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Sunday, August 8, 2004

The state of trust

I’d had this trust-gripe nagging away in my mind since I first saw the suffering in Darfur on the telly. It’s to do with the role and nature of the ‘nation-state’. It came and went, ebbing and flowing as these things do. It was pretty dormant, just kind of idly lying there, when today’s crossword suddenly sparked it into life. The challenge posed by nine down in The Observer Everyman prize crossword number 3020 was ‘A group of bishops reportedly praises religious song’. That did it.

This country’s constitution recognises three estates of the realm. The three, although some waggish, Whiggish Victorian PM once long ago alluded to the press as the fourth estate, a tag that’s still dragged out when it’s helpful to them, are the crown, the lords temporal, and the answer to nine down, the lords spiritual.

Thus Charles and Camilla, the Duke of Devonshire, the Archbishop of Canterbury and some Murdoch-reptile hacks from the Sun and The Times are the living breathing profile of this nation-state of ours. No mention of supermarket shoppers, motorway queuers, telly viewers, window cleaners, risk managers or allotment gardeners you’ll notice. And this is the heritage that Mr Blair says in one breath is under threat from Brussels, and from which we should trust him to deliver us, while in the next breath vouchsafing the union to comprise of sovereign ‘nation-states’ all looking after their own interests, so what’s the problem anyway? There’s a lifetime of trust study here but my gripe was a bit more specific than the EU. It was about Sudan and how the horrors in Darfur might be addressed. The problem has a long history.

Practically without exception the shapes of the countries of Africa are exactly the way they were when the colonialists left. In colonial days arbitrary lines carved through tribal homelands and traditional settlements marked necessary boundaries between the remit of one set of colonial bureaucrats and the next. None of the indigenous people were expected to identify with the colony in the way that the administrators identified with Portugal say, or Germany, France or with Scotland. There was almost no sensitivity to history, frequently no logic whatsoever to the process by which Sudan has ended up as the continent’s largest ‘nation-state’. The liberated rulers stuck to the same pattern. Anyone who has been to any of those dusty corners of Africa, say where Kenya meets Somalia or where Uganda meets the DRC, will know that the idea of being Ugandan or Somali is not an identifier of first choice for the people who live there. I’ve never been but it must be the same for the people of Darfur.

US foreign policy rules the world. It has a need to be trusted. However, it cannot function without nation-states, they’re often times the only thing that can be threatened. So, on behalf of the suffering of Darfur, Gen Powell brings his influence, money and trade leverage to bear on the politicians and religious leaders in Khartoum who own the nation-state we know as Sudan. He gives them a deadline, an ultimatum to sort out Darfur and tells the world he’s on the case and that prospects are good. He’s not even on the same planet.

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