January 11, 2005

Two Tyrants Are Not Better Than One

Peace in the Sudan! The end of a long and horrible civil war.

Don’t believe it..

The settlement is basically a power-sharing agreement. John Garang, the leader of the southern insurgency, gets to be vice-president. The SPLA gets a formally dedicated share of government posts and representatives.

The Sudanese state itself is fundamentally left intact in its structures, functioning and norms. It’s just that the armed rebels get their place at the already-set table. There’s a commitment to allow the south to eventually vote on autonomy six years from now after being governed independently in the interim. The south is formally exempted from the imposition of shari’a. There’s a formula for sharing oil revenues.

First, despite a lot of celebratory talk, it should be evident to every observer that this is hardly the most stable arrangement. The hope obviously is that both parties will feel they have too much to lose if power-sharing returns benefits to both, particularly six years down the line when the south is supposed to vote on its long-term future.

Maybe. That sort of calculus has paid off from time to time in places like Mozambique where peace produced economic dividends and the insurgencies rested on relatively shallow social and organizational foundations to start with.

In this case, I don’t see a lot of reason for thinking that the elites of Sudan’s north will willingly share fifty-fifty, and equally little reason for thinking that John Garang and his associates will be acceptingly resigned to whatever plunder comes their way.

Which points to the core problem here: that a pact between Ali Osman Taha and John Garang is a bargain between two unprincipled and tyrannical leaders, neither of whom has much interest in the liberty and prosperity of the ordinary people within their territories. The roots of the conflict lie deep in societies that share relatively little sense of being part of a single nation, but also in some rather depressingly similar philosophies of rule, in which states exist substantially as a system for vectoring wealth to autocratic elites and their cronies and not as a guarantor of political, economic and social freedom. Maybe Taha and Garang will be satisfied with their share of the take, and their followers satisfied with whatever distributions of that take they get.

That might provide a measure of peace, but none of justice, and thus no lasting security. All it will take for this agreement to vanish into vapor is one party demanding more than the other thinks it due to it, or for some group far down the patronage chain of either deciding that they’re not getting their fair share and using all-too-plentiful weaponry to demand a larger amount of plunder. Probably most outside interests will drop a few pennies in the national coffer by way of a reward for the settlement, but that will last only as long as the Sudanese civil war is remembered by any but the Sudanese, which is to say probably for another six months or so, until some other conflict or problem commands the restless attention of media, diplomats and publicity-driven NGOs.

The root problem here is shared by both sides: a conception of nation that exists only as a tool for elites to mobilize forces on behalf of their own local parasitism.

Neither Garang or Taha have anything approaching an authentic vision of society as something that exists for something other than their own benefit, and to which they must defer.

Neither is a custodian of something larger than themselves, save for the networks of clientage to which they must answer. Nowhere in this accord will you find the blueprint for the reminagination of state-society relations anywhere in Sudan, north south or otherwise.

Two pirate ships may come to agreement about which sides of an island they intend to plunder. Two mob families may agree that one of them will extort money out of garbage removal and the other out of construction. Those agreements rest on the honor of thieves, which is a weak foundation in any event. Even when they hold, they don’t bring peace to the victims. They just make their sufferings more predictable and manageable.