Posted by: Caity | June 10, 2010

Transcribing Tyranny: Darfur’s Black Book and the Language of Resistance

Here is the second of posts that I’ve written on others’ blogs, in this case on Alex de Waal’s blog with the Social Science Research Council, “Making Sense of Sudan.” It is a summary of my thesis project, which involved translating from Arabic a foundational text written by individuals who would become the Justice and Equality Movement, the main rebel group in Darfur. For my thesis, I analyzed the language of the document with special regards to their critique of the Sudanese government and their vision for social change.


Many seeking to understand the causes of Darfur’s rebellion look to the Black Book: Imbalance of Power and Wealth in Sudan, which was clandestinely published in 2000 by individuals who would later form Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), as representing the seeds of the rebellion. It was the ideological articulation of Darfurian opposition to the regime that preceded armed rebellion. With its meticulous tables, anecdotal evidence, and theorizing on Islamic rule, it claimed to expose the deep-seated ethnic imbalance from all of Sudan’s post-independence governments, but its critical gaze was especially focused on the hypocrisy and inequality under the “Salvation” (ingaz) Islamist regime, which took control in a military coup in 1989 led by current President Omar al-Bashir.

While existing scholarship on the Black Book emphasizes its importance in modern Sudanese history, it does not analyze its critiques or highlight their implications for actual political change in Sudan. Closely examining the Black Book and its critique of the Sudanese government reveals important and neglected aspects of the agenda of the Darfur rebellion, and especially that of the Justice and Equality Movement.

For my Master’s thesis on the topic I first undertook a close translation from the original Arabic, prominently posted on JEM’s website. The commonly available translation serves well for understanding the general meaning but not for undertaking a close textual analysis, as the translator at times added and deleted paragraphs and paraphrased or rewrote difficult sections.

Drawing on my own translation of the Black Book, I show that while the Black Book dutifully documents the failures of the current regime to live up to its slogans of full equality under Islam and thus offers a challenge to the regime, it fails to move beyond the paradigm and structure of the ruling regime in its critique and thus precludes any wider structural change that might bring about the desired justice and equality. By utilizing language that simultaneously blames and apologizes for the political elite and concluding by asking their “brothers to give up a little,” it does not address the foundational structural inequality in Sudan, and hints a desire for a place at the political table.

The challenge of the Black Book to the Sudanese government was a significant one: it exposed the hypocrisy of the regime and cataloged its failures to live up to its slogans touting brotherly equality under the banner of Islam. Its force as a text came from the fact that it provided statistics and evidence documenting a reality that all had known but had not had the proof with which to effectively challenge the regime. And yet its challenge had limits.

It is clear from the perspective of the authors of the Black Book that the problems of Sudan are persistent and deep-rooted in the nation’s structure, as the injustice was “practiced by the successive political regimes upon the country from independence until today, regardless of the regimes’ affiliations or forms: secular or Islamic, allegedly democratic or dictatorial.” Injustice has been made into law (“taqniin al-dhulm”). “Corruption” had “become the state.” The National State Support Fund is called a “state organ to reinforce that disparity.” All governments have followed the same “signposts on the path” that were laid by “sectarianism” and exploitation. Indeed, a perspective emphasizing the structural causes of Sudan’s conflicts, including patterns of exploitative governance between the center and periphery, inequalities of development that persisted after colonialism, and a narrowly based nationalist movement among the northern elite and based on Arab Islamic identity, is widely accepted in scholarship about the conflict in Darfur and political disintegration in Sudan in general.

Despite the authors’ clarity in the Black Book regarding the structural causes of the plethora of problems and instances of injustice enumerated throughout the text, a clarity likewise held by political thinkers and historians, the Black Book does not call for structural change. In contrast to other revolutionary Sudanese thinkers such as John Garang, who called for a “new political Sudanese dispensation” and a “paradigm shift from the old Sudan of exclusivity to the new Sudan of inclusivity,” the authors of the Black Book do not take such a radical stance when they leave the realm of criticism and enter that of recommendation.

The authors of the Black Book conclude by asking their “brothers to give up a little.” After fifty pages of exposing the regime’s hypocrisy, the “deep stupidity, aimless ignorance, paralyzing sickness and poverty” caused by its unjust actions, and the reality of state structures as simply being tools to enforce one region’s hegemony, the authors of the Black Book are content with things as they are—as long as those on top cede a little of their power and wealth. “Stay away from exploitation,” they say, and “be true to the slogans that were raised.” After they suggest that the “hidden desire of these people is to gain mastery over slaves” and that “barefaced injustice” exists within their “inmost selves,” their recourse is to ask them simply to stay away from exploitation. Is this not, to use the phrasing of the Black Book, asking for the straightness of the shadow when they’ve determined the branch to be crooked? Similarly, after the Islamic slogans of the Salvation regime were exposed to be simply tools to get into power, they curiously ask their leaders to be true to what they’ve just determined to be a lie.

As a part of the same discursive community that brought the Salvation regime into power, the authors of the Black Book express that they are deeply invested in the present model of the Sudanese state as an Islamic state: “The Islamic world today has its eyes on Sudan, and it has bound its hopes to the success of the Sudanese experience. The destruction of this model is a grave felony to Islam and Muslims.” As such, while they are clear about the structural decay and the need for change at that level for any of Sudan’s many conflicts and injustices to be ameliorated, the authors of the Black Book are invested in the state as it is—the model and the state structure. In asking their “brothers” to give up a little, they are not reimagining a state that has undergone a revolutionary transformation in its political and economic apparatuses. They are seeking to be included at the table.

The incoherence of the Black Book in its documentation of injustice as compared to its suggestions for change evidences the limits of its critique, mainly that the authors fail to think outside the paradigm and structure of the current regime and thereby abide by its idiom, boundaries, and definitions of state and reality. And yet a further testimony that the authors of the Black Book have not gone beyond the paradigm and structure of the government that they critique is that they themselves mirror that government in terms of rhetoric and action. The lengthy sections of the Black Book that claim to articulate the “original” view of Islamic rule mirror the slogans and rhetorical stance of the Salvation regime in terms of their claim to represent “Islam,” call for the leadership of Islam itself, and their collapsing of multiplicity and subjectivity with regards to religion. Soon after, as the authors of the Black Book began the rebel Justice and Equality Movement upon the stance of exposing rule by elite, the group itself became dominated by a local elite, the clan of its leader. “[B]efore the ink in which these words were written dried up,” write the signatories of a 2006 internal JEM “reformatory memo” that challenges JEM in a similar way that the Black Book challenged the Salvation regime, “those leaders have reneged from the principles of the revolution and resorted to the narrow regionalistic, exclusionary and tribal approach

With an issue such as institutionalized injustice, change does not mean placing a different figure at the top or putting another chair at the political table. If JEM’s goal is to push for power for themselves, they may likely succeed by pursuing the course that they’ve chosen. And while sitting at the table they may be in the position to make some changes. But if their goal is to create lasting change that challenges the structural injustice that has plagued Sudan since it has been an independent state, they will need to pursue an alternate course that starts with internal coherence. They must define and model the change they wish to create.

As the Black Book was quietly passed out in the streets of Khartoum that Friday in 2000 despite the censorship regime of the Salvation government, there seemed a possibility of great change. The regime had been publicly challenged. Its hypocrisy had been meticulously documented and aired to the wind. And yet what followed is that the rebel group based on that document, in fighting the government, has evinced the injustice and inequality, the slogans and political maneuvering, and the desire for power for which they so eloquently criticized the Salvation regime. Ultimately, they have followed the same signposts on that same path on which has walked every leading regime or group in Sudan since its independence in 1956. If they were to pursue revolutionary change rather than simply a reformist critique from within, they would start by diverging from that path.


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