Sudan: Darfur, Islamism, and the World

The Failure of an African State, Richard Cockett, Yale University Press.

“This book is about one of the greatest humanitarian and political disasters of our age,” writes Richard Cockett, Africa editor of The Economist, in the introduction to “Sudan.” A product of six trips to the long-suffering nation between 2005 and 2010, Cockett sets out to explain how Sudan came to explode so catastrophically, and to suggest what the often well-intentioned foreigners who tried to help the country can learn from their collective failure.

For those readers who know nothing more about the country than what is reported in the Western media, “Sudan” will be a revelation. Among other things, one learns that while Darfur and other remote parts of Sudan have long suffered from poverty, war, and famine, profits accrued during the oil boom of the 2000s (oil accounts for 95 percent of the country’s exports), have turned the capital of Khartoum (and its surroundings) into a center of power and wealth, “helping further its reputation as the safest and most accepting city in Africa,” writes Cockett.

One may also be surprised to learn that members of the nation’s educated elite are blissfully unaware of conditions in the remote regions of Sudan—Africa’s largest nation in terms of land mass. “Despite all the headlines and moral outrage that the fighting in Darfur attracted in the West, many Khartoumese have only the haziest notion of the conflict and show little interest in finding out more,” explains Cockett. It’s not difficult to understand why, considering that most of the oil revenue flows directly into central coffers in Khartoum.

In fact, Cockett contends that the ruling class’s indifference is a large part of the reason why Sudan has long been characterized as a failed state—ranked #3 in the world on the 2010 Failed States Index—and the world leader in internally displaced people. “Sudan’s long civil wars have been symptomatic of the failure of the [center] to exert sufficient military or political control over the peripheries,” writes the author, “making the remote regions prey to the malevolent ambitions of the country’s neighbors. Worse yet, Sudan’s politicians have not only acted selfishly to bolster their own power at the expense of the public good, they consciously exploit and sharpen the many religious and cultural differences that divide the people.”

Meanwhile, Cockett characterizes the international intervention in Darfur as successful in just two regards. That is, even though the violence attracted an unheard of amount of the world’s attention, money, and diplomatic commitment—and saved hundreds of thousands of lives—all the political pressure failed to achieve a peace deal. Moreover, the foreign aid only encouraged the country’s relatively wealthy government to abdicate its responsibility to assist its own citizens.

Cockett doesn’t seem all that optimistic about the future, either, highlighting the upcoming referendum on secession in the south in 2011, and the likelihood that the south will choose independence, giving Africa its first new country since Eritrea came into existence in the early 1990s. “South Sudan is woefully under-prepared for life as a robust, independent state,” contends Cockett on the last page of the Afterword. “Furthermore, if independence comes the south’s tribes could lapse into sectarian warfare, as to some extent is happening already.”

His prediction? “I suspect the pull of Sudan’s sad and savage history will be too strong, certainly in the short term,” he concludes. “It will be up to the next generation to slip the bonds of Sudan’s self-destructive past.”

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