Hibiscus with Ginger

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Academics and US Foreign Policy

Recently, Nicholas Kristof published a piece complaining about the role of academics, their relevance in the public sphere, and their accessibility. Plenty of scholars have responded, either arguing that academics are accessible (just look at all the blogs!) or pointing to the economic systems that encourage them to write for an exclusive audience. One of the best responses I’ve read was by Daniel Drezner, a political scientist who points to the differences in incentives: in order to succeed, academics must make new arguments and be “cutting edge” while to be relevant for policy makers and the general public, they must express a general academic consensus. As a result, academic insights are more often sidelined in policy discussions where they would be quite useful.

This dynamic was achingly apparent a couple of weeks ago when the US House of Representatives assembled a subcommittee hearing on US policy towards Sudan and South Sudan. The stated goal was to begin creating a unified policy towards both Sudan and South Sudan, a goal justified in that the politics of the two countries will remained inextricably linked for the foreseeable future.

Understanding the links between Sudan and South Sudan seems like a good thing, but the discussion and the recommendations made were marred by cringe-worthy analysis of Sudan that ultimately obscured the challenges facing the countries and the abilities of the US to affect them. This was most apparent in the testimony of Walid Phares, who characterized Sudan’s government is a “jihadist regime” at war with five regions that it denies ethnic rights with an Arab supremacist ideology.

It wasn’t entirely clear what “jihadist” meant in this context—I assume he meant that the regime has an ideology linked to political Islam, but given that the term wasn’t contextualized, it’s hard to say. One can certainly agree that that the governing political party in Sudan is Islamist and has used religious conservatism in both its domestic and foreign policies in different ways. At the same time, that ideology isn’t why other parts of the country are marginalized (they were marginalized by other regimes that were less religiously oriented), nor is the government the sole Islamist organization in the country. I kept wondering when Phares would acknowledge that four of the five regions he pointed to were predominantly Muslim—or that one of the rebel groups in Darfur is also Islamist.

His characterization was also frustrating in how it conflated religion and ethnicity. Yes, there’s racism in Sudan (both on a personal and institutional level), but most of the ethnic discrimination that takes place in Sudan is connected to the way authoritarianism and power structures function. Most power comes through patronage networks—to gain access to resources (a job, government papers, etc), your way is much easier if you have a connection, and even easier still if that connection is prestigious. When someone gets a job with some power, whether it be political, economic, or social, he or she will be expected to take care of others within his or her networks. Patronage on the individual level then carries over to the national level; resources get allocated to central areas, where those in power are located.

Political parties make up one crucial aspect of this sort of patronage, but it isn’t exclusively political—people also take care of their extended families and friends using the same resources. For example, one is most likely to get a job or get promoted if part of the “right” political party, but one might also get the position if part of the “right” family or if one has a good friend in the department. These personal connections are described as wasta, and they function alongside political patronage to give greater opportunities to people from certain areas with certain pre-existing connections.

What are the implications for this sort of governance? At its core, this sort of system encourages corruption, since such networks actively hinder transparent government practices. It also promotes regional marginalization and institutionalized racism. Most “non-Arab” groups are geographically located in regions away from the central areas, and thus, have fewer connections that they can draw upon when making claims upon the state. Ethnic minorities (including the Nuba, Beja, and Fur) often have the least access to resources and do live in the most marginalized areas of the country, quite a long way from Khartoum.

Still, it would be a mistake to focus exclusively on an “Arab” vs. “African” divide—Arab groups living outside of the central areas are often marginalized as well. Even government-supported groups (whether “African” or “Arab”) often face poverty and a lack of infrastructural support in many parts of the country.

Discussions of the political dynamics in South Sudan, on the other hand, were almost non-existent at this hearing. There was much talk of South Sudanese leaders being long friends to the US, but very little discussion of what prompted the fighting in the first place. At one point, one of the panelists makes a comment that the “space for civil society has decreased,” without giving any explanation of how or why. Many have remarked upon the ways that the SPLM used the Comprehensive Peace Agreement to not only gain independence, but also to cement power, marginalizing other political parties. It’s in this context that journalists have been restricted and civil society has been hindered by the government, a government that is often using methods that the northern government used in the past. Those dynamics really should have been discussed more explicitly, since they are related not only to issues of democracy in the region, but also to the fighting that began in December.

Ignoring the political dynamics of South Sudan while painting an inaccurate portrait of the politics of Sudan helps to further an outdated and oversimplified narrative in which South Sudan is the “good guy,” persecuted by the villainous Sudan. One can recognize that people in South Sudan had (and have) legitimate political grievances without valorizing political leaders, many of whom have mixed motives and make questionable decisions.

Most importantly, such analysis makes it almost impossible for the US to craft coherent policy towards Sudan and South Sudan. Some of the suggestions given in the hearing make sense, but there are real trade-offs that weren’t discussed. Democracy promotion programs will likely hinder diplomatic efforts, as will discussions of justice and accountability. At the same time, all of these strategies may well be important in different circumstances and in different regions. Priorities must be balanced depending on the political and economic circumstances at play at any given moment, but that is only possible if policy makers keep in mind not only the different levels of influence in Sudan and South Sudan but also the underlying political phenomena that both countries are dealing with right now.

Overall, it was disappointing (although not surprising) that no academic voices were present to give perspective into these dynamics. It isn’t “cutting edge” or innovative to describe how corruption and authoritarianism function in a state, but understanding these things should be a prerequisite to any formulation of policy towards these countries.

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Do Negotiations Count as Justice?

Last week, Mahmood Mamdani wrote an op ed in the New York Times with Thabo Mbeki arguing that political negotiations, rather than court-based justice, are most appropriate for ending civil wars. This was largely as a response to the beginning of talks in Addis Ababa to make permanent the ceasefire in South Sudan. Mamdani has discussed his concept of “survivor’s justice” in other forums, pointing to the CODESA negotiations in South Africa as an example of political negotiations creating a post-conflict peace that allows both victims and perpetrators to live together.

One can understand the urge to condemn internationally led, court-based proceedings, particularly those against sitting leaders. The ICC indictment of Bashir and other Sudanese government officials further polarized the international climate, making it more difficult for organizations and other governments to push reform. Of great concern as well is the external, western driven nature of these sorts of courts, an issue Mamdani mentioned in Saviors and Survivors when he said that “Those who face human rights as the language of an externally driven ‘humanitarian intervention’ are required to contend with a legal regime in which the very notion of human rights law is defined outside of a political process—democratic or otherwise—that includes them as meaningful participants. Particularly for those in Africa, more than anywhere else, the ICC heralds a regime of legal and political dependency” (p 288) Whether international institutions can push new norms for all and whether the ICC can deter future mass atrocities are issues that can and should be discussed further in other settings, but it seems clear that there were serious drawbacks to this approach whatever the benefits.

What stands out for me as most problematic in this piece, however, is the alternative that Mamdani proposes. In multiple talks (along the same lines as this op ed), Mamdani argues that political negotiations are a form of “survivors justice” in that they allow the leaders to address the root causes of the violence, often systemic in nature, and that ultimately allows victims and perpetrators to live together in the future. This cannot be done by courts, Mamdani explains, since courts ultimately seek to assign individual responsibility to problems perpetuated by larger systems. While certainly systemic problems usually underpin mass violence, this argument places quite a lot of trust in political leaders—leaders who until recently viewed it as worthwhile to mobilize people to accomplish their political goals using violence.

What happens when those leaders don’t represent all of the interests of the society whose problems they are ostensibly representing? The negotiations in Addis Ababa have been criticized by many because they exclude civil society. Led by the two major instigators of the conflict, Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, these talks ultimately legitimize their power struggle, whatever else they seek to accomplish. Or are we to believe that Salva Kiir and Riek Machar are invested in more than dividing power in a way favorable for themselves ?

Another issue that worries me about Mamdani’s statements is the way it dismisses discussions of human rights as simply a product of western hegemony. There are plenty of activists in non-western contexts who strive to hold their governments accountable and advance ideals that they view as human rights. Many do so at great risk for themselves and without much (if any) support from international bodies, and they do so drawing upon values that are definitely part of their societies. By arguing that human rights are part of neo-colonial imposition of western power, one also dismisses such activists as simply pawns of this order, making it even harder for citizens in authoritarian regimes to confront the state and demand change.

It seems telling that Mamdani co-wrote this editorial with Mbeki and that the African Union ultimately echoes these points. This is a conservative argument that justifies the status quo and apologizes for the actions of those in power, all the while casting itself as anti-imperial. One can both condemn the decisions of political leaders, pushing for accountability while also demanding that post-conflict justice keeps its roots in the national values of the country—these issues are not mutually exclusive.

Political solutions are indeed important, but do they really constitute a form of “survivor’s justice?” Without accountability to the people whose interests leaders claim to represent, negotiations run the risk of simply ignoring political and societal problems, all the while legitimizing (and cementing) the power of those who have called for violence in the first place.

There has been some discussion on and off regarding the possibility of some sort of truth and reconciliation commission for South Sudan, and with the most recent violence, this discussion has started again. The point being made in both of these pieces is that while ending the violence is important, society cannot move on without some sort of examination of what happened. Responsibility should be assigned so that a common narrative can be created, one that acknowledges that happened in such a way as to allow people to move on.

It may well be that any form of justice will be hard to come by in South Sudan—that political expediency may well shield some responsibility and that negotiations may fail to represent everyone. Let’s  not pretend that it’s somehow just.

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South Sudan: One Week Later

When the cessation of hostilities was signed a week ago, it was greeted with pretty universal pessimism, and that’s pretty much been the line from everyone since then—I haven’t read anyone who seems even cautiously optimistic about its prospects. This skepticism has been reflected in South Sudan, whether it seems that many of those displaced have been reluctant to return home (although a bit of caution would be natural anyway, given what’s happened since December).

Whether fighting starts up again or not though is contingent on a set of negotiations—it was and is meant to be temporary, so that the parties can sit down and discuss the issues further. It has been instructive for me to read Lesley in Africa’s discussion of the practicalities of this sort of arrangement. Apparently, the key issue is enforcement: UN is not monitoring violations; rather, that’s left to the parties themselves and the mediator (IGAD). Monitors are already being sent to key cities, but as Lesley notes, there isn’t really a state within IGAD that can credibly provide a military deterrent at this time.

Since fighting started, there’s been a lot of pretty shallow coverage of South Sudan and the conflict. Al Jazeera has a good segment on the challenges that the media (both international and domestic) faces, but internally displaced is also right to point out that there’s a lot of people who aren’t experts talking about South Sudan and giving bad impressions of the country (and as another non-expert, I sincerely hope that I’m not contributing by writing this post).

It seems like there’s a void in the analysis for the most part. Following the day to day issues related to the conflict, I’m finding it hard to see a clear discussion of the key issues that will be discussed at the negotiations. One example of this can be seen in the most recent piece in the Economist. The focus since negotiations began has largely been on the issues of the 11 political prisoners, all but four of whom have now been released. As Aly Verjee has noted, this is a pretty limited way to view the conflict, and it would be wrong to assume that their release will solve the underlying issues.

But what does need to be addressed in order to stop the conflict? The Rift Valley Institute has hosted a panel that discusses this issue, and it’s clear that governance, transparency, and inclusivity are important and will need to be addressed for the sake of the country. At the same time, if fighting broke out due to a power struggle between two parts of the SPLM, and has continued due to divisions in the military and tensions within the broader society, then how will any negotiations really solve this? Are we to assume that any of the key actors are really interested in voluntarily reducing their power? Given that Salva Kiir has announced that Machar and six others will be tried for treason, it really doesn’t seem as if the South Sudanese government is seeking some sort of an agreement.

So I suppose I’m echoing the pessimism. We’re all left watching what happens, hoping that it will turn out differently than what too many people have predicted. It’s galling to see that regardless how society in South Sudan has been affected, regardless of how many people have been displaced and how many killed, it’s left to a small group of leaders to decide whether the disruption, the violence should end. Ultimately, the decisions made will have little to do with the problems that the society faces.

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Watching South Sudan

Man, it’s been a while. Somehow, during all the time I’ve been away, war broke out in South Sudan. Family and friends have emailed me pretty much from the beginning asking me what my opinion is on what’s happening there, but the truth of the matter is that I don’t really feel like I have a lot of insight on the conflict itself—there’s plenty of people who’ve written smarter things about it than I can. Still, it’s the elephant in the room, and it feels tone deaf to not start out with some thoughts on what’s happening, so here’s a sort of overview.

It started as a power struggle between Salva Kiir and Reik Machar, and that power struggle has remained significant, even as the fighting expanded. Whether this started due to an attempted coup or due to increased power grabs by Salva Kiir is less important than the fact that both parties are seeking power and have been preparing for such a confrontation in some fashion for quite a while.

At the same time, the history of ethnic violence (most notably the Dinka-Nuer war in the 90s) meant that many were concerned that the fighting would become ethnically-based, a concern that has materialized, though not as early as some made it out. A piece by Andreas Hirblinger and Sara de Simone outlines some of the history and the ways that both sides denied tribalism while still using tribe to mobilize. It’s clear that both sides have killed people on the basis of ethnicity alone, and that this violence has gotten worse as the fighting has progressed.

The UN Human Rights Researcher Ivan Simonovic notes that Bentiu and Bor have been almost completely destroyed. OCHA now estimates that 468,000 people have been displaced within South Sudan, with approximately 80,000 or so refugees in neighboring countries, half of which have gone to Uganda (bordered by the Central African Republic, Sudan, and the DRC, they don’t really have a lot of choices).

The whole conflict has pretty scary regional implications, not only due to the mass movement of people. As Aly Verjee explains, it makes sense that the Sudanese government support the SPLM and Salva Kiir, since they have an economic stake in South Sudan remaining stable, at least enough so as to secure oil flow. Uganda too has supported the SPLM, sending troops to support the government, presumably to avoid further instability on the border. A cease-fire was just signed in Addis Ababa, though there’s no word yet as to how successful it will be.

What’s less discussed so far is what role this conflict will play with Sudan’s rebel groups. JEM and the SPLA-N have been particularly active under the banner of the SRF in South Kordofan, Darfur, and even North Kordofan sometimes. Given the historic connections between the SPM and the SPLM-N, it seems likely that the group will be impacted—they clearly have personal relationships even if the amount of support the SPLA gives to the SPLA-N is less since South Sudan stabilized its relationship with Sudan.

JEM has already been accused of involvement in South Sudan, fighting on the side of the SPLA in Unity state, although it denies any activity in South Sudan and claims neutrality. JEM has a history of working with the SPLA, at least before the South Sudanese government’s relations with Sudan improved, so it makes sense that those connections might carry over. At the same time, it seems like a bit of a risk for JEM to pick a side in the fighting, should it continue; their neutrality seems a lot safer. It also seems ironic that armed rebel groups and the Sudanese government would all back the South Sudanese government in this conflict.

So we’ve been left watching as negotiations have continued. The Rift Valley Institute had a conference recently that discussed some possibilities for change or improvement, where Jok Madut Jok emphasized the need to address the root causes of the conflict rather than just focusing on an end to the fighting. Hopefully this ceasefire holds and the country can move on and address some of the issues that started this violence in the first place.

In the meantime, I’m just left thinking over and over that all the leaders involved in this conflict are extraordinarily selfish. The fighting will continue until political agreements are signed, while society has been massively disrupted again. Thoughts go out to all those suffering, with a sincere hope that it ends soon.

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Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia

We seem to have disappeared for the past few weeks—largely because we got a bit more involved with schoolwork. At the same time, events in Sudan and South Sudan have continued politically and economically in largely the same way they’ve been going. In South Sudan, it turns out that Salva Kiir did in fact dissolve SPLM governing structures, a move that has caused a lot of criticism and will likely foster splits in the SPLM long-term. In Sudan, economic problems (including the availability and price of bread) have been pretty bad, and war has continued in South Kordofan.

One thing that has been in the news a lot throughout this month, with implications for much of East Africa, is the status of migrants in Saudi Arabia. In early November, Saudi Arabia began a crackdown on migrant labor, arresting and attempting to deport migrants whose current employers were not their sponsors on their immigration documents. This crackdown is part of a “Saudisation” campaign that seeks to increase the number of Saudis in the national workforce by making it more difficult for migrants to stay in the country.

In addition to kicking out undocumented workers, the Saudi government is seeking to deport workers whose visa sponsor is no longer their employer. This means that if a migrant has switched jobs but was unable to update his or her paperwork (whether because the new employer was unwilling to pay the money to be the new sponsor or because he or she had serious problems with the previous employer), he or she will no longer be able to stay in the country.

During the past six months, many have sought to leave the country because they are unable to update their paperwork. In mid-November, when police began to arrest people to begin deportations, resistance to the police prompted serious fighting, injuring many and killing several. Most of those attacked were Ethiopian, although at least some were Sudanese.

The Ethiopian diaspora has responded quite strongly to this violence, with protests around the world at Saudi Embassies, even though the Ethiopian government has prevented people in Ethiopia from demonstrating. At the same time, these deportations do not just affect Ethiopian communities—almost 12,000 Sudanese migrants will be deported this month, with many more likely to follow.

So why haven’t other communities protested to the same extent and why has most of the violence been concentrated in African communities? It’s not entirely clear. Threats of violence are present for all communities facing deportation. Racism might explain why police began the crackdown in African neighborhoods (rather than South Asian neighborhoods—many South Asians are being deported now as well), but that doesn’t explain why Ethiopian communities have drawn more attention to this issue.

Both Sudan and Ethiopia make a significant amount of money off of remittances from communities living in Saudi Arabia. Still, I wonder if the communities are slightly different. Sudanese migrants would have greater knowledge of and access to resources since they were educated in Arabic and thus are likely to be able to communicate with authorities better. While many Sudanese immigrants to Saudi Arabia work as laborers, others work as doctors and teachers, and this might have influenced Saudi authorities’ perceptions of the community (although plenty of Sudanese friends have commented that they experience racism in Saudi Arabia as well).

Of course, it might be something else entirely—the number of migrants, the political salience of this issue in the home country (it certainly seems like the Ethiopian diaspora is paying more attention than other communities), the willingness of migrants to protest, their relationship with their home countries… It also may be that Ethiopian migrants are just treated worse than other groups.

Regardless, this mass deportation will be quite important for Saudi Arabia as well as for all sending countries. In the past four months, nearly a million migrants have left Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi government projects that it will deport another million in the next year. Certainly more migrants will come later, if immigration policy slackens again, but for now, many economies will be affected, and many communities will gain and (and lose) members they were not expecting. This will have an impact on the lives and livelihoods of many, long after the protests have died down.

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Parties! (but not the fun kind)

There’s been a lot of politicking and political squabbling in Sudan these days. It all began after the crackdown, with Attabani and others in the NCP formally asking Bashir to reinstate the lifted fuel subsidies. This squabbling eventually led to the new split in the NCP, which Magdi al Gizouli talks about in greater detail.

More recently, however, there’s been even more action. The Democratic Unionist Party (led by Mirghani and closely associated with the Khatmiyya, a traditional religious sect) formally left the NCP governing coalition. They’ve been threatening for some time, but this marks an end to whatever coalitions the NCP forged during the period the CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement) and the elimination of any pretence that the regime is seeking out consensus.

Most likely, it’s a further symptom of the crackdown. As we’ve already seen, internal dissent is tolerated even less now than it has been in the past. What are the long term implications of this? It’s not really clear. After all, the Umma party (another political party with a sectarian support-base and a large following) has been in the opposition for quite some time, but has avoided taking a strong stance against the regime.

Meanwhile, crazy stuff seems to be happening in South Sudanese politics. On Friday, Salva Kiir announced that he was dissolving all the governing structures of his party, the SPLM. Then, two days ago, Michael Lueth, the South Sudan Information Minister came forward to explain that Salva Kiir was misunderstood—that these structures need to be dissolved and changed, but that they would continue until they were replaced. I am less confident assessing South Sudanese politics, but it seems like Kiir’s backers (at least the influential ones) may have stepped in to reign in his statement. Most South Sudan observers have noted that the SPLM has been marked by a lack of structure, with personalities taking the lead, and this sort of incident seems in some ways like an example of such personalized rule.

Are the Northern parties much different? There is certainly an aspect of personalized rule to them, as evidenced by the current standoff with the NCP and the longstanding leadership of Mirghani in the DUP and Sadiq al Mahdi in the Umma Party. What seems most different is that these parties have been around for a lot longer and that many of them draw upon already existing power structures (the Khatmiyya in the case of the DUP and the Ansar in the case of the Umma party)

In both countries, it doesn’t seem like the parties are particularly welcoming of dissent or new ideas. South Sudan’s political wrangling include Salva Kiir’s removal of Riek Machar as vice president in July. In the North, the parties are quite old and they don’t really reach out to young leaders. In a great piece discussing Sudanese opposition groups, Akshaya Kumar argues against Alex De Waal’s assessment of the protest movements in Sudan by pointing to the New Dawn Charter and the Sudan Change Forces statement as examples of opposition groups creating precise plans for what can happen should the current regime be ousted. This point is definitely true, but what’s striking is that the opposition groups that signed on to these agreements were largely the traditional opposition groups—none of which are led by the younger generation that Kumar focuses on throughout the rest of her piece.

Khalid Medani, writing at MERIP, points out that these groups largely view themselves as mediators or “coordinating mechanisms” between the younger generation and the traditional political parties. This view seems pretty persuasive—they have been quite active, as both Medani and Kumar note, in mobilizing youth of a certain economic class with international connections and technological skills. At the same time, they don’t really work with any of the political parties, and they haven’t even been acknowledged by them to a large extent. If they are going to play a role in the future, it will be important for them to be acknowledged by more traditional power structures in some fashion, or they will need to bypass traditional power structures entirely—something they do not yet have the mobilizing power to do.

Clearly it’s a time of political shuffling. I’m not convinced, though, that it’s at time of actual political change, even of the more gradual sort. This is a shame—both countries face enough problems that new ideas would be great.