Alex de Waal writes about the political marketplace

State-building isn’t working, and it isn’t for lack of trying. The European and American countries that go by the name ‘the international community’ have poured expertise, money and troops into Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, to name only the biggest and most challenging countries. But the more effort that is expended, the more troublesome these countries seem to become. It is not clear how 30,000 more American troops, or special corruption courts, will succeed in Afghanistan where the effort of the last seven years has failed. In Congo and Sudan, peacekeeping missions and elections, heralded as the way to lift these countries out of prolonged crisis, now effectively deepen their entrapment.

International state-builders begin with a blueprint of what a modern country ought to look like, and how it ought to be run: Afghanistan needs to become more like Austria, and Sudan more like Sweden. Many of their citizens agree, and leave for developed countries if they get the chance. The economists and political scientists who advise international institutions argue that no country should follow its own unique rules, and human rights advocates insist there should be no second-best solutions for countries just because they are poor and war-torn. Too often, the same coterie of international civil servants decamps from contracts in Kosovo to East Timor to Liberia, bringing with them the same working culture and the same formula for state-building.

State-builders ignore vernacular politics, to the detriment of the countries they leave at the end of their contracts. From within the UN compound or behind the embassy walls, forces such as kinship and patron-client networks are readily denigrated as ‘tribalism’ or ‘corruption’. But as Hamid Karzai’s travails illustrate, without these well-tested mechanisms no ruler can be expected to run a turbulent country like Afghanistan. Real politics in countries like Afghanistan, Congo and Sudan operate much like village politics or even family politics, on the basis of personal affinity, loyalty and reward. The same principles and practices are found at all levels: the astute village chief has the skills he needs to be a functional head of state, while the journalist for a provincial newspaper can rival the professor of politics for insight. Western policymakers call such countries ‘fragile states’. Their formal state structures are not strong enough to resolve political disputes or manage national budgets, which makes them problematic interlocutors for Western governments and international institutions. The World Bank defines a fragile state as one that cannot efficiently handle foreign assistance. In some cases, civil war has devastated the social fabric, creating what we might call fragile societies as well. Often it was precisely the strength of its social fabric which allowed a country to withstand foreign invasions and colonial occupation with its social order intact; today, that strong social fabric renders state institutions incapable of effective government.

Patronage is the circulatory system of real politics and in the modern era the heartbeat of the system is possession of the symbols of sovereignty, which allows a ruler to allocate aid funds or mineral revenues. Patronage can be inefficient and corrupt, and can contribute to political and economic crisis, even war, but patron-client systems may also function as a repository of trust and security. In places where formal state institutions do not provide stability and services, patronage mechanisms can dispense resources, sometimes in a way that is recognisably fair. No Afghan, Congolese or Sudanese would readily forfeit actually existing patronage systems for the uncertain promise of formal institutions.

How has Omar al-Bashir managed to remain in power in Sudan for 20 years, despite several civil wars, economic crisis and international ostracism? Unusually for a military officer who launched a coup, he is not an autocrat so much as chairman of the board, and an unruly board it is, consisting of Islamist ideologues, party bosses and security chiefs, each of whom has his own fiefdom and funds. It’s rule by cabal not charisma, and it is worth trying to understand how he managed it. I am told, by those close to Bashir, that he himself is puzzled.

The activities of advocacy groups such as Human Rights Watch and the Save Darfur Coalition has been a mixed blessing in Sudan. These organisations generate a lot of information and interest, but their rush to condemn means that almost no one takes the trouble to study the political skills of Sudan’s rulers. At the Darfur peace talks, I had the opportunity to observe the head of the Sudanese delegation, Dr Majzoub al-Khalifa, at close quarters. He had an impressively thick skin, and could withstand any insult that was hurled at him. He was also skilled at what is known in the vernacular as ‘Jellaba politics’, after the class of riverine traders who historically dominated commerce in the Sudanese peripheries and beyond. We might call it ‘retail politics’, or more precisely, ‘retail patronage politics’. It is the ability to weigh up the price, in money, of a particular individual’s loyalty and make him an offer (it is a very gender-specific exercise); it is also about reading the market so as to know the likelihood that the price will rise or fall in the future.

The Darfur rebels complained about Majzoub’s ‘Jellaba politics’, but they too were active participants in the political market. During the last days of the peace talks in April and May 2006, while the formal negotiations were conducted over the text of the Darfur Peace Agreement, informal but more important bargaining was going on over the price of a deal. The key issues that determined whether the chairman of the Sudan Liberation Movement, Abdel Wahid al-Nur, would sign the document were not contained in the 87 pages of detailed provisions: what mattered was the amount of money in the compensation fund, which would be under his personal control (and thus available for patronage purposes). He was offered $30 million but demanded a minimum of $100 million. He also demanded a personal pay-off, reportedly of $5 million, as a signing fee. The negotiations over the text were conducted in formal sessions, in English; the bargaining over the price was done behind closed doors, in Arabic. A year and a half later, another negotiation was conducted between the leader of one of the largest Arab militias in Darfur and the Sudanese government. This had the virtue of being uncomplicated because there was no international mediator and no need to pretend that the talks concerned anything other than the price itself. On agreeing to the offer, Mohamed Hamdan Hamiti commented that he expected Khartoum to deliver on 40 per cent of the deal, adding that that would be enough for 18 months. The idea of Darfur as a political marketplace, an auction of loyalties, was not greeted with dismay: the Sudanese have absolutely no difficulty with the politics of the souk.

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