_Back in his native Sudan for the first time in years, the author observes the capital’s newfound oil wealth and argues that focusing narrowly on Darfur while ignoring the secessionist South could spell big trouble for all of Sudan._
At the old Sudan Railways crossing, which once defined the outer edge of the city of Khartoum, a new set of lights had slowed traffic to a crawl. A little girl weaved between rows of idling vehicles, pushing her sister in a wheelchair. They were smiling and laughing, their faces bright, as if racing between the cars were some kind of game. They stopped beside each window to hold out their hands, staring at the occupants un-self-consciously, as if they themselves could not be seen. The eldest was about twelve. The girl in the chair was a couple years younger, thin but otherwise apparently healthy, save for the fact she had no legs.
Photo by Sidelife via Flickr.
The layout of these roads was drawn up by British administrators a century ago, when cars were few and far between. Today, it is one of several bottlenecks that clog the city. As we waited, a procession of young men slipped between the aisles holding up irons, lighters shaped like giant yellow matches, mirrors, plastic washstands adorned with Mercedes Benz emblems, padded mountain jackets, wall clocks, and fluffy pink acrylic dogs.
Like the taxi I was sitting in, these items were part of the flotsam flowing into Khartoum on the tide of new wealth that has lifted the economy in the ten years since Sudan joined the roster of the world’s petroleum exporting countries. These cheap accessories marked the lightweight end of a list of items that includes roads, railways, dams, power plants, refineries, and, of course, weapons. This new Sudan was far richer than it ever was before, certainly much more so than the sleepy town I recalled from my childhood. Its new wealth was one of the first things I noticed when I decided, after a long absence, to return to document the current state of the country.
I watched the two girls move off to rest under a tree before starting their routine again. They looked as if they came from the south of the country. Very possibly they were refugees from the civil war in South Sudan, which ended four short years ago. It was a war that largely played itself out on the civilians who lived there. The government had been so poorly equipped that they’d resorted to rolling 100 kg bombs straight off the loading ramps of Antonov planes, which gave them an absolute minimum amount of control over what targets they hit. Some two million people are estimated to have died. All told, the war between North and South lasted almost forty-odd years.
The peace agreement signed in 2005 brought an end to the fighting. The agreement, which may yet prove to be only another respite, marked the beginning of a period of trust-building under a joint Government of National Unity. In 2011, a referendum will decide whether the South will break away to become an independent state. Secession might not seem such a bad idea. But it would in all likelihood not be the end of the story. The prospect of returning to war looms large. Sudan’s problems do not begin and end with the South. Darfur and other conflicts are all part and parcel of the same general malaise that is eating away at the country.
But it is a mistake to miss the forest for the trees. Since it began six years ago, the conflict in Darfur has managed to elicit a remarkable and unprecedented response in the West, particularly among many people who had never heard of Sudan before. The Save Darfur Coalition, along with a plethora of charities, organizations, and individual activists raised awareness of the issue to a worldwide level, but in doing so managed to disconnect the conflict in Darfur from the national context.
Sudan’s problems do not begin and end with the South. Darfur and other conflicts are all part and parcel of the same general malaise that is eating away at the country.
Coming so soon after September 11, it lent itself to notions of the eternal struggle between good and evil; the terrors of a predatory, intolerant Islam versus the benevolent image of an enlightened West coming to the rescue in the role of savior. But the West has a long tradition of intervening in Africa as if the continent had no history, or as if its history was irrelevant. By uncoupling the dramatic images from the complex underlying strata, the issues are conveniently depoliticized, and Africa appears helpless and in need of urgent intervention. The overall impression is of a continent stumbling from one inexplicable catastrophe to another, with nothing in between, as if history was made of episodes that are entirely divorced from one another. This is not to say that Darfur didn’t need saving; it did and is still in serious need of assistance. But the manner in which the campaign was propagated sent the wrong signals, and one could argue that much of what it produced was counterproductive. Seen from the other side, the West appeared hypocritical—declaring its moral outrage and using the issue to once more hold itself up as a paragon of virtue. Theories that this was all a plot to take over the country’s natural resources abounded. Even those who opposed al-Bashir and his supporters found themselves outflanked by the clumsy denunciations in the western press, which served only to polarize opinion.
The long-term impact of this conflict will take decades to assess. Washington’s newly appointed Special Envoy for Sudan, Scott Gration, recently provoked strong criticism in the U.S. for concluding after his fact finding mission that a “coordinated” genocide was no longer ocurring. The issue now is how to restore security and maintain stability. But the fate of Darfur cannot be separated from what is happening in the rest of the country. Those two girls are a stark reminder that conflicts have more than one effect.
Over the last two decades, the capital has swelled to an estimated eight million inhabitants—roughly the size of New York City. These are internally displaced people who have made their way to Khartoum from all over the country, from Kordofan, from the provinces of the South. They came on foot, on trains, on the backs of trucks fleeing drought, famine, and war, abandoning rural towns and villages with hopes of finding new lives in the capital. Sudan is a rural country by nature, with a smattering of towns and villages spread out over nearly a million square miles. Over the years, the gap between the country’s city dwelling elite and the marginalized provinces had been multiplied by physical distance. This is no longer the case. The migrant presence means that the uneven balance of power and wealth in the country is now reflected in the inhabitants of Khartoum itself. To ignore the plight of the periphery nowadays is to ignore the fate of the city itself. To the taxi driver hunched over the wheel, however, the new arrivals, whichever part of the country they come from, are an unwanted problem.
“They have no business here,” he said angrily. “The sooner they all go back to where they came from the better.”
“What if they don’t want to go back?” I asked.
The assumption has always been that the migrants who inhabit the expanse of shantytowns that ring the city will one day return to the places from which they came. But this looks increasingly unlikely. As the city continues to grow, the rural areas become more and more depleted. Many of the younger migrants have never known the homelands their parents fled. They would have to learn a new way of life. They are city people now, reaping a meager income in the market, selling clothes on the sidewalks downtown, or trawling the lines of cars hawking mirrors and ironing boards. Why should they want to move back to villages forgotten by their government, villages without proper roads, electricity, or running water?
The migrant presence means that the uneven balance of power and wealth in the country is now reflected in the inhabitants of Khartoum itself.
But the driver was adamant: “We have nothing to do with them and they have nothing to do with us.”
In light of this, the visible signs of the current economic boom in the city seem almost surreal at times. The construction of high towers of glass and steel, and a number of luxury hotels including the white helmet structure of the Al Fatih Hotel built by Libyan president Qaddafi—all of these seem out of place, incongruous in this landscape, which is flat and open. Reaching for the sky just seems to be asking for trouble.
From the terrace of the flat where I stayed, I could look down over the river at a wonderful view that is not going to last. The land has been sold to a Qatari company which plans to turn the 90,000 square meters into a complex of luxury apartments, villas, offices, and a five-star hotel. To do this, they demolished the local school and paid a reputed sixty-five million dollars, thirty five of which went towards building a brand new bridge connecting this part of Khartoum North to downtown Khartoum. My grandmother would be astonished at these developments if she were still alive to see them. Her house, a stone’s throw away, is an old mud-walled structure. The unpaved streets are often flooded with sewage water, and goats wander around chewing discarded plastic.
But underneath the surface was the city I remembered. Fragments of lost memory came back to me, as if I had simply left them on a certain corner and found them still there. Streets and squares, cinemas and shop signs, my old school, all worse for the wear but somehow intact. I found people who remembered me, some very dear, and began to experience a strange sense of guilt, having been a negligent and ungrateful son all these years. I had grown to depend on my imagination, reconstructing the city in my absence, inventing streets and corners, places, people and stories that did not exist. But here it was: I felt a need to tell the literal truth—something which does not come naturally to a novelist. But outside the novel, the ending then is only a parenthesis, a pause. What happens remains to be seen.
Sudan sits poised on the cusp of what could be a truly remarkable era of change. There are signs that Washington is taking a different line than the previous administration. Aside from the comments by Gration, there is the brand new American embassy in Soba, which bears testament to the fact that the United States is looking for a way to increase its influence in the area, something Khartoum is keen on. Sudan is now Africa’s third largest producer of crude oil, and nobody wants to be left out.
Awkward moments, such as the recent highly publicized arrest of a female journalist in Khartoum for wearing trousers, demonstrate the regime’s confusion.
But there are pressing issues with which to deal—lasting peace in the South being the primary one. A general election originally scheduled for July 2009 has now been postponed to February of next year. It will be an important step in trying to normalize the political situation in the country. But the signs indicate that the government will not change its head-in-the-sand strategy, which has proved disastrous in Darfur, as well as in the South. The ICC-issued arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir prompted the expulsion of NGOs who were keeping the 2.5 million people alive in the refugee camps of Darfur.
And if things go the wrong way, the conflict could reach the capital itself. In May 2008, a column of around two hundred vehicles of the Justice and Equality Movement in Darfur reached the outskirts of the city. Many of the rebels were young men, boys who were reported to have been taking amphetamines to keep themselves awake for the six days it took to cross the desert. The fighting lasted two days and several hundred people died. It was an audacious attack, but it proved that Khartoum is not invulnerable.
The transition from a hard-line Islamist regime to a new, economy driven democracy is a difficult one, and if Sudan is going to make it, it will need all the help and guidance it can get. It could become a great success story, not just in itself, but for the continent as a whole. But awkward moments, such as the recent highly publicized arrest of a female journalist in Khartoum for wearing trousers, demonstrate the regime’s confusion as well as the reluctance on the part of the new urban professionals to be dragged along by ideas that no longer make any sense.
The view of the rather gloomy taxi driver remains with me, despite the signs that the economy is capable of transforming the country. To him, as to many others, the idea of a peaceful and prosperous resolution to the current turmoil is too much to hope for. “When they go,” he said as we finally began to move past the lights, “It’s going to be bloody.”
**Jamal Mahjoub**’s most recent novels are The Drift Latitudes and _Nubian Indigo_. His work has been widely translated, and his essays have appeared in a number of journals and The Best American Essays 2008 (Ed. Adam Gopnik). He currently lives in Barcelona.