanese refugee community. The paper is about citizenship, identity and belonging at the moment when South Sudan seceded from the Republic of Sudan on 9 July 2011.

Secession marked the symbolic end of decades of the longest running of Sudan’s wars. But a year and a half later, tensions continue between the two new states. And despite lengthy discussions around how both countries should recognise and treat their mutual citizens, Darfurians in South Sudan continue to face many challenges. They are now joined in the challenge of exile by hundreds of thousands of fellow Sudanese fleeing a disastrous new war in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. As the cycle of exclusion, violence, suffering and displacement replicates in a new guise, many are calling these states “the New South”.

Contrary to the media’s simplistic and inaccurate portrayal of the north/south war as being a cultural or religious clash of civilisations (with an Arabic, Muslim north against an animist, Christian south), in reality the war was rooted in decades of abuse by a centralised source of power that was (and still is) hugely unjust. Since independence from colonialism, the majority of people legally defined as ‘Sudanese’ have had little, if any, ability to influence political processes in their country, and this political exclusion lay at the root of decades of conflict across many parts of Sudan. All of the conflicts in Sudan – from the South, to the East, to Darfur and the far North – have reflected, at some level, the reality of people living on the peripheries, experiencing a second class form of citizenship, unable to participate meaningfully in the political governance of their country.

While the secession of the South therefore might have gone some way to resolve one major conflict, it has done nothing to resolve the roots of the other areas of conflict. In fact, arguably secession has only made things worse. The division of Sudan has had a huge impact on all Sudanese people, whether those perceived as ‘southern’ who now find themselves stranded and rejected as foreigners in the North; ‘northerners’ who do not identify with a repressive Sudanese government; new South Sudanese citizens returning to a newly configured South Sudan; or those displaced by the multiple and growing conflicts across Darfur and the border regions of South Kordofan and Blue Nile states. Beneath the surface of political change, therefore, are multiple stories of individuals and groups who do not necessarily conform to tidy political categories, who find themselves in circumstances in which state-centric articulations of citizenship do not reflect their circumstances, and who simply do not belong.

This paper explores one such narrative: the way in which Darfurians living in the South perceive, and are negotiating, their position within the new political configuration of South Sudan – whether temporarily or permanently. While determining the status of Darfurians in South Sudan might not currently seem a priority in the broader scheme of what is taking place, the paper argues that the inclusion of apparently peripheral or marginalised groups lies at the heart of building a new state in the South. By creating an environment that enables people to secure their safety, South Sudan is more likely to encourage an era of peace and reduce the likelihood of a return to conflict both within the country and on its borders. The treatment of the relatively small number of Darfurians in South Sudan, therefore, represents something significant: by emphasising a state built on inclusion rather than exclusion, the fledgling South will enhance its ability to develop into a robust and sustainable political, economic and social community in which diversity is recognised as an asset rather than a threat, and core principles such as protection and the granting of asylum are upheld.


Programmes: Statelessness, Citizenship and Right to a Nationality, Resolving Displacement, Rights in Exile
Regions: North and Horn of Africa, Sudan
Type: IRRI Blog