Four years ago the popular uprisings which optimists called the Arab Spring swept through North Africa. One after another dictatorial governments collapsed while populations danced in the public squares. But there was one striking regional exception. In Egypt’s southern neighbour Sudan which was and is ruled by a sour-faced soldier called Omar Al-Bashir, there was rather little sign of revolution. A couple of demonstrations quickly started but equally quickly they were put to an end by Sudan’s uninhibited security services. As Field Marshal Al-Bashir himself grimly put it, ‘Anyone waiting for an Arab Spring in Sudan is going to be waiting a while.’
By that time Omar Al-Bashir had already achieved the distinction of becoming the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court, for war crimes in the western Sudanese province of Darfur. What else had he achieved in the more than two decades he has held power? In Omar Bashir and Africa’s Longest War the academic and journalist Paul Moorcraft has a stab at presenting the dictator in a sympathetic light, but he has set himself a hopeless task.
When Al-Bashir came to power in 1989 Sudan was the biggest country in Africa – it has since split into two countries following the independence referendum in South Sudan in 2011. It is a little-known but quite remarkable place – a barely-charted expanse of desert and grassland, swamp and forest, where literally hundreds of cultures and languages jostle for space in what should be one of the powerhouse economies of Africa. Sudan has coastline with access to one of the world’s busiest commercial waterways, it has most of the world’s longest river, along with a large and once profitable agricultural sector, a fairly well-educated English-speaking middle class, and extensive mineral wealth including substantial reserves of crude oil. It is also now one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world.
In Africa and especially sub-Saharan Africa many countries are experiencing a renaissance, in political as well as in economic life. The region is growing at around 5% a year, much faster than the industrialised world (Africa is probably the the fastest growing economic zone in the world right now). Standard measures of healthcare and education are recording remarkable improvements. Infant and maternal mortality are falling sharply across the region; average primary school enrollment is now over 93%.
And Africa is no exception to the rule that correlates rising non-oil incomes with freedom. In most of the continent the village tyrants and university demagogues who took charge in the early decades of independence are giving way to democrats. In 1990 there were only three electoral democracies south of the Sahara. Today there are 31. According to Freedom House, a US think tank, there are now nine African states that rank as ‘completely free’, and there are 24 that are in transition to complete freedom. The African Spring has already taken place.
In Sudan, however, these astonishing changes – unimaginable only a few years ago – are matters that are only read about, like rumours of an alternative universe. While one-time basket cases and war-zone countries elsewhere in Africa have been racing ahead in terms of growth, wealth and quality of life, Sudan has been stagnating for more than three decades. According to the World Bank’s most recent full year figures from in 2013, while sub-Saharan Africa was growing at almost 5% Sudan’s economy managed to shrink by 6%, despite the cash injection from the oil sector.
What wealth there is generated within Sudan is mostly stolen by the kleptocrats who surround Al-Bashir. According to Transparency International, Sudan is now perceived to be the most corrupt functioning state in Africa (only Somalia is worse), and almost the most corrupt in the world. Worldwide, the only other country that rates as more corrupt than is North Korea. Somehow Sudan – a country where street crime is very rare and even minor thefts are taboo – has been turned into an empire of graft.
If these abysmal indicators of performance had been accompanied by some other positives – by-products of authoritarian rule like peace, predictability, and the expectation of a reasonable span of healthy life – perhaps the rule of Omar Al-Bashir might be capable of a sympathetic interpretation. However, this is far from being the case. The Field Marshal has presided over a civil war between north and south that probably cost the lives of over two million people and that was only resolved by the creation of the world’s latest failed state, South Sudan, as well as supervising brutal and entirely purposeless provincial conflicts in western Darfur and eastern Sudan. Oil cash has packed the capital Khartoum with ‘international’ hotels and expensive imported cars, and filled the offshore bank accounts of ministers and their under-strappers with dollars and pounds, while the country at large merely regresses. Most of Africa is remarkably peaceable; meanwhile Sudan during the first decade of this century (according to the Geneva Declaration on Armed Conflict and Development), was the second most dangerous country on earth in which to be born, outdone in blood only by Iraq.
It is true that Sudan’s problems are legion, and rather intractable, but they are not unique. Other African states share the inheritance of terrible infrastructure, complicated tribal jealousies and ethnic resentments, and fundamental divisions between Islam and Christianity and indigenous beliefs. But these fissures have been worsened, massively, by the governments that Sudan has been unlucky enough to have experienced. Sudanese politicians have a genius for finding exactly the wrong solutions to the problems they face, and for never learning from their mistakes. If you wanted to map out a detailed plan for infantilising and impoverishing a society, you could really do no better than follow the anti-lead of Sudan’s Omar Al-Bashir.
Al-Bashir came – like almost all the Sudanese political class – from one of the Arabized tribes who inhabit the northern S-curve of the Nile, between Khartoum and the man-made waters of Lake Aswan on the Egyptian border. These ‘riverain’ people are the aristocracy of Sudanese politics and political administration, a clever and subtle class who served the Ottoman empire, the British, and finally themselves after the British unlocked the imperial gates in 1956. They are also by temperament and world view absolutely terrible candidates for managing a kaleidoscopically varied country like Sudan. Their mental world is typically a-historical, pre-enlightenment, pre-industrial, anti-reformation. In this secluded world wealth and status are timeless, and never created; the way to deal with ambition and creativity in society is to short-circuit them – to prime the ambitious to destroy themselves.
This is why the wars in South Sudan and Darfur proved incapable of early settlement. The technique of Sudanese politicians faced with competing interests is to arm the competitors, and set them to fight each other to the death. Sudanese politics is a zero-sum calculation, but with the added disadvantage that everyone ends up at zero.
The book under review is the first attempt to understand what has happened to Sudan by looking in detail at the career of Al-Bashir, and that it is welcome. But Omar Bashir and Africa’s Longest War is in an established tradition of frontier journalism that has got much too close to its subject. Paul Moorcraft has had a few interviews with the dictator and makes a lot of them, but breakfasting once or twice with the president and his cronies is not much of a path to understanding why Sudanese politics is so repetitively self-defeating.
As it is Moorcraft paints a picture of a rather kindly cove in an army uniform, and shrugs off the horrific conflict in Darfur as a bit of local policing got out of hand, while the civil war between north and south – the ‘Longest War’ of the title – is treated as regrettable but what can you do? He shrugs off too the quarter century of repression, and especially the disappearances and exceptionally cruel tortures that marked the first years of the presidency. He spends many thousands of words rehashing the struggles between Al-Bashir and the clownish Islamist chaplain of the state Hassan Al-Turabi (the man who thought it a good idea to invite Osama Bin-Laden to set up shop in Sudan) without ever grasping that Sudanese radical Islamism has only ever been a vanity project for one particularly silly and naive branch of the country’s elite.
Governing a country like Sudan, an almost lunatic artifice of the colonial era, is never going to be easy. Achieving peace and prosperity in this storm of competing identities, with the additional challenge of fighting off malign neighbours like Libya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and the Pharaoh of the day in Egypt, is a not a job for the faint-hearted. But other sub-Saharan countries have faced similar challenges, and if to date they have not exactly succeeded they have started to achieve a lot. There may not be a blueprint for success in Africa, but the modern history of Sudan shows there is a sure-fire recipe for failure.
Omar Bashir and Africa’s Longest War. Paul Moorcraft, Pen & Sword, RRP £20