RC's dividend from his 5 years as Africa editor of 'The Economist' is an ambitious, challenging, well-structured and superbly written book about "what the hell went wrong with Sudan since independence". In 1956, its future looked promising, thanks to almost six decades of careful and intelligent institution building by a numerically small, but superbly-educated British caste of high-minded administrators. From Khartoum, and with minimal budgets, they made key decisions in transport (railways, river transport) and economic investment (e.g. the Gezira scheme), which at independence, had become clearly defined centres of activity, condemning the rest of Sudan to marginality, except for the population living along the Nile north of Khartoum, who overwhelmingly formed the local supervisory staff of these ventures.
Until 1956, the northern and southern halves of Sudan had long been kept apart and were ill-prepared to live with one another in the new, post-colonial era. War erupted in 1955 and continued until 1972. The (post-) colonial heritage has always been criticized and used as an excuse for a lot of the subsequent policy mistakes and mayhem, time and again, by Sudan's rulers and its Western-educated academics. They surely have a point, or some point.
RC has written a fast-paced book based on interviews with informants in the US, UK, Kenya and all over Sudan, and has relied on only a selection of the written sources available. He has avoided too much detail and refused to be drawn into academic disputes. Good recent accounts exist about the wars in Darfur and the South. This is the first book investigating Sudan's internal conflicts in its Southern, Western and Eastern regions at a time when the regime was (and perhaps still is) under suspicion of supporting worldwide terrorism.
In the general picture sketched by RC of the horrific events of the first years of the 21st century, the author apportions blame to every stakeholder and actor. A smell of roses is absent in this book. Some of RCs assessments are eye openers:
(1) How the evil, shifty and callous manipulator Hassan El Turabi connived to provide a refuge and training bases for terrorists, how he destroyed the education system, strangled the educated middle class, and bewitched the minds of numerous non-Arab people with promises of respect. Instead, they received bombs and bullets. Turabi did so, carefully, in non-executive roles and cannot be put on trial for the carnage and mayhem he caused.
(2) How little Sudan's policy makers in North and South learn from past mistakes, and,
(3) How the absolute determination to stay in power of three tribes accounting for 6% of the population, continues to shape Sudan's fate.
Writing in April 2010, RC is pessimistic. His account of the objectives of Western governments, US intelligence, UN bodies and NGOs providing life-saving humanitarian aid, shows deep gaps in terms of desired outcomes, which are happily, exultantly, in a back-slapping mode, exploited by the Sudan government and its very effective corps of diplomats. The "Save Darfur Coalition" is shown to have frustrated other US objectives and as having had no impact on the lives of 3 million IDPs.
Sadly, the semi-autonomous Southern region is shown by RC to be ruled by self-serving, ex-military incompetents from a narrow tribal base, who try to do things in the Khartoum manner, the only model they are aware of. In 2009, some 2.500 people were killed in tribal fights, more than in Darfur that year. And both the North and the South are re-arming heavily. Taxpayers worldwide will soon be paying for the humanitarian aid needed to provide succour to victims of the next prolonged bout of violence to defend two regimes with little legitimacy within one state.
What angers this reviewer is the plight and plain suffering of NGOs and their staff determined to provide help, clean up after the GOS strikes against its own citizens again and again. But, as RC argues, the concept of "humanitarianism" is also in need of revision. Too many ugly, vicious regimes are kept afloat thanks to NGOs providing key services.
RC has written a deep book, a rich, well-argued diagnosis of Sudan's endless problems. A rare lapse of judgement is his calling the SPLA a peasant army. WFP-army would be more appropriate. His polite form of speech always takes precedence over feelings of pure disgust and anger. Required reading for diplomats and persons organising their training, and for any other institution intent on making an impact in Sudan with funds or personnel.