New Book: “War in Darfur and the Search for Peace”
War in Darfur and the Search for Peace is a collection of 15 essays by six Sudanese and eleven non-Sudanese scholars and specialists, published in September 2007 by Harvard University Press. This is the first of two postings that provides an outline of the origins of the book, its significance, and some of the main threads of the argument. This posting focuses on the "turbulent state" framework for understanding why Sudan has been so persistently dysfunctional, with instability at the center and recurrent war in the peripheries.
This book originated in 2004 with six essays commissioned by the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum to help inform the African Union mediation, drawing upon Sudanese expertise on Darfur. The model was an exercise conducted in 1999-2000 by Justice Africa, the "Literature of Accord," which pulled together all the agreements made by the parties to the war in Sudan, and commentary thereon, which provided a useful resource for the IGAD mediation effort when it began vigorously mediating between the Sudan government and the SPLM in 2001. The comparable documents for the conflicts in Darfur were mostly inter-tribal peace agreements and local government reform documents, plus the manifestos of the armed movements and the Arab Gathering. The interpretation of these required background analysis of Darfur’s local administration, land tenure, militia organization, and other issues. Initially there was no additional intent to publish these papers, but as Darfur gained ever-greater public attention, it seemed important to do so.
Three major themes emerge from the essays:
1. Darfur’s war needs to be interpreted within the history of Sudan’s peripheral wars and the wars to control Chad. Implicitly, to see Darfur’s crisis as the latest instance in a genocidal sequence that includes the Holocaust and Rwanda as the paradigmatic cases, is rather misleading.
2. Darfur’s war is complicated and cannot be reduced to simple binary distinctions such as perpetrator and victim, Arab and “African”. Resolving Darfur’s crisis demands understanding these complications.
3. Alongside a focus on the local politics and history—issues such as land disputes and the organization of militia—it is important to keep a focus on the politics of Khartoum and how Darfur relates to that.
In my introductory essay, "Sudan’s turbulent state," I try to relate the recurrent local violent conflicts in Darfur to the politics of Khartoum. The choice of the word "turbulent" is important: Sudanese politics are characterized by incessant motion without much movement and there is chronic instability that does not jeopardize some fundamental aspects of the state. I don’t see a Machiavellian conspiracy at work but rather a structural condition that with deep historical roots.
One of the two most important features of the Sudanese state is extreme inequality between center and periphery. Khartoum and its immediate environs constitute a middle-income enclave, surrounded by a pre-developing rural periphery. While the city of Khartoum resembles its counterparts in Egypt and some other parts of the Arab world, places such as Darfur, the South and the East resemble some of the poorest parts of the continent. Khartoum alone possesses about half the income and capital of the country.
One product of this concentration of material resources is that the center can sustain not one but several elite groups, with all the financial, political and cultural infrastructure that this entails. The peripheries by contrast struggle to put together a single elite group that can compete with those established in the capital and its environs. The inequality between center and periphery creates deep resentment in the peripheries, but by the same token, it is extraordinarily difficult for the peripheries to mobilize to confront the center.
The second most important feature of the state is instability at the center. Since independence, no single power bloc has succeeded in capturing control of the state and its institutions. Until 1989, there was a constant rotation of coalitions among northern-based parties and key interest groups (such as the army and trade unions). The longevity of President Jaafar Nimeiri conceals the fact that his sixteen-year rule included at least four distinct coalitions, each of which lasted a much shorter time. Characteristic of parliamentary rule was constantly-shifting coalitions. Since 1989 we have again had a single president in power and many faces have remained the same, but the regime has multiple power centers which continue to compete.
This combination of factors has been fatal to peace, security and democracy in Sudan, creating what I call turbulence. The state is neither weak nor strong. It is too weak to impose its authority on the country and build up strong ruling institutions. It cannot exercise control over the nation’s finances nor build up a national army capable of suppressing armed dissent. But the ruling elites that dominate the state are too strong to be dispossessed. Power circulates but only among them.
At the center, the turbulence often has a civil faÁ§ade. Among themselves, members of the Sudanese elite are remarkably cordial and friendly. The other face of this civility is distrust—everyone is treated in a hospitable manner, but no-one gains full confidence. There are few permanent friends and by the same token, few permanent enemies.
A rule of thumb in analyzing Sudanese politics is, always look for the near adversary. Key decisions are taken in order to confront or outflank a rival from within the ruling elite. One of the main reasons why the Sudan government responded so energetically to the military threat in Darfur in 2003 was that it suspected links between the Justice and Equality Movement and Hassan al Turabi’s Popular Congress Party. The government was little concerned by a rebellion in a faraway province, which could rumble on for years without causing significant disruption in Khartoum. But it was deeply concerned about the threat of a coup or uprising in the metropolis.
More generally, key decisions that have shaped Sudanese politics have been determined by these intra-elite concerns. The program of Islamization itself has, arguably, more to do with manoevers among the ruling elite than it has to do with attempts to convert the people of the peripheries to orthodoxy. In the competition for power in Khartoum, clutching at the symbol of Islam can be a powerful tool to outflank a rival. Except for brief periods of militancy, the elite doesn’t care so much about what rural people do or believe. Arabization and Islamization should be seen, in part, as the extraversion of intra-elite manoevers for legitimacy and control.
The strategy of supporting proxy militia also has much to do with successive governments’ fear that the army, if given the resources necessary to mount an effective counterinsurgency, might decide to take over the government itself.
Politics in Sudan has much to do with patronage. But unlike most patronage systems which have a single focal point, with elites circulating in and out of the inner circle, Sudan has multiple parallel patronage systems. This is one of the key reasons why the state has been so turbulent. Each patronage network, from its center in Khartoum, has its tentacles in the peripheries, and each realignment in power at the center has repercussions in the provinces. During civilian rule, the elite groups seek out provincial clients in order for them to deliver votes. This has the effect of tribalizing politics, as the most accessible provincial elites are tribal leaders. In times of conflict, the elites seek rural clients to form militias, with the effect of militarizing peripheral governance. This is as much a habit as a strategy–it has roots that can be traced back to the 19th century. I have called it “retail politics”–a form of material bargaining that drives out the politics of principles, the long-term interests of constituencies, and institution building.
Meanwhile, radical members of the provincial elites dream of a grand union of the marginalized in which the demographic majority will take power. These have had transient success only, in the immediate aftermath of democratic openings, before falling prey to politics as usual. More practically, provincial leaders aspire to set up alternative centers of state power at a regional level. The Government of South Sudan in Juba may prove to be one such center of power and patronage, seeking to rival Khartoum. A regional government in al Fashir might have comparable powers. These are a recent development and an aspiration—much more commonly, provincial elites have sought external sponsorship (from neighboring governments or from the U.S.) or—most regular of all—have looked for patrons in Khartoum. Typically, a member of a rural elite has bounced between attachment to different elite groups in Khartoum, seeking the best deal. It is a recipe for corruption and keeping the provinces marginalized.
Both war in the peripheries and peacemaking efforts are continuations of this pattern. In my next posting on this topic I will examine how the Darfur peace process was a casualty of this pattern of turbulence and retail politics.