Sudanese Politics of Exhaustion
At a meeting in al Fashir last week, a civil society spokesman said, “˜we are tired, we have had enough.’ Sudanese civil and political leaders are visibly exhausted.
The President looks weary. The civil opposition leaders are ageing and even Sadiq al Mahdi’s legendary energy is running low. Of the Darfur rebel leaders, only Khalil Ibrahim shows dynamism and verve””but at the moment his energy is directed towards revolutionary destruction rather than building an alternative. Abdel Wahid has given a new meaning to the term “passive revolution” with his de facto exit from any meaningful politics at all. Southern Sudan may be just two years away from its independence, but there is little of the excitement that we would expect in a nation counting down to national liberation.
Sudanese politics has no new big ideas. The two revolutionary ideals of the ruling generation””the competing “˜New Sudan’ projects””fought each other to a standstill. But those who rose to power on the strength of those visions are still in power, bereft of grand new visions, concerned only with the tactics of survival. Their political calculations are based on reacting to events, especially events that emanate from outside.
Sudanese politics has always been an uncertain affair, but with the imminence of the referendum in the south and the shadow of the ICC, the stakes are higher than ever before, and the pressures are commensurately greater. Those who used to advocate democratization and change still do so, but without passion and with less conviction than before. The prospect of elections does not excite people. The country appears to be drifting towards partition. Southern Sudan may achieve its independence by exhaustion of other options, liberation by default.
Political elites are being dragged down by events they cannot control. The upsurge in violence in southern Sudan over the last few weeks is one example. Among southern leaders there is a sense of bewilderment and fear at the level of the violence and its savagery, but not a wide sense of outrage which would mobilize society to end the killing.
In Khartoum, neither government nor opposition can see the light at the end of the tunnel: the NCP has the means and determination to hold on to power, but cannot do more with that power than simply hold on to it. The opposition parties have resigned themselves to the status quo. The most prominent Darfurian leaders have quarantined themselves from national politics.
A practical dimension to exhaustion is the time budget of leaders who have to engage constantly with foreign governments and international agencies which are determined to deal with every detail. One of the highest placed government leaders has approximately 500 meetings with foreigners (diplomats in Khartoum and visitors) each year, in addition to foreign trips. If each meeting is an hour, plus time for preparation, that is about three hours per working day when he is in his office. This man is one of the preferred intermediaries for western governments and international organizations””but if they appreciate him so much, perhaps they would be advised to allow him more time to do his day job.
Few governments of medium-sized countries would have permitted such international intrusion into the running of the affairs of the nation. With so many micro-commitments extracted from the government on a week-to-week basis, it is not surprising when behind the smiles and handshakes the real government response is, wait and see, do the minimum, and conserve energy. And that is for the initiatives which the government accepts””for those it doesn’t, it takes little for them to orchestrate a blockage somewhere along the line.
The opposition and civil society are also worn out by engagement with sponsors and donors, by attending conferences and consultations and capacity building workshops. Some””like the recently-cancelled Mo Ibrahim Foundation meeting in Addis Ababa””held a glimmer of hope for something bigger. But the abrupt cancellation of that meeting after objections from the Sudan Government again plunged Darfurian civil society and political leaders into bitter despondency. When the only well of energy they can draw upon is anger, it augurs ill for the country.
The current-day counterparts of the men and women who led the 1985 popular uprising are probably employed by the UN and international NGOs. The spirit of voluntarism which was such a marked feature of Sudanese society in earlier years has been replaced by a preoccupation with writing proposals for donor grants. More insidiously, they have lost confidence in the value of rehearsing the recommendations for human rights, democracy and good governance which energized them in earlier years.
Sudanese politics is constantly in motion, but moves forward only at a slow and uncertain pace. I have described it as a “˜turbulent state’. The turbulence consumes energy””it can be exciting because it is accessible and constantly full of promise. But it is exhausting because initiatives fade into a routine of endless negotiation over the smallest details, and become superseded by the next proposal that comes along. Delay is always an option, and those who use the skill of tajility“”strategic delay””most adroitly are likely to be the ones with most energy left at the end of the day. Nothing is guaranteed until it happens.
U.S. Special Envoy Scott Gratian’s approach to Sudan reflects the Obama Administration’s strategy towards the Muslim world: unclenching the fist. In the Sudanese case, the fist must be unclenched one finger at a time.
Sudanese have experienced centralized authoritarianism, parliamentary democracy, one-party state, socialist revolution, Islamist revolution, regional devolution, federalism, autonomy for the south, redivision, one-country-two-systems. Whatever is tried will have some echoes of what has gone before. Every political road is blocked by the wreckage of a failed political project, maybe just a couple of years old, maybe decades old.
Symptomatic of exhaustion is the way in which Sudan has run out of names for its agreements and initiatives. We have had “˜National Reconciliation,’ “˜National Consensus,’ “˜Peace from Within,’ “˜Return to the Roots,’ “˜Comprehensiveness,’ “˜Comprehensive Call,’ “˜Comprehensive Peace,’ “˜New Sudan’ (Sudan al Jadid), “˜New Sudan’ (Sudan al Hadith), “˜National Salvation,’ “˜National Renewal,’ “˜Civilization Project,’ “˜Sudan People’s Initiative,’ and many more. It stretches the vocabulary to think of new names that are not tarred by association with past failures.