Ethics and Power in Sudanic Africa

This is the second in a two-part review of Patrick Chabal’s book, Africa: The Politics of Suffering and Smiling. This posting applies the account to an area of the continent that the author deliberately neglects, namely Ethiopia and the Sahelian-Sudanic states, including Sudan itself.
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I have a confession to make. As series editor for African Issues in 1998-99, I read and reviewed the manuscript of Chabal’s earlier book (co-authored by Jean-Pascal Daloz), Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument. I advised that his analysis did not travel well to Ethiopia and to states such as Sudan and the historic Muslim kingdoms on the southern edge of the Sahara desert. Chabal included a disclaimer in his introduction to the effect that he was dealing with Africa south of this zone. This reflects a strong tendency within Africanist political science to see the Sudanic belt and especially Ethiopia as belonging to a different political tradition to equatorial Africa (this is also true of Bayart’s The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly).

I was wrong. It was an error to endorse this dichotomy. There are distinct differences between the political traditions of Equatorial Africa and those of the peoples who live north of the eleventh parallel. But these historical divergences are eminently explicable, especially if we see the Sudanic states as a hybrid of form of governance, in which rulers have adapted indigenous patron-client systems, making use of the opportunities provided by contacts across the Sahara. The characteristic form of successful Sudanic states was an assimilatory empire, managed through clientelism and organized violence.

The trans-Saharan links enabled the states in the Sudanic belt to adopt organizational technologies that could allow clientilistic political models to function on a far larger scale. Paramount among these was Islam. Adoption of Islam was extremely advantageous to rulers. It provided an off-the-shelf legal code, covering not only personal and family law and penal law, but also commerce, state administration and diplomacy. Rulers could hire scholars and jurists from highly literate societies to legitimate their authority, and could draw upon a socio-political archive of centuries of management of the affairs of state. They could not only acquire material technologies such as weapons, horses, coinage and writing, but also management technologies that enabled the administration of larger, more complicated and socio-culturally diverse domains. The discipline imposed by Islamic practice forged better military units. This made these kingdoms hegemonic over their immediate southern neighbours, whom they could not only defeat, but dominate. (In the Nile Valley, the southern limit of this domination was the Nilotic frontier, elsewhere it was considerably deeper into the forest zone.)

The Sudanic sultans and amirs and Ethiopian kings governed as emperors, over diverse peoples who had their own distinctive forms of socio-political organization. Some historiography of Ethiopia (by scholars with political sympathies with Eritrea or Oromo nationalism) has described the expansion of the Ethiopian empire as almost indistinguishable from European colonialism, with the Emperor Menelik acting as junior partner in the “Scramble for Africa.” This is an exaggeration and doesn’t apply elsewhere. But there are important similarities and continuities in the way that Ethiopia and the Sudanic states ruled their hinterlands, and the mechanisms of indirect rule adopted by the British.

These continuities are evident in Darfur, and especially Dar Masalit. Local rulers adapted to the intrusion of European colonialism in much the same way as they had dealt with powerful neighbouring and Mediterranean empires in previous centuries. Dar Masalit is a limiting case because it was on the periphery of African empires (Dar Fur and Wadai) until 1874, was then administered indirectly as the furthest frontier of a hybrid Ottoman-Egyptian empire, and achieved quasi-autonomy before being the purest case of British indirect rule (1923-55). On the northern border of Dar Masalit, the Gimir sultan achieved fame for his truculence and procrastination, leading exemplar of the attitude that if he held on long enough, the British and French would depart as surely as had their predecessors. (He was not mistaken.)

At their zenith, the Sudanic and Ethiopian empires ruled their domains as three concentric circles. The inner circle was the fully administered territory, where a centralized patrimony controlled political life. In the second circle loyalty was bargained, with local chiefs enjoying a degree of autonomy, and negotiating their obligations to the centre. The outer circle was a zone of influence, where power was exercised by the intermittent use of force. The nature of patron-client relations varied according to the circle.

Indigenous African empires expanded through conquest, purchase and religious conversion. Conquest is self-explanatory, but force alone cannot sustain external control. Where only force was used, the form of governance was the raiding party, and control was exercised by the capture of slaves. The territory itself was left ungoverned, and in many cases increasingly depopulated as well. The outer circle of African empire, where the ruler’s religion did not extend, was a zone of plunder and lawlessness in which no reciprocity existed. People who lived there were by definition actual or potential slaves.

In the Sudanic states, the frontier between the zone of negotiated allegiance (second circle) and the zone of lawlessness (third circle) was defined by Islam, in the form of the distinction between dar al Islam and dar al harb. This boundary was not fixed: groups could negotiate their entry into the second circle.

Buying slaves and buying the allegiance of chiefs are different manifestations of the same phenomenon. Individuals and communities converted to Islam, adopting Islamic lineages, partly as protection from enslavement. Selling collective allegiance was usually preferable to the alternative, of being treated as enslaveable, and hence subject to individual capture and sale.

In stateless societies, the status of a slave was similar to that of someone outside the kinship structure. In Islamic societies, this concept continued, hybridized with the concept of individual rights under Islamic law. The slaving frontier of a Sudanic state was an extreme form of “political marketplace,” in which members of a group which had not professed loyalty to the sovereign order, could only resist the complete subjugation of enslavement by force. Once enslaved, either through capture or sale, the individual slave possessed no standing at all in the marketplace, save as the possession of another. His or her loyalty was absolute and non-negotiable.

When a local chief converted to Islam, along with his followers, he entered the second circle of imperial control, a political system regulated by Islamic law, refracted through Sudanic tradition, but run ruthlessly according to the power calculations of the sovereign and the chiefs themselves. Islam specified the ruler’s obligations towards his subjects, but individuals’ rights were meagre, and violence was widely used to bargain. Those who remained outside the second circle could resist (as with the Nilotic peoples of south Sudan) or try to escape (as with the Nuba and Fertit), but they never managed to challenge the overall domination of the Sudanic states.

European colonial conquest brought a different form of authority. European control was spatially complete in a way that the Sudanic empires never achieved: the opportunities for escape were limited indeed. Meanwhile, its powers of military subjugation were greater. For the rulers of the major Sudanic states, it was a disaster (e.g. Ali Dinar of Darfur, killed by the British after his defeat in 1916). For many of the minor rulers, it was a chance to rescue limited authority (e.g. Sultan Andoka of Dar Masalit) or even increase their powers. For their subjects, demands and obligations changed too. The imposition of taxes paid in cash compelled many to enter the wage labour market, usually at a steep disadvantage; the opportunities for making demands on chiefs dwindled; and after the devastation of the initial European conquest, rule became less violent. Non-Muslim foreign rulers could never obtain any sacred authority, leaving a legitimacy gap that was fatally inherited by their nationalist successors.

In summary, pre-colonial chiefly administration in the Sudanic states was more instrumental in support of a power hierarchy than the world of reciprocal obligation described by Chabal for elsewhere in Africa. But neither did it constitute a relationship of simple subjugation as in the case of colonial direct rule or in places where the colonial rulers instituted chiefly systems ab initio. In Darfur, for example, the British adopted and adapted an existing system. They certainly narrowed the chiefs’ social obligations, and strengthened the material dependence of chiefs on their rulers.

For historians, there is much to be gained by joining up the analysis of pre-colonial Africa’s complex Muslim states with that of the largely stateless peoples of tropical and southern Africa. It allows for the comparative analysis of imperialisms (in the plural). For today’s political scientists, this allows for a much richer historicization of the structures of patrimonialism and clientelism, showing how the configurations of material and symbolic reward have altered in response to different circumstances. Nothing in these structures is immutable: they have been changed in the past by religious faith, military and administrative technologies, and by cash. They are changing still.

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2 thoughts on “Ethics and Power in Sudanic Africa

  1. Dear Sir,

    As is widely known in Africa the term Sudanic was introduced into modern linguistics by myself Roy Fearon.  I was honoured by the then OAU whoose members states named several cities on the continent in my honour.  The town of Roy in the Congo is noted and so is Royeville in Liberia, and Royo in Senegal.  It would be appreciated if the matter were noted by our historians.

    Yours Sincerely

    Roy Fearon

  2. It has been the same with any empire Rome being one of them first they were conquered then made a part and then used to help expand the power further by drawing troops and wealth from them.  It is just the most successful technique of expansion.  But it only works as long as the power remains at the center when the center weakens the power shifts to the outside and they are defeated,

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