A Comment on Gérard Prunier’s ‘Give War a Chance’

By Grant Brooke 

Last week in the New York Times, Gérard Prunier’s joined an increasing number of SPLM-connected voices calling for war with Sudan. Prunier’s piece is right on several points: 2005’s CPA excluded many necessary parties, the partition focussed too much on religion as the divisive factor, Khartoum cannot be trusted to follow through with international agreements, and al-Bashir’s recent language to describe his opponents is quite despicable. However, the op-ed – and the subsequent pro-war argument – has three core flaws:

1)     It completely ignores the economic realities of the current conflict.

2)     It assumes a united anti-Bashir front is possible, and will yield (a third) Sudanese Spring.

3)     His argument comes far too early.

Allow me to expound on each point:

By ignoring the economic realities of the current conflict, Prunier furthers a line of thinking that holds Khartoum as an irrational religious actor rather than the torturous rational actor the regime most often behaves as. This prospective conflict does not arise from identity politics. It is a direct result of the game of economic chicken the North and the South have been playing for months. To the World Bank’s astonishment, the South has chosen to completely shut-down its economy in order to avoid paying exorbitant transfer fees for its oil. The results are staggering.

South Sudan’s poverty rate is expected to climb from 51% to 83%. The government will soon have no operating budget.  Juba will be unable to pay its own troops. Prospects for economic diversification, DDR, infrastructure development, the refugee return process, and a long list of other vital governmental actions will all be put on hold if the government faces a financial shut-down. This is a recipe for a mutiny, a coup, and/or a failed state.

While in Sudan inflation is already up 27% this year alone. The government has introduced severe austerity measures due to losing 60% of its total revenues. Since the CPA al-Bashir’s regime has failed to follow through on essential agricultural investments, meaning that renewed oil revenue remains the lone pathway to financial stability [See the Al-Jazeera web interview with Dr. Al Tijani Al Tayeb Ibrahim]. Hence, the NCP’s client and coercion system is collapsing into little more than a military enterprise. International Crisis Group outlined last year the already swelling political turmoil for al-Bashir within the NCP. Since then we’ve seen a large block of Sudanese military leaders reject war, increasing pressure for populist democratization brought by the Arab Spring, a march towards economic collapse, expensive wars continue on four fronts, and the export market’s complete collapse. And further, with a constitutional review process due, and perhaps (if al-Bashir’s words have any legitimacy) a transfer of power, there is little certainty for what the next year looks like in Sudan.

My point being that the current economic status-quo of both Sudan and South Sudan is such that both governments may internally crumble within the year. As the Sudans are committing joint economic suicide, we must question if war is – in any way – a prudent response. Wars are not cheap. And, there is no money for this one. Then, even if it is paid for, there is a good chance it could devolve into dispersed groups of unpaid troops fighting for their own little corner of the two Sudans. That is, the Sudans could delve into the prolonged anarchy Prunier so adeptly describes in Africa’s World War.

It was announced last week that Qatar – perhaps with Khartoum’s blessing – has given the South a little breathing room through a loan. Rather than utilizing those funds to gear up for war, the South should put real plans on the table for the much talked about pipe or rail line. For no other reason (because no one need kid themselves that this transport mechanism can be completed in short order) than to simply push Khartoum’s hand into accepting more reasonable transit fees. As Abba Eban famously put it years ago, “history teaches us that nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives;” in this case, Khartoum could behave wisely when it has no choice.

Prunier assumes a united anti-Bashir front is possible, and will yield (a third) Sudanese Spring. My simple question is: why? Over the past several years we’ve seen far more violence amongst southerners than by Khartoum upon the South. Rebel groups in Darfur have famously had their differences. I seriously doubt that Turabi and Co., who would most likely fill a Bashir-less Khartoum power vacuum, could accept rebel leadership. Plus preliminary evidence of SRF solidarity isn’t great.

The regime in Khartoum has pulled off an impressive internal PR trick by refocusing the loss of the South – what could be seen as a major defeat for their Islamist movement – into an opportunity to galvanize their (substantial) popular support for a more explicitly Islamist state. If the SRF’s peripheral forces defeated the NCP, led by a mixture of Muslims and non-Muslims, with numerous ethnicities represented, they would have a good deal of difficulty overtaking the three cities without exercising substantial oppressive force upon the urban centres’ populations. In an era of popular, democratic, Islamism arising in North Africa and the Middle-East, I’m doubtful that these opposition forces – whom Prunier suggests are waiting in the wings to join an uprising – would be so keen to accept southern backed rebels. The war could quickly spiral into the identity-driven, grievance laden, long conflict, Prunier is seeking to avoid. That is, Sudan would look a lot more like modern Libya than Ethiopia in 1991.

In this milieu, it is best remembered that al-Bashir is at his most talented when at war. He is able to make alliances – play groups off one another. War is what al-Bashir knows, while the coming economic collapse is new hat for him. If he chooses to not negotiate fair transit fees, it may very well be that war is a far better path for al-Bashir to retain power. Let’s see him maintain his client system with a dwindling resource base. I’m doubtful he can pull it off. People accept all sorts of hardships, political concessions, and forgone rights, when at war – a status-quo al-Bashir has long been dependent on.

Further – as we look to future regimes in Sudan – democratic uprisings in the wake of economic collapse turn out a lot better than democratic uprisings brought about through the warring forces of an opposition. The latter most often begets anarchy, and subsequent military regimes. The former sees a mass of the citizenry take hold of their own financial futures. Economic revolution can inherently subvert autocracy and authoritarian regimes.

Which leads me to my final point:

Prunier’s argument comes far too early. If the march to war Carol Berger and others are describing is inevitable, there may very well come a day when we need to have the conversation Prunier is suggesting. If the South clearly unites with SRF for a march on Khartoum, the international community will have a hard decision on whether or not to support them. But, right now there are far too many other options and uncertainties that need to shake out before the international community should concede to a war path. AU and/or UN negotiated peace through shared economies and established borders is still possible. The pressure brought by an alternative oil transport route may still change Khartoum’s behaviour. Further, Khartoum’s ability to maintain power in a new economic reality is a complete question mark.

War is always the easy choice in the two Sudans. But, it is never the best one. As much of the citizenry has moved on from the wars of the past, I’m hopeful that the international community will do the same, and not concede to the tempting call for fresh violence. It will only mean another generation of antagonisms, another generation of authoritarian rule, and another generation of suffering in the Sudan.



Filed under al-Bashir, Gerard Prunier, South Sudan, Sudan

2 responses to “A Comment on Gérard Prunier’s ‘Give War a Chance’

  1. Steven Costello

    You make some great points. However Prunier is not arguing for the GOSS to join forces with elements in the north and ‘march on Khartoum’. He is arguing for an internal war within the north, and for the various groups there that have been marginalized and repressed of various ethnic backgrounds to come together and topple the regime.

    • grantbrooke

      Thanks Stephen, I think you’re right about the argument he made in the NYTimes. I’m not sure the possibility of a South-less war exists (not militarily: in 08′ afterall JEM got close to holding the cities), but politically… It seems that the SRF – especially JEM & SPLM-N – have already been organizing with the SPLM/A. I’m interested in your thoughts on this: Can the SRF outright defeat the NCP without southern help AND maintain control for more than a day or so? And, further, would they have the discipline to turn down southern support before a potential march on Khartoum (Personally, I think this ship may have already passed & they’re already in bed together)?

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