When the Center Could Not Hold
Robert Bates’ When Things Fell Apart: State Failure in Late Century Africa is a seminal contribution to understanding state crises Africa.
Bates’ thesis is that in the late 20th century, sub-Saharan African states suffered a catastrophic lowering of public revenues (brought about by a combination of poverty and fiscal austerity measures), that caused rulers with relatively short time horizons to shift from a longer-term strategy of promoting domestic wealth creation, and taxing it, to short-term predation.
Definitive of political order is the capacity to coerce. A ruler can deploy violence either in support of a rule-governed system (protecting the creation of wealth by private citizens) or to strip assets (preying on citizens), bringing short-term returns to the ruler at the expense of a subsequent collapse in governance and a lower rate of return. When the ruler opts for predation, citizens are more likely to take up arms to protect their (dwindling) assets and (threatened) livelihoods, resorting to vigilantism or rebellion or both.
Patrimonial political systems operate by the ruler distributing material benefits to his supporters. The ruler’s challenge is to secure sufficient inflow of resources from taxation or predation to exceed the disbursement of rewards sufficient to secure the loyalties of enough political players so as to outrank the competition.
Bates brings quantitative evidence from 46 countries over the years 1970-1996 in support his argument that the collapse of domestic tax revenues, the availability of resources to plunder, and the foreshortened time horizons of the ruler, combined to push countries into a condition at which the basic social contract broke down. Sudan is a data point and is mentioned several times in passing. Does Bates’ thesis fit Sudan when its political history is examined in detail? The answer is absolutely yes, with its own specific variation.
Every single political crisis in Sudan since the mid-1970s has been directly related to a financial crisis at the centre of state power and a struggle to control state revenues and parallel sources of finance. The combination of a financial system based on plunder and rent-seeking and the unstable politics of unresolved competition to control these plunder and rents have locked Sudan into protracted turbulence.
In analyses I have published elsewhere (Food and Power in Sudan [African Rights 1997], War in Darfur and the Search for Peace), I have identified eight major financial crises affecting the state between 1978 to 1999. In each case the core problem was insufficient funds available to finance either the war effort or the patronage machine. In each case the ruler has used short-term stratagems of rent-seeking (including running up debts) or predation to secure the necessary funds, usually reconfiguring political alliances in order to secure the money. Those with least finance on offer””such as the Southerners””are repeatedly and doubly disadvantaged by these manouevres, because they are marginalized in the governing coalition and are subject to the depredations of those who are well-placed. The current financial crisis is running true to form (see last week’s posting paragraphs 21-24).
As a rule, Sudan’s financial crises have been handled in a strictly short term and opportunistic manner by successive governments. Many commentators have noted the ability of Sudanese governments to manage short-term crises with well-honed tactical acumen. Governing Sudan is akin to a complicated juggling act, in which it is never possible to keep all the balls in the air at once, but the juggler must calculate which balls can be allowed to drop””on the assumption that they will bounce and can be caught in the next movement. For forty years no government has had a strategy for financial sustainability.
There is much more that could be written about this, in support of the application of Bates’ hypothesis to Sudan. For example, tribal militias and ethnic conflict are better seen as a product of this type of governance rather than the cause of it.
One important variation on Bates’ account deserves mention. Unlike many other sub-Saharan African countries, during more than thirty years of fiscal crisis in Sudan there have been vast amounts of hard currency sloshing around the economy. Until oil revenues came on-stream, most of it was remittances and the associated consumer and real estate businesses. But the state was unable to capture this money, in part because of mistaken analysis of the cause of financial instability in the system. (Richard Brown wrote a brilliant but much overlooked study of the IMF in Sudan that brought out this point.)
One consequence of this was that the price of buying the political allegiance of those elites with links to the Arab world went up (because they had independent sources of wealth) just as the state resources for patronage went down (through austerity measures). Successive leaders of Sudan had the choice between using outright repression or cutting bargains with those elites in which the state put its institutions at the service of private interests. Nimeiri and Bashir both tried the first, briefly, and it didn’t work. The second is standard practice.
One fundamental challenge facing Sudan is reconstituting the finances of the central government in such a way that the country’s commercial elites have a vested interest in stable and productive peripheries.
What could make them have such an interest? To date, neither rural insurrection nor international pressure has changed the dynamic of Sudan’s political economy. Rebellion has simply created more opportunities for predation and asset stripping. The international approach to Sudan has generally been to use short-term carrots and sticks (in the 1970s and 1980s mostly carrots, since 1990 mostly sticks) to try to persuade Khartoum to act differently. It has rarely worked. Most policies have simply been too inconsistent to encourage anything other than opportunistic compliance. Possibly the best chance lies in the combination of a fast-developing metropolitan economy and economic incentives structured around international assistance to the peripheries. (Arguably what made the CPA possible was the fact that 2000-05 was a period of uninterrupted economic growth which allowed for an all-round expansion of the patrimonial system.) Perhaps there will be opportunities for using debt forgiveness in creative ways to these ends.
The problems of Sudan’s peripheries, including Darfur, originate in Khartoum. By the same token, the solution will come from Khartoum. Without reconfiguring””and strengthening””state finances there can be no resolution to the Sudanese crisis.
Your commentary on Bates’ thesis and additional observations is in-depth and thought-provoking. I cannot, however, help but be drawn to what could be possibly interpreted as somewhat of a weakness in your conclusion, or at the least, a puzzling hole left in your otherwise tightly woven thoughts.
You state that the only solution to the problems in the Sudan (and by extension Darfur) is to reconfigure and strengthen the state’s finances. Based on the facts you have presented, is it hard to doubt the veracity of this argument. Common sense alone tells us if the system is broken it should likely be replaced. What I am curious about though is, how exactly is that you believe this should be accomplished?
The repeated source of political unrest and weakness in this area, to summarize, is that leaders are repeatedly in need of funds which they must (or prefer to) gather in the short-term, leading them to pry them from the already under-priveleged through various means. This leads to negative reprisals from the people. The new leader then comes in at a time of economic instability and political unrest, and is in a hurry to secure his position. He seeks favor from the elite, but there is still a pressing need for funds to attempt to rebuild and protect the system from the already present unrest. With few other sources of revenue, the new leader turns to plundering the people as a way of quickly building funds. Thus the cycle continues itself.
So what then is one precisely supposed to do to break it? Past leaders have attempted to court outside sources of revenue, to no avail. International aid has itself only taken on the form of tackling the short term, which has in its own way only helped to exacerbate the problem. The Sudan clearly needs to find some way to stop living in the short-term. But what is that exactly?
It seems to me that if there were some way to change the political structure itself in order to make room for leaders more connected to the very parts of society the government has formerly been so fond of pillaging, and to find a way to develop an international aid project to help be a source of long-term stabilizing funds, this could help “fix” the system and bring the Sudan out of its current vicious cycle. Although, the accomplishment of either of these goals, let alone both, would be very difficult and indeed it is even hard to visualize how they could be carried out specifically.
What about you? What are you ideas of what needs to be done?
Corinne raises some interesting and challenging points: how to break the cycle of predatory state finance? How to make governments herders rather than hunters? Bates’ analysis–though building on an established body of work–is innovative in some fundamental ways, which means that few have begun to think about the appropriate responses.
Looking at sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, the mainstream international strategy of the last decade could be characterized as a twin focus on building sustainable state finance (through improved macroeconomic management and policies that “bring the state back in” to the center of national economic planning) alongside what we might call “benevolent dependency”–using international aid as a prop to improved governance. The British government’s use of direct budgetary support to what it considers the best-governed developing countries is aimed at making aid predictable over long periods of time. The NEPAD philosophy of African peer review for governance was developed on the assumption that African countries which are all dependent on the same sources of external finance would have a common interest in policing one another.
The results have been mixed. It’s probably too early to make a definitive judgment but there are good reasons to suspect that elite behavior hasn’t changed much. We can conjecture a number of reasons. Aid instruments are very blunt indeed as means of changing domestic governance. The challenge to western hegemony in Africa with the declining standing of the U.S. and the rise of Asia has further blunted these instruments.
What of Sudan, an extreme case of a predatory government? In the 1990s it was subjected to the most extreme regime of economic isolation and austerity of any country in Africa, and its survival showed the limits of an approach based on sanctions. The hope of the CPA was that expanding oil revenues, international assistance and debt relief, would combine to satisfy the appetites of the elites in both North and South. That approach has only been tried in a less-than-half-hearted manner–oil revenues have faltered and the aid/debt relief peace dividend hasn’t materialized. Moreover the Darfur crisis and the international response to it have locked Khartoum back into an ever more short-term mode of crisis management in the security, political and economic sectors.
My view is that the essential precondition for any resolution to Sudan’s national questions, including Darfur’s crisis, is consensus on a long-term formula for how to govern Sudan. Only Sudanese can achieve this. They came very close to that in 2005 but the deal has slipped almost out of reach today. We should be realistic in what such a consensus will be–all will agree that a democratic system should displace a patrimonial one, but none of the elites have any interest in changing patrimonialism, merely in altering the flows of resources in their favor. Hence the importance of the power-sharing formulae adopted in negotiations and the expanded resource flows that arise from wealth-sharing agreements. On the basis of such a consensus, the international community can provide much of the finance needed to make the system work. We should have modest expectations about transforming Sudan’s political economy: it can certainly be modestly reformed and be less predatory, more like the African norm, but that’s about it.
Amazing analysis and a great question by Corinne. If the best case scenario is “modest reforms more like the African norm”, it doesn’t at all seem very encouraging considering what the African norm actually is now days. What do you think about the possibilities of a regime change in the country from national rather than external forces? Given that the democratic process seems a bit drowsy, do you see any hope for a coalition of any sorts to challenge the status quo there in Sudan? There is an article I read recently by Bill Bonor, a former member of the Sudanese Communist Party, in which he poses this very possibility.
What about the the factor which Alex avoids ?Sudan was ” persuaded ” to
adopt the magic formula which those who studied in the USA thought could lift the country from poverty and underdevelopment.I am referring to policies of
privitisation and structural adjustment . In the short to medium terms ; this
did revitalise the economy and move it away from the inherted command economy structures;but it is difficult to argue that the policy is the best for the marginalised and poor.The first to shed tears of sorrow for poverty in Sudan was the IMF whose monitors made sure that government subsidies were abolished for the sake of market forces !We can say that marginalisation was
not challenged by Reagenite /Thatcherite policies in the short term.
The current credit crunch shows that unfettered markets have their flaws
as George Soros has warned. Nationalisation is no longer a dirty word in the UK and USA .
Sudan should draw the conclusion that marginalisation in it is only partially home grown. It is imported . A mixed economy is the best for the future .
Those who blame Sudan for marginalisation fit the ancient Arabic aphorism
which is summariesd in two lines of verse:
He tied his hands and pushed him into the water
Then shouted warning:do not get wet!
What is surprising is that the political forces and parties which are based on the rejection of marginalisation are paradoxically( and because of Western patronage) the most vocal suppotters of unfettered market economy!