Abdel Salam Sidahmed and Alsir Sidahmed. Sudan: The Contemporary Middle East.
Sudan is in the popular news these days and for those who have lamented its long-time obscurity one might be happy about this. But, typically, such modern Western coverage is often for sad and troubling reasons. Moreover, too much written about Sudan is simplistic, uninformed, and terribly partisan. So when I picked up this book, I was already worried, but very quickly found that this work was very accessible and clear. It should be widely read by those who want to understand the evolution of Sudan in the colonial and post-colonial periods. This work is seriously informative and a smooth read.
I was glad to see that the chronology, drawn from one of my own works, helped to give some historical foundation. Although the book was published in 2005 it clearly was written before the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), before the present extent of the Darfur crisis, before the death of John Garang and before the Black Book. However, I did read this work with these rear view glasses and the strength of this work is that one can clearly find the roots of what problematically unfolded in the subsequent years. There was considerable material on Darfur that presaged the current catastrophe. The introductory chapter on state formation was excellent in terms of being comprehensive while surveying the main recent epochs of Sudanese history. It was especially strong on the early modern period of Mahdism and on the important White Flag League that continued the struggle against imperialism in a new way even into the British colonial era.
The book gained more strength in chapter two that covered the postcolonial era which is the main focus of the authors. It gave a knowledgeable understanding of the oscillation between military and democratic rule and it sorted out the complexities and contradictions of the Nimieri regime. In fact, this is a potentially very confusing and difficult episode in Sudanese history but the authors sliced through it with important masterstrokes, especially on the thorny topic of the relation of Islam and the state then and now. Some of what the authors included is from their personal knowledge that some foreign scholars of Sudan miss, so it is a fresh and deeper reference of this period. The military and political rise of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) is carefully explored and in this way one can virtually anticipate the content of the CPA. Also well explored is the problem role of Sudanese constitutions and agreements that were less likely to be written in stone than in blood. If there was a highlight for me, it was the scrutiny of the National Islamic Front (NIF) and its interpenetrating relationship with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that was very sophisticated and informed, especially on the less well known inner workings of both. This includes some of the important times when Osama bin Laden was living and working in Sudan.
The foreign relations chapter was very good as well. Perhaps a bit weak on me earlier Turkish period but very strong on the central issue of Sudanese post-colonial identity that has relentlessly swirled about the political discourse but without resolution, and with so very much national destruction of human, natural and material resources.
The chapter on economics was straightforward and provided the basics for agriculture, development, industry, commerce and such. There was some treatment of the topic of oil, but this rapidly changing dimension of the Sudan political economy will need almost monthly updates as it becomes a major factor in most dimensions of the economy, especially since the signing of the CPA on 9 January 2005. Here the future implications on Sudan could range from new rounds of potential violence to finally finding common ground and genuine growth and the rudimentary creation of basic infrastructure in the south, east and west. We shall see what happens in the coming years to answer these outstanding issues.
The last chapter on state and society was solidity integrated after examining the foundations of Sudan as a peripheral party to imperial Britain. How should one not be surprised that Sudan has been bedeviled with postcolonial military and undemocratic regimes when the imperial British arrived and stayed by military force to dictate their colonial policies or economic exploitation of Sudanese resources? Fifty eight years of that sort of political socialization and institution building is pretty likely to leave its residue. It did. The lingering issues of decentralization, by-passing trade unions, suppressed political freedoms, the informal economy, and rural to urban migration were all set in place during this previous era. Certainly the post-colonial political imagination of Sudan has also failed to escape these inherited paradigms of military "solutions" for political problems which were central in the decades of the north-south conflict, not to mention the present violence in the east and Darfur, when the last ruling Sultan was assassinated by British colonial forces.
The concluding chapter brought this all into focus with a listing of the political failures in Sudan spanning from marginalization, weak civil society, the struggle between secular and sacred models of state power, and of course, the "eternal" Sudanese dilemma of forging a consensus about national identity. The authors bravely concluded that these options must be foreclosed and that coups are no longer a viable option. A final note of optimism suggests that Sudan could be at a new evolutionary point after so many false starts, failures and bloodshed. They also leave us with the provocative question: Can the inherited state survive any more destruction and will there finally be a collective vision that can at least accommodate the many contractions? The referendum offered by the CPA in 2001 may have the answer. Yes, Sudan has survived the death of John Garang, but will the deeply planted seeds of distrust in the south allow the CPA to last? Can the Naivasha accords be a workable model for the Abuja meetings? Will there be a new Sudan or two Sudans? For those teaching courses on the modern Sudan I can easily see classroom applications for this stimulating, accessible and very tragically clear work that should be on the must read list.
Reviewed by Richard A. Lobban, Jr.
Richard A. Lobben, Jr., is Professor of Anthropology and African Studies at Rhode Island College, Providence.