Sudan: Two Forms of Oppression and the Dilemma of the Left
Sudan’s “ugly election” compels us to interrogate the historical evolution of the Sudanese political economy. The Sudanese political economy is imbued by structural contradiction but with each successive historic era, the nature of the socio-political bifurcation has altered. Khalid al-Nur’s analysis may contain a grain of truth insofar as the Northern Sudanese democratic Left has maintained a patronizing attitude towards the Southern Sudanese and has been insufficiently sympathetic to the subjective conditions of their plight.
Contrary to his thesis, following objective political analysis, the Left has consistently recognized that national unity is the sine qua non for the emergence of any democratic or progressive force capable of the transformation of Sudan. The history of democratic struggle in Sudan is the story of struggle, pursued simultaneously against two forms of oppression, to be specific, class oppression (most clearly manifest in the central regions) and ethnic/regional discrimination. The historic error of the progressive Left for almost forty years has been to privilege the latter over the former. Symptomatic of this error is that the Islamist right mounted precisely the same critique of state power as a kind of elementary arithmetical unfairness in the so-called “Black Book.”
Ottoman Egypt was an “hydraulic” social economy that supported an elaborate political superstructure in which absolute bureaucratic rule regulated access to irrigation water and (secondarily) labour and transport, thereby controlling the means of production. Ottoman Sudan was an extreme case of peripheral or comprador capitalism (“cowboy” or “casino” varieties), marked by primitive accumulation run wild, with no social or political regulation of commercial possibility. Merchant adventurers commanded private armies that conquered long-established independent kingdoms, plundered a vast hinterland in which everything was commoditized including human beings (“slaves”) and political authority (“tributary kingdoms”). They set up their own mini-states, ruling through dependent vassals, as their agents in extraction. At the frontier, the face of the state was the ghazwa (raid) which was superstructurally an exercise in racial and regional dominance and extraction.
The British colonial power in Sudan recreated these two distinct relations of exploitation with a different face. The economic powerhouse of the colonial enterprise was the Gezira scheme, which was late-colonial hydraulic state capitalism par excellence, while at its periphery the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium was tantamount an enormous semi-administered labour reserve (a Bantustan, in reality). Within the more-advanced centre, the British and their Effendi class controlled irrigated production and transport in sub-Saharan Africa’s most developed economic complex. The resultant socio-political organization of production in turn generated national and class organizations (including the Graduates’ Congress, the Gezira tenants and the railway workers’ union) with remarkable speed, and the colonialists found they could not contain the forces of nationalism that they unleashed in those sectors and within the institutions of the civil service and army. The Effendiyya possessed two faces. In its determined efforts to maintain control at minimum expense, the colonial state turned to the sectarian provincial aristocracy (Ansar and Khatmiyya), giving them material rewards and legal powers, entrenching conservatism and Islamism in society and strangling the alliance between an agricultural proletariat and a state bourgeoisie. But the British were equally leery of the sectarians (whose military prowess had inflicted an historic triumph over the Imperialists) and they needed the production of the Gezira Scheme for the imperial enterprise to be profitable in the strict financial sense.
When faced with the prospect that controlling sections of both the modern and the sectarian coalitions might unite Sudan with Egypt, and moreover with a revolutionary nationalist Egyptian regime, the British (with American backing) opted to support a hastily-contrived independence for Sudan that would keep the Nile Valley divided and weak. Flag independence on 1/1/56 was a tactical victory for the status quo. Immediately the shallow roots of the liberal constitutional system was manifest, when the parliamentarians proved unable to govern and tamely abdicated power to the military. Independence proved in fact to be a strategic setback for the democratic Left. A united Nile Valley from Alexandria to Nimule would not have resolved Sudan’s dilemma of national identity but would have created a vastly larger political stage on which the forces of transformation could have mobilized, and leveraged an historically consolidated State in support of that effort.
The British, by the manner of their rule and the manner of their departure, thereby exacerbated the geographical tension within the Sudanese polity and suppressed the emergence of a true progressive force. This tension could not be resolved either during the colonial or immediate post-colonial era. On the one hand the modern forces, representing the Gezira tenants, railway workers, and members of the state bureaucracy and armed forces, sought to build a post-colonial state in the image of their former masters, and indeed the image of Egypt, and on the other, the sectarians used their demographic majority and their continuing hold over the political symbols of legitimacy (Islam and tribalism) to thwart this effort.
Nimeiri attempted to harness the modern forces, smash the sectarians, and create a monolithic modern administration across all parts of the country, but succeeded in none of the above. His legacy was to discredit political modernization and leave the country in an economic crisis from which it has yet to fully emerge. Most particularly, the political organizations based on the means of production such as industrial and agricultural labour were smashed and instead the material basis of political organization shifted to state-based rent-seeking and comprador capitalism.
The Islamists sought to overcome this contradiction by synthesizing a modernizing Islamism but succeeded instead only in recreating the colonial hybrid in a new form. The state capitalism of the colonial and early post-colonial era has been superseded by an Egyptian-model centralized patrimonialism, addicted to gargantuan public works, and even more addicted to petroleum revenues, in the heartland, and licensed warlordism and casino capitalism in the periphery. The frontier capitalism of the 19th century returned in force (literally) during the years of war and austerity, and today, in its oil-burning variety, is acting as comprador for Arab and Asian capital. The suq al mawasir scheme in al-Fashir is but one of the more creative ways of peripheral rent extraction in the casino capitalist mode.
In Darfur, the ruling party runs warlord capitalist fiefdoms, renting the allegiance of local henchmen (one of whom, the governor of North Darfur, has evidently overplayed his hand). In the South, it has subcontracted the business (at a high price) to the SPLA. As I have argued before, sovereign independence for the South and indeed for Darfur would be no obstacle to this kind of frontier capitalism. To the contrary, a riverian state would welcome the chance to be rid of the burden of the welfare of the peripheral labour reserves and would leap at the chance of setting up border posts at el Obeid and Kosti and issuing alien identity cards to all the Southerners and Darfurians resident in central Sudan. The logic of this refashioning of Sudan can be read in black and white on the pages of al Intibaha week in and week out.
The next stage in the manifestation of Sudan’s contradictions will come with the dismemberment of the country, while the ruling elites’ capital remains as mobile as ever, re-positioning their operations across borders with total freedom and subordinating proliferating micro-states with their shrinking sovereign rents to their interests. Khalid is correct that the Southern Sudanese need democracy but he is shortsighted in thinking that democracy can be achieved in an under-developed kleptocratic periphery, in which politics is structured upon state rents, primitive accumulation and plunder capitalism. Just as the division of the Nile Valley was a strategic setback for democratization 54 years ago so too the separation of Southern Sudan will further demobilize the forces of progressive transformation in both North and South Sudan. The victory of the forces of reaction will be that the Sudanese people can be subjugated more effectively with the Balkanization of the Nile Valley. Self-determination is a Phyrric victory for the people.
Abd al-Wahab Abdalla believes that democracy can be achieved only by the Sudan Communist Party and that every development in Sudan since 1971 has been a step in the wrong direction. His account of history is tendentious. What would Sudan have gained by joining Egypt and becoming the junior partner in a union under a stagnant authoritarian regime that sees itself as the mother of the Arab world and only an accidental African nation? His formula for democracy dismisses the experiences of the parliamentary governments of the 1960s and 1980s as irrelevant and suggests that Southern Sudanese are incapable of managing a democratic system. What basis does he have for suggesting that Southerners cannot achieve a democratic system? For any hope of democratic transformation, he suggests, we must wait a long time until the structure of the Sudanese political economy is thoroughly transformed by economic development. Sudanâ€™s best hope is not to emulate or join Egypt!
To assert (correctly) that Sudanese have held non-fraudulent elections in the past does not entail that the Sudanese political economy has been capable of sustaining a progressive and democratic system. Each of Sudan’s three historic parliamentary regimes fell and they fell because of their incapacity to address the national challenges confronting them. No parliamentary system and no election, no matter if it conformed with the “free and fair” mantra of liberal democracies in industrial democracies, has managed to return a progressive party to power with a truly national agenda. Ironically it was institutions such as the army, with all their anti-democratic tendencies, that served as the repository of Sudanese nationalism for long periods.
Sudanese nationalism has been historically reactive and oppositional rather than progressive. Southern Sudanese nationalism is just as strong (if not stronger) but has precisely the same characteristics. It is precisely for these reasons that no political force has been capable of mobilizing the Sudanese people around a progressive self-determination agenda, whether across the whole of Sudan in 1955 or in the South today. Without such a political infrastructure, the forces of nationalism, along with the forces of sectarian “democracy” should remain subordinate to the forces of socio-economic transformation. For that reason I make no apology for advocating the unity of the Nile Valley even though the constituent parts for that unity may be undemocratic (though I realise fully that today the historical conditions for achieving such unity are unpropitious in the extreme).
The NCP can not be described as a progressive movement by any stretch of the imagination. It is nationalist only in the reactive manner described above. None of the other parties in Sudan possess these characteristics either and they seem destined for political marginality.
The SPLM has become primarily the mechanism for a reactive Southern nationalism. Can the SPLM be called a progressive movement? I call upon other contributors to this blog to deliver their evaluations.
This is a very telling essay. Well written.
Dear Abd al-Wahab,
I believe that people can make their own history, and change their country for the better. Twice in our national history, in 1964 and 1985, the ordinary citizens of Sudan came out into the streets and through the moral force of protest they brought military dictators to their knees. The CPA was possible because of the vision of the late Dr John Garang and also because some in the NCP realised (very late in the day!) that they needed to put the national interest ahead of their ideological and party agenda.
Democracy in Sudan needs leaders and organizations. We don’t seem to have much of either right now. Where I agree with you is that conditions need to be right (for example peace and respect for civil and political rights) if democratic movements are going to emerge, as well as people treating one another with decency and respect. Until the northern elites (which includes you as well as the other personalities I mentioned in my first article) can see that the Southerners have lost confidence in ALL Northerners regardless of their political leanings. I don’t think there can be a Sudan-wide democratic movement if the Southerners don’t trust the Northerners, but I don’t think that the Northerners who are in the political parties or CSOs realise this at all.
So (although I would love the Southerners to vote for unity!) I don’t think that they will and I think they will have a much better chance for building a democracy if they have their own state in Southern Sudan. I think I have already answered your question about whether the SPLM is a progressive movement (which I take to mean, is it a democratic movement).
People make their own history but the materials available for that manufacture are not of their choosing. Leadership consists, inter alia, of generating the subjective expectations among both the leadership and the masses, that are commensurate with the objective social and political substrate, that objective progress can be achieved. Otherwise we are transacting illusions only. The historic error of the international advocacy on Sudan has been the manufacture and sale of such illusions and the error of many of our colleagues has been the internalization of those same illusory expectations. It is understandable if mass opinion among Southerners is in favour of independence because in the absence of political mobilization and education primordial sentiments will invariably prevail. It is unforgiveable if those who present themselves as a progressive vanguard are content to pander to these primordial sentiments and are unable to formulate a programme of political action that can both shape those sentiments and generate the objective political and economic conditions that can allow for genuine democratic transformation.
At the current historic conjuncture it may well be that progressive forces are sufficiently disorganized that they can exercise no real leadership and that the short-term future of Sudan, both national and Southern, will follow a reactionary path. Such developments may indeed enable progressives to sharpen their understanding of their errors and as such may be historically inevitable and perhaps necessary. That does not make these developments any less regrettable.
Sudanese nationalism has been historically reactive and oppositional rather than progressive. Southern Sudanese nationalism is just as strong (if not stronger) but has precisely the same characteristics. It is precisely for these reasons that no political force has been capable of mobilizing the Sudanese people around a progressive self-determination agenda, whether across the whole of Sudan in 1955 or in the South today. Without such a political infrastructure, the forces of nationalism, along with the forces of sectarian â€œdemocracyâ€ should remain subordinate to the forces of socio-economic transformation. For that reason I make no apology for advocating the unity of the Nile Valley even though the constituent parts for that unity may be undemocratic (though I realise fully that today the historical conditions for achieving such unity are unpropitious in the extreme).
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