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Patronage and Peace in the Horn of Africa

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Understanding the Political Marketplace May Improve Results, Says Author De Waal

By: Gopal Ratnam

Peacebuilders in the Horn of Africa and across the larger Middle East are likely to get better outcomes with a greater understanding of the region’s “political marketplace,” where loyalties based on financial and economic means seem to create more stability than classic institution-building, according to Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation and a professor at Tufts University. But rather than succumbing to illegitimate patronage, some experts say the answer may lie in legitimate means to better ends.

Across the Horn of Africa from Sudan to Somalia, peace agreements often have come about during periods of plenty, when political leaders were able to buy the patronage of competing factions with the help of international aid money or oil wealth, de Waal said during a recent discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Conversely, when money runs low, violence erupts.

De Waal is author of the new book, The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business of Power. In it, he describes an instance in 2006 when Abdul Wahid al-Nur, the leader of the Sudan Liberation Movement, was negotiating the Darfur Peace Agreement and was offered $30 million toward a fund that he would personally allot to compensate victims of the war. He demanded $100 million.

But while financial deal-making is central to the political systems in the Horn, de Waal’s description of a marketplace where political loyalties are always tradeable may miss the cultural context, said Manal Taha, a Jennings-Randolph senior fellow at USIP from Sudan.

In the Jan. 28 USIP discussion, Taha said there was another way to look at Wahid al-Nur’s demand. Blood money, or diya in Arabic, is considered a natural part of the reconciliation process in the region.

“People fought for reasons, and they want this money for those reasons, so it was legitimate to ask for the money,” she said.

The upheaval across North Africa and the larger Middle East following the collapse of authoritarian regimes has led to the fraying of established patronage networks, de Waal said. When a long-ruling autocrat is gone, the “dynamics of buying and selling of loyalties” that have been integral to that system are thrown into chaos, frustrating those aiming to build democracies, he said. Peacebuilders need to find ways to redirect the patronage networks into the new political order or prevent their disintegration in the first place, he said.

Political Autonomy, But …

The Horn of Africa, once dominated by the three countries of Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia, has essentially become a region of six entities with the addition of South Sudan, Eritrea and the self-declared autonomous state of Somaliland. Despite the greater political autonomy, violence continues and has frustrated the international community’s efforts to build democratic states. USIP has been involved for over two decades in Sudan and the region by helping countries write their constitutions, training peacekeepers, providing grants to promote peacebuilding and supporting the development of analysts and policymakers from the region with fellowship opportunities. USIP President Nancy Lindborg has highlighted the challenge to U.S. foreign policy goals posed by fragile states such as Somalia, where militant groups like al-Shabab and the self-styled “Islamic State” group take root amid weak or illegitimate governance.

Peace and stability in the Horn have ebbed and flowed in conjunction with money, de Waal said, citing the case of Sudan. In the 1970s, when borrowing and aid money increased Sudan’s available finances threefold, it was possible for the country to make a peace deal that ended the first Sudanese civil war and brought in the sectarian parties, “because the cake was expanding,” de Waal said. But when budgets shrank, President Gaafar Nimeiry was overthrown, he said.

From the mid-1980s through 1999, Sudan survived on an annual budget of less than $1 billion, exacerbating violence, de Waal said. When oil was discovered in the late 1990s, the annual spending shot up to $12 billion within about six years. “That’s what made possible the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the Eastern Sudan Peace agreement,” de Waal said.

Since oil revenues have declined in the past 1 ½ years, the old patterns of political finance have reemerged. Islamist politicians in the region also now are getting direct aid from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, injecting a new element of patronage that likely will change the political trajectory, de Waal said.

Managing -- or Mismanaging -- the Marketplace

South Sudan, the world’s newest state, has faced continued violence since it won independence in 2011 and collapsed into a civil war, largely because President Salva Kiir has not been able to manage the political marketplace, de Waal said. Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who has to manage a patronage network, is “not able to control or regulate the price of loyalty,” the author said.

But while democracy advocates should be concerned at the potential impact of money, such a political marketplace may not be the only factor in determining the prospects for peace or stability, Taha said. In Sudan and in South Sudan, for example, history and tribal loyalties are just as important, she said.

One way to diminish the role of money in the Horn is to use regulatory tools to crack down on criminal elements that have captured the political marketplace, said Brad Brooks-Rubin, director of policy at the Enough Project, an offshoot of the Center for American Progress that works to advance peace and justice in Africa. Precisely targeted sanctions that cut off access to the global financial system for specific individuals and sectors also would be more effective than more general sanctions that can inadvertently harm a country’s citizens and even the region, Brooks-Rubin said.

Although criminal networks are part of the political marketplace, most of the financial flows come from legitimate sources like oil wealth, funding from friendly countries in the region and financing to bolster security services, de Waal said. The problem arises when such income is “recycled into patronage,” he said.

Somaliland offers a possible lesson, de Waal said. The state has stabilized largely because those in charge of the political financing – the bankers and the business class – are the ones who have determined the political settlement, he said. So, breaking the destructive pattern of the political marketplace might require the mobilization of not only a country’s citizens but of its financiers as well, de Waal said.

“If those in charge of political finance get it together to actually have an agreement,” a sustainable accord is more likely to materialize, he said. “That’s the lesson.”