Here’s the paradox: successive governments in Khartoum have managed their peripheries on the basis of individual bargaining. It is sometimes derogatively called “Jellaba politics” with reference to the northern Sudanese traders who dominate the retail business in small provincial towns. The ruler cuts deals with members of the provincial elites—administrators, tribal chiefs, militia commanders, rebels—on a case-by-case basis. In the short term this is cheaper than negotiating a wholesale deal.

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But increasingly, these provincial elites are connected to one another. These bonds are not strong enough for them to form a consolidated political movement, ganging up on the center. But they are also linked to external sponsors—neighboring countries, Europe, the Middle East and the United States. These links make the provincial leaders more ambitious.

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In terms of the political marketplace, their price is higher. And, recall, the ruler’s political budget available to buy them off is lower.

There’s another, non-market dynamic at work. The longer the provincial insurrections continue, the more that the people of these areas feel ties of affinity drawing them away from the center, not towards it. The current generation of leaders of Sudan’s rebellions were educated in Khartoum and believe that Sudan has something to offer them. But the next generation may not feel the same way. They may want to follow South Sudan in a process of dismembering the country.

Sudan’s metropolitan elites, in government and opposition, understand very well the constraints of running their system on a low budget, and fear what would happen if the system were to crash. For that reason, the civilian opposition parties were ready to cooperate with the National Congress Party in the incipient National Dialogue, on the terms laid down by President Bashir. The national security and military leadership seem to have killed off that limited opening, at least for now, by arresting and imprisoning Sadiq al Mahdi. But even a successful exercise in adjusting the system so that it runs better, would not have satisfied the demands of the armed opposition.

The fundamental predicament facing Sudan’s rulers today is this: to keep Sudan together they must make a generous offer soon. But the money isn’t there to do it in the traditional way. What form of social contract can be generated to push back the logic of the political marketplace and the logic of secession?

 

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