Does anyone have the vision to restore this complex country?by Jamal Mahjoub / March 4, 2019 / Leave a comment
Back in November it seemed that Sudan had, surprisingly, become a tourist destination. At the pyramids in Meroë, 120 miles northwest of the capital Khartoum, we found ourselves in the midst of a group of Spanish tourists yelling loudly to one another. When I first visited nearly 30 years ago, there was no road and no resthouses. Now the country’s crumbling heritage appears in danger of overexposure.
What you are unlikely to see are local visitors. The country’s pre-Islamic history has been largely ignored, partly because of the inaccessibility of the sites, but also as a result of the conservative brand of Islam that has dominated the country since the 1980s. This development was sealed with the arrival of President Omar al-Bashir—the object of growing protests in the capital and elsewhere, but still securely in position.
The 1989 Inqaz, or Revolution of National Salvation, marked the culmination of political repression in the country. Experiments in the 1960s and 1970s to find a form of government that reflected the diverse nature of Sudan were short-circuited by military interventions. Hardline Islam became the government’s weapon of choice. Thirty years on all the indications are that this has not resolved the country’s inequalities, but deepened them.
Traditionally, Sudanese Islam has always contained a strong element of syncretism, often incorporating elements of pre-Islamic beliefs. There is a long history of Sufism, still alive today, as witnessed by the preparations for the mawlid, the Prophet’s birthday, in the main square in Omdurman where the flags of the various tariqas, or schools, could be seen fluttering in the warm air.
Two popular uprisings have passed into legend. The first in October 1964 and the second in April 1985, terminating Jaafar Nimeiri’s presidency after his descent into paranoid superstition and brutal Islamism. Both gave rise to brief flourishes of democracy that were terminated by military coups.
The flood of people into the capital over the last three decades is a symptom of ongoing crises in the provinces. Khartoum today is a microcosm of the country’s ailments. The one thing the government has consistently invested in is the military industrial complex—not the army as such but a myriad of competing militias, including the unmarked forces now brutalising the protesters. Each arm watches warily over the others.
The first decade of the Inqaz involved a brutal crackdown on all forms of opposition including politicians, student movements and the press. People were arrested, or disappeared into the infamous ghost houses, where many were tortured and killed. The lucky ones were exiled, and over time some returned. The government gradually softened its tone to try and shake off economic sanctions imposed by the US in 1997, after Sudan was designated a state sponsor of terrorism, and to reap the benefits of the oil boom. Political incompetence and the resurgence of Islamist delusion put an end to that, sealing the secession of South Sudan in 2011, which took with it almost 80 per cent of the country’s oil reserves.
There is no easy fix to today’s economic crisis which stems from years of mismanagement. The Arab Spring never took off here. In 2011 Sudan was recovering from 40 years of civil war and preparing for secession of the south. The few demonstrations that happened never reached the scale of those in our neighbours to the north. And while current protests look set to continue, Bashir remains reluctant to step down. Efforts to suspend the ICC’s indictment for war crimes might offer a way out. Arrest would be more likely if he were no longer in power. What is more difficult is to predict what might come next, or who has the vision required to restore the country.
Past decades have witnessed an exodus of the best and the brightest. The majority will not return until there are clear signs of stability and opportunity.
Sudan’s real wealth lies in its diversity, a legacy of its geography and trading history, in routes running north-south and east-west, in interactions between farmers and nomads, the sedentary and the settlers. Since independence power has been skewed towards a tiny fraction of northerners. This imbalance led to the civil war in the south, as well as conflicts in Darfur and South Kordofan. Reversing this trend will not be easy.
On the side of the temple at Naga in Meroë, there’s a carving of the Nubian god Apademak, a figure with the head of a lion and the body of a snake, rising out of a lotus flower. It is a reminder that the region’s history contains a rich complexity that seems to have been forgotten. To move forwards, we could begin by looking back and asking where we came from.
Jamal Mahjoub’s “A Line in the River: Khartoum, City of Memory” is out in paperback from Bloomsbury