Can Sudan Survive?

Lecture to Royal African Society, 21 May 2008

The modern history of Sudan is riddled with bloodshed, destruction and squandered chances for peace and democracy.  Consistently, the worst case scenario comes to pass and, just when it seems as though things could get no worse, they do precisely that.  But occasionally, the Sudanese succeed in snatching an improbable victory for peace and civility from the jaws of turmoil.  And despite repeatedly quivering at the edge of complete societal collapse, Sudan has consistently managed to survive in a recognizable form.  Can it continue to do so?

Even more remarkably, the regime that has been most responsible for bringing about the country’s spectacular crisis has survived almost nineteen years.  Today it seems poised to last somewhat longer, reincarnated at the head of a broader coalition of Sudanese political parties. Its longtime foe, the SPLM, is a partner in government, and the country’s last elected prime minister, Sadiq al Mahdi, has just signed a ‘compromise agreement’ with the man who overthrew him in a coup in 1989.  President Omer al Bashir is preparing to contest elections in a year time and appears poised to win.

The Sudanese state has survived.  Many Sudanese citizens have not.  Nobody knows how many have died during the last decades — the common estimate is over two million, from hunger, disease and violence.  And many more live outside the country.  The ‘civilization project’ of the Islamist government at the height of its jihadistic hubris fifteen years ago was — if I am permitted the neologism — an attempt at civicide, the elimination of a social formation and the imposition of a radical new pattern.  It did vast damage to Sudan’s social and political fabric but ultimately it didn’t succeed and pre-existing patterns, for good or ill, have re-asserted themselves.

In this lecture I will look at four abiding features of Sudanese politics, each of which has been central to the country’s ability to survive thus far, but each of which relates to a fundamental weakness that could, perhaps, imperil the survival of this unique and paradoxical entity that is Sudan.

The first feature is the extreme disparity between the centre and the periphery.  The contrast between the affluence of the metropolis and the deprivation of the outer provinces is quite extraordinary.  There is a long history to this disparity, and it reflects a fundamental divide between the riverain elite and the rest.  The challenges to the domination of the elite come not only from insurrections in the south, west and east, but also from the very institutions of dominance, namely the army and commerce.  The army has absorbed many men from the west and the south, and some of them have been promoted to high rank.  It is notable that at key moments, the government has not trusted the loyalty of the army — for example in the JEM attack on Khartoum on 10 May, it was specialized security agencies and not the army that defended the capital.  Commerce and finance remain in the hands of the riverain elite, but over the last two decades an influential counter-elite has arisen among Darfurians, especially some Islamists and the Zaghawa who enjoy good links to Chad and Libya as well as the fruits of their astonishing entrepreneurialism and aptitude for business.  And perhaps most significant of all, the deprivation and destruction visited upon Sudan’s peripheries means that vast numbers of their people have moved to Khartoum and other cities of the north.  Over fifty years, the capital has grown from just 250,000 people to more than seven million, radically changing its character from an Arab town to a vast metropolis in which all corners of the nation are represented.

The urbanization of Sudan poses a profound challenge to the country’s governance and especially to the continuing control of the riverain elite.  Given the traditions of civil politics in Sudan’s towns, it may also represent the best chance for a civic democratization in which the imbalances of power and wealth in the country may be redressed.

A second enduring aspect of Sudanese political life is the way that it resembles a marketplace.  Beneath the slogans and manifestos, much of Sudanese politics is about patronage and money.  This was evident at the Darfur peace talks in Abuja.  The formal structure of the peace talks resembled an inter-state negotiation, with the government delegation at one table, the rebels opposite, the mediators between them and the international observers making the fourth side of the square.  The final document, the Darfur Peace Agreement, is similar in its formalism.  The real dynamic was rather different.  In the new edition of Darfur: A New History of a Long War, we describe the modus operandi of the Sudan government’s chief negotiator, Dr. Majzoub al Khalifa.  In the negotiating chamber his main traits were an obsession with minutiae and an insistence that no detail, however small, could be conceded.  Outside the conference chamber the real work was done.  Majzoub’s task, as he saw it, was to calculate the price to buy off each delegate in the opposition camp and pay the going rate.  Majzoub’s frustration was that the international community not only got in the way of this practice but that they bid up the price of Darfurians’ loyalty.

The Darfurians — and other peripheral peoples of Sudan — are victims of this politics of patronage.  But the provincial elites are, more often than not, willing sellers.  It’s rare to find the true revolutionary who cannot be bought.  Much of the real bargaining in the Darfur peace talks came down simply to the price, which just wasn’t high enough for the leaders of the armed movements.  The constant auction of loyalties allows us to understand why the Darfur Arabs are so fickle in their allegiances, and are rarely a dependable ally for Khartoum.  They too are looking for the best price, and this can mean defection to the rebels at the right moment, if this allows them to extract more from their patrons.

This strategy has big weaknesses.  It depends on Khartoum being the biggest bidder in the auction of loyalties, and that in turn depends on a ready cashflow.  When there are other buyers in the market — including, at the moment, Chad, Libya and the SPLM Government of Southern Sudan — the price of loyalty is high.  This means that more weapons are being poured into the peripheries.  When Khartoum runs short of money, which it does periodically, there’s usually a violent conflict somewhere in provincial Sudan.  Trading money and guns for loyalty is a dangerous strategy.  Those who try to discern a Machiavellian attempt to disguise lines of responsibility for atrocity are missing the point — it is a strategy born of weakness rather than strength.  It destabilizes the peripheries, which those in power don’t mind so much.

A third enduring feature of Sudan is the existence of multiple power centres within the centre itself.  This has alternated between unstable coalitions of civilian parties and unstable coalitions of alliances under military rulers.  The National Islamic Front government, despite its apparent continuity at the top over nearly 19 years, has merely reproduced this characteristic in a different form.

There’s nothing unusual about policy divergences within a single government, let alone sharp differences of opinion.  What’s different about Sudan is that some of the major power blocs possess their own armed forces and their own budgets which are suspected to be as big as the official national budget.  Certainly, the official numbers don’t add up.  At one point about ten years ago the national budget was less than $1 billion, and yet the government was spending about that amount on prosecuting the war and building — at phenomenal speed — an oil pipeline.  There were other parallel financial channels.  The Minister of Finance is little more than a cashier, with no real authority over the fundamentals of national economic management.

It’s tempting to see Sudan as akin to a gyroscope, perpetually turning and yet never off balance.  I would prefer to see it as a turbulent state — constantly full of almost random motion, inherently unstable, yet never showing any fundamental change in its condition.  Can it continue indefinitely like this?  The fourth characteristic of Sudanese politics is a quality of indeterminacy.

There’s a particular political skill with which Sudanese politicians are especially well-endowed.  During the colonial era it was described as ‘tajility’ — the practice of prevarication, forestalling and equivocation, the politics of delay.  Tajility is a skill honed to perfection by members of the central and provincial elites alike.  Khartoum’s strategy with regard to the international community and its expensive taste for massive peacekeeping missions is simply to outlast them.  The strategy of many rebel leaders is to play for time also, engaging with a succession of external efforts such as peacemaking initiatives in order to delay, indefinitely perhaps, the moment of final decision — keeping the bidding open, if you like.

But tajility also has its limit, and this is the point at which the Sudanese capacity for national survival — or perhaps national endurance — will be most tested.  This is the 2011 referendum on self-determination in the South.  Self-determination was included in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that brought to an end 21 years of war between successive governments in Khartoum and the SPLA.  The government agreed to it chiefly because it had no option if it were to end the war, and because the leader of the SPLA — John Garang — was a unionist, so that Vice President Ali Osman Taha was able to convince his sceptical colleagues in government that this was the last chance for national unity.

The referendum in the South promises to be a rare moment of cash payment in a political economy that functions on credit notes.  There is no doubt that the vast majority of Southerners, asked today or in three years’ time, would vote for secession.  And there’s little doubt that unless some very fundamental issues of Khartoum’s interests are addressed and resolved very soon, secession would not go uncontested.  We have seen contested partitions such as India-Pakistan and former Yugoslavia and they tend to involve a great deal of violence.  We should have no illusions that a contested partition in Sudan has the potential to be a political and humanitarian disaster on a scale that dwarfs anything that has happened to date.  As well as the trauma of partition itself, there is a peculiarly frightening feature of wars that resume after an interlude — the fighting begins in the cities with an eruption of inter-communal violence.

Averting this will demand some immense political skill and dedicated attention to the core issues that divide the National Congress and the SPLM.  Three years is a desperately short time to resolve those issues and if unresolved, as the date approaches, the NCP and SPLM will become more and more preoccupied with staring one another down, second-guessing one another’s moves, and preparing for the worst, such that any external leverage is desperately limited.

In principle, an amicable state divorce could certainly happen.  But it’s a very long shot.  Most Southerners are biding their time, most Northerners are in denial.  At last there’s international attention to resolving the issues between North and South that need to be resolved come what may, whether unity or separation.  But it’s not at all clear whether the referendum date of July 2011 will come and go without a crisis that will not only create a war of partition but possibly even threaten the two centres of state power themselves.

I would not be so rash as to predict that Sudan will survive, whether as one state or two.  The prospects of a major new war and associated humanitarian calamity are all-too-real.  In facing the imminent crisis, the political qualities and skills perfected over many decades — including both the systems of patronage and the politics of indeterminacy — are the best asset.  An approach based on international blueprints and blue helmets is a recipe for failure, but with the right support to Sudanese practices and skills, Sudan can survive.

Alex de Waal is the director of Justice Africa.   Visit his blog at <>.  This lecture was published on the Web site of the Royal African Society.  It is reproduced here for educational purposes.

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