Book review: “When Peace Kills Politics: International Intervention and unending wars in the Sudans” by Sharath Srinivasan (2021)
This review by Matthew Benson (Conflict and Civicness Research Group at LSE), originally published by PeaceRep, identifies When Peace Kills Politics as a theoretical milestone in understanding lapidary war and peace processes, while also highlighting the importance of economic considerations that are at the heart of Sudan and South Sudan’s politics, conflicts, and by proxy its peace processes.
Like many parts of the world that European powers colonised in the 20th century, the territories that are now South Sudan and Sudan have long been sites where murky ideas about peace and violence have endured. As a high-level Report of the Special Mission to Egypt in 1920 recalled, “[t]he present [colonial] administration is popular in the Sudan, and with few exceptions, peaceful and progressive conditions prevail throughout the country”.[i] This kind of illusory statement was common throughout British-led rule and erroneously suggests that peace was notionally coupled to a benign conception of government that was inherently vested in the public good of the host population.
Instead, where an individual or community was in relation to the government’s coercive grip on power most likely shaped one’s view. Although colonial administrators deployed the language of peace, such as ‘pacification campaigns’ to describe the military patrols used to forcibly ensure people had ceded to government, the state was often far from ‘peaceful’. There were several violent uprisings throughout British occupation, often over a community’s refusal to performatively pay fealty to the colonial administration through tax payments that were almost exclusively a tool colonial administrators used to assert imperial rule rather than pay for government. By the early 1960s, which was just a few short years after the end of British-led occupation in 1956, community insurrections against then self-ruled government re-emerged. War has frequently been a feature of the politics and economics of the Sudans, and while communities have found innovative ways to forge islands of peace or otherwise limit conflict’s disruption, violence has had devastating consequences for the region’s peoples.
So, after decades of colonial rule, civil wars, and peace operations and peace-making efforts in both Sudan and South Sudan, what constitutes peace in these now separated countries today? In When Peace Kills Politics: International Intervention and Unending Wars in the Sudans, Sharath Srinivasan explores these and other thorny questions on the nature of peace, peace-making, and war in Sudan and South Sudan. What emerges is a portrait of 21st century’s peace- and war-making discourse in the Sudans that is strikingly Orwellian; in practice, never-ending ‘peace’ has often meant some version of similarly endless ‘war’ for many of the region. Akin to colonial rule before it, the experience of war or peace is likely to differ in relation to one’s proximity to whomever can hold onto state power.
At its best, this text is a well observed commentary on the limitations of peace processes in the first quarter of this century. When Peace Kills Politics will consequently remain useful for the foreseeable future both as a theoretical milestone in understanding lapidary war and peace processes that continue to patch together a political and economic settlement or ‘unsettlement’ that many hope will contribute to ‘peace’[ii]. For instance, Srinivasan meaningfully grapples with fundamental questions, such as the inexorably pesky topic of what even constitutes ‘peace’. Hannah Arendt’s seminal work serves as the text’s lodestar for parsing the complex relations among violence and politics in civil war. With the political philosopher’s concepts in mind, Srinivasan argues that “[c]ivil war is not brute force or sheer violence; it has a political dimension which people give meaning to, justify and judge violent struggle”.
Srinivasan assiduously advances his core argument that politics has been neglected in peace-making efforts, or the complex series of processes that have been pursued by a range of elites within the Sudans and from global and regional powers to reach ‘peace’. The end consequence of this failure is that “making peace during civil wars risks debilitating, rather than fostering, non-violent civil politics because it frequently relies upon means and instrumental logics that are in essence violent”. Or to adapt Orwell’s infamous quote from 1984, often in the Sudans ‘peace’ still is some version of ‘war’ or at least ‘violence’. This is an open secret for those familiar with Sudan or even the broader peace and conflict studies literature and Srinivasan’s text compellingly traces competing visons of ‘peace’ and ‘politics’ with this messy reality in mind.
However, the book falls short in two areas. First, it neglects the economic considerations that are at the heart of Sudan and South Sudan’s politics, conflicts, and by proxy its peace processes. Second, the text demands patience of all but the most specialists of readers. On the former, from at least British-led colonial rule onwards South Sudan and Sudan have adhered to the historian Frederick Cooper’s notion of the ‘gatekeeper state’[iii]. Governments in both countries have historically been heavily reliant on exports, which are often natural resource-based and have been relatively easy for a cadre of individuals within government to maintain privileged access to. Additionally, as the political ethnographer Alex de Waal’s work illustrates, this has contributed to violent contestation over the state, which has infrequently worked in anything but a small elite’s interest as opposed to notions of the ‘public good’[iv]. Despite how rich Srinivasan’s adaptations of Arendt’s theoretical insights are, they nevertheless neglect the most fundamental challenge within both Sudans: how to forge a government that strikes a political-economic bargain that consistently works for the many rather than the violently exclusionary few.
As for those theoretical insights, while centring the text on the German philosopher’s monumental work was perhaps a robust organising principle for the author, peacebuilding practitioners and likely a few scholars are at times likely to get lost. The text might have benefitted from a different approach that started with the more fundamental question of how to better understand the nature of violent conflict in the Sudans and locally contextualise ‘peace’. For example, how might civic actors, including those within government, civil society, and religious communities, play a more meaningful role in peace processes rather than the often-elite bargains that typically constitute peace processes in the region? While the text touches upon these kinds of questions, it frequently favours a close adherence to Arendt and a critical review of the different attempts at peace-making in these countries.
And yet, even with these faults, this reviewer still hopes that it becomes essential reading material for civic actors, international negotiators, Sudanists, and the Sudanese and South Sudanese elites within peace agreements. Members of the Sudanese and South Sudanese ruling elites might also benefit from the text if they have not read it already. Following December 2013’s wrenching violence and South Sudan’s return to largescale civil war, reports of Riek Machar pictured near a copy of Daren Acemoglu and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty remain memorable. Perhaps present and future South Sudanese and Sudanese elites might similarly embrace When Peace Kills Politics. Stranger things have happened in the Sudans and even stranger things are needed if a lasting peace that benefits most South Sudanese and Sudanese is ever to emerge.
[i] Report of the Special Mission to Egypt, 1920, British Library B.S. 14/115. pp.33-34.
[ii] Pospisil, J. (2019) Peace in Political Unsettlement: Beyond Solving Conflict. Palgrave Macmillan.
[iii] Cooper, F. (2002) Africa Since 1940: The Past of the Present. Cambridge University Press.
[iv] de Waal, A. (2015) The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business of Power. Cambridge: Polity.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the contributing media and/or author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Radio Dabanga.
Dr Matthew Benson is the Sudans Research Director within the Conflict and Civicness Research Group (CCRG) at the London School of Economics, and is the Research Manager for the CCRG’s contribution to PeaceRep.
Sharath Srinivasan (2021). When Peace Kills Politics: International Intervention and unending wars in the Sudans. Hurst, 2021. ISBN 9781849048316