Khartoum: The World’s Most Selfish City?

Khartoum: The World's Most Selfish City?
Khartoum, the capital of Sudan

AFRICANGLOBE – Khartoum is a low-built, sprawling city. The capital of Sudan, until recently the largest country in Africa, sits on either side of the River Nile under an almost perpetual haze of dust. As a child growing up in Khartoum, the city always struck me as sleepy and dark – power cuts were frequent, and the oppressive heat infused everything with a sticky torpor. Unlike Cairo to the north or Nairobi to the south, Khartoum did not have that frenetic energy or drama. The country’s international reputation for hard-line Islamism and ethnic warfare jarred with the city’s subdued mood.

Even its military coups were lethargic and bloodless. In 1989, when the current government came to power, we sat around TV sets watching a young Omar al-Bashir read a statement declaring that he and his military cohort had overthrown the democratically elected government in a bid to save the country from the regime’s ineptitude. Apparently there were tanks, but the streets were empty. We all went to bed early with the vague knowledge that something dramatic had happened, but could see no sign of it.

Khartoum has no real discernible “midtown” or central business district any more. People work from offices set up in rented ex-family homes, at desks in converted bedrooms, their bathrooms en suite and inappropriately ornate, clearly picked out by some banished housewife who never thought the family would fall on hard times and have to lease out their home. There are few public spaces for people to mingle, but the poor and the rich do mix in open-air street markets to buy their groceries.

Khartoum has an almost benign spirit, but hides a sinister secret. It is a city-state, unrepresentative of the country’s citizens, in which most business, political and social interests are concentrated in the hands of a small ethnic elite that has ensconced itself behind the garrison walls of the city and goes about securing interests, lining its pockets and accruing political capital. In addition to this concentration of interests, Khartoum has simply never really diffused power and resources to the peripheries. Partly because both were scant, so the capital took precedence, but mostly because the elites in power were replicated from greater Khartoum elites and their extended networks, which did not stretch into the vast expanse of the rest of the country.

The Sudanese inheritors of colonial power were a posh bunch – tertiary-educated or army-trained, dressed in suits and sunglasses, hoisting the Sudanese flag above the presidential palace on the bank of the Nile on the day of independence. Even Sudan’s traditional elite, drawn from its religious parties, were Oxbridge-educated and wealthy. The hope was that the combination of these privileged sons would, from elite Khartoum, launch a nation-building exercise. But since independence in 1956, Sudan has been locked into a pattern of military coups and weak civil government, none of which has ever managed to create enough political consensus to establish durable democracy. There is always a sense that governments are on the clock, on borrowed time, until a popular rising or a military coup unseats them. This is reflected in the attitude of incumbent politicians, whose eyes are not on their legacy or the peaceful transfer of power, but on how they can establish themselves as quickly as possible and reap the maximum reward from their tenure. Khartoum was a leech on Sudan’s flesh almost from birth.

Throughout the 1990s and noughties, the city’s lights became brighter and denser, as Khartoum developed from a small centre of old money and traditional elite to a larger, more diffuse conurbation of influx from the provinces of Sudan. Before the secession of the south of the country after a long and bloody civil war, Khartoum seemed like a happily diverse city, but a closer look betrayed hierarchies and divisions. Southerners occupied menial jobs; those from Darfur and the country’s western provinces were slightly higher up; and the country’s main riverine tribes dominated government and academia. Khartoum, over the years, in its sleepy fug, presided over the longest civil war in African history between the north and south of the country, and the death and displacement of millions in Darfur and the Nuba mountains.

Khartoum: The World's Most Selfish City?
Garrison mentality … Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir (centre) and his aides at the opening ceremony of a bridge north of Khartoum

Culturally, Khartoum is monolithically Arab and Muslim, with a watered-down version of a Sudanese urban identity. Instead of Khartoum becoming a melting pot for all the different ethnicities and cultures of the country, the Star Wars-bar version of an African city where all came to drink and mingle, then make their fortunes, it took off their edges and conformed them into blandness. Sudan’s 114 indigenous languages – Nubians in the north, Beja in the east, Fur in the west, and Nuba and Dinka in the south, and hundreds of variations in between – never imprinted themselves on the culture of the capital city, which rather merged all these tribes and languages into a sterile, centralised Sudanese identity that subsumed all and represented none.

The relationship between the global city and its hinterland is one that usually glorifies the former as a dynamo of change, dragging the rest of the country along with it economically, socially and culturally. But in poor and ethnically diverse countries such as Sudan, these influences need to go the other way, to seep through to the margins of the state in order to create a strong national identity and develop the country all at once. In such weak and ethnically fractured states, cities can be parasites, feeding on their states, needing them to stay alive to thrive. The irony is that, as with all parasites, they inevitably end up killing themselves by exhausting their hosts.

It is partly a legacy of colonialism. Cities such as Khartoum were administrative hubs that the British developed in order to serve their practical needs but not necessarily those of the country. Challenging terrains, inaccessible provinces and lack of infrastructure, and more importantly, lack of immediate access to natural wealth, dissuaded colonisers from expanding beyond Port Sudan, Medani and Khartoum. A gargantuan country of nearly a million square miles, with unnatural borders lumping together tribes, ethnicities and languages with a weak and unconnected centre of power, Sudan never really stood a chance of transcending the fissures of its ethnic and tribal diversity.

In a global city such as London or Paris, class, income levels, education, culture and occupation distinguish the centre and the peripheries. These are strong but not national fabric-rending differences. Indeed, in contrast to a city like Khartoum, the megalopolis western city is more diverse than its regions. Board a train outbound from London and the faces get whiter, and even when they don’t, racial diversity is more ghettoised.

Part Two