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Sudan in Crisis: The Failure of Democracy.

G. Norman Anderson, Sudan in Crisis: The Failure of Democracy. University Press of Florida, 1999. 272 pages. Hardcover $49.95.

The opening sentence of this book sets the stage for the analysis that follows: "On being appointed American ambassador to Sudan in 1986, I was delighted to be going to a newly democratic country, with its great hopes and promise for the future" (p. ix).

This book is written by Ambassador G. Norman Anderson as a diplomatic account of the failure of the Sadiq al-Mahdi premiership to live up to US expectations of revived democracy in Sudan. It focuses on the period from May 1986 to June 1989 after which Umar al-Bashir mounted a coup, which deposed Sadiq al-Mahdi's government. This was a very eventful period in Sudanese politics. There were numerous attempts to bring the long running civil war to an end, the government had to accept international humanitarian assistance to relieve a severe famine in the country (Operation Lifeline Sudan), the National Islamic Front (NIF) under the leadership of Hasan al-Turabi emerged as an influential political force, and Sudan replaced its traditional regional political alignment with Egypt and Saudi Arabia and developed alliances with Libya and Iran.

The book is divided into sections that explore US relations with democratic Sudan, the course of the civil war, economic reform, democratic failure and foreign policy. These are headings that highlight the unfolding chronology of events rather than analytical sections. The failure of democracy in Anderson's assessment is measured by al-Mahdi''s rejection of US interests and influence in Sudan. This was most dramatically expressed in al-Mahdi's shift toward "nonalignment" which meant a shift toward Libya and Iran as sources of political, military and ideological support.

Anderson's perspective on these events is told from the diplomatic narrative of "democratization" -- the sponsorship of "democracy", free market economics and pro-US/West foreign policy. US policy in the Sudan aimed at promoting a pro-US government militarily. Sudanese democracy was to be supported by a carrot and stick approach. Offer access to loans, arms and food relief for a pro-US position in the region. Cut off financial assistance if loans were not repaid or for political alliances which went against US regional interests. Anderson in fact argues that this policy was perhaps not the best strategy. He suggests instead that not enough support was given, by either the US or Western donors (who tended to follow the US lead), to this "weak" democracy, thereby squandering the opportunity to shape Sudan's regional orientations and development.

The major theme in this story about democratic Sudan under al-Mahdi is the lack of coherence of government and the problem of political divergence and fragmentation caused by alliances between tribes, religious orders, political factions, parties and the military with outside states and movements. Firstly, the civil war, as with all civil wars, brought about regional intervention and/or support from different neighboring states. Moreover, the population displacement brought about by war and famine only increased the level of intervention and political fragmentation. Secondly, the divergence in the choice of regional alliances further divided political parties. Thirdly, the issue of "Islamization" increased the North/South Arab/African, Muslim/Christian cultural and political divide in the Sudan and generated tensions within the state apparatus and military. Thus one of the major issues facing Sudanese democracy under Sadiq was the constitution of a Sudanese body politic. Although Anderson is concerned with t his issue throughout it never really comes into clear focus. Can elections really create a body politic or must that come first?

The thread of the story told here is the politics of personalities. This is not surprising given the diplomatic perspective where politics is read through the words and gestures of politicians. The analysis proceeds through an account of al-Mahdi's decisions and actions as he confronts events. Yet while this gives a close up view, the reader is left feeling it is never quite close enough. Consequently, the opportunity to make a unique contribution through a more engaged and intimate account of diplomatic activity and events is missed.

One of the shortcomings of this diplomatic account for scholars is the absence of detail and sources. If it were a more engaged memoir of diplomacy in the Sudan then other sources would not be so important. However, it is a combination of history, political interpretation and personal observations. As such, the scarcity of references and sources makes it difficult to assess Anderson's account. Other accounts of the period are not really taken on or challenged. Even notes referring to personal diaries or diplomatic correspondence would have helped to ground the text, anchoring it in a chronology that revealed perspectives and interpretations at the time. Written without reference to even one's personal diaries suggests that the synthesis took place from hindsight at the time of writing rather than a dialogue with shifting official and even personal interpretations and perspectives. This is especially the case in diplomatic writing where the framework and perspectives on events can change so radically as regio nal politics shifts and US policy itself can undergo major changes.

Written after the completion of the posting there is none of the daily engagement which reveals diplomatic process or decisions making. We are not really given insights into what was distinctive about being a US ambassador in the Sudan. On numerous occasions we are introduced to complex events but their course is left unexplained. For example, one of the perplexing issues in Sudanese politics is the constant failure to reach a political settlement to the civil war despite many regional and international efforts. Here these efforts are merely documented and the explanations offered are invariably reduced to the personalities involved.

Anderson points up the shortcomings of personality politics when he notes in his conclusion that there was too much focus on al-Mahdi. A lot of hope was placed in the figure of Sadiq al-Mahdi, great grandson of the Mahdi, traditional head of the Ansar, leader of the Umma Party, intellectual and Prime Minister. The person was mistaken for the state.

In his conclusion, Anderson attempts to draw some conclusions about the US role in weak democracies. He is clearly worried about the retreat of "American moral authority" in promoting peace between the "North and South". In the most useful insight he states "Interaction with all sides ... seems a more productive option than trying to isolate Khartoum." This isolation only hurts the most vulnerable and innocent.

Michael Humphrey is an Associate Professor at the School of Sociology, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Humphrey, Michael
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:6SUDA
Date:Jun 22, 2000
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