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  • The Sudans:Macrohistory and Micropolitics
  • Christopher Day (bio)
The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars: Peace or Truce, revised edition, by Douglas H. Johnson Woodbridge, UK: James Currey, 2011; pp. 256, $29.95 paper.
Dealing with Government in South Sudan: Histories of Chiefship, Community, and State, by Cherry Leonardi Woodbridge, UK: James Currey, 2013; pp. 271, $80.00 cloth; $34.95 paper.
Emerging Orders in the Sudans, edited by Sandra Calkins, Enrico Ille, and Richard Rottenburg Bamenda: Langaa Research and Publishing Common Initiative Group, 2015; pp. 310, $39.95 paper.

Since mid-2011, Sudan and South Sudan have struggled to come to terms with the realities of their political divorce. While relations between the two states have become increasingly more manageable, they each face similar challenges of forging national identities, managing brutal conflicts [End Page 129] within their respective boundaries, and being effective stewards of their economies.

A quick snapshot of some data reveals a grim picture. South Sudan currently ranks 169th out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index, with Sudan not far behind at 167th.1 Both countries rank among the world’s most corrupt; they are featured among Transparency International’s ten lowest scorers that are also “characterized by bloody and entrenched conflict.”2 Sudan and South Sudan are considered “Not Free” and perform dismally in terms of political rights and civil liberties scores.3 And the Fragile States Index places both countries along with Somalia and the Central African Republic in its worst category, “Very High Alert.”4 A look beyond these numbers shows that the promise of South Sudan’s independence has been eclipsed by a new and complex civil war that at the time of this writing is only tentatively solved. Meanwhile, Sudan is experiencing ongoing crises on its peripheries and post–oil boom financial decline as its president faces indictment by the International Criminal Court.

The three books under review here illuminate the macrohistorical drivers of instability in both countries, while also pointing to some of their more compelling micropolitical realities and more recent ground-up perspectives. Douglas H. Johnson’s Root Causes remains among the best scholarly works on the longue durée behind Sudan’s multiple conflicts. In Dealing with Government in South Sudan, Cherry Leonardi provides a detailed history of “traditional authorities” in South Sudan. The edited volume Emerging Orders in the Sudans fills several empirical gaps in the above-mentioned books with multiple ground-up cases of “civic orders”—attempts to transition from wartime to postconflict Sudan and South Sudan. Taken together, these books offer a necessary corrective to oversimplified binary narratives of what is a complex set of political imperatives, social identities, and economic agendas. In what follows, this review article summarizes and critiques each book in turn and concludes with a broader analysis and implications for future teaching and research on the Sudans.

The Longue Durée of Macrohistory

It is an ambitious project to distill Sudan’s complex history into a single conceptual stream. Douglas Johnson largely succeeds at this task in his [End Page 130] excellent book, The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars: Peace or Truce. Building upon the original 2003 version, this revised edition includes a preface that outlines Johnson’s historiographical framework, a final chapter that reflects on the prospects of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended Sudan’s civil war, and an updated chronology and appendices.

In a concise but comprehensive historical arc, Johnson challenges the dominant narrative of Sudan based upon dichotomous notions of identity (that is, North vs. South, Muslim vs. Christian). Instead, he observes that Sudan’s political and economic center-periphery relations, viewed from the perspective of the longue durée, are the generative principles of its civil wars (note the plural). In the precolonial “Sudanic state,” a small knot of riverine elites rose to dominance by exploiting the myriad groups in its hinterlands, primarily through slave raiding and slave trading. Over time, the historical processes of Arabization and Islamization developed into ambiguous markers of membership in a state-building project based on legal exclusion and uneven development. Colonial rule administratively shored up these patterns, which also persisted after independence as ruling elites...


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