Beyond the Ideology of 'Civil War': The Global-Historical Constitution of Political Violence in Sudan

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Abstract

It is commonplace to characterise political violence and war in Africa as 'internal', encapsulated in the apparently neutral term 'civil war'. As such, accounts of political violence tend to focus narrowly on the combatants or insurrectionary forces, failing to recognize or address the extent to which political violence is historically and globally constituted. The paper addresses this problematic core assumption through examination of the case of Sudan, seeking to contribute to a rethinking of protracted political violence and social crisis in postcolonial Africa. The paper interjects in such debates through the use and detailed exposition of a distinct methodological and analytical approach. It interrogates three related dimensions of explanation which are ignored by orthodox framings of 'civil war': (i) the technologies of colonial rule which (re)produced and politicised multiple fractures in social relations, bequeathing a fissiparous legacy of racial, religious and ethnic 'identities' that have been mobilised in the context of postcolonial struggles over power and resources; (ii) the major role of geopolitics in fuelling and exacerbating conflicts within Sudan and the region, particularly through the cold war and the 'war on terror'; and (iii) Sudan's terms of incorporation within the capitalist global economy, which have given rise to a specific character and dynamics of accumulation, based on primitive accumulation and dependent primary commodity production. The paper concludes that political violence and crisis are neither new nor extraordinary nor internal, but rather, crucial and constitutive dimensions of Sudan's neocolonial condition. As such, to claim that political violence in Sudan is 'civil' or 'internal' is to countenance the triumph of ideology over history.

It is commonplace to characterise political violence and war in Africa as 'internal', encapsulated in the apparently neutral term 'civil war'. Usage of this problematic notion is "partly habitual" but the concept of 'civil war' "might also be ideologically and politically convenient" (Cramer, 2006:10). Categorical distinctions such as so-called 'civil wars' are not simply descriptive or definitional frames but rather shape the production of knowledge, including "what is viewed and how it is interpreted." As has long been argued by critical scholars, "classification systems are generally determined by some purpose - they are not 'natural' and they should always be questioned" (Cramer, 2006:51). Analytical borders are therefore at the heart of much debate (and policy formulation) in the social and other sciences ... This is very much the case in the study of violent conflict. Here too what matters is whether or not a set of categories hides more than it reveals (Cramer, 2006:51).

This paper contends that the ideology of 'civil war' and the assumption that the principal causes of political violence are intrinsic to the 'domestic' sphere (that is, predominantly internally-constituted) excludes from consideration global structures of economic and political inequities as well as those of social and cultural exclusion. Orthodox accounts of political violence tend to focus narrowly on the combatants or insurrectionary forces, failing to recognize or address the extent to which political violence is historically and globally constituted (Hanlon, 2006a). As such, the assumption and privileging of internality lends credence to imperial narratives which aver that the degrading conditions of the vast majority result solely from the ineptitude of certain despotic and self-serving rulers and/or fanatic primordialist groups - whilst casting the western-led 'international community' as the "unconditional protector of all civilian victims, the impartial agent of peace, the zealot of the rule of law, and the promoter of reconciliation" (Feher, 2000:40).

The ideology of 'civil war' and the privileging of internality have attained particular salience in the post-cold war period. …