As Obama offers to meet Sudan leaders, culture of mistrust grips Khartoum

President Obama is set to meet leaders of North and South Sudan next week to help prevent the decades-long civil war from restarting. But political dogma on both sides is corroding what little trust had been earned.

Mohamed Nurdldin Abdallh/Reuters
Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir (r.) was welcomed by First Vice President Salva Kiir Mayardit as he stepped off the plane from Chad, in Khartoum July 23. President Obama is set to meet leaders of North and South Sudan next week to help prevent the decades-long civil war from restarting.

Sudanese political life has always been marked by low levels of trust.

In a society in which institutions are weak, personal relations are commensurately more important for any system to function. But I have the impression that the level of suspicion, intrigue and second-guessing has never been as high as it is today. Beneath the familiar veneer of civility, there is a creeping paranoia and a political culture of defamation. Distrust is being elevated to political dogma, and the result is further corroding the already-damaged fabric of political life.

This level of distrust provides not only an unpleasant milieu for politicians, diplomats, and civil servants, but is enormously wasteful of time and resources. The simplest political tasks, such as handing over a report to a senior official, or appointing a civil servant, can be paralyzed for weeks because people routinely assume the worst of one another.

Everything is politicized and there is no room for forgiveable errors or simple failures of management. If one party proposes a reasonable solution to a problem, the other will reject it simply because of who proposed it. An offer of a political concession will be brushed aside because it is assumed to be a trap or a ruse.

A task that could be done in a day will take weeks. A decision that has been made, will need to be followed up each day and nurtured until it is actually implemented.

Distrust can be self-fulfilling. A political leader who assumes there are conspiracies against him, will conjure those conspiracies into being, by his attempts to pre-empt or thwart them. By accusing others of conspiracy, he will compel them to organize against him.

Worse still is the slide towards a culture of personal defamation.

It becomes routine to insinuate that somebody has been bought, or is biased, even without a shred of evidence.

Recent weeks have seen cases in which personal vilification of appointees to senior positions – appointees who are civil servants rather than professional politicians – has paralyzed appointments and forced honest and competent candidates to withdraw.

By these means, the culture of mistrust entrenches itself – only the cynical or corrupt will be ready to take public office if they are expecting to be rewarded with campaigns of denigration. Only those political analysts with a partisan position, or nothing meaningful to say, will be ready to make their opinions known.

The Sudanese political system has always been inefficient – a large amount of energy is expended for a modest result. A culture of distrust, sometimes deliberately cultivated, is making it even more so. Those who are in a hurry to meet deadlines or keen to earn credit for good behavior should be wary of the wider consequences of using rumor, suspicion, or defamation as a political instrument. Distrust has corroded enough already: salting it further risks bringing the machine to a complete halt.

--- Alex De Waal is a Sudan expert and senior research fellow at the Social Sciences Research Council who blogs at Making Sense of Sudan.

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