Once upon a time, ordinary Sudanese citizens followed a set of social mores that we all understood. Everyone’s door was open – it had to be so because nobody had a working telephone. Even the highest officials in the land were accessible, more often at home than in the office. Today, only pensioners can recall those days when Khartoum was an egalitarian city.
Years ago, we expected public institutions to function in an orderly and predictable way. The Gezira board was the model for how a government should operate, crunching its numbers with total impartiality. Now it is a miracle if a civil servant follows the rules, and probably he doesn’t even know the rules. We have judges who don’t understand the basics of law and teachers who are barely literate. But it’s not just a question of low standards, it’s that the citizenry’s interaction with the public authorities consists in a lottery, the outcome of which depends on personal relationships, money and sheer luck.
This is a deep structural feature of our political economy. Commerce follows the same pattern. Every investment is geared towards a quick return, to be extracted as quickly as possible, never mind the consequences. The beginnings of the get-rich-quick ethos can be dated with precision to Numayri’s turn towards capitalism, but what we see today makes the greed of those years pale into insignificance. This ethos has captured government too: it’s the market that regulates the state and not the other way around.
Every theory of state formation presumes that state institutions function with efficacy greater than the personal patrimonial systems which they supplant, so that there is an inexorable trend towards institutionalized statehood. In Sudan the historic processes of state formation seem to be happening in reverse. Numayri attacked the inherited institutions with revolutionary abandon and they never recovered, but the damage he inflicted is as nothing compared to the thorough-going corruption of the Salvation Regime. It is tragic to see how quickly the SPLM has joined the corruption club.
Elections result in a legitimate government when the people agree on the basic rules of political competition and when the losers accept with good grace in the confidence that in a few years’ time they will have another fair chance at winning. Sudan used to have some of the best run and fairest elections in Africa and the Arab world. Today, every detail of the electoral process, beginning with the census, is contested. I can make one confident prediction for the upcoming elections: the winners will declare that the elections are legitimate, and everyone else will disagree fervently.
The pending agreement between the NCP and SPLM about the distribution of seats in the National Assembly shows how the fate of our country is being decided. It’s being done by a political fix between the two ruling kleptocracies. Under the iron laws of politics there is no realistic alternative and this kind of horse trading will do its bit to keep the Government of National Unity afloat for another few weeks, but it makes a mockery of the supposedly independent NEC.
Military rule might have the virtue of being a more honest (less hypocritical) form of government than a supposed democracy in which the key decisions are all made without letting the people have their say. But the Sudanese Armed Forces have long ago forfeited any possibility of regaining its standing as a credible national institution. We don’t even have one army any more. There’s no longer a Leviathan in the wings. Perhaps one reason why some unfortunate citizens in the peripheries long for an American occupation, is because they want a hegemon back and clutch at rhetoric about foreign troops as their only chance.
The only viable hegemon is one which organically develops from the nation’s political economy. The prospects of that are remote under today’s political configuration: the NCP is intent on consolidation but cannot think beyond tomorrow, and the opposition has capitulated on the basic political challenge of taking control of the state and using it as an instrument for political change. Either they want to cut it into bits or to steal from it. There is no vision, and no wonder. The last 54 years of Sudan’s history consists in little more the burned out hulks of failed hegemons. Arab socialism and Islamism are the biggest wrecks. The legacy of their arrogance is our citizens’ cynicism. The legacy of their revolutionary energy is the destruction of our fragile but treasured public institutions and the corruption of our civic ethics.
Maybe we can achieve a humbler goal of living together in mutual tolerance while we try to decide what to do with our hopeless, beloved country.