Sudan is one of the most retrograde countries in the world. Civil war has lasted since 1959 and cost 2 million lives. The president, General Omar al-Bashir, is the usual kind of Third World thug. He has introduced sharia law, fanaticizing the Muslims of the northern part of Sudan against the Christians and animists of the southern part. Complicating matters, there are some 500 tribes in what has long been an ethnologist’s paradise. You need to be pretty expert to have a clear idea of the Dinka and the Nuer and the Fur and the Messariya and the rest, as well as their geographic locations.
In old days, the British ran Sudan with 200 civil servants. There was little or no military presence. One civil servant, Humphrey Bowman, left a wonderful account of cleaning sewage carts and polishing buckets, of all unlikely things. Colonel Hugh Boustead, another dedicated official, obliged tribal chiefs to educate their sons by telling them they would be donkeys otherwise. The great explorer Wilfred Thesiger joined the Sudan Political Service in 1935, and he was one of only two Englishmen travelling by camel in a district of more than 50,000 square miles with a varied population of 180,000. He would describe how he sat under a palm tree in some oasis dispensing justice with never an objection from those in his open-air court. In the light of the past, nobody can possibly say that the Sudanese are naturally and irremediably violent. Yet not so long ago, an English woman volunteering to teach was in danger of being killed by large mobs just because she suggested that her class might give a teddy bear the name Muhammad. That is the pitiful result of decades of bad governance.
Early in his presidency, George W. Bush spoke about how everyone everywhere recognizes freedom and independence and wants this for themselves. The southern Sudanese are proving the truth of this proposition. As a result of a compromise in 2005, the South is voting on whether to secede or not. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are lines of smiling people whose fingers are stained to show they have voted. A politician from the South put it clearly on television: Either the country stays united and war goes on forever, or it divides and there is peace. Bashir has said he will allow the South to go its way if it so decides, but nobody can be sure he will for once honor his word. One disputed province has large oil reserves and fighting may revive to claim the royalties. Otherwise Sudan could become the kind of country that Bowman, Boustead, Thesiger, and the 200 British officials hoped that it would be.