Can Sudan Survive?
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?
The question, ‘Can Sudan Survive?’ was the topic of my lecture to the Royal African Society in London last week.
What I tried to do in the lecture was to examine four defining features of Sudanese political life. Each of the four has contributed to grievance, instability and violence. And yet within each one, lies the possibility for keeping Sudan intact (whether as one country or two).
The first feature is the extreme disparity between center and periphery, the source of so much grief and grievance. One outcome of this is the accelerated urbanization of Sudanese society, a topic debated on this blog. Urbanization is widely seen as socially unhealthy, even pathological. But, I ask, could that urbanization be the key to the dominance of civil politics in Sudan?
A second feature is the politics of the marketplace–the buying and selling of political loyalties. Patrimonialism of this kind is widely seen as corrupt and playing into the hands of an elite that has perfected the tactics of divide-and-rule. But if we take patronage politics seriously as an established means of dividing the national wealth, doesn’t it follow that we can move towards stability and peace through a fairer and more inclusive sharing of Sudan’s wealth?
A third aspect is the persistent instability at the center, especially the continuing rivalry between power blocs within the ruling elite. This is a major factor contributing to Sudan’s turbulence and the inability of the government to agree–and then stick to–peace agreements. Despite this chronic instability, President Omar al Bashir has succeeded in remaining as head of state for almost nineteen years. I argue that Bashir is a much-underestimated figure. Studying how he has prevailed gives us clues as to how Sudan’s turbulent elite can be managed.
The last element is the Sudanese skill of strategic prevarication, forestalling and equivocation–the politics of delay. This is practiced by central and provincial elites alike and earned the title ‘tajility’ in the colonial period (from the Arabic tajiil, delay). The indeterminacy of Sudanese politics is a source of frustration to all outsiders. But could it be the secret of the country’s survival? In this regard there’s a huge challenge coming soon: the referendum on self-determination in Southern Sudan. This is a rare moment that compels decisiveness, and how it is handled by the political elites of South and North will be the greatest test of political skill in the country’s history.
My argument pushes back against external blueprints and blue helmets as the formula for ‘saving’ Sudan and in favor of an approach rooted in Sudan’s own political traditions. It’s a case for supporting democratization from within, in line with Sudan’s own traditions of civic mobilization and compromise.