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.
Dear Dr. de Waal,
Your writings are always instructive and much appreciated, but here I must make objection.
I contest all premises that you make in your contention before the Royal African Society that the current regime in Sudan “seems poised to last somewhat longer, reincarnated at the head of a broader coalition of Sudanese political parties.â€
The following premises from your lecture are ostensibly factual, but contextually flat: you say of the National Congress Party regime that â€œits longtime foe, the SPLM, is a partner in government, and the countryâ€™s last elected prime minister, Sadiq al Mahdi, has just signed a â€˜compromise agreementâ€™ with the man who overthrew him in a coup in 1989. President Omer al Bashir is preparing to contest elections in a year time and appears poised to win.â€
The first point, that SPLM is a partner in the government, is legally true, but means little in terms of power at the national level. Salva Kiir Mayardit himself, who was re-elected as SPLM chairman last week and who is nominally the Vice President of Sudan, is known to favor secession. In a startling rebuttal to your conclusions, violent and direct conflict broke out between SPLM and northern forces in Abyei region in early May. David Mozersky of the International Crisis Group warns of â€œpreparations for further mass violence,â€ and moreover the SPLM delegation has unexpectedly refused to participate in talks in the capital ongoing between the U.S. and the Khartoum regime.
As to your point about the Umma Party, despite the high-profile agreement there are indications of disgruntlement in the Umma Party against higher-ups who engineered the rapprochement. More importantly, few details have come to light about what the â€œNational Compromise Agreementâ€ might actually mean for the Umma, who hold little power anyway. Rather than seeing the ceremony as an indication of growing inclusiveness of the NCP, a more likely explanation is that the agreement was a narrow and short-term NCP success in patrimonialism and propaganda. Sadiq al Mahdiâ€™s own son is reported to have been handed a cushy post at the Sudanese security and intelligence agency. The agreement got a lot of publicity, but it tells us little about the reality of power-sharing in Khartoum or the actual strength and position of the fragmented Umma party. More telling news than the compromise agreement, I think, are the recent threats of the Vice-Chairman of the Umma Party, Adam Musa Madbo, to boycott the elections if Darfur is not included. NCP, no doubt, would garner few votes in Darfur, which was once an Umma bastion.
You attribute to Khartoum politicians the potential â€œpolitical skillâ€ and the right measure of equivocation (â€˜tajilityâ€™) necessary for building a â€œbroader coalition.â€ But what signs are there, Dr. de Waal, of this coming coalition? It seems, on the contrary, that even as the Government of Sudan builds its war chest with oil money, that in the â€œpolitics of the marketplaceâ€ that you speak of, the government is running out of political capital. If anything, signs of coalition-building are greater among opposition parties. Mubarak al-Fadil al-Mahdi, who heads the breakaway Umma Reform and Renewal Party, was in Juba last week, at the SPLM convention with Salva Kiir. SPLM is building its capacity, the days are past when the Nuer were in revolt from them, and secession is reported to be as widely favored as ever.
There are no more signs of government â€œinclusivenessâ€ in the west than there are from the south. Indeed, quite the reverse: news came yesterday that Commander Jibril Jaber Jibril, once loyal to the supposedly â€œbroader coalitionâ€ formed under Minni Minawi and NCP, has defected to SLM-Unity. Rebels in SLM-Unity have themselves followed JEMâ€™s lead toward a path of no-return, threatening attacks on Khartoum and making regime change a cornerstone of their rhetoric. In a similar vein, the main SLM faction under al-Nur rejected Gordon Brownâ€™s offer for mediation in the UK early in May, and SLM and JEM both have just abruptly withdrawn from talks planned to take place in Geneva.
In the wake of the JEM attack on the capital, the would-be â€œinclusiveâ€ regime of al-Bashir resorted to scape-goating, reported torture, indiscriminate round-ups, and a propagandistic approach to diffusing public concerns. Do these seem like good conditions for a â€œvictory for peace and civilityâ€? Does this truly seem a good breeding-grounds â€œfor a civic democratization in which the imbalances of power and wealth in the country may be redressedâ€?
You reject interventions involving international peacekeepers, but you are rather vague about the alternative you propose. What exactly does â€œthe right support to Sudanese practices and skillsâ€ entail? In his book on Sudanâ€™s civil wars, written before the outbreak of the Darfur insurgency, Douglas Johnson asks, â€œgiven the failure of past efforts of â€˜constructive engagementâ€™ with Khartoum over humanitarian issues, and Khartoumâ€™s history of evading the unpalatable conclusions of past negotiations, what precedents are there which realistically suggest that â€˜constructive engagementâ€™ will produce a better result now?â€ In the years since he wrote that, events have confirmed his doubts, with Khartoum now in open violation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Abyei, and still no less intransigent on humanitarian issues.
Johnsonâ€™s historical perspective makes your hypothesized â€œbroader coalitionâ€ seem even more doubtful, as he notes that many observers in the West earlier this decade, â€œin advocating some form of engagement with the Khartoum regime, â€¦tacitly accepted the NIFâ€™s presentation of itself as truly representative of Islam and have overlooked or downplayed the degree to which the NIF regime has used religion as an ideology of repression.â€ In the years since this statement, we have seen brutal assaults on Darfur Muslims and the rise of new Islamist opposition under JEM, confirming that NCP is not even representative of Muslims, let alone those in the south.
The prospects of â€œdemocratization from withinâ€ are slim, and there is no way the National Congress Party is willing or able to open itself up without exposing the extent of its brutality and ineffectiveness. Whatever pretensions Bashir might make to popularity and legitimacy, they seem to be likely not enough to win a national election or to preserve national unity. The current regime will collapse under the staggering weight of its crimes.
Daniel Van Oudenaren
Thank you for your contribution. My summary posted on May 29 was only a tasterâ€”I will be publishing a full version of my RAS lecture in due course.
If a regime were ever to collapse under the weight of its crimes, its narrow support and lack of resources and the strength of its internal and regional opposition, it would have been the Sudan government of eleven years ago. Todayâ€™s adversities are as nothing in comparison to the days in which its national budget was under $1 billion (with, admittedly, a comparable amount off-budget), whereas today it spends over $10 billion (with more off-budget). In those days there were brigades of Ethiopian, Eritrean and Ugandan troops on Sudanese soil and virtually every opposition party was in armed opposition. It was divided down the middle with Bashir and Turabi at one anotherâ€™s throats. It survived then. That doesnâ€™t mean it will survive now, but itâ€™s a fairly good bet.
Thereâ€™s no question that in a free and fair election that the NCP would be massively reduced. Apart from anything else, the memory of the years of terror and repression, of ghost houses and jihad, or the round-ups of children for conscription, of the peace camps and the kashas, are still too recent. (In comparison, the response to JEMâ€™s recent attack on Khartoum is restrained indeed.) Yes, it sticks in the throat of many Umma Party members that their leader is signing a deal with the man who overthrew him. (But donâ€™t forget that old fox, Mubarak al Fadl himself also signed a deal with Bashir earlier.) Yes, the SPLA is clashing with the Sudan Armed Forces in Abyei and many, many Southerners are just biding their time for a chance to vote and go their own way. Others are ready to fight to achieve that. But for as long as I have been working on Sudan, we have appeared to be on the threshold of a broad and inclusive coalition of all democratic or progressive forces, combining against the exclusivism of the center. It hasnâ€™t happened yet and frankly I would be very surprised if Mubarak al Fadl, Jibreel Jabir and Salva Kiir put together such a coalition any time soon. They play their political games of patronage and tajility too–and very often take the international community for a ride.
I never attributed any â€˜trueâ€™ Islamic credentials to this government. What will unite the NCP and its allies is political interest in the form of money, shares of power, and the agenda of keeping a united Sudan.
We shouldnâ€™t forget that the remarkable civility of elite, urban Sudanese politics coexists with exclusivism and brutality. Neither of the two intifadas brought to an end the civil wars that helped spark them. Yet it would be a mistake to ignore that civic tradition in Sudanese politics. Itâ€™s not difficult to gain a reputation for prescience in Sudanese affairs by predicting that things will go wrong and Khartoum will be to blame. Whatâ€™s more difficult is explaining why, amidst all the bloodshed and turmoil, a recognizable Sudanese entity prevails, and continues to co-opt or neutralize those whom it has victimized.
My basic point is actually not so different from yours: the powers of patronage, the force of money in the politics of the souq, mean that ideology and principle are all consigned to second place after the question, whatâ€™s the price of loyalty? Make no mistake, my lecture did not predict an end to turbulence and a triumph of civility. Rather, I speculated that the source of modest progress might be found in some of the social, economic and political processes underway but under-acknowledged.
It is fair article, however, it is difficult to predict the future of the country whether will be united or divided into two confronted entities. There is growing perception that the coming election in Sudan is a real challenge to Sudanese political parties, both in power or opposition. Nonetheless, there are facts shouldn’t be ruled out when assessing the political arena. First, the coming elections will be carried out under a strong government in power, which happens for the first time in the Sudanese political history. In the past, elections were organized under a transitional government which had no stake in the process. Second, there are huge changes which have happened in the society itself, namely the number of educated people has increased, the style of living has changed (urbanization), the loyalty to political organizations has curtailed (now it is based on the gains in return for any political support, while in the past it mainly depended on the charisma of the political leader). Third, the aspirations and expectations of the people has skyrocketed so high (there is a slogan of bird in hand is far better than thousands flying around) they always look to the incumbent achievements to have their share from than awaiting gloomy future.
In my opinion, there is no real challenge for the NCP. The statements flying in the media are a real indication of fear from genuine elections. It becomes now the centre that magnetizes coalitions. The reaction against the JEM’s recent assault on Omdurman should be analyzed carefully it has reflected where the allegiances of the citizens lie.
Mohammed Hassan Babiker