Beyond Sudan: Insightful books on African Politics

Omar al-Bashir

Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir

As South Sudan gains its independence, we look at a number of Yale books on African politics, including Sudan: Darfur and the Failure of an African State by Richard Cockett, an absorbing account of Sudan’s descent into civil war and failure over the past fifty years.

Before South Sudan formally gained its independence last week, the situation in Africa’s largest country, Sudan, had progressively deteriorated: the country was in second position on the Failed States Index, a war in Darfur had claimed hundreds of thousands of deaths, and President Bashir had been indicted by the International Criminal Court. Independence is no panacea, and already there is talk of armed conflict over the contested oil-producing region of Abyei.

Sudan: Darfur and the Failure of an African StateFor those looking improve their knowledge of the region, Sudan: Darfur and the Failure of an African State provides much-needed context. In his immensely readable book the Africa editor of the Economist, Richard Cockett gives an absorbing account of Sudan’s descent into failure and what some have called genocide. Drawing on interviews with many of the main players, Cockett explains how and why Sudan has disintegrated, looking in particular at the country’s complex relationship with the wider world. He shows how the United States and Britain were initially complicit in Darfur – but also how a broad coalition of human-rights activists, right-wing Christians, and opponents of slavery succeeded in bringing the issues to prominence in the United States and creating an impetus for change at the highest level.

KenyaThe Sudan’s neighbour Kenya, is also the focus of a Yale book. Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, 1963-2010 by Daniel Branch (published later this year) is an authoritative and insightful account of Kenya’s history from 1963 to the present day, shedding new light on the nation’s struggles and the complicated causes behind them.

On December 12, 1963, people across Kenya joyfully celebrated independence from British colonial rule, anticipating a bright future of prosperity and social justice. As the nation approaches the fiftieth anniversary of its independence, however, the people’s dream remains elusive. During its first five decades Kenya has experienced assassinations, riots, coup attempts, ethnic violence, and political corruption. The ranks of the disaffected, the unemployed, and the poor have multiplied.

In this important book Branch describes how Kenya constructed itself as a state and how ethnicity has proved a powerful force in national politics from the start, as have disorder and violence. He explores such divisive political issues as the needs of the landless poor, international relations with Britain and with the Cold War superpowers, and the direction of economic development. Tracing an escalation of government corruption over time, the author brings his discussion to the present, paying particular attention to the rigged election of 2007, the subsequent compromise government, and Kenya’s prospects as a still-evolving independent state.

Southern AfricaMoving now to Southern Africa, Stephen Chan explores the political landscape of the region in his recently published book Southern Africa: Old Treacheries and New Deceits, examining how it’s poised to change over the next years and what the repercussions are likely to be across the continent. He focuses on three countries in particular: South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Zambia, all of which have remained interconnected since the end of colonial rule and the overthrow of apartheid. One of the key themes in the book is the relationship between South Africa and Zimbabwe, and Chan sheds new light on the shared intellectual capacities and interests of the two countries’ respective presidents, Jacob Zuma and Robert Mugabe. Along the way, the personalities and abilities of key players, such as Morgan Tsvangirai, the prime minister of Zimbabwe, and former South African president Thabo Mbeki, emerge in honest and sometimes surprising detail. In Southern Africa, Chan draws on three decades of experience to provide the definitive inside guide to this complex region and offer insight on how the near future is likely to be a litmus test not just for this trio of countries but for all of Africa.

Islamization from BelowFor a historical account that stretches further back, interested readers should try Islamization from Below: The Making of Muslim Communities in Rural French Sudan, 1880-1960 by Brian J. Peterson. In this groundbreaking historical investigation, Peterson considers for the first time how and why rural people in West Africa “became Muslim” under French colonialism. Peterson rejects conventional interpretations that emphasize the roles of states, jihads, and elites in “converting” people, arguing instead that the expansion of Islam owed its success to the mobility of thousands of rural people who gradually, and usually peacefully, adopted the new religion on their own. Based on extensive fieldwork in villages across southern Mali (formerly French Sudan) and on archival research in West Africa and France, the book draws a detailed new portrait of grassroots, multi-generational processes of Islamization in French Sudan while also deepening our understanding of the impact and unintended consequences of colonialism.

These titles are only a taste of a larger collection of books on Africa from Yale. Click here to see a full list.

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