Sudan: Bringing Back the State
Twenty years ago I heard the story of a southern Sudanese villager who stumbled out of the war zone into a small town in Kordofan and exclaimed, “at last, government!” As a human rights activist””a position that merged with being an anti-Khartoum political activist””it seemed odd. The government was the main source of the problem, shouldn’t this displaced war victim be cursing the state and running away from it?
In the Sudanese political lexicon, anarchy (fawdha) is a crime as bad as genocide or war (ibada, harib)””a point brought home by Abdel Jabbar Fadl and Vic Tanner in their essay in War in Darfur and the Search for Peace. In Islam, the foundation of the authority of government is equally justice and order. A government that violates its duties with respect to one or the other, or both, loses legitimacy.
The public hearings across Darfur and in Khartoum over the last six weeks have revealed the tensions between people’s fear of the government and their demand for it to fulfill its responsibilities. Repeatedly, in response the question of what the government should do to solve the Darfur problem, people responded, “provide strong government” or “sovereign government” or similar. Even militant IDPs in south Darfur demanded “the sovereignty of the state.” Whether civil society, IDPs, native administration or nomads, all bemoaned the absence of the state in Darfur.
There is no doubt that Darfurians long for a state that can provide law and order, services and development, and make them feel part of an ordered system of rule. While some speak of a golden past age in which such a system of government existed, it is hard to identify any period in history in which it was actually the case. It’s a dream rather than a memory””but a powerful one.
At the same time, many argued that without governmental interference, Darfurians could settle their differences. Ali Haroun, SLA commander in Ain Siro, said, “the government should leave the people of Darfur to solve their problems. We can do it.” Abubaker Mohamed Abu Salim, speaking in the native administration hearing in al Fashir, said, “I put the whole responsibility for the war on the government. This dispute is like that between father and son, not among brothers.” He went on to argue that the dispute between government and people should be settled first, and the social conflicts among the people subsequently. In south Darfur, there was greater emphasis on settling the inter-tribal disputes as a matter of priority””and greater appreciation of the role of government in doing this.
There is comparable ambiguity about the role of the native administration (tribal authority) system. A recurrent demand was for the native administration to be “impartial” or “depoliticized.” The al Fashir native administration delegation argued that traditional reconciliation mechanisms could work in their appropriate context, but new methods were now needed because the government had politicized the old ones. The Nyala IDPs demanded the following from the native administration: “neutrality, patriotism, resisting politicization and sticking to the traditions of Darfur.” They complained in particular that the customary system of conflict resolution “has come to an end because the government operated in Darfur by forming new native administrative units without any capacity or privileges.”
In Zalingei, Shartai Ahmed Bakheit was asked whether the native administration could play a positive role as an intermediary with the armed movements. His reply was revealing: “No steps have been taken by the native administration, because it is the government which tells us to do such things, and this did not happen.” He went on to describe an exception, which happened when a delegation of chiefs “went to Tripoli to convince the armed movements to come forward for the talks, and it succeeded.”
Many Darfurians spoke of the politicization and governmental control of native administration as though it were a new phenomenon. Of course it is not: the system of administrative chiefs was always””under the pre-colonial regimes, under the British””a mechanism for control. But there is a widespread perception that the system enjoyed more autonomy and integrity earlier on, and is now in decline. Hamad Ali, speaking as a civil society representative in Khartoum, said, “Tribal leaders have become part of the problem. They made genuine efforts to protect their people but are not in a position to confront the power of the centre. The government should give them a chance to work for the people.” In the same meeting, Ibrahim Mohamed Adam said, “The government is dealing with a people without leaders… The destruction of the [Darfurian] leadership continued to the destruction of the native administration, which has been politicized by the government.”
The government view is, unsurprisingly, different. Speaking in the political parties hearing, a prominent leader of the National Congress Party, Ahmed Ibrahim Omer, argued that, “The native administration has been weakened, and the government of the Sudan is working to strengthen the native administration.” His point was that successive efforts to abolish the native administration under previous governments and the near-total collapse of local government of any form, had left tribal leaders without neither authority nor resources. The federal system and the formalization of native administration under the NCP government had, by contrast, given tribal authorities far more power than before.
The Darfurian yearning for a non-political native administration system is ahistorical and perhaps naí¯ve. But the rules of the system can at least be stabilized so that governmental actions such as replacing leaders and creating new localities and nazirates are kept to a minimum. As James Morton put it fifteen years ago, the choice is native administration or no administration.
Much of the problem of Darfur may originate in Khartoum, but by the same token, solutions will come from Khartoum. It is difficult to think of any solution to the crisis that does not involve strengthening the role of the state.
The missing piece in this conundrum is democracy””or at least, bringing government closer to the people and making it more accountable. The reason why the native administration system enjoyed support in Darfur was that chiefs were obliged to live with the people, unlike the civil servants who staffed local councils who were notable for their absenteeism. Fixing local government will be an important part of any future peace talks.