Sudan: The Silent Fall of the Ancien Régime
The April 2010 general elections in Sudan have been largely considered by commentators and observers of the Sudanese political life as an irrelevant exercise mainly destined to foreign consumption. This has been confirmed by the very low number of comments about the election results in the press and on the web. Everyone is focused on the real deadline set by the CPA, that of the referendum. Little has changed in the composition of the governments in Khartoum and Juba, except for the fact that Northern and Southern “other political forces” have been almost erased by the political scene, as the two dominant parties have reinforced their hold on power in the two regions.
It is clear that no surprise comes from the election results if we look at the top levels of the list: winners were announced far before April. But what if we look at the losers? This could offer some useful insight about the structural changes which have occurred within the Sudanese political arena during the last 20 years.
During an interview in the last eighties, Hasan al-Turabi talked about a “vicious circle” affecting the political process in his country, which he summarized as “military rule, followed by free-party anarchy”. “The way out of this cycle – he added – is that there be developments in the national political arena that alter the party and institutional structure of the society, deepening in it the causes of strength, stability, and unity”. This could be one of the few auspices expressed by the Islamist ideologue which have eventually come true, although only in its first half.
After twenty-one years of Islamist rule, coupled with almost thirty years of civil wars involving different regions of the country, the “party and institutional structure of the society” seems to have radically changed. In fact, if we compare the present situation with that of the 1985-86 biennium, which came after sixteen years of authoritarian rule, we may state with certainty that there is no script that is going to be repeated. At present, there is no popular insurrection in sight, free-party anarchy seems not to be an option, as traditional sectarian parties have scored a negligible result during the last elections, and the future appears to be in the hands of the two hegemonic blocks in the North and in the South.
The hasty way in which elections have been put aside by those Western governments which had actively supported them – actually imposing them on the parties during the CPA negotiations – is due to the fact that the vote had a predictable but equally disappointing outcome: instead of giving birth to one, democratic Sudan, the elections have ratified the emergence of two authoritarian Sudan(s).
Of course, this is a process which has been developing for the last twenty-five years and it is by no means a result of the elections per se: as already said, it is the combined effect of Islamist authoritarian rule and civil wars. In fact, war in Sudan has not been “the continuation of politics by other means” – although I doubt that it can be so anywhere in the world – but has conversely meant the suppression of politics. The once thriving Sudanese political scene has been reduced to a tabula rasa, abandoning the country to the duopoly of the politico-military organizations which have been fighting the war and used the conflict to suppress dissent within their respective fields. Sudan has been militarized, praetorian ruling classes have risen to power in the North and in the South, while the civil political culture which had characterized the Sudanese society after independence – leading to the ousting of two military regimes by peaceful popular insurrections – seems to have been crushed by the monolithic and repressive entity of the Islamic state and the militaristic attitude of the SPLM/A.
The most remarkable development visible on the Sudanese political scene, moreover, is the virtual disappearance of the two political organizations which had dominated Sudanese politics since 1956, namely the Umma and the unionists. A comparison between the 1986 election results and those of 2010 would be unconvincing for many reasons: in 1986, elections were held under a Transitional Military Council after the Nimeiry regime had already been overthrown, while in 2010 the electoral process has been managed and organized by the incumbent party, whose regime had been only formally dismantled by the CPA. Nevertheless, what seems to be unequivocal when looking at the recent election results is that while the sectarian system was almost left intact by the Nimeiry regime, it has been shattered to an unprecedented level by two decades of Islamist government.
Some could say that the Umma National Party has boycotted the elections: but was this strategy really meant to delegitimize the vote, or was it a tactic aimed at avoiding a likely electoral downfall? Boycotting is certainly less damaging than losing…
We may find two orders of causes underlying the dissolution of the sectarian system: the first refers to policies implemented by the Islamist regime with the deliberate aim of curbing the political influence exerted by the sufi brotherhoods (land confiscations, anti-sufi propaganda, cooption of minor sufi orders within the NCP, etc.); the second pertains to objective structural changes within the Sudanese socio-economic landscape which have undermined not just the electoral base of the traditional parties, but the roots of the sectarian power system. Among the last ones, I would mention urbanization and the integration of the Sudanese economy in the world market.
The rapid path of urbanization which Sudan is currently experiencing has been described on this blog by Alex de Waal and Munzoul Assal. The uncontrolled process of migration from the countryside to the cities has disrupted the traditional bases of the sectarian parties. Even though many individuals retain some form of tie with their communities of origin (when it still exists), the sufi brotherhoods no longer play their socio-political function as mediators between the state and the rural populations. For many, urbanization brings with it education and the adoption of a “modern” lifestyle and mentality, which in turns leads to cut the links with the “faith of the fathers” and sometimes to embrace some other form of Islamic activism. Moreover, displacement-induced urbanization has “depoliticized” hundreds of thousands of people, in the sense that political participation is far from being one of their priorities, while war has allowed the emergence of new political actors – mainly rebel movements – which have eroded the popular consensus enjoyed by the traditional parties. This is true, for example, when we look at Eastern Sudan and Darfur, two established sectarian strongholds.
Integration of the Sudanese economy in the world market refers, as many would say, to the process of globalization. One of the key components of the sectarian power system was the wide patronage network controlled by the sufi brotherhoods and by the “big families” affiliated to them. The Sudanese economy has radically changed since the eighties, and the most remarkable feature of the new scenario is the presence of an unprecedented number of foreign investors, coupled with the emergence of new sectors of the economy characterized by high margins of profit, such as oil and telecommunications. This has re-framed the previously existing patronage networks – it must be noted that “big families” have shown a remarkable resilience and still find themselves at the core of the Sudanese economy – and created new ones closely associated with the state and the Islamist ruling class. These networks, as Alex de Waal has shown in his essays about the “political marketplace”, are characterized by a high degree of monetization, internationalization and factionalism, signaling the disappearance of the “socio-political mores that maintained cohesive patrimonial networks” (De Waal 2010) in the past.
Cohesion has never been a distinct feature of the sectarian system. Nevertheless, the degree of fragmentation and factionalism experienced by the traditional parties nowadays is unprecedented. This is the reason why a decline in the political influence of the sectarian parties is not equivalent to an increase in the level of political stability in the country.
Both in Northern and Southern Sudan, the hegemony of the dominant party will be challenged from the inside – as internal cleavages increase in times of unchallenged rule – and from the outside – by those who are not willing to accept the hegemonic project of the ruling class.
One interesting and largely overlooked fact of the 2010 elections is that while the parties in charge remain the same, and the figures at the top are largely unchanged, there are many newly elected faces for the NCP and the SPLM at lower levels. This is particularly noticeable in the SSLA and some of the Southern state legislative assemblies, which have substantial freshmen representation. A lot is subsumed by a name – both parties are big tents holding a spectrum of different views. So while it is easy to write off the elections as a return to the status quo, that judgment really depends on how deep you look. Will different party figures do things differently? Premature to say they will or can, but if all politics are local then a presumptively final verdict on the implications of the polls may need to wait a few more years. As you say Giorgio, eventually…”hegemony of the dominant party will be challenged from the inside,” which, IF it occurs may in retrospect be the most important legacy of the 2010 vote.
Very interesting analysis. One other factor that should also be taken into account is that the NCP managed, to a large extent, to establish the social and religious hegemony over Sudan which was necessary for strengthening its political base.
People always talk about how Islam came to Sudan with the Sufis–when I talk to Sudanese people many of them are extremely defensive about the distinctive nature of Islam in Sudan (and insist it is still intact). Yet from the very little that I have seen here–at least in the capital–I was surprised at the level of penetration of Salafism.
It’s not something that I have researched properly–only a casual observation. But I feel that this has also contributed to undermining the support-base of the traditional parties; and consequently to the decline of their political influence. Though I don’t know to what extent this is true in the peripheries…