Legitimacy Matters (2)
Alex de Waal provides a much more coherent summary of my book The Right to Rule than I could have. I am glad that he picked up one of the core implicit messages of the book, namely an optimism about the possibilities of political action and an escape from political crisis. Political history is littered with examples of countries that failed, but it is also littered with examples of countries that recovered from failure, or severe conflict. An observer of the mid-19th century United States would not have given that country much hope (for a grim fictional account see Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit) given its conflict, corruption, and disease. In the book, I look at the more recent case of Uganda after the trauma of Idi Amin, a country with all the same sorts of “least likely” conditions for political recovery as today’s Sudan. Indeed, Africa as a whole is a story of crisis and recovery. So the general message is that if many countries have escaped from traps of political crisis then they must not be traps.
I am an outsider on Sudan, but a few general observations seem to me important in order to properly conceive of what it will take to put that country back together again. One is that we need to distinguish between a sense of political community and a sense of national identity. The former is a precondition for state reconstruction but the latter is not. That is why, for instance, Iraq remains unified and (in my view) on the road to recovery – its people had a sense of political community (a commitment to remaining together and having a shared fate) even if not much of a national identity (a sense of shared ideas and aspirations). The referendum in the southern Sudan is a challenge to political community and is thus a fundamental obstacle to political recovery. Since this challenge has existed since 1963, it seems to me that the referendum is a necessary action to resolve the status of the south one way or another and for the Sudan to move forward. However other differences within the country are more about national identity, which is always something in the process of being worked out and need not stand in the way of political recovery. Nation-building is more a result than a cause of political recovery. What is needed instead is political community – a commitment by all major groups to the idea of a unified Sudan. In particular, this means political elites. Sudan seems to me ripe for such a commitment to emerge because it often tragically requires just the sort of terrible and prolonged civil conflict that the country has experienced.
Another important point that comes out of my book is the “state-trusting-society” model of relegitimation and recovery. The basic idea here is that in post-conflict or deeply divided societies, states are unable to make credible commitments to social actors so that the problems of state-society disengagement and alienation remain. The only way to break this impasse is for the state to initiate a positive cycle by decentralizing some form of political power to representative social actors. This can be done in many ways – putting local farmers in charge of state foodstuffs distribution networks, say, or devolving certain government functions to locally-elected or otherwise authoritative leaders. Every country is different in substance but not in form. There is a sense of this being a counterpart to the idea of political community. All major actors agree to the maintenance of national unity but in return some powers are devolved to key local elites in order to re-engage society.
Finally, an important and difficult part of any state rebuilding exercise in the Sudan will be the sequencing of reforms. Democracy is already out of the box in Sudan and it would be difficult and probably counter-productive to try to put it back inside. But I am less concerned about the quality of the 2010 election that I am with the quality of governance, the return to basic stability, the elimination of gross corruption, and the maintenance of free markets, the provision of basic health and education, and the creation of serious horizontal accountability (via the judiciary, human rights commissions, parliament, etc) – all of which will generate more social support in a setting like Sudan than a well-run election. The election must avoid being seen as a sham. But its legitimating function will be secondary. Sudanese peasants who can send their children to school for the first time, who are not terrorized by militias, and who can reach and sell their produce in stable markets will reward the state with their allegiance.
State recovery in Sudan will be measured by looking at non-aid central revenues as a percentage of GDP (a structural measure) and a host of indicators of legitimacy (survey attitudes, violence declines, etc). The two should go together.
One important issue in Sudan will be the dangers of legitimacy actually worsening internal conflict. I find in The Right to Rule that majoritarian legitimacy can in some cases worsen rather than ameliorate conflict in countries with weak democracies (if democracy is strong then it provides a structural basis for conflict reduction). This would occur if legitimacy is concentrated in a majority group and is insensitive to legitimation failures among minorities. In such cases – I cite Azerbaijan and China – legitimacy undermines reconciliation by encouraging the chauvinistic impulses of the regime. So the composition, not just level, of a rebuilt legitimacy in Sudan will matter: it must be cross-cutting, at least enough to mitigate this potential danger.
Bashir’s indictment by the ICC is, in my mind, not a necessary obstacle to this process. His own party can replace him, as the Serbs did Milosevic, hopefully with a more technocratic leader. In any case, he is already a divisive figure domestically, hardly the person to bring about a re-legitimation of the state. Museveni did that in Uganda because he came to power with a rainbow coalition. If the ICC prompts Bashir to be moved aside to make way for a leader with more unifying potential, it will have played a small part in Sudan’s recovery.