Monday, 31 December 2012

Dimensions of democracy

So two cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give three. – E.M. Forster, On What I Believe, 1938

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It’s nearly 2013 and I am watching the New York sky darken with snow outside my workroom window. For some reason I’ve remembered that almost exactly 10 years ago, in December 2002, I was stuck in the bare concrete office of a garage somewhere on England’s Salisbury Plain while the mechanics scoured Hampshire for a Fiat wiper motor. There was nothing to read but a two-day-old tabloid. The headlines were about Hans Blix’s latest verification mission to Iraq, in search of weapons of mass destruction.

My journey, like others in that car, ended with a bodge that sort of worked.  As for Blix’s journey, we know where that ended. Was it fated to do so because the USA and Britain wanted to invade Iraq anyway? Pass; but what we probably can say is that the Western invaders of Iraq, whatever their ultimate agenda, felt that they were bringing democracy to Iraq and that whatever they did could not, therefore, be wrong. The democracy agenda has also been embedded in other Western interventions from Malaya to Vietnam, and most recently in Afghanistan. Yet it has also motivated some of the greatest indigenous rebellions against authority, from 1848 to the Arab Spring. People have paid a high price to achieve democracy, and an equally high price for having it imposed upon them. In view of this, perhaps democracy should be asked to state its case more often.

Democracy is generally understood as the election of representatives by the whole community, which may dismiss them. It also implies basic rights of speech and of combination. I deeply believe in the case for democracy. But I also believe that, in a fast-changing world, conventional definitions of democracy will not do. I start with the argument as to whether democracy helps people lift themselves out of poverty, or whether they should do without it until they have done so. The latter view has been widely held on the Left but was also espoused by the founder of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew.

Democracy and development
Like democracy, development has many definitions. There is a basic split between those who envisage industrial growth along Western lines, and those who see development as a process by which people may realize their potential. But one may (or may not) lead to the other.

Is democracy compatible with development? For some, Amartya Sen’s view – crudely stated, that freedom is development – would end the debate. And, as Sen has pointed out, the Lee thesis is fundamentally flawed: We are poor; we need other things more than democracy; therefore we cannot have democracy. Where is the logic in this?

But democracy had mixed blessings initially in Eastern Europe, where the UN once claimed that declining life expectancy in the 1990s had prevented 10 million men from reaching the millennium. Adrian Leftwich, of the University of York, has suggested that democracy is inherently anti-progressive because its existence requires broad agreement between the major forces in society, who will set conditions for that existence. Leftwich has used failure to secure land reform in South Asia as an example. But he could also have used the emergence of oligarchs in Eastern Europe, and the extent to which their consent has been needed to keep democracy afloat. Moreover, as J. K. Galbraith has pointed out, producers, rather than consumers, may set the economic agenda. He also points to arms manufacture in the USA: “This is not a detail,” he wrote in 1971, “it is half the Federal budget.”

It is unsurprising that many in developing countries feel there is no ‘default case’ for democracy. The Chinese leadership clearly does not think so. “I believe that what a country needs to develop is discipline more than democracy,” Lee Kuan Yew told an audience in the Philippines in 1992. Western commentators have sometimes agreed; the economist Karl de Schweinitz argued in 1959 that poor countries must “limit democratic participation in political affairs” to progress economically. These arguments have usually been pragmatic rather than ideological, but Marxism has provided a theoretical basis for this view. So has utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham argued that the greater good of the greatest number was incompatible with the doctrine of the Rights of Man, which he therefore condemned as “nonsense on stilts” (though he was not against the use of the law to grant rights; he simply dismissed the view that they were inherent).

This implies a conflict between civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights. In fact, there is no such conflict, as I will argue later on. But first let us consider the empirical evidence as to whether democracy leads to development or vice-versa. It is actually quite weak either way. As Michael Todaro of NYU and Stephen Smith of George Washington University have pointed out, there are countries that have scored badly on the UNDP’s Human Freedom Index while seeing high per capita incomes or rapid growth, while democracies such as India enjoyed neither. It has been argued that this paradox arises because some non-democracies have been economically liberal, while India (for example) was not. But India has done better of late, while the Asian tigers ran into trouble in the late 1990s. Sen has argued that transparency would have prevented the banking collapse that triggered the meltdown. (Although again, Sen was writing in 1999; democracy was no defence against the subsequent Western banking crisis.)

However, it may be that empirical evidence will not in itself tell us much, simply because all such evidence is rooted in a given set of circumstances. Thus the postwar era saw Western democracies buying manufactured goods from the benevolent despotisms of Asia; had they not done so, would those despotisms have exhibited self-sustaining growth?  Perhaps not; that demands a domestic mass-market and that in turn implies a distribution of wealth. The poor must win this through the political system. (I'll return to that below.)

Moreover, since Lee took power the world has changed. Innovators are less willing than others to live in a stultifying system, and the growth in IT has made innovators even more important. In his 2000 book, From third world to first: The Singapore story 1965-2000 (2000), Lee himself eventually accepted that a more open society was needed for this reason. Creativity also drives the evolution of the social framework. As Sen wrote in Development as freedom (1999), “Our conceptualization of economic needs depends crucially on open public debates and discussions.” John Stuart Mill also took this view. “If any opinion is compelled to silence,” he wrote in On liberty, “that opinion may, for aught… we know, be true.” In his 1856 work L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution, De Tocqueville described how the administration of pre-revolutionary France was paralysed by the sale of offices: “It is obvious that none of these pernicious institutions would have survived long had free discussion of them been permitted,” he wrote

Lee has remained convinced that Singapore required discipline earlier in its development. But, as Mill once argued, the form of government seemingly best suited at a certain stage may be inappropriate if it unfits society to the next step. Stalinism provides evidence of this, and much of the Middle East remained frozen in time until the Arab Spring. “The despotism of Augustus,” said Mill, “prepared the Romans for Tiberius.”

But this is a purely utilitarian defence of democracy. Perhaps that’s enough. Bentham, for example, would have thought so. Is it?

No. Any form of human organization must be underpinned by morality lest it be subverted. E.M. Forster, whose belief in democracy was qualified, commented that “no device has been found by which... private decencies can be transmitted to public affairs. As soon as people have power they go crooked ... because the possession of power lifts them into a region where normal honesty never pays. ...The more highly public life is organized the lower does its morality sink ...whereas primitive tribes were at all events restrained by taboos.”

Democracy, then, has to provide a framework for the mobilisation of social capital. For democracy to do that, we must see it not in terms of the way we relate to the State but to the way in which we relate to each other.  Thus Hobbes’s mechanistic analysis of human motivation led him to conclude that we are bound to submit to the sovereign power; 300 years later, Mill, with his subtler view of free will, sees a more complex relationship. A modern British writer on development, UEA’s Ken Cole, has argued that all analysis of human behaviour reflects an a priori view of its motives. “In the understanding of human activity there are always coherent, alternative explanations, which fundamentally reflect different beliefs in human nature,” he states (Economy-Environment-Development-Knowledge, 1999). This is logical, and implies that democracy will bring few benefits to a cynical or rapacious people. A quick glance at Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index confirms this. Democracies do better, but there are several at the bottom of the heap. So perhaps the right to vote will not in itself produce more in the way of development, or freedom, than benevolent despotism. Democracy has to be something more.

The key arguments so far, then, are as follows:
  • There is no clear correlation between democracy and development.
  • Creativity drives development, and it is less likely to flourish under despotism.
  • Some benevolent despotisms have undergone rapid growth, but often by selling to democracies, rather than generating internal markets.
  • Liberal democracy may not in itself provide a framework for real development or for a functioning state.
The first of these points is self-evident. The second is not, and is important, but is  impossible to examine in a piece this length; where are we to find the evidence – in numbers of patents granted, or in the Renaissance and the Medicis?  (PhD, anyone?)

I’m going to look instead at the second two points. In the next few paragraphs I will look at the way in which economic rights have been secured through free debate and the right to organize; and how this has led to the development of internal markets and sustained growth. This is the second dimension of democracy, beyond the simple right to vote. In the final section, I’ll consider a third dimension: forms of democracy that do mobilise social capital, so that people feel their world belongs to them.

Labour, freedom and growth: A case study
Freedom, said Marx, begins once basic requirements have been attained. So does the consumer economy. You cannot live by making goods no-one can afford, so if most people are poor, then most people remain poor. Change requires an external stimulus; cheap raw materials, perhaps, or a lively foreign market for a basic good of which you do have a surplus. This opportunity must then be used to raise living standards to the point where domestic consumption can replace that external stimulus with endogenous growth. For this to happen, people must produce enough to generate a surplus over those basic requirements.

This is effectively what happened in Britain between 1700 and 1900, breaking the vicious circle between poor nutrition, low output, low income, low consumption and poor nutrition. J.D. Chambers, in his elegant 1972 summary Population, economy and society in pre-industrial England, credits a fortuitous break in cycles of disease, but also says: “One aspect of the Industrial Revolution… is that the labour force was not only very much larger but that it was worked very much harder.”

This needed better nutrition. In a 1990 paper, the future Nobel prizewinner Robert Fogel pointed to “the exceeding[ly] low level of work capacity permitted by the [18th century] food supply… The increase in the amount of calories available for work over the past 200 years… increased the labour-force participation rate by bringing [in] the bottom 20% of the consuming units… [who had had] only enough energy… for a few hours of strolling each day – about the amount needed for a career in begging.” He concluded that improvements in nutrition and health had accounted for perhaps 30% of the growth in per capita income in Europe between 1790 and 1980.

So the vicious circle had been broken. But those who controlled food and wages did not permit this out of altruism, or because they had read Fogel. Chambers cites the way in which 18th-century labour combined to obtain better wages. Or as the filmmaker Michael Moore put it in his 1996 polemic, Downsize this!, “When the early unionists stood up to the companies, it resulted in a higher standard of living for all of us… Thanks to labor unions, we have… wages that allow even the most unskilled worker to purchase many products – which, in turn, gives more people jobs.” This process of collective bargaining could not have happened under the Ancien Régime. In effect, one type of human right secured another. In 19th-century Britain, freedom – albeit imperfect, the beginnings of liberal democracy – became more than its own reward. First, the increasing strength of the workforce increased output; and then their right to organize brought the consumer economy.

Free debate was central to this process. Ashton, in The Industrial Revolution (1948), points to the lively discussions on a range of social issues from serfdom in the Scottish coalfields to suppressing the slave trade. Brian Inglis’s absorbing account of the social reforms of the 19th  century, Poverty and the Industrial Revolution (1971), describes the work of MP Michael Sadler in this debate. In 1832 he fielded a Bill to regulate abuse of labour in factories, but was unable to push it through, having lost his seat in the watershed election of that year. In the meantime, however, the evidence collected by the Bill’s Committee had been published, proving, as the Leicester Mercury put it, that “cruel over-working [of children] has in many places been practised… It is horrible, and an outrage on humanity, and decency…”Although Sadler was gone, the uproar forced the new government to pass its own 1833 Factory Act, which for the first time created an independent inspectorate.  Britain never became a workers’ paradise, but that is not the point; rather, it is that democracy allowed the vicious circle of malnutrition to be broken and real growth to begin.

There are parallels in our own time. From 1994, the International Labour Organization cooperated with Indian unions to end exploitation of child labour in a range of sectors including construction, stainless-steel cookware, tea plantations and the brass industry. A side effect was that in the Lower House of the Indian parliament, the Lok Sabha, questions asked about child labour increased in number from about 10 in 1992 to about 25 in 1994 and 37 in 1995. Another modern example concerns the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). On the face of it, it is useless, as it does not bind the signatory states to the observation of such rights. Rather, they agree to pass laws to make the rights conferred by the Convention justiciable – and they do not always do so. However, plaintiffs have used the ICESCR to establish such legal rights in India, South Africa and Switzerland (the South African case concerned housing; the other two, basic subsistence).

More dimensions of democracy
Liberal democracy, then, has its uses, allowing people to expose abuses and sometimes to move the levers of legislation. It also allows them to fight poverty and, in so doing, broadens consumption, making everyone richer.

But too often, democracy will be dominated by élites. In the 2000 US Presidential elections, candidates spent $343 million on their campaigns, while in India, large corporations provided 80% of major parties’ funding in 1996. In the 1992 Philippines Congress, 178 out of 195 members were allegedly millionaires. Thus people are forced to find their own dimension of democracy.

Sometimes they do. One morning in March 1999, an inscribed slab appeared at the entrance to Kamyapeta, an area of 25 villages in Visakhapatnam, in India’s Eastern Ghats. The slab proclaimed Kamyapeta to be a self-ruled republic. This reflected 50 years’ frustration at the refusal of the Andhra Pradesh regional government to connect the area to the outside world with a bridge, so that residents could move their produce to market. In fact when villagers had approached government officials, they had been driven off by the police. After this act of independence, however, the government started building the bridge. In 2002 the prominent Indian NGO, the Centre for Science and Environment, claimed that as many as 1,500 villages in the poorest areas of India might have declared themselves republics and taken control of natural resources. Also in 2002, UNDP reported that the participatory budget-setting programme in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre had seen the share of households with water services rise from 80% to 98% and those with sanitation from 46% to 85%.

But such processes are not a ‘magic bullet’. They can complement more conventional forms of democracy, but they can’t replace them. As de Tocqueville put it in 1856: “It is unreasonable to suppose that local liberties can be created at will, or maintained for any length of time, when general liberty is extinct.”  In other words, we will always need functioning democratic structures at the national level. 

Moreover, de Tocqueville’s statement is more relevant than ever because both liberal and local democracy are increasingly subordinate to a further dimension – the transnational economy. Between 1980 and 1996 the growth of world trade averaged 6.7% per annum. Since then things have speeded up somewhat. According to the World Trade Organization, total exports of commercial services were worth $1,609,100m in 2002, and $3,846,700m in 2008; after a hiccough following the 2008 crisis, they rose to $4,168,800m in 2011. Merchandise exports rose from $6,492,000m to $18,255,000m over the same period. The WTO states that these two categories grew by 11% and 20% in 2011 alone. This has been accompanied by huge flows of foreign direct investment (FDI). The UN trade organization UNCTAD estimates that FDI flows globally rose from about $13.4m in 1970 to over $54m in 1980 and $207.4m in 1990, to over $1,400,000m in 2000. In recent years there has been some fluctuation (UNCTAD puts FDI flows at a bit over $1,520,000m in 2011). However, the future may see, not contraction in FDI flows, so much as changes in their direction. Could this provoke an extinction of general liberty that would render local process irrelevant?

Globalisation has focused many people’s minds on the governance and increasing power of global institutions. However, a more pressing consequence may be that transnational corporations, as employers, can invest and operate in countries where employees have no rights. The former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, argued that such companies could not easily operate in such environments as their own staff will be harassed; in any case, they would be subject to public opinion in their own markets. This may be only partially true – multinationals are adept at subcontracting, and regulatory mechanisms can be very weak; in any case, 33 ILO member states have still not ratified the 1948 convention on the right to organise.

This may mean that horizontal relationships across national boundaries may become more important that vertical structures within the nation. As the sociologist William Robinson and others have pointed out, individuals’ participation in production may now define their social development, with little reference to their nationality. Indeed some global corporations have their roots in the developing world now, and this has been taken as evidence of a transnational bourgeoisie. The inevitable implication is that people’s experience and interaction should be studied in terms of global class structures. Thus empathy will flow from a middle manager in Surrey to his colleague in Valparaiso while a garment worker in Cambodia will make common cause with another in India, and national mechanisms for decision-making will wither away.

Or will they? Global class-based politics is not a new idea, but as some theorists have realized, managements form transnational links but workforces do not – they are competing for jobs. However, circumstances may force this to change. Trade apart, the global ‘tragedy of the commons’ in resource use means that global governance will have to develop to some extent. This alone means that different forms of identity are bound to emerge, whether they are class-based or not, and through those identities people will develop into actors in the global political arena. Perhaps ironically, it was the anti-globalisation movement that was been one of the first manifestations of this, but social media has brought us more, and looks likely to change the way we think about politics and democracy in ways that we are just beginning to suspect.

Social media enabling a horizontal, global, class-based politics? That is one hell of a new dimension for democracy. Could Lenin’s dreams come true at last, thanks to Facebook? And would they be Lenin’s dreams, or those of an international consumer middle class? But perhaps that’s for another day...

I believe in democracy. But it won’t survive if we persist in understanding it simply as a vertical relationship between ourselves and our government, elected or no. It needs, first, to stand on a moral foundation; and second, to function through horizontal as well as vertical mechanisms.

Which brings me to social capital – the extent of people’s interaction in society, and its impact on governance. But that, too, may have to wait for another day.

Meanwhile, happy new year. And if you’re looking for a Fiat wiper motor on Salisbury Plain, good luck.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

A journey in Sudan

This is an account of a journey I made 25 years ago last month, on November 14 1987. It is from Even the Dead are Coming, first published in 2009 and now available as an eBook. 


WHEN I rose at five, it had been black night; when I left the hotel half an hour later it was light, a very delicate pink from the sun beginning to spread across a pale, luminous blue. It wasn’t cold. It was only mid-November, and the mornings wouldn’t chill you until near Christmas; and then for three or four weeks at most. Still, it was mild, and as I lifted my heavy suitcase down the steps of the small hotel in Abdul Rahman Street, I barely broke into a sweat.

I had no problem hailing a taxi at that hour. People start early in many Third World cities, ready to struggle with overcrowded and irregular buses. The Hillman Arrow that stopped for me dropped me at the main bus station at Souk-el-Shaabi at six-fifteen. It was now quite light, although the buildings and buses were still in shadow. But after another quarter of an hour the sun had risen completely, warming my shoulders through the thin, worn cotton of my shirt. I started to feel better.

I had not been happy earlier. I hadn’t slept much. I knew that there was a tarmac road all the way to the small town near the Ethiopian frontier, making me far luckier than most travellers in Africa. But I was worried about what I would find there; moreover, the sound of the zinc doors of the hotel clanging and scraping had reverberated all night, mingling with the relentless hawking of the Saudi in the room next door. He had either a chest complaint, a revolting habit, or both. My other neighbour was doing something active with a number of steel pails and much fluid, a performance that continued until after three. I suspected he was producing bootleg liquor, prohibition being the law of the land. I don’t think I should have enjoyed drinking with him. He was a sinuous man, rubbery, creepy, hairless, somewhat akin to an eel; I had passed him once or twice in the corridor and felt the tang of evil in his presence, as if he were conjuring up djinns rather than gin or concocting nightmares that, released, would roam the streets of the city, poisoning people’s sleep. After an hour or so I had started to feel uncomfortable, and tossed and turned in bed; I told myself not to be absurd. But then the sounds of shots rang out in Abdel Rahman Street, and continued for half an hour. I was aware of the coup rumours, but felt cheated; surely they might have allowed me a little time to acclimatise? Then I guessed that they were shooting stray dogs, a guess confirmed by a squeal of shock and pain as some unloved animal died in the dust of the pavement, such as it was, outside the hotel. All in all, I closed my eyes for less than an hour.

*** *** ***

SOUK-el-Shaabi bus station lay beyond the busy suburb of Souk Saggana, itself four or five miles from the city centre. Taxi was the only practical way at that time of the morning; I remember that the fare for the ride was S.20, about £2.00, but less than S.40 for the journey by coach that would take me for seven hours down the main artery of the country. And that was itself expensive; I could have done the journey for half the sum although, when I saw some of the buses on the road, I realised that that would have been unwise. There was just one sealed road of any length, and it carried most of the country’s imports. In the north, there was little road; just a railway on which the service was highly irregular. There was just one other strip of sealed road, and that did not go far.

I awaited the bus, surrounded by ragged boys who looked fourteen but, I later realised, were probably four or five years older. They wished to guard my case, see me onto the bus, load my luggage; all of which, I felt, I had best do myself. When at a quarter to seven the bus had not turned up, they became desperate in their search for services they might render me. Exasperated, I gave them cigarettes, which I knew they could trade; raw Cleopatras from Egypt. They fell silent then but stayed close to me, like tick-birds.

Now, the sun was really warm. In two more hours the temperature would pass 100 deg. F in the shade, and there were no clouds in the sky. There would be none until June, seven months hence. I fidgeted. Along with other passengers, I was standing on one of eight or nine pavement-bays near the booking-office; these were where the Western-style coaches stopped to load. But the bus-station was enormous, and already it was crammed with vehicles of every kind. Some, like the blue MAN that would take me, and stood some yards away with no sign of life, were of a type familiar in Europe—albeit a little old. Most of the others were converted pick-up trucks, with rough wooden benches nailed to the back, and covered over with a souk-built framework that reminded me of wrought-iron gates in English suburbia. And then there was the closed, coachbuilt bus on an Austin chassis. Long, high in the back, with multiple rear wheels, it rather resembled the American school buses that were also common here. However, the Austins were immensely powerful, and hunted in packs. I think they must have been powered for the haulage of grain in the desert, then geared up at the differential to allow for their lighter load. Unlike the European coaches, they would cross hundreds of miles of desert in the North, drivers taking their direction from tangled tyre-tracks and occasional, stunted trees.

A few minutes before seven, Souk-el-Shaabi became busier. There were families; middle-aged men in white djellabiyas reaching to the ankles, and sirwals, baggy trousers cut very low in the crotch, beneath. The women, sometimes with tribal scars—horizontal or vertical slashes on their cheeks, looked almost to me as if someone had been at them with cattle-brands; but they wore no chadors. Rather, the city-dwellers wore Fifties-style dresses in bright colours, hidden usually below flowing, transparent toabs—white wraps of finely-spun cotton that reached to the calves, and had hoods that could be lowered onto the shoulders. Their faces were never covered. Older women, and countrywomen, wore similar robes, but of many colours—tie-dyed?—light and thin, but drawn many times around the body. Sometimes, the women seemed very bulky, and moved with excruciating slowness. Later, I realised that the practice of female circumcision sometimes made movement very painful for them.

They made much noise and drank much tea, bought from men who crouched on the ground beside frames of iron that carried charcoal. Always, it seemed, these travellers were laden with possessions. When one goes somewhere, one acquires what cannot be bought at home. So it was here; people have reported passengers staggering aboard the ferry home from Aswan laden with everything from kettles to sofas. Certainly, at Souk-el-Shaabi, they had mattresses, clothes, pots and pans; and I even saw a stereo or two, bound perhaps for some rich merchant’s home in a place where there was power, in more ways than one. Quickly the rooves of the Austins were piled high with booty, from trips to Egypt perhaps? or just to the Libyan Souk across the city.


At first the shouting shook me, piercing the canopy of chatter that arose from the passengers.

“Sennar! Sennar!”

“Rabak! Rabak!"


The name Kosti I knew, given the town in memory of a Greek merchant, who had arrived to trade in goods and chattels in the days of slavery. Richard Dimbleby says that there was a Greek grocer in Khartoum with General Gordon, but I believe they were there before that.

I listened hard for my own destination, but it seemed that we were forgotten. Then, at five to seven, the blue MAN bus decided it was time to go. It yawned; stretched; scratched itself, and ambled over with a whiff of morning diesel. It was time to join the flow down the artery into the belly of the Sudanese beast.

*** *** ***

KHARTOUM’S suburbs were unlovely. The bus passed down Africa Road between lines of concrete blocks of flats, crudely built and often unfinished. It was the custom, as it was elsewhere, to leave steel wands protruding from the top storey, in case one should later wish to build above. Between buildings and potholed tarmac were wide dusty margins of nothing much, dotted here and there with tea-stands; or the odd boy selling cigarettes from behind a blue plywood box, on top of which there was always a jam-jar holding ‘singles’ for those who preferred to buy that way. Often they did; a packet of 10 costs half a day’s wages for most urban Sudanese.

Abuda refugee settlement, February 1989 (pic: M.Robbins)

There were planning laws in Sudan but everyone ignored them, and many a multi-storey block had been thrown up wherever, maybe on land owned by someone who is quite unaware of the building’s existence. To connect water and telephones, such as they were, without the correct warriga (any bit of bureaucratic bumph in Sudan is called a warriga) was illegal, but of course it happened. The city authorities were aware of the problem and it irked them. Nonetheless Khartoum grew and grew, and straggled deep into the Gezira, the cotton-growing belt to its south-east; so that leaving the city could take an hour or more on empty roads.

After Souk-el-Shaabi, this unattractive mess was strewn with petrol-stations. There are hundreds on the outskirts of Khartoum. But there was rarely much petrol. Even taxis were restricted to four gallons a day, and to get this, they queued. The queues outside a petrol-station could certainly be a mile long on a weekday morning and ran into and beside each other, mile after mile of bright yellow taxis, drivers resigned to spending the first two or three hours of their working day (which may begin at five) waiting for their lifeblood.

Souk-trucks, Khartoum (pic: M. Robbins)
The souk-trucks, too, were preparing for the day. In the hinterland, we passed an enormous dust field with maybe 30 such vehicles, parked with their bonnets up so that the riding-boys could polish the engines. They are beautifully-kept, these souk-trucks, and may rumble on for several decades. They are built mostly on the Bedford TJ chassis; their round, postwar-style cabs are usually a bright royal blue and their bodywork has been painstakingly constructed in the souk, great slabs of steel painted matt-black, studded with a thousand rivets. Sometimes steel hoops protect the cargo, which may be loaded to twice the vehicle’s height. The bodies are extremely heavy, and the lorries are said to be net consumers in the economy, so profligate are they with precious diesoline. But they are impressive, polished to perfection, interiors tastefully upholstered in crushed velvet and hung with tassels; doors cut away and replaced with wooden balustrades as armrests; slogans painted, with care and symmetry, in a million designs that include expressions of religious faith, national flags, eyes; — all overshadowing the drabness of the buses, which offered nothing more than posters of Bob Marley and, more frequently, Michael Jackson in their rear windows. (But whenever we played a tape of Michael Jackson to the Sudanese, they couldn’t stand him.)

Khartoum came to an end eventually. We passed a police checkpoint, where the duty officer glanced inside the coach and saw me; he must have asked the driver where the white face was going and, satisfied, did not ask to see my permit to leave the capital. Later, things would be less relaxed.

We entered the Gezira. The original cotton plantations were irrigated around the time of the first world war, by the British; by the time they left the country in 1955, a million acres were under cultivation. It sounds impressive, but the Sudanese later doubled it. It was indeed impressive now. The price of cotton, however, was not. Still, the earth was rich and brown and amazingly fertile; palms spring, as do acacias; and there was a village every few miles.

It was as we passed these that I regained my sense of place. It was a small thing that did it; it usually is. Every village had its school, and they were not far apart. At eight there was morning assembly, and for some minutes I kept seeing long, neat parallel lines of pupils in bright cotton uniforms, robes and pajama suits of bright blue or orange topped, in the case of the girls, by a white hijab, a cotton headscarf. I regressed 20 years and was with them, my mouth thick with bacon and eggs and the cold breath clouding from me as I stood waiting to do calisthenics in the schoolyard; or my stomach playing up from breakfast as we opened our hymn-books in the oak-beamed hall. Here, they stood in dusty yards under a pale blue sky, but I knew I could have been one of them. But this is how a strange country clicks into place. A mass of curious sounds, beating sun and dust and broken pavements, becomes a man stirring tea with a spoon; or a squad of soldiers running, to barked orders, by the side of a road or a man resignedly reading his paper as he queues for petrol, or simply scratching his arse, like I do.

*** *** ***

AFTER nine, we passed through Hasaheisa. On the night of August 4, 1988, Hasaheisa would be the last dry place I would see on earth. On a bright November morning the previous year, it was the best view I had had so far of the Blue Nile, here nearing the end of its journey from Lake Tana in Ethiopia to the Mogren in Khartoum, where it joins the White Nile from Uganda. Long before that junction it is majestic. A mile wide at Hasaheisa, it was there lined with trees, and a shady wood had grown up above the beach in the town; just opposite was the coach-stop with its restaurants where lumps of lean meat hissed on hot stones heated with charcoal. From Rufa’a, on the opposite bank, came a ferry; its ramp slapped down on the sand, and Toyota pick-ups struggled for the beach, hampered by hordes of white-clad men travelling to the market. Glimpsed; then gone, as was a felucca seen like a snapshot, gliding through the trees. We did not stop at Hasaheisa.

I once read a short story that referred to ‘the stupefying plains of Sudan’. Stupefaction sets in after Hasaheisa. After Wad Medani has slipped past to the right and the bus has climbed the Blue Nile bridge outside that town, there is scarcely a feature in the landscape. It takes about an hour for stupefaction to become complete.

The endless baked-earth plain that accounts for most of Eastern Sudan is not what it appears, but in November the dry season had begun, and it was like a sheet of grey marble broken only by a skein of very fine cracks. Moreover it stretched, uninterrupted, as far as the eye could see, so that one had the impression that the earth had been turned inside-out, and you were crossing what had been the inside and was now the skin. Both earth and sky were infinite, leaving the eye to search for some point of reference—and find none.

Except the mirages. These began at about ten, and seemed always to be on the horizon; at first, I thought that they were lines of trees. They were not simple shimmers such as one sees on an English summer’s day, but great expanses of water floating across the landscape. So realistic were they that reflections of real objects, when there were any, could be seen as they passed. All this somehow added to the heat; by now all the curtains on my side of the bus were closed, so that I could only look out through a small crack by my seat-upright. In fact, the sun did not shine too fiercely into my side of the coach, for Ibrahim had thoughtfully booked me fi’il dol—in the shade; you can save a little money by sitting on the other side of the coach, but you will fry.

I didn’t fry, but the heat touched me and I welcomed the iced water brought round by the driver’s mate. There wasn’t much of it on board, however. Or perhaps it became tepid. I found out later that if something—water, Pepsi—is supposed to be served cold, then the Sudanese will only serve it cold; pride will not permit it to be given any other way, even if you are dying of thirst. So I dried out slowly and watched the empty world slip by outside, only the odd discarded tyre or fanbelt by the side of the road betraying the motion of the coach.

“The world is flat,” I wrote to a friend a week or two later. “I know, because I’ve just fallen off the edge of it.” I might have added that I had discovered a secret of the Creation; that God had baked the earth in a kiln. I knew too that he had forgotten to attend to parts of it afterwards, for I had crossed one such place, and discovered His omission.

*** *** *** 

JEBEL is the Arabic word for either a hill or a mountain; to a European, a jebel is a low hill and that was what these were, barely a hundred and fifty feet. There were a number of them, clustered around that part of the road that twisted through Fau.

This was once the site of one of the biggest refugee camps of them all. A camp, Fau V, still existed, but Fau I and II had vanished in the dust, just three years on from the year of hunger in the Horn of Africa which saw the Tigrayans lead 400,000 of their people across the mountains to Sudan. Later, when they could, they led them back. I did not know this then. But I certainly noticed Fau, for the jebels were hauntingly weird; some round, and some jagged like snaggle-teeth of witches; small ravines full of stones ran down their flanks. One of them, two or three miles from the road, was so distinctive in shape that I dubbed it Cathedral Rock, and in months to come it was a landmark on many journeys that I made along this road.

In the shadow of the jebels, man and beast took shelter from the furnace of the day. This was where I saw my first camels; first just two or three, hobbled, one leg tied in an angle at the knee so that it wouldn’t wander far. Then there were more and more, and there were goats too, and stupid brown sheep with their long, silly tails and ears. Always these animals seemed to be in the care of a single boy, who looked about 10 to me but was probably 14; he was armed with nothing more than a stick, and dressed in a simple white djellabiya. He would squat below a solitary, windswept acacia, if he could find one, and would be alone but for the herd, which might be a hundred strong. I have no idea how he controlled them. Probably he did not know himself, and would have been surprised that anyone should remark upon the matter. Sometimes, he would be at a hafir, an artificial lake or pond 50 or 60 feet across, constructed of banked earth on the surface of the plain. They collected water in the rains, and held them a few weeks—no more; already, after three weeks of drought, they were reduced to a few murky puddles in a bowl of churned earth.

Near Fau we stopped for Pepsi. We had been on the road for four hours and I should have liked to relieve myself, but felt shy about doing so when there was no shelter; and in any case the passengers were fanning out from the tea-shack to pray. I watched them prostrate themselves for a moment before I realised that they were actually squatting to urinate. I decided that the sight of a man standing to do so would provoke curiosity, and decided to wait.

Pepsi was less of a problem. I was befriended by a tall Sudanese, dressed not in djellabiya but in slacks and sandals and Western-style shirt, which is what Sudanese office-workers wear during the day. (The shirts always have collars. No Arabic-speaking Sudanese wears a tee-shirt. Only Southerners of African origin do that.) The man fetched me a Pepsi, and we smoked cigarettes together. As always in that country, I was not allowed to pay.

There were many tumbledown shacks lining the road just south of Fau, and we would see more further east, near Gedaref. They are teahouses and restaurants, with a few shops selling cigarettes and groceries; others sell petrol or jazz (diesel) from 44-gallon drums from which the fuel is pumped by hand. Other shacks were brothels. The Sudanese attitude to prostitution is curious; this is a Moslem society in which premarital sex is unimaginable for a woman (although the rules are broken more frequently than Westerners think). Thus a man obtains sex elsewhere, and does so until he is 30, as marriage is expensive and therefore late. So prostitution is not rare, and is a service industry in which Ethiopian refugees play a serious role.

The truck-stop was, in fact, a good place for a brothel. A lorry-driver’s life in Sudan is a lonely one, and never more so than on the long tarmac road which stretches 1,000 kilometres from Khartoum to Port Sudan. The journey can be completed by coach in 19 hours, often with a single driver, who will go hard to make time. The truckers do likewise. There is an incentive; in 1988 a good truck-driver could earn S.250 for a haul from capital to coast and back. That was then about £75.00 at the official exchange rate. In real terms, given the cost of living, it is worth £250-£300. I heard of one man who regularly did three trips back and forth in a week, so that he must have spent about 120 hours at the wheel. He would, if he kept it up, have netted about S.3,000 a month. The average wage for a teacher or a junior civil servant, both of whom might have had a much-prized degree, was about S.400. There was only one way for many of the drivers to survive such a punishing schedule—dope, or bango; a rolled leaf full of the stuff (which was strong) could be had for about S.35. I was told that many of the lorry-drivers were more or less constantly stoned out of their brains.

Even if this were untrue, fatigue and heat together would have wrought havoc on this road. Every mile or two there seemed to be a burnt-out coach, overturned souk-truck or flattened car. Months later, I travelled to the capital with a colleague from the finance department of our office; he told me of his education—he had been trained as a glass technologist in Bulgaria but for some reason was now a wages clerk. Later we amused ourselves by counting off the wrecks at the side of the road, each crushed pick-up or bleached and mangled mechanical skeleton being greeted with ironic cheers. By the time we passed Wad Medani we had reached 17; at that point, we gave up and discussed Bulgarian glass-blowing techniques instead.

The evidence of carnage did not discourage people from travelling at 150kph and more. At night, you were lucky if a lorry had more than one headlight. That would be pointing in the wrong direction, anyway. Tail-lights were often neglected; a problem, as the big Fiat trailer-trucks often rumbled through the night at 35-40kph or less. Any faster, and the one dim headlight would have been inadequate. But the truckers’ most disconcerting habit was seen when they were standing still. In the event of a breakdown, a cairn would be erected some way behind the disabled vehicle, to warn oncoming drivers. The matter resolved, the truck would pull away, the cairn being left where it was—normally under your sump.

*** *** ***

THE JEBELS passed and there was again nothing to either side of us. There wasn’t even much traffic; it was one, and many drivers had chosen to break their journeys. We had ourselves been travelling for six hours. With the noon came an uncomfortable dryness and a caking of dust upon the face, so that the eyelids felt as stiff as card. The passengers were quiet. Earlier, there had been a cheerful group at the back of the bus. One had cried out: “Sudan niish—aragi!” Sudan finished—aragi! The latter was the local firewater, distilled from dates and, like all alcohol, illegal. Perhaps the cry was for my benefit. But now those passengers, too, were dozing. The sky was pale blue and empty, although I believe that once on that journey I did see a tiny white cloud; I can’t be sure. An empty pan beneath a dome. Such emptiness can panic some people; to others it brings peace.

Occasionally, however, the featurelessness was broken. Every half an hour, we would drift past a small corral of rush fencing, often broken or sagging. Within would be a group of perhaps four or five round straw huts, with conical thatch rooves tied at their peak. The walls of the huts, too, were often thin or damaged. These were called tukls, or goateas, depending on the region. Nothing stirred within the compounds; and there was just nothing there, save for an occasional abrique, a yellow moulded plastic jug with a handle and a long spout. This was used to keep water handy for washing, and was found in every house.

Two things puzzled me about these compounds. The first was the absence of movement or objects; the second, the distance of the compounds from any form of life. The mysteries would be solved. No-one stirs in the midday heat unless they really must, for it is dangerous to expose yourself to it (although labourers do, perforce, during the harvest). As to how anyone could live on a slab of baked earth 80 kilometres from the nearest means of making a living, I would find this out during the rains. Yet the strangeness of such a life never ceased to impress me.

The city of Gedaref came towards us at two. It is a place of 300,000 people, but there are few high buildings; only a massive grain-store that can be seen half an hour away. Gedaref is the granary of Sudan.

We entered the city. My memory is of mile after mile of straggling suburbs consisting of compounds of tukls, the perimeter walls becoming steadily more elaborate as we neared the centre. Simple holes for people to pass through were replaced with slabs of corrugated iron set in crude frames of wood, protruding above hedges of mesquite. These gave way to walls of biriish, matting woven from dura stalks. There were still few people to be seen. Work had finished for the day at half-past one or two, and it was time for lunch, followed by sleep until after four. Then the shops would reopen for several hours. For now, the city of Gedaref was ghostly, but one other thing struck me at once. The taxis: almost without exception, they were royal blue Mark Three Consuls and Zephyrs with sweeping, finned rear wings. Why? I never found out.

We paused for Pepsi and passengers in the shadow of the huge television aerial, surrounded by compounds that had not, essentially, changed in appearance since the time of Elizabeth I. My companion and I drank Pepsi together and chatted as best we could with the 10 or 20 words of Arabic and English we had in common. The language difficulty did not bother us. Together we watched the passengers leaving the coach, hauling luggage slowly through the narrow door, the older, fatter women clumsy as before in their movements. My friend explained that the coach would go to Kassala, but would pass the town of Showak en route, in about 30 or 40 minutes. There I would leave it, if the driver remembered to stop.

The word Showak, a colleague was to tell me, meant yearning. But others said that it meant fork, and indeed it was on a bend in the river Atbara. Showak, yearning or a fork.

The road wound out of Gedaref up a shallow slope, but after five minutes the unrelieved flatness of the land returned. It was not so empty, though. Within 10 minutes a village appeared, and then another; large and prosperous, with squat one-storey brick houses, many large compounds, tractors, and the tall square water tanks with their chequerboard pattern that were a common sight all over the region.

And then there was a wood. This puzzled me. It looked large, but in fact spread only a quarter of a mile on either side of the road, a remnant of the forests and savannahs that had characterised the area until the 1960s. In the woods, herdsmen, for some reason older now, had hobbled their camels for the midday heat, and let their flocks graze in the shade. Often these were goats, whose constant nibbling was destroying what was left of the trees. Some of the men looked villainous, and I was later to learn that this stretch of road was not advised at night—although by then I had already made several journeys down it in the hours of darkness. There was a haze within the woods, and a hint of green; for a moment I couldn’t place it, although I noticed the mixture of red and silver tree-barks, both of which gave gum arabic, and the vegetation on the forest floor. I was curious; it was November 14 and we were 1,000 miles north of the equator. Only later did I realise that the khareej, or rainy season, had just ended, and that the trees were not in bud; rather, the leaves had died and were shrivelling, parched, on the branches. Nothing is ever quite what it appears in Sudan.

*** *** ***

I RECOGNISED the town from the cylindrical water-tanks that towered above the United Nations compound like Wellsian tripods. There was nothing else; I could see few buildings apart from the odd shack. By the time I had realised where we were, the bus was three kilometres up the road, passing the bus-station—itself a series of broken-down shacks in the plain.

“Showak!” I gurgled.

“Showak!” yelled my friend.

“Showak!” cried my neighbour, a clerkly figure in razor-crease slacks and shirt, waking suddenly from the deep sleep in which he had been for the previous four hours.

“Showak! Showak!” yelled everybody, snapping their fingers and stamping their feet to attract the attention of the driver, who, they realised, had forgotten to stop for me. Now he did so, with reluctance, a kilometre or so beyond the bus-station. The riding boy helped me to take my suitcase from the locker in the vehicle’s side. I did not tip him—you do not, in Sudan—but thanked him; he grunted and climbed aboard again, and the blue MAN pulled away, and out of my life forever.

I looked around me. There was no traffic whatsoever. Nothing stirred. The landscape was not so flat as it had been before Gedaref, but it was still plain, and for the most part featureless. I could see the bus-station in the distance, and wondered if I could walk to it with my luggage in the sun that beat down on the parched earth. There was no sound. It was peaceful, as it must be for a chicken when it is finally in the oven.

Far away, a white shape detached itself from the bus-station. It came slowly towards me as I watched, standing in the dust beside the empty road. It did not speed up but approached in third gear, the whining of the transmission coming clearly to me through the emptiness. It was a pick-up truck. I wondered if I had arrived, by mistake, in a small Texan town; and whether the driver wore a stetson.

He wore no stetson, but looked thoroughly evil. He was a driver for the Commissioner for Refugees workshop in the town. He was also, it was said, a part-time secret policeman and was rumoured to carry a gun in his glovebox. I never confirmed this, but he was certainly strangely wealthy, with a penchant for European three-piece suits which he wore on cold winter mornings—the only time when they did not boil him to death. But he was always kind to me.

I digress. I knew nothing, then, of this; nothing indeed about anything much. It was three in the afternoon of Saturday, November 14, 1987. It was 110 deg F in the shade. There was no shade. There was nothing much of anything. I could see no town.

“Oh, my God,” I muttered. “Am I spending two years here?”

Even the Dead are Coming is is now also available as an eBook for Kindle ($2.99 US, £1.84 UK), and in all other eBook formats. There's also an extract from the book in
The Nine Horizons, a collection of Mike Robbins' travel pieces, published in April 2014.

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Fetching water, Karkora refugee settlement, December 1987 (pic: M. Robbins)