July Books 9-11) Three books about Sudan

I have been reading up on Sudanese issues over the last few days, and have come to realise the depths of my ignorance on the subject.

I started with A History of Modern Sudan, by Robert O. Collins, the most recent of these three books (published in 2008). It is a good basic political overview of the history of the country since Mohammed Ali, the Albanian Ottoman ruler of Egypt, conquered it in 1821; followed by the religious rule of the Mahdi and his successors, and then then the peculiarly named condominium arrangement which preserved Egyptian sovereignty in theory but was completely British-led in practice. Independence brought an alternation between elected governments, military rule and (as at present) mixtures of the two.

(I was surprised that Egypt didn’t try very hard to reassert its theoretical sovereignty, either at the point of decolonisation in the 1950s or at any other point. Certainly it would have made a difficult situation even worse, but that isn’t a reason for it not to happen.)

Sudan was soon cursed with Africa’s first civil war, as the southern part of the country, promised autonomy by London but not given it by Khartoum, chafed under direct rule and various southern armed movements, with varying degrees of popular support, territorial control and external backers, challenged the central authority of the state (and Khartoum’s inclination to establish Islam as the state religion) and made parts of the south ungovernable and ungoverned. An autonomy deal in the early 70s was abrogated by Khartoum in the early 80s, and the most recent war kicked off, with horrible loss of life and destruction. Eventually in 2005 the southern leader, John Garang, and Sudan’s President Bashir signed a new deal for autonomy for the south (without Islamic law applying there) and an independence referendum in 2011.

Just a few weeks after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement came into effect, Garang died in a helicopter crash; meanwhile, elsewhere in Sudan the province of Darfur, long an arena of conflict between neighboruing Libya and Chad, had become the scene of appalling attacks upon civilians by government-led forces, as a result of which President Bashir was indicted by the international war crimes tribunal.

(Points not mentioned in the above summary: the southern oil reserves, the period of sponsorship of worldwide Islamic terrorism by Khartoum, Sudan’s previous and subsequent relations with the US and the West, questions of “Arab” and “tribal” identity, involvement of Ethiopia and Uganda, etc: all hugely important issues which I can’t do justice to here.)

Bashir’s indictment is outside Collins’ time frame, but the rest is all in there, and is (usually) soberly explained, with perhaps a mild bias towards an enlightened Khartoum perspective (which survives despite the decades of repression). For my own purposes I needed a run down of the basic political facts, and Collins provides them.

Douglas H. Johnson’s The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars, published in 2003 when the most recent north-south conflict was still raging, takes a more southern view than Collins, and indeed invokes anthropology (which I always appreciate) as much as political analysis to tell, essentially, much the same story. (Johnson snipes at some of Collins’ earlier work from the footnotes.)

Johnson’s focus is, not unreasonably, on the north-south conflict. He provides a much deeper understanding than Collins of what made the resort to war not only credible but almost inevitable – and not only between the south and the north, but within the south, in particular when John Garang’s lieutenant Riek Machar struck out on his own to lead what became a largely Nuer struggle against Garang’s largely Dinka forces (though as Johnson rightly points out, one should not try and categorise too rigorously). Apart from “tribal” identities, there was also the strategic choice between Garang’s ideal of a secular state in the whole of Sudan, with southern autonomy, or the option of independence for the south which Machar explicitly adopted.

Johnson finished his book before the most recent peace agreement, and although at first sight the agreement itself disproves his conclusion that conflict is deeply entrenched and self-perpetuating, in fact he highlights many of the issues which remain unresolved even now, and will need to be sorted out in the short to medium term if peace between north and south is to continue.

Johnson also points out that humanitarian aid itself becomes a factor in the perpetuation of conflict: inevitably, the deliverers of such aid must compromise with (and thus empower) certain local forces against others. It certainly isn’t news to me (I remember seeing, and indeed buying, food in our local shops in Bosnia which had been stolen from the World Food Programme), but I think it’s worth adding that organisations which claim to be devoting all their resources to aid on the ground, without campaigning on the issues at home, are likely to be colluding with their local warlords without doing anything to challenge those power structures.

While Johnson’s book is very good at getting into the mechanics of South Sudan, I thought he missed on two other important areas. First, he seems to see the Darfur (and other) problems in the north as reflections of the north-south question. It’s pretty clear that there are plenty of indigenous and external factors to make Darfur unstable even if the South were not an issue (and in fairness to Johnson, his book was finished before the worst in Darfur). Second, in his introduction he claims that conflict in Sudan, as elsewhere, is caused by internal problems being escalated by external actors. It’s not at all clear to me, on the evidence that he and Collins present, that external actors were a prerequisite for the outbreak of conflict. It is, however, clear that external actors have played a crucial role in ending it – the 1972 autonomy deal would not have happened without Ethiopia, the current peace agreement is particularly a credit to Kenya. But the merit of Johnson’s book is that he writes clearly enough that one can make up one’s own mind about the extent to which the facts he presents justify his conclusions.

The split between John Garang and Riek Machar is the backdrop for the closing chapters of Emma’s War, by Deborah Scroggins. Emma McCune was the daughter of colonial parents, kicked out of India in the 1960s. They split up and her father committed suicide; Emma grew up with that missionary zeal which one sometimes encounters, to make the world a better place regardless of the personal consequences.

A lot of Scroggins’ narrative isn’t actually about Emma McCune, but about the horrors of the Sudanese conflict and the ensuing famine, which she covered as a journalist. She gives a decent summary of the background history but her strength is the human dimension. Both Collins and Johnson record, for instance, that when the refugee camps in Ethiopia closed in 1991, their inhabitants returned to South Sudan, causing further strain on local and international resources; but Scroggins was actually there, and converts the historical record into the sight of thousands of human beings trudging desperately along the Sobat river, being strafed by Sudanese planes and raided by bandits, in just one of many vivid descriptive passages which will linger with me for a long time.

Scroggins is also very good at describing the mentality and lifestyle of the foreign aid workers in a crisis situation. Where Johnson raises (reasonable) doubts about the entire enterprise, here we have an explanation of the zeal that motivates people to get into the field and do what they can for humanity. It’s a world I have dipped into (particularly in my time in Bosnia) and I recognised most of the characters who Scroggins describes. (And one or two of the actual people.) Her insider critique of why the rest of the world engages with humanitarian crises is very well argued.

One of the most intensely engaged of the expats was, of course, Emma McCune, who got heavily involved with delivering educational aid and trying to liberate child soldiers, largely in the Nuer areas of the SPLA-held south. She then went one further by marrying the local warlord, Riek Machar, who shortly after split from John Garang, creating a civil war within the SPLA. Machar’s new English wife was blamed for this by Garang’s supporters, but Scroggins is pretty clear that “Emma’s War” was not her fault.

One other figure who repeatedly appears in the narrative is the British businessman Tiny Rowland, who I knew of only as the owner of the Observer newspaper, but who of course had made his fortune by building up his company, Lonrho (from London and Rhodesia) into a conglomerate with tentacles all over the continent. Rowland, never a man for modesty, claimed in one conversation to have created the SPLA. He certainly played a crucial role in its history, and in the internal politics of many other African countries; like Emma McCune, he had a particular obsession with Sudan.

Emma McCune and her unborn baby were killed in a traffic accident in Nairobi only two years into her marriage. Scroggins follows the story a bit further – Machar signed a separate peace with Khartoum, and found another wife, this time from Minnesota; after Scroggins’ book was published, Machar actually reconciled with Garang and, with Garang now being out of the picture, is again one of the leading figures in south Sudan.

All three of these books are probably essential reading for anyone who wants to know more about Sudan. But Emma’s War is one of the best books I have read this year, and is I think essential reading for anyone who wants to know more about the human condition.

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