“The State of Post-conflict Reconstruction” in Juba, South Sudan by Naseem Badiey (Book Review)

The State of Post-conflict Reconstruction: Land, Urban Development and State-building in Juba, Southern Sudan. By Naseem Badiey. James Currey Press, 2014.

The title of this book hints at the convergence of several fascinating topics, and situates the work within a growing literature relating national politics to more localized experiences. The intersection of urban perspectives and broader political dynamics also gets at something that is a focus of this website, which is why I am posting this review in the blog. Southern Sudan, subsequently South Sudan after independence in 2011, offers a relevant site for case studies of state-building, given its various claims to fame as the newest, most underdeveloped, and perhaps among the most politically fragmented nation-state in Africa. This book offers a fascinating exploration of perspectives on state-building and development and situates urban politics within broader fields of power in its critique of “top-down” planning and state-building. However, the attempt to render generalizable conclusions and the brief discussion and development of the author’s specific case studies leave something wanting in the analysis.

Badiey’s central argument is that “national-level initiatives are interpreted, contested, and adapted at the local level; they are contingent on local dynamics” (p. 3), and she proceeds to show how overlapping initiatives and contested perspectives of politics, community and development drove specific forms of urbanization and the construction of political authority in Juba. Though this central argument seems fairly indisputable and certainly draws on an established academic tradition (building on James C. Scott, James Ferguson, and others), the case of Juba remains interesting. It is evident that Badiey did her homework, having spent time in the city in 2006 and 2008, a critical time of transformation for South Sudan. I don’t think either the book or the 2013 article in Africa that Badiey published with the same data specify the amount of time spent “on the ground,” but Badiey’s field research centers around 100 semi-structured interviews, mainly with politicians, academics, and “technocrats” from various levels of government, as well as informal conversations with residents of Juba. She is careful to differentiate herself from (other) “foreign experts”: “In their secluded compounds, these agents of reconstruction were sheltered from the local politics of land, and continued implementing programming devised with little regard to local realities” (p. 25). Despite my skepticism about such appeals for “street cred” based on generalized dichotomies, I am still interested. Now Badiey can tell the reader why this matters and what her experience of “local realities” has to tell us about the politics of urban governance in southern Sudan.

The early chapters offer a detailed history of Juba within the context of Sudanese history, from colonialism through two civil wars, to set up the background for the “post-conflict” reconstruction following the CPA in 2005. Much of the interview data outlines the historical development of relationships between different levels of government in Central Equatoria and in Sudan in general, and Badiey situates Juba within these dynamics. Her approach is admittedly heavily influenced by Christian Lund’s work on land and authority, though land appears in Badiey’s work as more concrete than it does in Lund’s book, Local Politics and the Dynamics of Property in Africa (a book which in my opinion significantly overlooks the use-values of different types of land and differential advantages of location and other attributes of land in its focus on contributing to theories of sovereignty and authority). Drawing on Lund and giving a nod to literature on anthropology of the state, Badiey examines how the power to define property and citizenship is contested and unstable. In a parallel vein, she is concerned with breaking down the perception that all political action in South Sudan takes place along ethnic lines, stressing that “the clash of different identity groups was not about ethnicity but rather bureaucratic culture and different experiences of war” (p. 27), and highlighting, for example, the “many political rivalries and divisions within the Dinka” (p. 46).

This, again, is difficult to dispute; indeed, Evans-Pritchard, Godfrey Lienhardt, Bob Collins, Sharon Hutchinson, and others have highlighted the fractious nature of ethnicity in South Sudan (pointing out, for example, that certain Dinka groups were “more Nuer than Dinka” – see Collins’ Land Beyond the Rivers – and tracing a history of intra-ethnic conflict and division). Yet Badiey does well to focus in on the conflict between ethnic divisions and the state by examining how “the community”—enshrined in political discourse as the unit to which land belongs—is understood by various actors involved in politics and development in Juba. She shows by drawing on informant interviews how the vague term of “community” is mobilized to make various claims on the land, from ethnic communities mobilizing to claim traditional land rights, as the Bari do in the case of Juba, to the claims of Dinka SPLA fighters involved in the Sudanese civil war that “community” refers to all southern Sudanese. Badiey shows how Dinka groups mobilized concepts of freedom fighters to make claims, not necessarily on all of Juba, but specifically on Tongping (Tomping/Tongpiny) residential area near the airport. (Tongping remains a highly contested space in Juba: for example, demolitions last year highlighted the contests between types of authority and the role of the central government in the neighborhood.)

The divergences between various understandings of community and of the proper space of politics gives rise to tensions and “local resistance” that Badiey argues can be understood as central to the state-building project. In this respect, she is basically saying that the construction of nation-state hegemony is a contested project, something which also appears fairly obvious and indeed was built into the idea of state hegemony as framed by Gramsci. In the absence of local resistance, Badiey argues, “the state cannot become locally rooted” (p. 73). Local contestations are perfectly understandable, in this analysis, particularly because in Sudan, states were often “extractive, violent and external” (p. 110).

The contestations between “local” government, the SPLM, and foreign planners and development experts, are situated as the cause of the lack of progress in developing Juba in the post-CPA period. Various forms of corruption and discord within the government apparatus made it difficult for people to access land, and also difficult for the higher levels of government to implement sound policy and planning. It is here that Badiey could have more fully developed an understanding of what “the state” is, perhaps by referring back to Timothy Mitchell and others who she cites when suggesting that the state is constituted by various processes. Despite this nod to competing interpretations and definitions of the state, Badiey asserts that “Bari leaders and CES bureaucrats did not want to destroy the state, which was the source of their power and money, but wanted to keep it at a distance as much as possible” (p. 136). It remains unclear what “it” is that the politicians want to keep at bay; I would venture that, by Badiey’s own logic, it is not a unified entity distinguishable as “the state,” so much as it is the idea of “the state” pursued by officials recognized as “higher-level” leaders in South Sudan. Badiey’s analysis in this regard could have benefited from a more sustained engagement with authors like James Ferguson and Akhil Gupta who analyze how “the state” is constructed, imagined, and practiced in specific settings.

Just when the book begins to get really interesting, the analysis becomes somewhat thin. A full half of the book is dedicated to introducing and framing the study within theory and the history of Sudan and southern/South Sudan, and by the time Badiey reaches her case studies, these are fairly short and lack full development and discussion. This is partly a function of the way Badiey constructs her argument, beginning with fleshing out broad claims that I think few academic critics would dispute, and then, in effect, proceeding to show how state-building is mapped onto local contestations over land without coming full-circle to argue how this feeds back into her broad view of Sudanese history and theory of state construction. In this analysis, Juba – as both a unique place and as a generalizable example of specific relations between state and society in the construction of a national capital – tends to fall somewhat into the background behind a repeated assertion that state-building is a local process involving various forms of contestation and conflict. Thus, in my opinion, the book loses some steam towards the end, just when I had skimmed over a lot of the theory and history that was already familiar to me and was excited to get to the meat of the matter. The two case studies of neighborhoods in Juba are each only about 5-6 pages and serve to confirm the conclusion that “all state-building is local”.

My primary critique regarding the framework is that while Badiey does a wonderful job of explicating and assessing various understandings of the word “community” among her informants, her analysis is premised on a similarly contested frame of reference, namely the distinction between “local” and broader geographies and hierarchies of the (imagined or still-developing) state. The term “local” is used over and over again to mean somewhat different things throughout the text and leaves the reader wondering what “local” means when compared to other frames of reference such as communal, regional, or municipal. I would argue that the local is an unstable and contested referent, and while it may be useful to conceptualize local versus broader political levels, analysts must be clear how the concept of “local” is being used and who it is being used by (for example, by the analyst or by the informants). If one begins to count the number of times “local” is used, particularly in the arguments and conclusions of The State of Post-conflict Reconstruction, and the slightly different nuances that the word seems to take (for example, “local” as southern Sudanese vs. expats, as inside versus outside expat compounds, “local” as Bari or Equatorian versus Dinka or Nilotic, “local” as a specific chief or geographical area such as Gondokoro Island versus the broader ethnic group), it can be a bit overwhelming. In the end, this makes Badiey’s conclusion that “all state-building is local” both problematic and a fertile ground for further investigation and analysis of how the local, regional, and federal are constructed and mobilized as levels of governance in South Sudan and elsewhere.

In sum, The State of Post-conflict Reconstruction: Land, Urban Development and State-building in Juba, Southern Sudan, is a significant contribution to academic literature on Sudan and South Sudan and a recommended read for students of urban politics in Juba or elsewhere in eastern Africa. It offers specific case studies and numerous informant accounts of the political processes involved in negotiating the establishment of a national and regional capital on communal land. However, I would argue that the broad conclusions about state-building and the construction of the argument in relation to Badiey’s data do somewhat poor justice to the rich, complex and nuanced data presented in the book. There are certainly moments of brilliance in the work and some exciting material for further investigation, but overall I finished the read feeling that there was much more that could have been said about the city, and about what the politics of Juba have to tell us about state- and nation-building in South Sudan.

What are your thoughts?