Atta El-Hassan El-Battahani, Hassan Ali Gadkarim (2017), Bergen: Chr. Michelsen Institute (Sudan Report SR 2017:1).
This report analyses the implementation and impact of decentralization in Sudan: To what extent have the efforts to implement decentralization policies actually devolved power and fiscal resources to sub-national levels, for the benefit of the local populations?
In contrast to the civilian, multi-party governments in Sudan’s early history of independence, the military regimes of Abboud (1958–1964) and Numeiri (1969–1985) expressly advocated a highly centralized government. Nonetheless, while Abboud’s regime maintained a convenient relationship with native administrations and religious sectarian leaders, Numeiri’s regime took a radical stance against them. Even during Abboud’s regime, however, decentralization policies were not meant to empower individuals at the local level. Rather, they were merely meant to create a stronger base of support for the central government and its policies.
The Abboud regime, 1958–1964
Scholars in the field of decentralization stipulates that local rule reforms in Sudan whether before or after independence have focused more on legal structural and functional interrelationships among central governments and the local units and paid less attention to fiancé, infrastructure and community development (Taraif 1990; Al-Asam 1983; El Shibly 2013).
According to Al-Asam (2016) the modus operandi of decentralization is not in shortcomings in the constitution or the law, rather he believes that failure is attributed to the interests of those responsible for implementing the laws. Successive governments, since the days of the British before independence right through to post-independent governments (both civilian or military) were more interested in stability and were not serious enough to delegate real powers to local and regional layers of government. This meant that they were not willing to let go of their central dominance over the public fiancé, further more they were not serious in sharing funds with their states and municipalities, nor were they serious in allowing the decentralized institutions to think and plan for the development of their localities.
Yet, overtime, some measures by way of incremental change were taken. During the British the role of the District Commissioner was key in maintaining the hegemony of the center with semblance of decentralization. A few years before Sudan obtained independence, a major decentralization policy change was initiated with the introduction of the 1951 Local Government Act. This act created local councils that had legal corporate status and clearly defied responsibilities. They were to exercise authority over a large range of local activities, independent of central control from British administrators, and they were directly accountable to local electorates. As these councils developed, they acquired more powers.
The objective of the act was to dismantle the scaffolding of central administration and allow self-governing democracy to take root.
The Abboud military regime did little to introduce a new system of administration until it passed the Provincial Administrative Act of 1960, which abolished the role of District Commissioner and eliminated other policies derived from the Report of the Commission on Coordination between Central and Local Government. The act set up a new system of provincial administration that included the creation of the post of “government representative” and the institution of province councils and province authorities (Howell 1974, 42–43). Province councils, under the chairmanship of the government representative, had responsibility for legislative functions at the provincial level, while province authorities had responsibility for executive tasks.
Major changes in the fiscal transfers from the center to the local level also took place during Abboud’s regime. When the British left Sudan in 1956, the Sudanese economy was in a much better position than it was in later years, particularly in 1970s and 1980s. In its early post-independence period, the Sudanese economy relied on cotton as a principal cash crop, which provided much of the country’s needed revenue.6 As a result, the central government had less need to rely on taxation for revenue compared to the governments of most other African states (Niblock 1987, 48). The relative economic and financial stability and the reasonable performance of the economy was attributed to the post-World War II economic boom and demand for primary products (Ali 1990).
In these early years, the Sudanese population enjoyed a living standard that was envied by most other developing countries, with a per capita income much higher than that of South Korea and with an exchange rate of more than three US dollars for one Sudanese pound (SDG). Until the 1960s, Khartoum, the country’s capital, was one of the most clean and beautiful cities in the developing world (O’Brien 1986, 275).
Up until the 1959–1960 fiscal year, all local councils in Sudan registered surpluses and none of them required transfers from the central government (Al-Asam 1983). However, beginning in 1961, local councils had to balance their books by resorting to transfers from the center as drawn from Government and Government Finance statistics Year Book, vol. VI, 1982 shown in Table 3. The continuous growth in transfers from the central government from the early 1960s to the late 1970s is particularly striking. According to Howell (1974, 108–109), two reasons were responsible for this growth: First, local government revenues from their own sources were either stagnant, declining, or unreliable during this time period, meaning more and more assistance was required from the central government. Second, the prices of goods and services local authorities needed to procure increased over this period, due to inflation.
In terms of the actual process of decentralization, the Abboud regime (1958–1964) was not as radical as the Numeiri regime in terms of its hostility toward native administration. In fact, Abboud’s military regime maintained native administrations, and this was one of the issues of contention between progressive forces led by the Communist Party and the main liberal, traditional parties of Umma and DUP.
Following the “October Revolution” in 1964 and the overthrow of Abboud, military forces were quick to rally modern urban forces around la za’malil Gudama (“no authority for traditional forces”) against native administrations. However, this move was met with equal ferocity by Umma and DUP, who defended the status of native administrators and set up a civilian, multi-party government. The controversy surrounding the power of native administrations contributed to curbing the influence of the Communist Party in the post- 1964 government and eventually led to the Communist Party being outlawed in Sudan and expelled from the country’s parliament. Ensuing constitutional and political crises during this period contributed to a military takeover by progressive army officer’s in May 1969, which led to the second period of military rule.
The Nimeiri regime, 1969–1985
The issue of decentralization took a different turn during the Numeiri regime, which came to power in the 1969 military coup. The October Revolution of 1964 had brought to the fore the political influence of native administrations in rural areas and highlighted the difficult progressive forces encountered in mobilizing rural masses, hence slogans such as “la za’malil Gudama”. The Numeiri regime fought an ideological as much as a political battle, even without the support of the Communist Party.
The issue of decentralization can be looked at as contested between an educated, urban modern political class and a less educated, rural conservative-sectarian class. The Nimeiri regime did not waste time in showing hostility towards religious, tribal forces and native administrative units in the country. The outcome of these policies tended to favor government officials and bureaucrats to fil in position of native administration. Central government contributions to local governments progressively rose starting in the early 1960s (see Table 2 above). In addition, as Table 4below shows, the level of total expenditures on local government—both by the center and by localities—increased starting in the mid-1960s.
Provincial administrations were once again reformed in 1971. The Local Government Act of 1971 advanced decentralization to the provincial level considerably further than the Provincial Administrative Act of 1960, but it did not change the political nature of provincial leadership (Howell 1974, 43). For example, under the 1960 act, the government representative for a particular province was appointed by and responsible to the Supreme Council, the cabinet at the central level. The government representative was the head of all other government officials in the province. Under the 1971 act, the “commissioner” was given similarly wide powers, although the province council he chaired combined both legislative and executive functions.
Numeiri swiftly dissolved the native administrations before he allowed a new properly functioning, representative class of administrators to be installed as new provincial administrators. This created a space that was filed by new aspiring local politicians and bureaucrats, a tendency reinforced by the one-party authoritarian nature of the system.
Native administrators in Sudan (such as tribal chiefs and sheikhs) had traditionally been responsible not only for maintaining order and punishing disobedience, but also for collecting taxes and performing other local government functions, including the administration of land rights. This fusion of judicial and administrative powers had always been controversial due to its concentration of power, as had been the direct link between administrative structures, territory, and land rights. Nonetheless, the decision of the Nimeiri regime to abolish native administrations altogether in the 1970s created confusion, uncertainty, and conflct as it undermined a previously clear demarcation between native rights and responsibilities (e.g., for land and natural resources) and central government rights and responsibilities (e.g., for public services such as education). This confusion continues to fuel conflcts in Sudan to the present day (Izabila 2013). The Local Government Act of 1971 diminished the powers of the old province councils.
Although there was a large increase in these councils—from 86 to around 500—they ceased to have independent status with their own budgets and defied powers vis-à-vis the central government. Rather, the 1971 act provided that members of province councils were to be indirectly elected from a lower tier of local councils. The province councils themselves were to act as electoral colleges for a higher tier of new district councils. In all these councils, government officials were to be well represented. Popular participation was encouraged, and about 5 600 local councils were formed in urban and rural areas (Abusin and Abbakr 2006).
The rationale behind the 1971 act was to mobilize local resources so that regions and localities could themselves cover shortfalls in fiscal transfers from the center to regional and local authorities. But this largely failed. For example, in 1979 local councils in Sudan generated 55millionSDG in revenues, while losing 260SDG in expenditures. This was one factor that led to the abandonment of the 1971 act and the introduction in 1980 of regional rule.
The figures in Tables 2 and 3 above show how local communities relied on the center financially, and this continued during the Numeiri regime. Partly, this could be explained by harsh economic conditions that reached their height in the 1980s, which led to a need for even more transfers from the center to the regions to meet their expanding needs.