( Musa Adam Abdul-Jalil) - Political competition and retribalisation of educated elite
The story of the Fur shura council is not unique to this ethnic group despite its particularities. In fact it reflects a typical pattern of elite political behaviour using urban-based voluntary associations as political platforms to achieve both communal and more personal goals. Since the mid-1990sseveral ethnic groups have formed their own shura councils. Examples include more importantly the Zaghawaand Rezeigat, Masalit and Birgidshura councils. They all have two tier bodies and include representatives for those residing in Khartoum, Darfur, other states within Sudan as well as the diaspora. Native administrators from traditional homelands (dars) of the tribes are also represented. In addition, shura councils also include highly educated people some of whom are senior retired army and police officers who are politically active.
The trend is not limited to Darfur ethnic groups for this phenomenon also appeared in Kordofan and eastern Sudan. It is noticeable that no such associations have been formed among ethnic groups in riverain areas. In other words, the phenomenon seems to be limited to areas where citizens claim to be marginalized. Interestingly, the Arabic term “shura” that is used for these associations literally means something equivalent “democracy” although it is not exactly the same. By the same token there is no exact word for democracy in Arabic. Without going into any epistemological argument here it is suffice to mention that the use of the term is part of the culture of Islamist terminology that has been popularised by the Ingaz regime to refer to any congregation of delegates representing different sections or communities. It stands for a parliament of a kind. Consequently using the term shura indicates that the organization approves of Islamist ideology.
The main question asked at the beginning of this paper is about the factors that influence the formation of the shura councils. From the example of the Fur shuracouncil - and according to what their leaders admit - the most important factor that encourages people to seek political representation in terms of ethnic associations is the dominance of a totalitarian regime that denies or seriously hampers freedom of organisation to political parties.
From the point of view of educated elite from the Fur ethnic group they see that their political rights as citizens have been seriously jeopardized firstly when the government sided with their Arab enemies and secondly when political parties that oppose the government party are not allowed to operate freely. Therefore they thought that the best option for them to defend themselves and preserve their interests is to show allegiance to the regime under an ethnic banner. Indeed the regime itself from the beginning openly demanded allegiance from tribal groups – in the form of an oath (baia’a) - in imitation to what the prophet has done in Medina at the beginning of the formation of the first Muslim state in Arabia.
The second factor that influenced the formation of ethnic associations is the marginalisation of regions such as Darfur, South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Eastern Sudan. It took the form of underrepresentation in government institutions and civil service, disproportional underdevelopment and exclusion from effective leadership positions even within opposition parties. This factor, however, is not a product of the Ingaz regime alone but rather a uniform behaviour of all governments since independence. It is not a coincidence that early regional political groupings in Sudan were formed exactly in these areas in the 1960s: Darfur Development Front, Nuba Mountains Union and Beja Union. Interestingly enough the Ingaz regime did nothing to discourage the ethnicisation of Sudanese political discourse; on the contrary it actually encouraged it in many ways.
For example, ethnic associations are allowed sometimes to meet in government buildings and under the auspicesof an NCP leader. Senior government leaders including ministers, Governors (state governors) and President Al Bashir himself would meet with tribal shura council representatives and discuss matters with them. In the case of the Fur shuracouncil top NCP leaders have even intervened in their internal competition.
Although the main goal of the organizers of the Fur shura council has been to mitigate the conflict between them and other ethnic groups in Darfur (mainly the Arabs), their association has not achieved any significant success in this regard. On the contrary its very foundation started a new race of competition between similar associations established either in reaction to or taking the Fur association as a model. Since the appearance of shura councils in early 1990s in the political landscape, conflict has dramatically escalated in Darfur. This leaves no doubt as to the usefulness of these ethnic associations. Of course there are success stories for these councils most of which is limited to solving interpersonal disputes and settling issues of diya payments in cases of homicide or even helping needy students to finish their university education.
Another significant observation to be made about the shura councils is that it has set the scene for competition between the educated elite and native administration leaders on the one hand and between the educated elite themselves on the other. The Rezeigat and Birgidshura councils are perhaps exceptions because there seem to be more cooperation between the elite and native administration of their respective tribes. In most other cases mutual criticisms are exchanged between the educated elite and native. While the former claim that native administrators are traditional and lack capacity to understand national politics at the centre let alone influence it; the latter respond by criticising the former as being selfish and seeking only to fulfil personal ambitions of occupying political posts. Most of such criticisms are made behind closed doors as the two categories need to cooperate in order to get privileges from the government or to solve problems with other competing tribes whenever they occur.
On the other hand, the educated elite themselves sometimes entered into fierce competition amongst themselves. During the last parliamentary elections, many of Fur educated elite competed with each other despite what they have agreed on during the establishing phase of their council. Moreover, after the death of Husain Ayoub in 2008, the executive officers of the Fur shura council disagreed among themselves on how to proceed to appoint a new leader for the association. The disagreement has led to the formation of two competing councils.
It is generally noticeable that the way the educated elite portray political participation and power sharing reflects a rather limited view of the central issues involved in the Darfur crises. I have documented elsewhere (Abdul-Jalil, 2009) how school teachers dominated local politics in North Darfur and how they managed to translate the power sharing model into a protocol for the division of political posts on ethnic basis. On the other hand the government in Khartoum has always tried to portray the conflict there as one between “tribes” much like what the colonial authorities did in many parts of Africa. But even if that justification is correct it should have played the role of a neutral arbitrator. In fact intertribal fights due to conflict over natural resources always existed in Darfurbut was limited in scale and never produced the sort of calamity the region has witnessed since the early 1990s.
The government intended to establish a case for blaming the victim whereby Darfuriansare responsible for what happened to them. Accordingly, issues of marginalisation and lack of development are downplayed and ignored.
By concentrating on who gets what post the Darfurian educated elite reduce the power sharing protocol of peace agreements to a mere ethnic division of posts which actually help in relieving the pressure from the government. This explains why the government is so keen to promote competition and encourage divisions among Darfurian elite firstly by encouraging the formation of tribal shura councils and secondly by introducing more administrative divisions in the region.
The number of states have been raised to five lately and each of them has increased the number of its localities. This is actually in line with the well-known Ingaz strategy of divide-and-rule which they have used in dealing with opposition parties, trade unions and civil society organisations. In the case of Darfur promoting ethnic tensions of all kinds has also been a systematic practice. This can be considered a reinvention of a colonial tradition par excellence.
The feature of elite competition can be considered the most important factor behind the failure of the Fur shuracouncil. Other similar associations don’t seem to have succeeded that much especially regarding conflict transformation or improving state performance. What is seen in Darfur may not be considered unique to the region but rather a variation of a general pattern: mainly that the educated elite in Sudan in general failed to positively transform political life in the country towards democracy and stability. They have rather become part of the elements responsible of the country’s instability. Through involvement in short sighted competitions the educated elite have inhibited the development of national integration based on recognizing the countries immense ethnic, cultural, and religious diversities. The management of diversity is crucial, one presumes, for the success of any modern state within the boundaries of what is left of the historical Republic of Sudan. Although the role of the educated elite has so far been less than expected – to say the least – but nobody expects a modern state to be run without the full participation of intellectuals.
The analysis of the phenomenon under question (mainly politicised ethnic associations) so far points to the fact that it is a symptom of nonconsolidated state power. The process of state building has never been fully achieved and that is why the Sudanese state remains instable or as de Wall calls it “perpetual turbulence”.
Although the conditions in Darfur reflect much of the nature of the crises as exemplified by this case of one segment of elite group, any full explanation cannot be reasonably achieved without putting what happens in Khartoum at the centre of the stage. I would therefore largely agree with de Wall (2007: 19) in his conclusion that:“The analysis in this paper is consonant with most scholarly analysis of Sudan’s crisis in presenting the ethnic and ideological factors as products of other processes, notably the strategies adopted by successive governments for managing the peripheries, and the militarisation of society. It differs from most analyses in its emphasis on the importance of failed consolidation of state power (emphasis mine).
It is clearly noticeable to any observer of Sudanese society that ethnic or tribal loyalties continue to influence the political process in the country to the present day. When Sudan gained its independence half of a century ago, the modern educated elite who were associated with the struggle for independence perceived a future for their country that is free of the influence of tribal loyalties in public life. Since the mid1990s a new organizational structure for promoting tribal representation and tribal solidarity has appeared amongst the majority of Darfur tribes that is known as “shura councils”. It is expected to act like a tribal parliament that develop strategies and make policies regarding the interests of the group. Shura councils operate largely from the national capital; with branches in the state capitals playing the role of “lobby” groups negotiating various
types of political deals. It is not however coincidental that they are recognized and nurtured by the government.
The paper concludes that in the context of political manipulation of the resources of the state the ruling elite in Sudan found themselves entangled in the process of adopting the old colonial tactic of “divide-and-rule”, hence encouraging the retribalisation of educated elite. The educated elite on the other hand are unable to either defend the interests of their tribesmen or seek to fulfil their ambitions for political office without organizing on ethnic with very limited paths for organized political life there is not much they can do. Therefore, one would rather consider the formation of the tribal shura councils as the product of a combination of two interdependent factors, staggered process of state building and expedient elite politics.
Finally, despite the fact that the present paper concentrated on the performance of elites I would concur with the following statement made by a Japanese Africanist regarding the role of ethnicity in African states. Osaghae (2006: 10) argues that “This narrow focus of the elite perspective of ethnic management in Africa and elsewhere fails to address the fact that ethnicity breeds on much more fundamental inequalities, injustices and perceptions of relative deprivation, which can neither be reduced to, nor dealt with by, the appeasement of ambitious power-seeking elites. The real danger in placing elite accommodation above all other considerations is that it diverts attention away from the need to reduce or eliminate if possible, the underlying structural factors that foster and provoke genuine ethnic grievances and mobilizations.”
( Musa Adam Abdul-Jalil) - Political competition and retribalisation of educated elite