On the Reactionary Nature of Sudanese Provincial “Revolutions” – Liberating the Bantustans?
The critique of inequality and monopolization of power in Sudan follows both geographical and class dimensions. The central provinces are vastly richer and better serviced than the peripheries, and the income inequality between the mercantile elite and the remainder is enormous. Unfortunately, for three decades, the geographical dimension has been consistently hegemonic in Sudanese political discourse, distorting successive attempts to enact transformative political projects, and resulting in the left abdicating the political initiative to the Islamists.
The in the decades either side of flag independence, the Sudan Communist Party developed into the largest and best organized of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa. Its core constituency was the industrial working class, especially in Sudan Railways, and the tenants of the Gezira Scheme. Over-confident that Sudan’s economic and political future belonged to these classes, the SCP failed to make serious efforts to penetrate either the class of rural smallholders or the labour migrants in the geographical centre. It left these constituencies in the grip of the sectarian rural aristocracy and was in danger of itself becoming a sectarian kind of leadership of the relatively privileged trade unions and the state-rentier leaseholder class. In 1971, the SCP was destroyed as a major political force. A disaster of comparable magnitude, is that since the decimation of the SCP, successive radical challenges to state power have neglected the class dimension to the Sudanese political struggle and instead framed their critique in terms of the provinces against the centre, and mobilized accordingly, along provincial and ethnic lines. The resulting irony is that thirty years of oppositional political projects have espoused revolutionary symbols but have actually been conservative and even regressive in practice. Meanwhile the Islamists, shamelessly appealing to the simple religiosity of the masses, and equally shamelessly using Islamic finance to draw in the entire spectrum of the bourgeoisie, mobilized the overlooked centre, including its working class.
The SPLM at its outset appeared to herald a coalition of the geographically-marginalized, the underclass of the developed centre, and the liberal secularist elite. It retained some affection among the latter two groups and had Dr. John Garang lived, he might have mobilized them as an electoral base. However, the only organizational infrastructure established by the SPLM in the course of its war was military, provincial, and to a considerable extent dependent upon external sources of material support. Politically, the SPLM displayed far more maturity in the 1980s than subsequently, as its national political ideology became little more than rhetoric to cover a political infrastructure that was diverted into ethnic and personal factionalization. Despite the slogan of the “˜New Sudan,’ the SPLM’s war became a defensive war, to protect the distinct identity of the South from encroachment by racial and religious extremism in the North. Garang’s hope was that, once he had secured a territorial base in the South, he could use that as a springboard for democratizing the politics of the North, decisively reversing the ideological agendas of the ruling elite and forcing it to relinquish the greater part of its patrimony.
The model of a provincially, and hence necessarily ethnically, based rebellion was one that had gained currency in the region following the success of the Eritrean, Tigrean and Ugandan insurgencies. As a nationalist movement seeking the reversal of a historic act of incorporation into a neighbouring country, the EPLF was exceptional. It could be both bourgeois and revolutionary under a nationalist banner. The TPLF throughout its existence struggled with the contradiction of its provincial/ethnic constituency, necessary for its military survival, and its Marxist-Leninist analysis and programme. It is questionable whether the TPLF/EPRDF has successfully overcome this tension but it has at least grappled with the issue in a systematic and thoughtful manner. The NRA in Uganda followed a distinctively different path, in that it mobilized across ethnic lines at in the geographical and political centre of the nation, enacting a village-level transformation during its struggle that was, in part, a microcosm of its national political programme.
The SPLM followed none of these models, its leadership at best ambiguous on the key political-ideological issues facing it. Both Garang and his successors have spoken in code, seeking to keep their disparate constituencies in balance by being less-than-candid about their ultimate objectives. Garang could credibly claim to be the keeper of the secret key to the riddle of Sudan, able to rationalize the overlapping circles of Sudanese contradictions through force of intellect and charisma. But once the SPLM had opened the Pandora’s box of self-determination, against the will of its Chairman, it has been impaled on the contradiction between that demand and the slogan of the “New Sudan” ever since. Garang could bestride this contradiction with the hope, albeit probably unrealizable, of democratic transformation. His successors are victims of this contradiction, not masters of the synthesis. Their silence is not because they have trump cards hidden up their sleeves, it is because they do not know what to do, and do not command the mechanisms for deciding. Consequently, the SPLM leadership, far from being a vanguard, is allowing the voters to decide for it. In yielding de facto leadership to the people, whose historical experience leads them inexorably into ethnic nationalism, the SPLM is abdicating any claim to progressive political leadership.
In retrospect, the SPLM’s historic error was to fail to theorize political role of the underclass of Southerners, Nuba and Ingessana in the core areas of Sudan. In accepting the humanitarian designation of these people as “displaced” it came to regard them as no more than a lost constituency, lost from their homeland and lost from the political cause. It was an act of surrender to the regime’s accusation of a “fifth column”, withdrawing any political claims and agendas for this constituency, in part from the legitimate fear of reprisals against it. The absurd proposal for a “protected intifada was an attempt to reconcile the SPLM’s genuine, if overstated, military capability with its NDA partners’ vacuous pretensions to a repeat of the 1985 Popular Uprising. But this political withdrawal, which has reached its logical endpoint in the SPLM’s refusal to extend referendum voting rights to Southerners outside the territorial South, was in reality an abdication of any claim to a revolutionary political programme. It amounted to an acceptance of the de facto reality of a political economy of rentier capitalism, and the adoption by default of a political programme of establishing a competing centre of rentierism in Juba, a pale imitation of the real thing. This is retrograde.
Still more so does the SLM represent retrogression under the cloak of revolution. The political constituency of the SLM is Darfurians, particularly but not exclusively non-Arabs. Historically the working male population of Darfurians has been divided between subsistence agriculture in Darfur and an agrarian working class in Gezira and eastern Sudan. It does not take an advanced student of politics to identify where the potential for progressive political change lies. Historically, Darfur may have been incorporated into the Sudanese political economy on unfavourable terms but the Darfurian working people have become a ubiquitous presence in Sudan. Not only that, but their collective experience of exploitation by agrarian capitalism, whether the state-managed variety in the Gezira Scheme or the cowboy capitalist variety in Gedaref, provides both the objective and subjective conditions for progressive political mobilization. The SCP, having neglected this class, left it ripe for mobilization by others. The SPLM made inroads into the agrarian working class in the 1980s but left it to wither as soon as it was plunged into its internecine strife after 1991, while the state policy of targeted repression of labour activists and intimidation of the group as a whole relentlessly took its toll.
The SLM leaders, betraying their political schooling in the Inqaz regime’s rudimentary Islamism and blindly following the hollow model of provincial/ethnic insurgency, passed up an even greater opportunity for revolutionary mobilization. It is as though the African National Congress, having opted for armed struggle as one facet of the liberation struggle, decided to focus exclusively on guerrilla war in the Bantustans and abandon the townships and labour camps to the Apartheid state. The SLM’s only hope was a quick deal with the Government of National Unity in which it could team up with the SPLM to serve as junior partners in consuming the national patrimony. Having passed up this chance, the SLM was condemned to factionalism.
The SLM’s defensive political character is evident in its resort to narrow and even reactionary agendas. These include the programme of returning to a feudal-ethnic land tenure system and a locality- or ethnically-based quota system. The logic of these claims makes the exercise of citizenship rights, subject to the intermediary of tribal identity or location of residence. It is no more than the Islamists’ own “return to the roots” agenda dressed up in the clothes of “equality.” It is likely to become exclusionary and xenophobic, as the Darfurian Arabs justifiably fear.
Worse followed when the immature leadership was thrust into the international spotlight and began to campaign for a neo-imperial trusteeship of Darfur, playing into the hands of their adversaries who legitimately countered with a nationalist card. The SLM project has become no more than administering Darfur as a Bantustan while claiming a “rightful” quota of posts in Khartoum which will be filled by rent-seekers using their positions for self-enrichment or, at best, a conduit for patronage and rewarding their followers. Once they have made their deal the NCP will surely buy them up one by one, just as the British turned the “neo-Mahdists” a century ago.
The increasing irrelevance of the remnants of the Darfur armed struggle is a sad verdict on the political incompetence of the SLM leadership. Worse may lie ahead, should they achieve two of their central aims which are entrenching ethnic quotas and feudal-tribal land tenure. A territorially-based share-out of the national cake is a recipe for displacing factional competition from the centre to the provinces. If Darfur gets (for the sake of argument) a 25% share of posts in the civil service, what will follow next is inter-tribal jealousy as it becomes clear that this quota is disproportionately claimed by one tribe as against others, leading in turn to a further dispute and an ever-more-detailed division of the jobs, with the logical endpoint that each post becomes a tribal sinecure. No better recipe for stagnation could be imagined.
In demanding a return to the status quo ante in land tenure, the SLM is responding to popular demand, but also adopting a deeply conservative principle at the heart of its programme. Should the SLM succeed in legalizing the hakura system as tribal land ownership, it will have set a precedent for the nation with far-reaching consequences, not least for the Darfurians themselves. If Darfur is for the Darfurians, and moreover Jebel Marra is for the Fur, Dar Masalit for the Masalit, etc., then who is to stop the descendants of the original inhabitants of the Gezira or Gedaref from demanding that their historic claims to primacy are also enshrined in law? The logic of the demand for restoring the hakura is at best the perpetuation of the Darfurian underclass in Sudan’s most productive areas, and at worst their expulsion back to the lands that their political leaders have claimed are theirs and theirs alone. Following the SPLM earlier, the SLM is in effect surrendering the centre, and in doing so setting it sights solely on provincial rentierism.
With such alternatives all that are on offer, we should not be surprised if the Sudanese electorate decides that the NCP is the least bad option and votes it back in, without any need for the NCP’s election managers to resort to fraud. This would not be a senseless thing to do, despite all the disasters unleashed in the last twenty years. The best chance for a democratic transformation in Sudan lies in a period of political hegemony by a party that can centralize power and develop the metropolitan economy, creating the conditions in which progressive forces can emerge over the next decade or two. There is only one place where this change can arise, which is the geographical centre of the country, especially Khartoum. Although the NCP is hostile to any such change, it is the only party that can dominate the politics and economy sufficiently to allow for the economic growth that will allow democratic forces with a mass base to emerge at the centre. Any alternative to the NCP, under current circumstances, would lead to a weaker and more fragmented government, and if the self-styled liberation movements were to assume a dominant role in government, the outcome would be fragmented factionalized political patronage systems.
Objectively, the progressive rhetoric of the SPLM and SLM is wholly vapid. These movements are not revolutionaries in any meaningful sense. Their leaders are just local bourgeois wanting to grab a share of the pie. They lack even the rudiments of party organization and possess no instruments for mass mobilization other than appeal to ethnic solidarity and popular dissatisfaction with the record of the incumbent. The best that the SPLM can do is to establish an oil-rentier state in the South and see its Northern constituencies wither. If they lead (or follow) the Southern people to secession they will just be an extraterritorial dependency, and their people in the north will be truly disenfranchised as a structural underclass in a hyperexploitative labour market. The best the SLM can hope for is to administer Darfur as a Bantustan, eternally subordinate to the interests of Khartoum, but with better services than today and a bigger stream of patrimony for the Darfurian elites, also abandoning their potential constituency in the productive central economy of Sudan. Was that what these decades of bloodshed and destruction were for?