Thoughts on the Speed of Sudan’s Political Process
In the 1980s I lived for a while in Nyala in south Darfur. It is the terminus of the railway that runs all the way from Port Sudan, through Khartoum and Kosti, to Darfur. At that time there was a railway timetable singular in its simplicity: “˜The train will leave on Monday, sharp.’ I liked the precision contained in this schedule, usually transmitted orally through the town’s large marketplace. The train did indeed leave as promised, and duly arrived at its destination after its epic trek across the savanna and desert, perhaps after delays during which locomotive, carriages or track were repaired en route. But when it arrived was a different matter: the journey could be few days or several weeks.
Sudanese politics has some features in common with Sudan railways in those days, after Jaafar Nimeiri had dismantled the rail workers’ union and starved the once-proud network of investment, when it was, we were told every year, being “˜rehabilitated.’ Most importantly, Sudanese politics is constrained in its operating speed. The train cannot go faster, at least not much.
The formalities of Sudanese politics take time. Passing legislation in the National Assembly, counting people and checking the statistics to produce a credible census, demarcating borders””all are time consuming affairs. It is especially so when the process is consultative or democratic. This is even the case within the armed forces. The Chief of Staff may be able to order a halt to aerial bombardment from one day to the next, but if the President orders a ceasefire, the next step is for the Chief of Staff to convene a committee to figure out exactly what the instruction means (a ceasefire is a complex military operation that doesn’t actually prohibit firing, under certain circumstances), before transmitting orders to the field.
The processes of political bargaining””making the deals in the auction of loyalties””also take time. Haggling over the price is usually quicker than talking through every line in a document, but when the money is scarce (as at present, after oil revenues have crashed) the negotiations can be protracted and acrimonious. And a deal, once made, may last as little as eighteen months or two years. This is how the security chiefs keep the militias in line. Looking back at the parliamentary regimes in Sudan, coalition politics was a frustratingly slow and inefficient business. If the mid-term elections this year are even moderately democratic, we can expect a gap of several months while a new governing coalition is put together, after which the political pace will remain slow.
One of the reasons why the Abuja negotiations for a Darfur peace agreement in 2006 failed was that the mediators tried to accelerate the process beyond what the parties’ could take. By contrast, negotiating the CPA was a much more drawn-out process.
In the fifth year of the CPA’s Interim Period, with a huge raft of political business facing the Sudanese political leaders, the operational capacity of the political system will be taxed. Holding elections, forming a new government of national unity, resolving issues such as Abyei and the border, passing the legislation for the referendum on self-determination””this is a full agenda for a well-functioning government, let alone one that will be preoccupied with financial solvency and the ICC. If the international community is serious about holding the referendum on schedule in January 2009, or even a few months late, it should try to make Sudan’s political agenda is less crowded and more expedited.