Sudan: The End of Trust
Once upon a time, ordinary Sudanese citizens followed a set of social mores that we all understood. Everyone’s door was open – it had to be so because nobody had a working telephone. Even the highest officials in the land were accessible, more often at home than in the office. Today, only pensioners can recall those days when Khartoum was an egalitarian city.
Years ago, we expected public institutions to function in an orderly and predictable way. The Gezira board was the model for how a government should operate, crunching its numbers with total impartiality. Now it is a miracle if a civil servant follows the rules, and probably he doesn’t even know the rules. We have judges who don’t understand the basics of law and teachers who are barely literate. But it’s not just a question of low standards, it’s that the citizenry’s interaction with the public authorities consists in a lottery, the outcome of which depends on personal relationships, money and sheer luck.
This is a deep structural feature of our political economy. Commerce follows the same pattern. Every investment is geared towards a quick return, to be extracted as quickly as possible, never mind the consequences. The beginnings of the get-rich-quick ethos can be dated with precision to Numayri’s turn towards capitalism, but what we see today makes the greed of those years pale into insignificance. This ethos has captured government too: it’s the market that regulates the state and not the other way around.
Every theory of state formation presumes that state institutions function with efficacy greater than the personal patrimonial systems which they supplant, so that there is an inexorable trend towards institutionalized statehood. In Sudan the historic processes of state formation seem to be happening in reverse. Numayri attacked the inherited institutions with revolutionary abandon and they never recovered, but the damage he inflicted is as nothing compared to the thorough-going corruption of the Salvation Regime. It is tragic to see how quickly the SPLM has joined the corruption club.
Elections result in a legitimate government when the people agree on the basic rules of political competition and when the losers accept with good grace in the confidence that in a few years’ time they will have another fair chance at winning. Sudan used to have some of the best run and fairest elections in Africa and the Arab world. Today, every detail of the electoral process, beginning with the census, is contested. I can make one confident prediction for the upcoming elections: the winners will declare that the elections are legitimate, and everyone else will disagree fervently.
The pending agreement between the NCP and SPLM about the distribution of seats in the National Assembly shows how the fate of our country is being decided. It’s being done by a political fix between the two ruling kleptocracies. Under the iron laws of politics there is no realistic alternative and this kind of horse trading will do its bit to keep the Government of National Unity afloat for another few weeks, but it makes a mockery of the supposedly independent NEC.
Military rule might have the virtue of being a more honest (less hypocritical) form of government than a supposed democracy in which the key decisions are all made without letting the people have their say. But the Sudanese Armed Forces have long ago forfeited any possibility of regaining its standing as a credible national institution. We don’t even have one army any more. There’s no longer a Leviathan in the wings. Perhaps one reason why some unfortunate citizens in the peripheries long for an American occupation, is because they want a hegemon back and clutch at rhetoric about foreign troops as their only chance.
The only viable hegemon is one which organically develops from the nation’s political economy. The prospects of that are remote under today’s political configuration: the NCP is intent on consolidation but cannot think beyond tomorrow, and the opposition has capitulated on the basic political challenge of taking control of the state and using it as an instrument for political change. Either they want to cut it into bits or to steal from it. There is no vision, and no wonder. The last 54 years of Sudan’s history consists in little more the burned out hulks of failed hegemons. Arab socialism and Islamism are the biggest wrecks. The legacy of their arrogance is our citizens’ cynicism. The legacy of their revolutionary energy is the destruction of our fragile but treasured public institutions and the corruption of our civic ethics.
Maybe we can achieve a humbler goal of living together in mutual tolerance while we try to decide what to do with our hopeless, beloved country.
With this presentation in mind, the immense unpredictability of the coming year’s political developments in Sudan should be crystal clear.
The subtitle of Abel Alier’s book “Too Many Agreements Dishonored” says it all. From the birth of Sudan as an independent nation, the instability of political life has been such that all political agreements come heavily discounted. During the short premiership of Sadiq al Mahdi in the 1980s, when the high hopes for a post-Nimeiri renaissance were so rapidly dashed, Sudanese used to ask themselves why their leaders were so unreliable, even crazy. Perhaps the better question would have been, what is it about trying to govern Sudan that makes a leader either a perpetual vacillator (like Sadiq), a chameleon (like Nimeiri) or a practitioner of strategic deception (like Turabi)? Bashir’s longevity can be put down to the fact that he is only intermittently an executive, and that the division of labour among the 1989 putchists allocated him one task and one task only: staying in power.
Abdel Wahab’s posting challenges us to reflect on whether the decay of Sudan’s public institutions can actually be measured, and whether the change in social mores is real or perceived. It is easy to overlook just how violent Sudan’s post-independence past has been (compare the violence of the 1976 attack on Omdurman with that of the 2008 attack — many more died in the former). But I think he has definitely put his finger on an important trend.
Clearly, agreements ought to be honoured as a matter of principle. The failure of so many peace agreements in the past means that there is little confidence in any that might be signed today. But we also ought to attend to whether the next round of agreements should be designed to be more suited to the reality that Sudan is a low-trust political system in constant flux–a “turbulent state” as I have called it elsewhere.
Dear Abd al-Wahab
I fully agree with you that the biggest wrecks of Sudan are Arab nationalism and Islamism. But, you failed to identify that the aspirants and the advocates of the two remain among elites of the northern Riverain breeds who have continued to lack capabilities to look beyond their ethnic stock or region. They failed, as a result, to turn into patriotic statesmen and rulers of the whole of Sudan and instead acted like thugs who by default inherited post-colonial power.
One of the reasons may be they have not in fact inherited established cultures of governing people! While this view may look bigoted, there are more grounds to suggest that the kingdoms and the sultanates that emerged in western Sudan turned out to be better controlled and administered than their counterparts that emerged in the northern part of Sudan. With the Turkish invasions of Sudan in the 19th century most of the northern dynasties disintegrated while those in western Sudan survived until the 20th century as established sultanates the remnants of which are functioning to our present day and era. Since independence Sudan has been under the grip of rulers from the northern stock who failed to unify the nation. The legacy and hegemony of northern rule over the Sudan is its possible entire disintegration from the map. The road to peace, reconciliation and unity of Sudan is to accept those failures and remedy them. The continuation of northern rule over the whole country has failed. The NCP with 25 of its senior leaders out of 30 are from the northern region is indicative of the entrenched regionalist policies that are certainly to explode even if the South has gone its own way. Until such inequalities are admitted and corrected the country is inevitable to fragment. The main losers will be the same who continued to rule the country ever since.
Dear Dr el-Tahir,
Any objective analysis of the Sudanese predicament must of necessity lay the main responsibility for today’s disaster on the succession of rulers of Sudan who without exception hail from one particular region of the country. The legacy of their attempted hegemony is, as you correctly identify, the likely disintegration of the country.
I am not in a position to address the question of whether western Sudanese inherited a better tradition of governing and the resulting counterfactual of whether a Sudanese ruling elite that hailed from Darfur and Kordofan would have done a better job of running Sudan in the last 50 years. However I strongly suspect that you are looking in the wrong place for the origin of the misrule of Sudan, which lies not in the personal character of the ruler but the objective conditions over which he presides.
Where we part ways is on how to resolve this crisis. Admitting the unequal status of citizens is necessary by all counts. What, however, does this mean in terms of an objective political programme? The geographical inequality of development is symptom not cause of our distorted and fractured political economy. The cause is the frozen political development of the centre, which was, in earlier decades, far more advanced than it is today, reflecting the potential for the political economy of a state-irrigation, commercial agricultural, industrial and urban based economy. If there is to be a transformation of the Sudanese polity this is where it will arise, not in the peripheries and especially not in those peripheries whose leaders have opted for a Bantustan-like flag independence without the political-economic preconditions for developmentalism.
Among the ruling class there are many that have taken their cue from the separatists in the south and Darfur and argued that metropolitan Sudan will be a more viable entity without its peripheries. This tendency is particularly associated with the figure of Abd al-Rahim Hamdi. If the separatists have their way (and from your comment I fear that JEM may be toying with Darfur separatism) then the beneficiaries will in fact be the historic riverain ruling elite, which can withdraw to its more developed riverian enclave and eject the Southerners and Darfuris or at least strip them of their citizenship. While South Sudan at least has oil, though the benefits of this for the southern masses are entirely invisible, Darfur will be relegated to a Bantustan-style labour reserve, pure and simple, a kind of Lesotho or Upper Volta of the Nile Valley.
Dr al-Tahir, I sincerely hope that JEM does not succumb to the counsel of despair represented by the Darfuri demand for self-determination and does not infantilize its political programme to simply claiming that the riverian elite is culturally incapable of ruling.