NOTE DE RECHERCHE / RESEARCH NOTE
Sudan’s Discursive Battlefield: 1983-1989
By Sebabatso Manoeli
The 1980s were unsurprisingly a tumultuous decade for Sudanese politics. President Nimeiri’s dramatic decline in popularity in the early 1980s, the rekindling of war in 1983, the bloodless coup of 1985, and the series of coalition governments that proliferated in the aftermath are but a few acmes of the disruptive era. Yet despite the rapid political changes, all the regimes of this decade relied on a remarkably consistent propaganda strategy to combat the proponents of the Southern cause. Among these seditious political organizations, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and Army (SPLM/A) posed the most significant threat to the state. The government thus employed a two-pronged approach designed to shame Ethiopia and to belittle the SPLM to international audiences. It is important to note that discrediting strategies typically rely on moralistic rhetoric affecting the emotions of target audiences.
Controlling the narrative of the war was important for the government. The purpose of its propaganda was to shape the way the world understood the SPLM. Thus, the government frequently used the newsletters disseminated through the Sudanese embassies abroad as a channel through which to offer the official version of the war. From as early as June 1983, Sudan’s President Nimeiri publicly named the interveners on the BBC’s « This Week in Africa », alleging that Ethiopia and Libya served as the main backers of the SPLM/A. It continued publicising these allegations throughout the decade, only removing Libya from the list of foreign conspirators after the fall of Nimeiri, when Ghaddafi’s ally, Saddiq el-Mahdi, came to power in 1986.
The Sudanese Government claimed to have evidence that, “the Sudan rebel movement was based inside Ethiopian territories and it has a radio transmission and training camps there”. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, throughout the 1980s, the Ethiopian government publicly denied any involvement with the SPLM vociferously. By publicising these facts, Sudan framed Ethiopia as a transgressor and a rogue state in the international system, not least in the African political context since it housed the Organisation for African Unity headquarters.
The Sudanese government spared no opportunity to announce what it portrayed as a great violation of its national sovereignty – notwithstanding its own generous support of Ethiopian secessionist rebels. For example, at the East and Central African Countries Summit in Khartoum in June 1987, the Premier of Sudan reportedly painted the conflict as follows: “What we face in the South is not a local mutiny but a tool of foreign invasion.” A month later, during a six-day tour of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar, the Prime Minister announced the government’s plan of “launching an international campaign at the UN, OAU, and the Arab League to expose that the prevailing rebellion is not a mere internal question but an explicit foreign intervention.”
Similarly, the government also often characterized the SPLM as merely Ethiopia’s “tool” lacking in agency and initiative, and a derivative of the Communist-leaning Ethiopian state. Subsequently, the West widely considered the SPLM a Communist organization by virtue of its association with the Derg during the Cold War era. With little else to corroborate the allegation, the superficial Marxist-Leninist veneer of the SPLM’s official 1983 Manifesto did little to clear its reputation.
The government also branded the SPLM as, “a handful of Sudanese traitors.” This statement, made in 1988 when the number of SPLA soldiers equalled if not exceeded that of the Sudan Armed Forces, was the government’s crafty intimation that the SPLM posed no significant threat on the battlefield. The use of the word “traitor” polemically suggests that the SPLM were simply unpatriotic outlaws. In short, according to the government of Sudan, the SPLM was a negligible and treasonous, Communist-leaning tool in the hands of foreign powers. By the end of the decade, Garang reflected on the misrepresentation of his movement through government propaganda. At his 1989 speech at the Brookings Institute in Washington DC, he jested:
In 83 we were being accused of being anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, separatists and all that. I have a cartoon in Khartoum where I am supposed to wear the flag of the United States written CIA, there is a Star of David, there is a Russian sickle and hammer, there is a big cross here on my tie. There is even a German swastika here… I have been accused of being, in one sentence, an agent of international communism and a Church, all in one sentence! (Burr & Collins, A Requiem for Sudan, p. 191)
The political cartoon distorted reality since the SPLM was largely viewed as communist leaning by the US, and was therefore not supported by the West. The USSR allegedly did not consider the SPLM communist enough, and also did not offer its support. The most effective piece of government propaganda was the doubt it cast on the Movement’s relationship with Arab and Muslim Sudanese citizens.
The leadership of the SPLM ostensibly expected such misrepresentations and countered them on the global public square. The SPLM framed itself as an anti-sectarian organisation that welcomed all Sudanese. It produced propaganda material in English and Arabic in an attempt to draw supporters from all over Sudan including the constituencies typically in support of the ruling class. Abroad, the SPLM was able to gain recognition in parts of the Middle East as a result of successfully projecting an inclusive image to a variety of international audiences.
The propaganda war continued beyond the 1980s. Yet, the significance of the decade stems from the Sudanese government’s consistent portrayal of the SPLM abroad. This changed considerably after the 1989 military coup that ushered in the current regime of Omar el-Bashir. His government continued supporting Ethiopian dissidents, however, these succeeded in toppling the Mengistu regime in 1991, and thus the vilification of the Ethiopian state ceased to be expedient when Sudan’s former allies came to power. The fall – which corresponded with the end of the Cold War – precipitated the expulsion of the SPLM from Ethiopia, and the Sudanese government could no longer frame them as a foreign government’s instruments. Thereafter, the discursive battlefield adapted to the new global political landscape.
Sebabatso Manoeli is a Rhodes Scholar from Lesotho and South Africa. At the University of Oxford, Ms Manoeli’s PhD research focuses on Southern Sudanese exile politics. Her work aims at helping us better understand the diplomacy of liberation movements in Africa through this case study. Prior to the PhD, she obtained the MSc in African Studies at the University of Oxford where she was awarded the African Studies Prize for her dissertation which focused on multiculturalism and securalism in a girl’s school in 20th Century Khartoum, Sudan. She has done research for the Peace Research Institute of Oslo’s Dynamics of State Failure and Violence project, as well as the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generation. While working as the Machel-Mandela Intern at the Brenthurst Foundation, Sebabatso’s research focused on Lesotho’s textile industry, and the experiences of Chinese traders in 5 African countries. She obtained her undergraduate degree at Amherst College where she was a Mandela Scholar.
Photo: Mabior Garang de Mabior