On the Limits of Ideology in Ruling Sudan
Abdullahi Gallab’s book has taken me back in time. Writing nearly twenty years ago I thought that Sudan could not be governed by any ideologically driven regime, and this book clearly shows both one such attempt and its failure. The question then is why not?
In part the answer lies in the nature of ideological rule itself, whether by Islamists or others. Ideology is a set of ideas by which a social group makes sense of the world- the problems come when the social group being governed does not initially subscribe to the ideology or when new rulers are unable to impose it. The former point is one long recognised by ideological movements in Sudan, whether Islamist or Communist, which regularly debated the attainment of ideological objectives by “˜persuasion’ through party politics, or their “˜imposition’ via a coup. Both movements were to become embroiled in government when events were to make the latter irresistible.
Once in power the social group had to be persuaded or coerced. As this book demonstrates the Islamists tried both. Penetration and manipulation of the education system was to be a major tool of the former strategy however it was to prove damaging to the quality of education, and came up against other deep rooted traditions, including those of the Muslim majority of northern Sudan. Coercion on a scale hitherto unknown in the country brought growing resistance from all areas of the country.
In a strong state repression in the name of an ideology may succeed, for a considerable period of time at least, as communist states in Europe and Asia have shown. In a weak state such as Sudan the unsurprising growth of resistance which has been seen in all the “˜marginalised’ areas can come to threaten the state itself. In the end the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 recognised that, with the National Congress Party forced to the position of granting the south a referendum on secession in 2011. Far from constructing the wider umma, so actively proclaimed and pursued under Turabi’s vision, Islamism has served only bring closer the possibility of a divided country becoming two separate states.
However the failure of Islamism is not a return to the old pre-1989 Sudan, for in addition to the possible split, the country has moved in the direction of becoming a rentier state thanks to oil; while world food prices have re-ignited international interest in its agricultural potential. There is the possibility here for socio-economic change leading towards more pluralistic politics; but there is also the danger of the new wealth reinvigorating the politics of patronage and clientelism on which in my view the country has run for so many of the years since independence. Such an outcome could be less violent than political ideology proved to be, but it would disappoint those hoping that the present transitional period could produce lasting political reform.
Peter Woodward is Professor at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Reading.