“How Genocides End” (3: Sudan)
Having originally intended this to be a three-part posting, I am inserting an extra short essay focusing on Sudan, before applying the framework to the case of Darfur.
The Sudanese civil wars of the last quarter century have witnessed perhaps half a dozen episodes of extreme violence. The most striking cases include the militia raids into Bahr al Ghazal, 1986-89 and the concurrent massacres in Wau; the Nuba Mountains Jihad of 1992; the Juba massacres of 1992; the internecine fighting within the SPLA in 1991-92; the oilfields clearances of the late 1990s; and the Darfur war 2003-04. (The list is of course arbitrary””plausible candidates for the honor have been omitted.)
The most salient feature of these episodes of extreme violence is that they take place against a backdrop of ongoing armed conflict. And in turn, Sudan’s peripheral wars merge seamlessly into well-established patterns of peripheral governance, whereby the state uses means of indirect, militarized rule to maintain control. Extreme violence is in part an outcome of structural inequities and associated forms of (mis)government, in part a continuation of how peripheral warfare is conducted, and in part a dramatic rupture of the above.
The backdrop is some abiding characteristics of the Sudanese state. Prominent among these is the vast gap in resources and administration between the centre and the peripheries. The centre is administered through public institutions, undergirded by patronage, while the peripheries are ruled by patronage alone. This pattern stretches back to the 19th century if not earlier. The Turkiyya (1821-85) divided the country into metropolitan and military provinces, reflecting a core-periphery duality that endures today. Also important is the strategy for governing by patronage, through the co-option of provincial elites to loyalty to the centre in an auction of loyalties. Lacking the wherewithal to sustain a challenge to the centre save with consistent external support, the provincial elites almost always succumb to the lure of patrimony. In peacetime they deliver votes and cheap, secure rural administration. In conflict they deliver militia. The central mechanism of indirect rule, developed by the 18th century Sudanic kingdoms of Sennar and Dar Fur, adopted by the Turkiyya, and refined by the British, is administrative tribalism. Political mobilization both in support of the state and against it takes on tribal lines. The term “tribal” is used deliberately. This corresponds imperfectly to ethnicity. Different tribal-administrative units of the same ethnicity can have different political or military loyalties.
Members of the Sudanese elite rarely kill each other. In fact even supposed enemies are cordial to one another when they interact socially. They are playing a game with known rules, and these rules prohibit killing of elites, while allowing violence against their respective constituents. But alongside this regulated political game is a visceral contest over identities and a deep failure to achieve a consensus over the core attributes, even the identity, of the Sudanese nation.
The conduct of Sudanese peripheral conflicts follows a well-established pattern. Provincial elites, seeking to obtain a concession from Khartoum, engage in targeted violence. They are, as it were, advertising their presence and capability, and seeking to drive up the price of their loyalty. If possible they bring in an external patron, whose entry into the political marketplace helps bid up the price. The targeted violence consists usually of an attack on a police station or army post, a robbery of a small-town bank or marketplace, the hijacking of a commercial vehicle, or taking hostage foreign workers on an infrastructure project. It’s not a battle so much as targeted asymmetric infliction of damage, sending a signal. Sometimes the government responds by immediately negotiating or acceding to sufficient demands for the matter to be settled. It may make an offer to a rival local leader. Or it may respond with violence of its own. This is larger-scale violence, intended to punish, deter and inflict sufficient destruction as to drive down the value of what the group in question has to offer. So, the government’s counter-violence involves destroying villages, stealing cattle and other assets, damaging the fabric of community life (perhaps by abducting women and children) and killing. This is also not a battle but a more widely-targeted asymmetric infliction of damage, sending a contrary signal. At this point the provincial elite may negotiate a deal, may split with some members defecting, or may regroup for another effort.
Most of Sudanese provincial warfare consists of these reciprocal acts of destruction and the associated bargaining. Under the laws of war they may count as “indiscriminate” violence against civilians. In the sociology of conflict they are targeted attacks on individuals and communities with known identities. Rarely do we see battles between the combatants on either side. And usually, once combat between the contending armed groups is engaged, it is quickly broken off as soon as the weaker side calculates that it should not pursue the fight. Most of the government-supported counterattacks are by the provincial elites and their militia themselves. It’s a cheap method of vigilante-ism and of keeping the price of loyalty low. Violence is a means of regulating the political marketplace.
What then, of the episodes of extreme atrocity? The cases canvassed are varied. Let me sketch each one, examining the extent to which it is a product of deep structural problems in the Sudanese state, a continuation of the established patterns of violence and counter-violence, and a rupture of them.
Bahr el Ghazal was not a major battleground for the first phase of the civil war in the late 1980s, but both sides saw control of the province as crucial for their prospects for winning an expanded war. The conflict began with a small-scale SPLA presence and some targeted attacks to which the government (over)responded with waves of militia raids on Dinka villages and purging and killing of suspected SPLA sympathizers in Wau town. The Wau massacres ended when most of the Dinka population fled and the military governor responsible was transferred. The militia raiding scaled back when the SPLA entered the area in force. This represented a scaled-up, out-of-control ratchet of the familiar pattern, with neither side able or willing to de-escalate.
The Nuba Mountains campaigns began in a similar way but escalated to the infamous jihad. The campaigns escalated further because the SPLA incursion into Kordofan was a much more profound threat to the state than the war in the south, because of proximity to Khartoum and the fact that the Nuba SPLA leaders were Muslims with the ability to broaden the appeal of the movement beyond the south. The political philosophy of the “New Sudan” was realized in the Nuba Mountains more than anywhere else in the SPLA-controlled territories. The jihad was, in turn, an attempt to transform the nature of the war””and Sudanese society along with it. It was an ideologically-driven attempt to change the whole game, a major rupture. After the failure of the jihad, the war continued as a familiar, brutish provincial war.
The 1992 Juba massacres were an act of retaliation and paranoid security control after the SPLA very nearly captured the city with the assistance of mutinous southern soldiers in the national army, which ended when they had killed enough. Had the SPLA captured the southern capital””which it came within a whisker of doing””the war would have been transformed, and the state with it. Quite possibly, separatist sentiment in the south would have compelled the SPLA leadership to declare independence. This was more than a raid to demand a higher price””it was potentially a revolutionary act.
The 1991 and 1992 internecine massacres between Dinka and Nuer groups aligned with different factions of the SPLA was the nastiest of all the internal fights in the south, brought about by the failed coup against John Garang by senior commanders from Upper Nile, and each side’s raging fear of the other. It was a fight to the death, sadly a common feature within fractious liberation movements, whose senior cadres often reserve their most vicious attacks for one another. The government in Khartoum was more than happy to stoke the fires. Deeply shocked by this trauma, southern leaders including churchmen, tribal chiefs and many SPLA commanders, invested huge efforts in reconciling the parties.
The late 1990s oil field clearances was a pre-emptive campaign to establish sufficient military control to bring the oil wells into production, giving the government sufficient resources to turn the tide of the war. There was no provocation or threat, rather a pre-emptive and successful effort at changing the entire national political terrain. The measure of this transformation can be seen in the growth of the Sudanese government’s budget, which in 1999, when the first oil began to flow, was less than $1 billion. In 2008 it was over $11 billion. The forced relocations and associated killings ended with the government in control and the SPLA ready to negotiate peace.
The Darfur war in 2003 began with stunning military reverses for Khartoum against an enemy with quite unexpected military capabilities and frighteningly unfamiliar desert warfare tactics. Like the 1980s in Bahr el Ghazal, the war resembled a rapidly ratcheted-up version of the regular asymmetrical patterns of violence. The Darfur rebel offensives were not just a military danger but threatened to unravel the progress made towards the normalization of Sudan’s international relations, and security men in Khartoum suspected that a U.S. regime change agenda was lurking.
What distinguishes the extreme episodes of violence from the broader pattern whereby violence is used as a bargaining tool in the political marketplace? In each of the six cases, one or other party seems to have been breaking the rules of the game. The violence had the potential for changing the political rules altogether. In Bahr al Ghazal and the Nuba Mountains, the threat was a rebellion sufficiently powerful that it could not be bought off at a price that Khartoum could afford to pay. Darfur was similar. In the case of Juba, that price was a threat of secession. In the Nuba case and the oilfields, extreme violence was an instrument of a transformational project””the first ideological, the second financial.
If this analysis is broadly correct, does it tell us that the extreme violence will only be ended by successfully tackling the “root causes” of the Sudan’s trauma? This would entail, among other things, settling the underlying contests over the identity of the Sudanese nation. There is, however, good reason to fear that such an ambitious, even revolutionary project, might inflame more violence.
Or does this analysis tell us that we should focus instead on the immediate “brute causes” of extreme violence, put aside any ambition for a dramatic transformation of the Sudanese polity, and instead aspire to manage that polity in such a way that extreme violence is minimized? This would entail trying to fix the current political dispensation through a reform process. There is, however, reason to fear that this would leave intact many of the underlying grievances and arrogations of power that have contributed to the crisis in the first place.