Kampala, Uganda – Column for Hurriyat Sudan: an independent news website with on Sudanese politics. In the collumn, I reflect on the birth of a new state, South Sudan, and the challenges of state-building.
A New State
In the context of the independence of South Sudan, we hear people mention the need to “build a strong state” and foreign delegations talk about providing assistance to “build state-capacity”. In these types of discussions, a narrow definition of the state is commonly used, referring to administrative structures, the security sector and other institutions. Yet, even though institutions form the crucial infrastructure of the state, reducing the state to its institutions would limit our understanding of issues concerning state-development. What more, then, is the state?
Political thinkers from Thomas Hobbes to Jean-Jacques Rousseau departed from a different conceptualization of the state: instead of equating the state to its physical appearance (ministries, army bases, police officers), they took a more abstract approach that views the state as a tacit contract between a government and its citizens. Of course, this contract is not actually written down on paper; the idea is rather that states develop through the continuous interaction between citizens and governments.
The state is thus seen as a contract between two parties: the government and its citizens. Ongoing interaction between the two parties causes continuous “editing” of the contract and its terms. Governments impose policies, citizens react; Citizens make demands to governments, governments respond: the character of this dynamics forms the essence of each state. And in every state, citizens and their government develop their own social contract, through a process of constant negotiation. In a democratic system, these negotiations partially take place explicitly every 4 or 5 years, when citizens hold their governments accountable in election, for delivering their side of the contract. But there are many different shapes the dialogue between governments and citizenry can develop.
Philosophers were brought to define the state in this way, in trying to answer questions about state-legitimacy. Imagine rational people living in a “natural” system of self-governance; why would these people be willing to give up their freedom and obey the rules of a government? In other words; under what conditions will citizens consider a government legitimate and accept its rule, keeping the contract intact? Different philosophers answered this question in different ways, but they all agree that a government is only legitimate if it provides its citizens with security and basic public services. And, for the contract to be sustainable, the distribution of these public goods needs to be on the basis of equality.
In Sudan, the social contract has eroded entirely since the independence from the British in 1956. Not only were subsequent governments in Khartoum unable to build a strong system of service delivery, the distribution of the limitedly available state resources was never done on the basis of equality and never in dialogue with citizens. Governments wrongly assumed they could build a state without cooperation and consent of its citizens.
As a result, the legitimacy of the post-colonial Sudanese state has been continuously contested by ethnic groups who were structurally left out of the social contract. The South has now stepped out of the social contract in the most radical way, by forming a new country, a New Sudan, signing a new social contract with its own citizenry. Other groups in the Old Sudan – in Darfur, Kordofan, Blue Nile – will continue to challenge the state’s legitimacy – either until the social contract in the North is radically rewritten, or until they find a chance to escape the contract in a similar way as the people of the South have done.
Providing citizens with security is considered as the minimal condition for a state to survive. In the current situation and in the past, the government in Khartoum is not only failing to provide security, they are even the main cause of insecurity, even killing their own citizens. In doing so, they are destroying the social contract, which means destroying the state itself. In North Sudan, we may thus witness the suicide of a state, during the years to come.
In the South, a new state is born, but some challenge are ahead. Conceptualizing the state as a social contract, draws our attention to several aspects of state building that are often overlooked. When you consider a state’s citizenry as an essential part of the state, instead of a mere recipient of services, it becomes clear that investing in state institutions will not suffice in building a strong state. Creating room for citizens to negotiate their part in the contract, by facilitating dialogue between citizens and the government, will strengthen the legitimacy of the social contract and make it more sustainable.
The dialogue itself will gain strength by investing in citizens’ knowledge through education and media. Finally, it is crucial that state resources are distributed equally across regions and groups, as to ensure that no group will feel excluded from the state and disregard the social contract.