What to read to understand Sudan
SUDAN APPEARS to be trapped in an endless cycle of bloody coups and counter-coups. Since independence in 1956 the country has endured six coups and about ten failed attempts, by some measures the worst record in Africa. The latest was the overthrow in October 2021 of a transitional civilian-led government by a military junta led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. Blessed with ample natural resources, notably oil and gold, rich agricultural lands, a sophisticated education system (largely inherited from the British) and a robust civil society, Sudan has nonetheless been plagued by genocide, famine and poverty. These seven books explain how and why Sudan went so horribly wrong. Sudans Unfinished Democracy. By Willow Berridge, Justin Lynch, Raga Makawi and Alex de Waal. Oxford University Press; 280 pages; $30. C Hurst & Co; 22 Since South Sudan won independence from Sudan in 2011 the former has claimed more attention, as it plunged quickly into its very own civil war. Recent texts on Sudan, therefore, are relatively rare. Sudans Unfinished Democracy is the best of them. It is the only book that deals in detail with the peoples revolution in 2019, led largely by women, that ousted the Islamist regime of Omar al-Bashir and led to the transitional government, which itself was overthrown. One of the authors, Alex de Waal, is probably the most prominent contemporary authority on the country. The writers give an account of the rise of Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti) from poverty in Darfur to become the ruthless leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a rise that Mr Bashir himself encouraged to create a counterweight to the regular army. Here is the root cause of the competition for power between the RSF and General Burhan, the armys chief, which erupted into war in April 2023. Mr Bashirs overthrow was a moment of hope for a more democratic and inclusive Sudan. It has since been extinguished by terror and violence, much of it carried out by the RSF. Sudan, South Sudan, & Darfur: What Everyone Needs to Know. By Andrew Natsios. Oxford University Press; 280 pages; $16.95 and 10.99 Andrew Natsioss summary of Sudans political history is short and damning: a story of rebellions, insurrections, and civil wars, layered on top of each other. That suggests that many painful years lie ahead even if the current armed conflict can be brought to an end. Mr Natsios, a former American government official, knows Sudan well. He was head of USAID, Americas development-aid agency, from 2001-06, and then President George Bushs special envoy to Sudan. His short, accessible but comprehensive account of why Sudan has been beset by so much violence is laced with illuminating profiles of some of the countrys most significant personalities. These include John Garang, leader of the south in its long civil war against the north, and the Islamist leader Hassan al-Turabi. The book only takes the story of Sudan up to 2011, when the south voted to secede in a referendum, but it remains one of the best introductions to the countrys pathologies. A History of Modern Sudan. By Robert Collins. Cambridge University Press; 360 pages; $34.99 and 25.99 This book, by an American academic, is probably the best narrative study of the country ever written. Robert Collins draws on his own and others scholarship to give a rich and detailed view of Sudan from the 1820s up to 2000 or so. Although he wrote before the conflict in Darfur, which started in 2003, theres an appendix in recent editions dealing with the causes of the war. Collins writes insightfully about internal Sudanese politics and the regimes of the 1970s and 1980s as well as about the murderous dictatorship of Mr Bashir. He tells the full story of the Islamist revolution that sustained Mr Bashir in office before it became little more than a thuggish kleptocracy. Many books on Sudan are pretty hard to read: local authors, in particular, tend to draw readers into the labyrinth of party politics in Khartoum. Collins, however, never loses sight of the most important themes. The Sudan Handbook. Edited by John Ryle, Justin Willis, Suliman Baldo and Jok Madut Jok. Boydell & Brewer; 240 pages; $29.95. James Currey; 19.99 The authors of the The Sudan Handbook are the founders of the Rift Valley Institute (RVI), a fabulous repository of knowledge about eastern and central Africa founded in 2001. The institute has run annual field courses on Sudan and South Sudan, providing an essential education for many novice diplomats and aid workers. This volume brings together 18 essays by experts who have lectured for these courses or worked with the RVI. They include Gerard Prunier, author of several works on Congo and Rwanda, who writes about Sudans tangled relations with its neighbours; Laura James, who gives an excellent account of how oil came to play such a large role in Sudans affairs; Abdel Salam Sidahmed, who writes about Islamist parties in Sudan; and Mr Ryle himself, who concludes on an appropriately downbeat note. The volume also includes maps, a chronology and brief profiles of key figures in Sudanese history, culture and politics. War of Visions. By Francis Deng. Brookings Institution Press; 591 pages; $31.99 and 25 Francis Deng is an example of what might have been. A Christian from southern Sudan, unusually he was a minister in several governments headed by northern Muslim politicians during those short periods when Sudan looked as if it might become a multiethnic and religiously plural polity. After South Sudan won independence in 2011 Mr Deng became the new countrys first ambassador to the UN. War of Visions, published long before, in 1995, is the best analysis of Sudans all-consuming identity politics by someone who has spent a lifetime trying to surmount its divisions. Essentially a work of anthropology, the book combines cool, academic detachment with an unrivalled knowledge of all the peoples of Sudan. His conclusions are dated now, but his adroit analysis of the countrys tribal politics remains relevant. Season of Migration to the North. By Tayeb Salih. Translated by Denys Johnson-Davies. New York Review of Books; 184 pages; $14.95. Penguin Classics; 7.99 Often hailed as one the best novels in Arabic of the 20th century, this is a classic of post-colonial literature by Sudans most revered author. Published in 1966, and translated into English in 1969, Season of Migration to the North is the haunting, enigmatic story of a Sudanese man who returns to his native country after many years studying in Europe, particularly in England. He is lionised in his village for his learning and supposed sophistication, but as the novel unfolds its clear that he was traumatised by his time abroad. He cannot fit comfortably back into Sudanese life. The books exploration of the clash between the values of Islam and those of the land of hanky-panky, as one character calls Europe, is as germane as ever. Also try: Our former Africa editor has written a book about Sudan, which shows how its conflicts are rooted in the countrys imbalances of wealth and power. Read about the conflict that broke out in April 2023 here and here. This article examined the parlous state of the country before the latest fighting. In our sister magazine, 1843, a woman writes about her desperate search for safety from the fighting.