Blank spaces in Sudan’s census: religion, ethnicity

Times Staff Writer

Census-takers will soon fan out across Sudan’s vast and famously inhospitable terrain in the first nationwide head count in 25 years.

But the checklist of questions won’t include two hot issues that lie at the heart of this nation’s recent history of conflict: religion and ethnicity.

The government, led by President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, has decided not to tally numbers for Muslims, Christians and other faiths, nor will it gather data about tribe or ethnic origin.

Officials say they are worried such information will open old wounds at a time when Sudan is struggling to quell an insurgency in the western region of Darfur and recover from a 21-year north-south civil war.


But critics say the Muslim-led government is afraid the new census will reveal demographic changes, such as high population growth in the non-Muslim south, that might pose a challenge to its authority. The country has long been divided between those who see Sudan as an Islamic nation leaning toward the Arab world and others who advocate a secular government oriented toward its African neighbors.

“They are using religion in the government as a basis for power,” said the Rev. Mark Akec, deputy secretary-general of the Sudan Council of Churches, which recently called for the census forms to include questions on religion and ethnicity. “But the Arab population is declining. [The census] might show the world that they no longer have a majority.”

Government officials said they had been advised by international post-conflict experts that gathering such information in the current climate might increase tensions.

“What is the need for those questions?” asked Yasin Elhag Abdin, who was appointed this year to head Sudan’s Central Bureau of Statistics. “We know Sudan is a multiracial country. No one is disputing that.”

Leaders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the former southern rebels who are now part of the government, said Sudan needs to confront the sensitive issues head-on.

“This census is about finding out the reality of Sudan,” said Pagan Amum, SPLM secretary-general. “The [north-south] conflict was about the denial of the diversity of Sudan. Determining this diversity is what will bring peace.”

He said one of the root causes of the north-south civil war was an effort by Sudanese Arab northerners to impose Islamic law on southerners, including Christians and other non-Muslims.

In Darfur, tribe and ethnicity are among the many factors fueling conflict. Rebels allege discrimination by the Khartoum government, which they say has armed Sudanese Arab militias to attack non-Arab tribes. Government officials deny the claims, blaming rebels for igniting the conflict by attacking government facilities in 2003.

Similar ethnic-based disputes have beset regions in eastern Sudan and the Nubian homelands north of Khartoum.

The census is required by the 2005 north-south peace treaty and is seen as a crucial step toward next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.

The $110-million campaign, funded by the government and the United Nations, will mark the first time the entire country has been counted since 1983, when the civil war broke out. More than 52,000 census-takers are scheduled to begin work April 15.

Herbert Kandeh, U.N. technical advisor for the census, said it would determine some “real bread-and-butter issues”: how Sudan’s oil wealth will be shared among regions and how seats in a new national assembly will be distributed.

He confirmed that U.N. experts advised the government in 2006 to omit questions about religion and race, but he said both Bashir’s National Congress Party and the SPLM rejected the advice at the time. Bashir’s party changed its stance last year, Kandeh said.

SPLM leaders said they continue to lobby for the census forms to be amended. The governor of at least one southern state has threatened to boycott the census unless the questions are reinserted.

In Darfur, rebel leaders and victims of the violence say the census should be postponed until stability returns and an estimated 2.5 million displaced people can return home. They also complain that thousands of Chadian Arabs have crossed the border during the last year to live on deserted farmland, perhaps in an effort to sway the census and next year’s vote. According to U.N. figures, as many as 20,000 Chadians have entered Darfur since early 2007, though officials said most are legitimate refugees fleeing violence in Chad.

As many as one-third of Darfur’s displacement camps are viewed as “no-go” zones for census-takers, but U.N. negotiators are working to persuade camp leaders to embrace the campaign, Kandeh said.

Abdin, the government’s census chief, said he was confident that Darfur’s population would be accurately counted, with the exception of small rebel-held areas. He said his office would use U.N. estimates to ensure that refugees living in Chad were also included.

In the south, the impending head count has prompted a surge in returnees from refugee camps in neighboring countries or other parts of Sudan.

This month, the number returning from Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and other countries is expected to reach 6,000 -- double last year’s figure, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

“Part of the increase is seasonal, as people want to get home before the rainy season,” said refugee agency spokeswoman Fatoumata Kaba. “But many people are telling us they want to get home before the census. The government in the south is determined to see their people counted.”