SUDAN WEEK – Security and state-making – arguments for a subaltern security approach in the case of Sudan and South Sudan 

To discuss Sudan’s security predicament, we need to understand the historical development of the modern state in Sudan. Sudan got independence from the Anglo-Egyptian colonial administration in 1956. Before the arrival of Lord Kitchener’s army, Sudan was ruled by the Mahdist state, which was a religious state based on the prophecy of the “Mahdi.”

Mohamed Ahmad El-Mahdi, the founder of Mahdist state in Sudan, was a Sufi religious fisherman from Aljazeera Aba (Aba Island) in today’s central Sudan. El-Mahdi saw the injustices of the Turkish rulers who were governing Sudan under the rule of Mohamed Ali Basha of Egypt at the time. He then, according to his memories, claimed that he saw Prophet Mohamed (Peace be upon him) in his dreams instructing him to fight the Turkish invaders because of their wrongdoings and injustices. He also claimed that the Prophet told him that he would be the long-awaited Mahdi, and here is where the name Mahdi came from. Then, El-Mahdi traveled from Aljazeera Aba to campaign against Turkish rule through Sudan. He also invited people to join him as the long-awaited Mahdi for Jihad against the Turks. El-Mahdi’s campaign was so successful that many tribes from Darfur in the West, Dongola in the North, and Suwakin in the East joined him. After multiple successful battles, El- Mahdi liberated Khartoum, the capital, in 1885, and Gordon Basha, the revered British General and the General ruler of Sudan, were killed. The Mahdist state lasted for fourteen years and fell after the British invasion in 1898. 

The British colonial administration established the founding pillars of today’s modern Sudan. The colonial administration enclosed different tribes and peoples that had never been ruled under a single entity by drawing Sudan borders. The colonial borders of Sudan and all of Africa were drawn to serve the interest of the White colonial powers, and they did not respect any ethnic and tribal or cohesion in the continent. As a result, the modern state in Sudan contained Nubian tribes in northern and eastern Sudan, African tribes in southern Sudan, and Arab tribes in central Sudan. Furthermore, Southern Sudan was not a part of modern Sudan until a couple of years before Sudan’s Independence because the British applied the “closed doors” policy in the region. The justification was that the South was not ready for exposure to the modern world. However, they allowed Christian missionaries to operate schools and medical clinics in southern Sudan.

When Sudan got independence, it faced a civil war between the North and the South. The British project of a modern state in Sudan lacked the essential prerequisite for the state, a nation. The state-making project in Sudan is a colonial project that never graduated until now because the state concept was never questioned or challenged. Therefore, the civil war in Sudan was never addressed as a problem of the state framework, not a problem within the state framework.

The realist security approach addressed Sudan’s civil war within the state-centric perception that peace could be achieved through top-down elite peace agreements and equal regional development. That was the approach of the US in 2005 when the US mediated the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the North government in Sudan and the Southern rebel groups. Southern Sudanese “self-determination” that was secured in the agreement implied that there should be a “Southern” nation that would seek self-determination. Even the more developed North has not achieved the “imagined” nation and is still struggling with center-periphery marginalization by the state. In the North, the post-colonial elites of the center fought tribal traditional institutions for power. Similarly, secessionist rebel groups were the only representatives in South Sudan. The international community never wanted to see beyond the state structure in Sudan and South Sudan. The result was civil wars in both countries even after the independence of South Sudan.

Image from CIA World Factbook/Public Domain

An approach to political security that appreciates the nature of the state in the Third World countries is the post-colonial or subaltern security approach. As Mohammed Ayoob, who is the father of the subaltern realist school of security, argued, “most conflicts since the end of World War II have been, and are, intimately related to the process of state-making (and its obverse, state breaking) and cannot be explained in terms of the traditional realist paradigm.”[1]. The state-making perspective seeks to study security issues in the Third World while appreciating that these countries did not complete the state-making process. It also acknowledges the social disparities that the post-colonial state suffers in most of the Global South. 

One good example of the Third World security approach is the border war between Sudan and South Sudan in 2012. The armed confrontation between Sudan and South Sudan during March and April 2012 was not surprising for many regional experts. South Sudan, the newest African country, got independence from Sudan as late as July of 2011 after a referendum that decided the fate of Southern Sudanese. The referendum that ensured self-determination was the main article in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the longest African civil war between Sudan and the Sudanese People Liberation Army (SPLA). 

Both countries were going through an incomplete state-making process. The CPA triggered national elections in Sudan in 2005, and the country saw an opening of the public space for the first time since Omar Al-Bashir‘s coup d’état in 1989. Many opposition parties participated in the polls and won parliamentary seats. However, after South Sudan’s secession and the departure of oil revenues that came from southern states, Sudan’s economic situation derailed. Omar Al-Bashir’s dictatorship depended heavily on oil revenues to subsidize public commodities and maintain loyalty among military and political elites. While the CPA’s democratic measures cracked Bashir’s oppressive authority and provided a free public space for opposition, the loss of oil revenues blew Bashir’s loyal and social base. 

On the other hand, South Sudan was going through a foundational transition. The SPLA, which is the main rebellion movement, transformed into the new nation’s ruling party. Nevertheless, governing a guerilla rebellion was an easy ride compared to running a state. After the achievement of independence and the common enemy’s disappearance, the ethnic division began to haunt the new government. The SPLA’s leadership, mainly from the Dinka tribe, started to empower Dinka fellows in government posts and sidelined other tribal leaders. Corruption also hit hard as the government leaders exploited the massive oil revenues for their financial benefits [2]. 

Bashir was in dire need of a popularity boost as the economic situation deteriorated. A rally-’round-the-flag border conflict would be beneficial, especially when the contested area is an oil field. South Sudan’s ruling elite needed an enemy, as well as tribal frictions, to solidify the Dinka’s powerful grip. Also, the Dinka believe that the Abyei area is historically a Dinka land. Ethnic nationalism ideology by Arabs in the North and Dinka in the South provided the basis for a border conflict. The rhetoric used by both governments was surprisingly similar as they accused each other of intervening in internal affairs. Sudan accused South Sudan of supporting the rebel groups in Kordofan, while South Sudan accused Sudan of supporting the Nuer tribal forces.

Ayoob’s subaltern security approach would explain the border war between Sudan and South Sudan. As he drew from Charles Tilly’s war-making theory, the war in South Sudan was a failed attempt to formulate nationhood and ultimately a nation-state in both countries. However, Ayoob’s approach is still confined to the state-centric narrative. While his approach highlights that the traditional realist approach does not suit the post-colonial state in the Third World countries, it does not question the centrality of the state in conceptualizing security. 

Other security approaches have tried to challenge the state-centric approach, such as the Copenhagen School or the Securitization school. Barry Buzan, one of the school’s eminent theorists, argues that security can be conceptualized as a speech act; the claim is that political issues can become securitized (turned into a security issue) and thus are pushed outside the realm of ordinary politics. However, scholars like Ken Booth criticized the Copenhagen School for not moving far enough to challenge state-centrism. He further argued that the securitization school is elite-centric and does not address people’s fears [3].

The other critical approach is Booth’s emancipation security (Frankfurt School), which aims to liberate people (as individuals and groups) from physical and human constraints that stop them from carrying out what they freely choose to do. However, while the Frankfurt school provides a suitable framework to include marginalized peoples and tribes in the security debate, it stops short of addressing the unique dilemma of internal conflicts of state-making in the Global South.

There is a need to develop a people-driven security concept to address Africa’s security issues. Since the majority of conflicts are in the Global South, security should be defined through a bottom-up process that is inclusive to the marginalized people of the Global South. Nonetheless, the nation-state should not be taken for granted, especially when dealing with post-colonial states. It is a historical and debatable subject with a particular ideology that could and should be challenged in the context of peoples’ sufferings. As Samir Amin argued: “The nation-state ideology is, however, so powerful that when, in the aftermath of the Second World War, all the countries of the world were bidding for independence, [and] they constituted a system of would-be nation-states. However, at the very moment when the nation-state was being proclaimed everywhere, it was entering a crisis everywhere, even at its centers of origin, a crisis from which there seems no escape [4].” 

The best configuration to approach security in Africa and the Middle East will be through a combination of the Subaltern post-colonial security school and the critical security school of Frankfurt. The former would ensure proper recognition of the colonial state-making dilemma in the Third World countries, and the latter would guarantee that the security narrative is people-driven and speaks to their interests and needs.

Yasir Zaidan is a PhD student at The Henry M Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington and a part time Lecturer at The National University in Sudan.


[1]Ayoob, Mohammed. The Third World Security Predicament: State Making, Regional Conflict, and the International System. Emerging Global Issues. Boulder: L. Rienner Publishers, 1995.

[2] Dersso, 2012

[3] Buzan, Barry., and Hansen, Lene. The Evolution of International Security Studies. Cambridge [UK] ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

[4]Amin, Samir. Maldevelopment: Anatomy of a Global Failure. Studies in African Political Economy. Tokyo : London; Atlantic Highlands, NJ, USA: United Nations University Press ; Zed Books, 1990.

Yasir Zaidan
Guest Writer