Mahmoud El Zain Hamid
Author: Ross Ryan
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 09/25/2011
Mahmoud El Zain Hamid was a brilliant thinker and inspiring teacher
who took delight in lively dialogue and discussion, particularly when
unconventional points of view and deep theoretical insights were involved. A man of wisdom, Dr Hamid will long be remembered by his colleagues
for both his powerful critical intellect, and his humble, kind, and generous
many research interests centred around Sudan, the country of his birth, and his
firm conviction that all people are worthy of respect, dignity, and a position
of power in the decision making processes that shape their lives – as
well as his sharp criticism of the narrow and often destructive interests of political,
economic, and religious elites. The potential realization of these ethics often
took the form of a phrase he was fond of using: “a decent human society.”
doctoral dissertation, accepted in 2007 by the Institute of Social Studies in
The Netherlands, carefully analyses the causes and implications of water
scarcity in the Sudan, demonstrating forcefully that socio-political factors,
and not simple population growth or reduced water flow, have created scarcity
where there ought to be (and once was) water abundance. In Dr Hamid’s words:
[…] water scarcity in
the Sudan is caused by structural inequalities between groups of actors and
regions, initiated and enforced through administrative, legal, and spatial
regulations and economic development policies, particularly in stimulating
large-scale resource capture and, therefore, causing ecological
marginalisation. Water scarcity is largely caused by the way power is being
played out – how the geopolitical importance of the Nile is conceived,
how political alliances are formed in association with modern irrigation, and
how agricultural lobbies influence the issues of land use, distribution, and
many strengths of this argument, for me, is Dr Hamid’s use of spatial concepts,
borrowed from physical and social geography, credited to Frédéric
Roulier, and used to demonstrate how the political
manipulation of territory and landscape – through the appreciation of
privately controlled lands over communally owned areas, for example – has
had measurable consequences on many social and economic issues, including the
creation of scarcity and marginalization, and the direction of migration and
even more intriguing is his emphasis on the importance of conceptualization itself
– how the way reality is perceived interacts with the way reality is
created, a relationship he explores in his dissertation through a detailed
analysis of the ideologies behind the creation of the Sudanese state, the
distribution of power within it, and the unfolding of its modern history.
his creative use of many other concepts from environmental security and
political ecology, as well as post-modern philosophy, this line of inquiry
characterizes much of his work as a resident faculty member in the department
of environment, peace and security at the University for Peace in Costa Rica.
aware of the tensions and paradoxes inherent to interdisciplinary studies of
social and environmental interactions, Dr Hamid opened one of his public
lectures at UPEACE with the following statement, typical of his comfort at the
frontier areas of intellectual discussion, where theories may interact
unpredictably, as well as his talent for organizing and presenting such
arguments in a clear and compelling way, so as to best reach his audience:
We [in the department of environment, peace and security] are doing
peace and conflict studies, too; however, from an environmental perspective.
The concepts of security and peace represent
the persistent human striving towards achieving a decent human society. The
very existence of the two concepts also points at something wrong—that
security and peace are lacking or not existing. The concepts of environmental
security and environmental peace were part of this persistent struggle to
achieve a decent human society.
In other words, when we discuss environmental
security and environmental peace, we are actually approaching security and
peace from an environmental perspective. Some scholars see that this is
important because it brings on board an important component that is crucial for
achieving peace. Others go beyond this and argue that emphasizing the
environment leads to a paradigm shift in the conceptualization of security.
In fact these two currents are important for us
to know. In order to have clarity about this I should first define: what do we
mean by security and peace? After this, we should be able to see whether adding
“environment” would mean something different or not and whether the concepts of
environmental security and environmental peace make sense.
professor, Dr Hamid was thoughtful and thorough, careful to ensure that his
students were intellectually stimulated and always open to and encouraging of
the alternative arguments they presented. Education became a central preoccupation
of his, and Dr Hamid began to design and participate in workshops and curricula
development projects with many organizations and universities, but especially
through the UPEACE Africa Programme and the UPEACE Central Asia Programme
where, in his words, he sought to implement “educational instruments and
methodologies for building human capacities and spreading a culture of peace.”
dedication to teaching, however, Dr Hamid was a research-oriented academic at
heart and contributed prolifically to the discourse surrounding the currents of
his intellectual curiosity. In a 2006 article, ‘The political potential of
displacement to urban areas: How
has the “ethnic discourse” transformed the culturally polarized milieu in the
Sudan?’, Dr Hamid returns to the topic of internal migration
within the Sudan, especially to Khartoum and other northern cities along the
Blue Nile, which is a trend he often discusses in relation to water scarcity,
livelihood insecurity, and the civil wars that resulted from the failed policies
of the central government, and which disproportionately affected communities
located in the broader, non-riverine zones of the Sudan.
paper, Dr Hamid describes how the massive resettlement of rural or tribal
communities to urban areas, particularly since the early 1980s, reshaped the
political discourse of Sudanese elites – first by undercutting the
founding “modernist” ideology of the state and replacing it with an “ethnic”
discourse masked in religious rhetoric and manipulated as a source of political
power, and then, more optimistically, by complicating that same ethnic
discourse as more voices began to emerge and demand political representation,
potentially laying the groundwork for a pluralistic future of Sudanese
One of Dr
Hamid’s great accomplishments at UPEACE was the establishment of an MA
programme wholly dedicated to scholarship on the dynamics of peace and security
as they relate to urban areas, including but reaching far beyond Khartoum, the
subject of so much of his research. A portion of the programme description
Major cities around the world face a number of risks
posed by overcrowding, pollution, disease, poverty, food insecurity, rising sea
levels, increased storm intensity, heat waves, urban decay, sprawl, disconnect
with nature, urbicide, gang warfare, and human
trafficking, among others. In addition to internal rural-urban migration, many
cities of the world are also experiencing the impact of mass transnational
migration. While this may contribute to the flourishing cultural diversity of
cities, it can also generate confrontations and pose serious challenges to
urban authorities. All of this is compounded by the rapid rate at which
urbanization continues to occur.
In a remarkable
chapter written for a 2008 textbook on International
Water Security published by United Nations University, Dr Hamid expands the
scope of his research on the concentration of the Sudanese population in the
riverine zone (especially around Khartoum) to show how the impacts of this
change – particularly the creation of water scarcity in Sudan, and its resulting
increase in reliance on Nile water – has raised the level of concern and militant
posturing of Egypt towards its upstream neighbours.
Along the way,
the chapter touches on the earlier shift in Sudanese settlement patterns away
from Turkish and later British administrative centres of power, issues of
irrigation and food security, and the vast rift between upstream and downstream
cultures – predicting the separation of southern Sudan. The discussion
culminates with an insightful commentary on Egyptian and Sudanese history,
placing the relatively recent international tension in the context of Sudan’s longstanding
north/south divide, the common interests of Egyptian and north Sudanese elites,
and the contested hydropolitical ideology of a
unified Nile River Valley.
Of course, Dr
Hamid followed the subsequent division of Sudan closely, and responded with his
characteristic mix of cautious optimism and critical thought. While acknowledging
that the separation brings an opportunity for a new future, and some measure of
distance for the southern Sudanese from the “cruel government in the north”, as
he mentions in an interview with the Tico Times, Dr
Hamid also noted the on-going violence with great concern, kept his eye
squarely on the various elites involved, both regionally and from “the
international community”, received the dominant religious and political
rhetoric uneasily, and pointed out that the conceptualization of Sudan’s rich
oil and water resources continue to be embedded in the same state-centric,
geostrategic way of thinking that created the problem in the first place.
Dr Mahmoud El Zain Hamid’s death is a loss that will be felt deeply by
those of us who knew him personally, as well as the many people who he has
reached through his life’s work of scholarship. For all those who share Dr
Hamid’s passion for engaging with the debates that surround concepts of peace
and security, development, scarcity, nature and society, I highly recommend a
greater exploration of his work.
A partial bibliography of Dr Mahmoud El Zain Hamid’s
published academic works.
Mahmoud El Zain. (1996) “Tribe and Religion in the Sudan”, in Review of African Political Economy, Vol. 23, No. 70, December 1996, pp. 523-529.
Mahmoud El Zain. (1999) “The Place of the ‘Political’ in Sustainable Development Discourse: An Inquiry on Global Equity and the Political Potential of Environmental Risks”, Working Paper, Institute of Advanced Studies, United Nations University, Tokyo.
Rongchao Li, Mahmoud El Zain, and Eelco Van Beek (2003) “Transboundary Water Allocation in the Yellow River and the Nile River: A Comparative Analysis on Water Scarcity and Institutional Aspects”, Proceeding of The 1st International Yellow River Forum on River Basin Management, 2003, p 472-483, volume IV, ISBN:7-80621-676-6
Mahmoud El Zain. (2006a) “Reshaping the ‘Political’: the Nile waters of the Sudan” in T. Tvedt & R. Coopey (eds.) A History of Water: Vol. II The Political Economy of Water, London: I.B.Tauris. Pp. 117-150.
Mahmoud El Zain. (2006b) “The political potential of displacement to urban areas: How has the ‘ethnic discourse’ transformed the culturally polarized milieu in the Sudan?” Peace and Conflict Review, (July 2006) Issue No. 1; available online at: http://www.review.upeace.org/article.cfm
Mahmoud El Zain. (2006c) “Urbanization and Environment in Sudan”, Afriche E Orienti, (2006) (1/2): 94-101.
Mahmoud El Zain. (2006d) “Ruling elite, frontier-cast ideology and resource conflicts in the Sudan”, Journal of Peacebuilding & Development, Vol.3 (1): 36-46.
Mahmoud El Zain. (2007) Environmental Scarcity, Hydropolitics, and the Nile: Population Concentration, Water Scarcity and the Changing Domestic and Foreign Politics of the Sudan, Shaker, Maastricht.
Mahmoud El Zain. (2008) “Peoples’ encroachment onto Sudan’s Nile banks and its impact on Egypt” in International Water Security: Domestic Threats and Opportunities, edited by Nevelina Pachova, Mikiyasu Nakayama, and Libor Jansky, United Nations University Press, Tokyo.
Bio: Ross Ryan was (and continues to be) a student of Dr Hamid. He is also Editor of the Peace and Conflict Monitor.