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.
I am just tempted to comment on one point. It’s a trendy thing among Sudanese people to glorify the past, no matter how dire it was.
Even now, you hear many people in Khartoum talking about how developed Sudan was during the reign of former president Nimiri. It’s ridiculous how short-term the memory of Sudanese people is. I am sure that in 20 years time, Sudanese people will be talking about how the rule of Inqaz was good and the great extent to which Al-Bashir’s regime used to tolerate political dissent!
The trouble with Sudanese people is that they are over sentimental and easily taken in by cheap political propaganda.
It certainly makes sense that people in Darfur want law and order, and hence a stronger government presence. Am I correct in thinking, though that the main issue is not just the local or national government but rather the relationship between the two? And, in turn, the relationship of the people to both entities?
Your concluding point about democracy is well taken, but so is your definition of democracy as “bringing government closer to the people and making it more accountable.” It seems to me that elections won’t necessarily solve major problems, though I am curious to hear your thoughts on what effect next year’s elections will have in Darfur. Rather, it seems Darfur needs different (more organic?) means of participation in government.
I think this is quite common where people are having a difficult time of it: it’s one way to keep up hope. There’s nothing unusual or unusually Sudanese about it: after our recent troubles, there’s a wave of Moi-era nostalgia in Kenya just now.
The points raised by Mr. Alex De Waal are of great interest. However, I will be commenting only on two of them.
1- The fact that most of those who have been met in Darfur were longing for some sort of government power should not be construed to mean that they will be pleased with a stronger NCP regime.They are missing law and order and are looking for a fair, efficient impartial government that can deliver the public goods or services that can not be provided by any other authority.
2- It is quite doubtful that those who talk about a strong native administration in the 21st century know what native administration is or its modus operndi.The power of a native authority originates from a semi-closed illiterate society where the native authority assumes the judiciary, executive and legislative powers without competition from any other accessible authority. While the native administrations made no substantive efforts to develop their administrative techniques to cope with a rapidly changing societies, their own subjects obtained higher education and earned superior authority than their leaders. They became Judges, law enforcement officers, military officers, senior civil servants, ..etc while the native administrators are considered junior legal clerks. The nostalgia for strong native administration is understandable at a time of power vacuum, but to ask a modern society to live in the past is reactionary. Governments may give more power and resources to the native administrations but that will change little since the subjects are exposed and have access to new means of living and administration.
The issue of the role of the state in Darfur is a complex one,that requires the striking of a delicate balance. On the one hand part of the reason why Darfur is in this possition is due to the dissolution of the Darfuri tribal courts, by the government who had believed that any vaccum caused by the removal of tribal government would be filled by the state,but sadly instead that vacuum ended up beeing filled by rebels and bandits,even the British apreciated that to have a stable sudan you needed to involve tribal leaders,and the system of what was known as nomadic rule was developed, I think empowering tribal leaders and involving them in negotiaitons could facilitate peace but like was eluded in the article rebels will not hesitate to dismiss them as Government proxies as soon as they utter a word which the rebels do not like, never the less I still believe the sultans,nazirs and so on still hold considerable influence in Darfur and most importantly their intentions for Darfur are noble and not based on self interest.
“Itâ€™s a trendy thing among Sudanese people to glorify the past, no matter how dire it was”
Muhammad Its seems that sudanese rose tinted specticuls come with very thick lenses,I have heard people who lived through nemiris years describing them as the “good old days” apparently forgetting about the way people had to que for bread from 4 am in the morning, the sugar rationg the fuel rationing
the fact that just about every body was unemployed, nemieri even suggested that people who were already down to one meal a day should eat a fraction of a meal to deal with the economic collapse, Sudan at one point was competing with somalia for the title of the worlds poorest country,the Sad truth is Sudan hasnt been this prosperouse since the 1960s and that sudan hasent had a golden age for a thousand years.
However one form of government which has to be strengthened is,Local State Government which has the benefit of beeing local and more in touch with the people and as well as having the power and authority of the state behind it.
All security forces operating in darfur should be brought under the command of their respective state,so that Darfuris feel that they are in charge of their security not khartoum, and it should be local state officials who should be the public face of authority in Darfur not people like nafi ali nafi or any other senior NCP party official, the alienation with authority in Darfur must be dealt with, off course free and fair elections are also vital in gaining darfuris and in general sudanese confidence in government. But It would be naive to think that Democracy will lead to peace in Darfur, however the hope is that it might facilitate it.