Saturday, 10 October 2009

The 1964 Tipping Point(s): Collins and Gladwell (and a bit of Father Jon)

I finally (after much procrastination) finished the late Robert Collin’s A History of Modern Sudan

The first few chapters were tough going. I sincerely believe that Sudanese leaders throughout history have conspired to share similar names so as to confuse future generations of historians. I also believe that someone needs to workshop Sudanese liberation movements on the use of more varied acronyms. At least Anya-nya had some panache. The others: SLA, SPAF, SPAFF, SSDF, SPDF, SALF, SSIM, SSLM, SSUM and of course the splinter SPLMs (Nassir, United, etc.) need to let some new letters in on the action otherwise they will be forgotten for all eternity.

A couple weeks ago I took a break from “strictly necessary reading” to read “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell. This book is currently making its merry way round Khartoum (my friend Melissa, the librarian, says someone should do a PhD about what kind of books make their merry way round Khartoum and I agree). I wonder if the Tipping Point will tip Khartoum.

The Tipping Point is all about how the velocity of social change should be compared with the velocity of epidemics to show how small but important individuals and groups can “tip” wider society into profound change.  It demonstrates how often seemingly extraneous pressures can have profound unforeseen impacts on society; a slight change in the social temperature might cause the virus of an idea to spread. The ‘tipping point' is that crucial moment when ideas or trends cross a critical threshold and bring along the whole of society in their wake.

Sudan is a good case study to look at “tipping points”; there have been so many attempts at democracy: elections that have produced indecisive governments, which in the context of underlying tensions have led to social discontentment, uprisings, and finally, military coups. It seems crazy when you consider how many different “types” of government have held the reigns of Sudanese politics; the government swings from left to right, barely ever stopping in the middle to assess the past. In some ways this is both disheartening and comforting. It suggests that there are many different groups silently present within Sudanese society that rise and fall with time, depending on context and public opinion. Who knows how the future might tip…

The first tipping point I want to write about is 1964. The year that Sudan had its beautiful “October Revolution” but also the year that the Southern conflict truly burst from its womb.

Robert Collins writes,

“In 1959 the Southern Problem as it came to be known, did not exist. To be sure, all the elements were in place- the northern Sudanization of southern administrative positions, the mutiny and subsequent disturbances, the broken promises of federalism for Sudan, and the deep-rooted ethnic, cultural, and religious differences that found their expression in the disdain for, disenchantment with, and discrimination against southern Sudanese by northerners. The harsh repression of the “Southern Sudan Disturbances” after the 1955 mutiny had stunned the southerners into momentary passivity, a brooding bitter silence awaiting a spark to ignite the conflagration known as the Southern Problem” (Collins, 2008: 77-78).

To Robert Collins, this spark came in the form of educational policies in Southern Sudan. “Papa” Abbud, the new “prime minister” who had taken power in the coup of 1958 carried on the former government’s policy of Arabization and Islamization of southern Sudanese education. Six Islamic schools were opened in the South, along with mosques and the changing of the day of rest from Sunday to Friday. These changes were not accompanied by increases in economic funding and some projects actually had their funding re-directed to projects in the North! The government also targeted missions in the South, forbidding missionaries from opening new schools and from practicing Christianity outside of their churches. Finally in 1964, missionaries were completely expelled from Southern Sudan. Many Southern Sudanese Christians fled to Uganda during this time, where, under the leadership of Joseph Oduho Aworu, a Latuka school teacher and Father Saturnino, a Latuka Catholic priest, they founded the Sudan African Closed Districts National Union (SACDNU) which was later changed into the Sudan African National Union (SANU) in 1963. Within Khartoum, there was also the “Southern Front” and the formation of small armed guerrilla movements within Southern Sudan. With the support of Joseph Oduho and Father Saturnino, these guerrillas formed into the “Anya-Nya” movement in 1963.

In 1964, the Anya-Nya had its first significant success in an attack against the Bahr al Ghazal capital, Wau. This was met with harsh reprisals by the Sudanese army and from this point on, the army started to enforce its rule more harshly throughout the South.

I recently met Father Jon, an Italian priest at Comboni school in downtown Khartoum. He had been in Khartoum during this time and remembers the year well. He confirmed Robert Collin’s reading of the period, that it was the attack on the missionaries and changes in education that really sparked the conflict (of course, he would say this as a missionary!). Father Jon also remembers other smaller changes in the atmosphere of Khartoum that Collins does not mention. He says that in the 1960’s the composition of Christians in Sudan and Khartoum in particular, had begun to change. In the late 50’s/early 60’s, the Christians of Khartoum were mostly foreigners but there were also significant numbers of Hindus in the capital. When pressure against Christians and foreigners in general began to rise, many fled to South Africa and Comboni became increasingly Sudanized. It had always been a place of “encounter” (as Father Jon likes to describe it), a place where Christians and Muslims could meet and mix, but in the early 1960’s, Christians in Khartoum had begun to leave in drones. He also said that the government attempted to shepherd foreign businessmen in the South into the three main towns: Wau, Juba and Malakal. He explained that the army did not want them to see what was happening in rural areas. Many left Sudan, going to Uganda and Kenya to settle permanently.

Robert Collins gives the impression that Northerners knew what was happening in Southern Sudan during this time and that is why the students at the University of Khartoum had their famous meeting. The priest remembers it differently. He told me that the students (like many in the North) did not really understand what was happening in the South and that they wanted more information from the government. Whichever source you believe, on the 22nd of October 1964, students from the University of Khartoum violated a government ban against their meeting and publically challenged the police. Many were injured during the clash and one student, Ahmad Qurashi died in hospital following the incident. This prompted huge demonstrations in the capital against the regime. There had been growing discontentment before this time. There had been rebellions within the army, opposition from Nubian groups (which were joined by the Sudanese communists) against the building of the dam and the flooding of their lands, and of course, the growth of the Muslim Brothers in Sudan. But these isolated opposition needed some general feeling among the population in order to tip them into mass action. The Southern Problem and the visible repression of the student demonstration in the form of the death of Ahmad Qurashi pushed these feelings into a wider arena and precipitated the end of the Abbud regime:

“On Saturday 25 October 1964 the High Court, using its supreme authority, issued a permit for a large demonstration led by a spontaneously organized group of teachers, engineers, lawyers and even doctors calling themselves the National Front of Professional, who were soon joined by trade unionists and radical members from the Gezira Tenants’ Association” (Collins, 2009: 81).

“Papa” Abbud apparently watched from the balcony of his palace as the whole city drew into the streets. On the 26th of October, he dissolved the Supreme Council. Father Jon remembers this day, for it saw mass celebrations in the capital. He said there were so many people in the street, you could only see heads, no bodies, no feet. From Collins:

“the usually reserved Sudanese poured into the streets, men dancing and women ululating to gather in huge crowds charged with delirious joy. An enormous celebratory wave swept through the capital, and the legend of a bloodless revolution soon became deeply embedded in Sudanese folklore. “Remember the October Revolution” became the rallying cry during the bloodless fall of Numayri’s military regime in 1985 and has remained so in Sudanese anti-government demonstrations ever since” (Collins, 2009: 81).

I ABSOLUTELY love this line of the book:

“President ‘Abbud quietly departed on 14 November 1964; the day after leaving the Palace he was cheered by shoppers in the suq while purchasing oranges” (Collins, 2009: 81).

The Sudanese population had successfully brought down a military regime through peaceful demonstrations in the capital. It was the combination of underlying resentment within specific communities: the Nubians, the communists and trade unionists, the military officers, the Islamists and finally, the Southern Sudanese and the students/professionals who joined in to push the regime over the edge. It became mainsteam.

However the problems did not end with the dissolution of the Supreme Council.

1964 should not just be remembered as the year of the October revolution but also as the year that the North-South conflict first manifested itself within the capital. Father Jon said that in December 1964, a group of Southern Sudanese residents went to the airport to welcome the Minister of the Interior, Clement Mboro to the capital. He was the first Southern Sudanese minister in the government and was therefore a “big deal”. When his plane was delayed, the group got rowdy and marched downtown towards the palace. Collins describes it quite violently, saying the Southern Sudanese marched, “assaulting every and any mudukuru (those who rise early in the morning before the dew dries to seize slaves)- a nineteenth century Bari term widely popularized among the Southerners after independence as a derisive epithet for any northern Sudanese Arab- in what became a ‘race riot’ that left nearly a hundred dead” (Collins, 2009: 82). 

Father Jon remembers it quite differently. He says that the march started peacefully and that it was only when rumours began to circulate around the city that there was a Southern mob causing trouble, Northerners in a near-by stadium came to confront them. They met in the centre of the town, very close to Comboni school. Father Jon remembers that the school was attacked, windows shattered and that Muslim students in the dorm-rooms had raced out to placate the angry mob. In those days Comboni school educated mostly Muslim students (and the priest believes this is why the school was able to remain open throughout its troubled history, because senior civil servants had themselves been students of Comboni). But in the midst of the 1964 mob, Muslim boarders came out of their beds and rushed to the gates of the church to protect their school from being destroyed. Without them, the priests and their school might not have survived the night. 

December 6th is known, as “Black Sunday” in Sudan, for it was the first time that the capital had seen a glimmer of the Southern conflict with their own eyes. In the wake of such public violence, attitudes towards Southerners began to shift and Northerners grew increasingly suspicious and antagonistic towards their Southern brothers and sisters.

It seems insane to me that a couple months after the October revolution there could be such a reversal in public opinion. The October revolution was such a beautiful moment in Sudanese history, a moment in which Northerners stood in solidarity with their fellow citizens in the South, demanding information about what their government was doing and standing in direct opposition to the government even when faced with the threat of violence and repression. But then, just two months later, an angry mob was able to tear down this solidarity in one bloody night.

Demonstrations and mobs can sweep people away. They can sweep away governments but they can also sweep away public opinion. In some ways, they are a manifestation of Gladwell’s “Power of the Few”.  If they are able to create a “sticky image”, like the death of Ahmad Qurashi or the visible image of Southerners killing Northerners and this image fit this into a context of underlying tension, a few angry individuals can swing public opinion in their favour.

The Tipping Point is a powerful metaphor because it speaks of the fragility and susceptibility of social structure.  Things do not necessarily tip in the “right” way, but in a powerful sweeping way that can have profound and permanent change. And importantly, you cannot always tip back to where you once were.

In 1964, the impression of Southerners in the Northern imagination was still fresh. There were very few Southerners in the capital and they had little experience with the conflict itself. By 1968, this had changed.

Father Jon remembers Christmas day in 1968. On previous occasions, the church had not been full. Foreign Christians had long packed their bags and very few Southern Sudanese were present in the capital. On most days, Christians were not able to gather in huge numbers so it was difficult to assess their numbers. But on Christmas day in 1968, Father Jon said that the church was suddenly packed. It was impossible to get to the front. Southern Sudan had rather dramatically come to the North. Father Jon described this movement as an “invasion”: “Southern Sudan had invaded Khartoum, without firing a shot” He says. Unfortunately, this invasion came without power and without significant integration. The Southerners were kept apart, exiled to the outer reaches of the city. Some were able to penetrate the urban economy and the social body of the city but these were few and far between. In addition, the war had raged in the South and the impression of Southerners in the Northern imagination had hardened into more permanent feelings of strangeness and detachment. And here lies, the danger of Tipping Points.

Small things can make big differences but cannot as easily change back. 1964 was a real Tipping Point for Sudan. A Pandora's box of possibility that tipped out of hand. In this way, Malcolm Gladwell’s tagline: “How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference” does not necessarily have to be positive. It can also be quite negative.

We should learn from these instances in history. We should learn how important mobs can be, how they can quickly damage public opinion in profound ways that do not match perfectly with reality on the ground. Symbolic events like demonstrations and riots can have deep and lasting effects on public opinion and policy. While it is easy to bring together discordant groups with a common enemy, it is much harder to reconcile deep-seated hatred and suspicion between groups who do not necessarily share common ground. The tipping point metaphor is useful in some instances but far less useful in explaining long-term processes like conflict resolution and peace building. At the end of the Tipping Point, Gladwell talks about the search for the “unsticky cigarette”; how you can make something so pervasive an seemingly indispensable unstick itself from social acceptance.  His argument is all about threshold of nicotine and addiction among teenagers, but surely there are some problems, like social suspicion, distrust and deep-seated discrimination, that are not so easily measured and administered.

There are many fascinating projects and ideas about conflict resolution bustling in this city at the moment and I applaud all those people working on such a hard issue. I have heard that UNICEF is going to try to make it a key issue in the future and I am so happy about this. Because it is a hard slog uphill. I would love it if Malcolm Gladwell or others could try to apply the Tipping Point theory to conflict resolution.  It might not be as sexy as a fashion trend or even a popular revolution, but in some ways, it is much much more important. Revolutions can sweep away governments but it is not always as easy to sweep away prejudice. Please Malcolm Gladwell, take your theory into the darker corners of social change! You have so far shone in the light! 

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