Sudan is at something of a crossroads. In May 2004, the National Islamic Front (NIF) government in Khartoum and the southern secessionist guerrilla movement signed a peace deal, but a new war -- and a major humanitarian emergency -- has emerged in the western province of Darfur. The regime seems increasingly exhausted from nearly two decades in power and weakened by internal divisions and the declining popular legitimacy of Islamic principles of rule. At the same time, Sudan's substantial oil resources are finally being exploited and will soon make it the third-leading oil exporter on the continent, after Nigeria and Angola. These four books provide timely insights into contemporary Sudan as it tries to address these challenges. The Sidahmeds provide a solid introduction to Sudanese political history, although they devote inadequate attention to the immediate past. They emphasize the continuing weakness of central state structures throughout the post-independence era, and they blame this weakness for the rise of ethnic conflict in the last decade. Interestingly, they credit the NIF with reinvigorating economic liberalization, following the import-substitution industrialization policies of the statist regimes that preceded it.
Prunier's account of the current Darfur crisis is far more scathing in its criticism of the NIF regime, which it presents as incompetent, racist, and cynically willing to stoke ethnic and racial polarization in order to better control the region. The Sidahmeds essentially describe "Arabs" as one of many ethnic groups in the country, albeit the largest one. For Prunier, the growing Arabism of Khartoum has fueled a racial politics that interacts in complex ways with more traditional ethnic cleavages to create the devastating violence that ravages Darfur. Prunier has written a passionate and highly readable account of the current tragedy that combines intimate knowledge of the region's history, politics, and sociology with a telling cynicism about the polite but ineffectual diplomatic efforts to end it. It is the best account available of the Darfur crisis.
Oxford University Press has chosen this time to release a new edition of Alex de Waal's 1989 book on the famine that ravaged the same region of Darfur in the early 1980s. De Waal has written an interesting new preface in which he comments on events in the region since then. The earlier text remains a useful case study of the dynamics of famine. Interestingly, whereas they are viewed as the central causal mechanism of famine in the Prunier volume, political causes and malgovernance are only alluded to by de Waal, who focuses instead on the dynamics of low-intensity peasant agriculture in a marginal agro-climatic zone to explain the recurrent tendency toward mass hunger in Darfur. This discrepancy suggests the extent to which political dynamics have risen in salience in our understanding of African problems over the last two decades.
The volume by Rolandsen provides some useful insights into the nature of public administration and governance in the southern regions of Sudan as one of the longest civil wars in the world comes to an end. Rolandsen describes events in southern Sudan during the 1990s and argues that the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the main guerrilla movement fighting against the Khartoum government, came to constitute a more-or-less sovereign government in much of the area it controlled. Trying to govern transformed the guerrilla army, not least because it was put into contact with various civilian groups and had to confront opposition to its rule. Still, the SPLA's very limited capacity to provide basic services becomes clear from the book, as does the lack of effective mechanisms of external accountability. The SPLA's undisputed leader, John Garang, died in a helicopter crash earlier this year, as the final details regarding his role in the peace deal's power-sharing arrangement were being ironed out. Rolandsen's volume suggests that it will not be easy to replace Garang and that the population in the southern provinces of Sudan will remain extremely reliant on external assistance for their welfare and long-term development.