Cross-posted on African Arguments.

Review of: Harry Verhoeven, Water, Power and Civilization in Sudan: The Political Economy of Military-Islamist Statebuilding, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2015.

It is every author’s nightmare to begin a book with a compelling anecdote that, by the time of publication, tells a different story to that intended at the time of writing.  This is Harry Verhoeven’s misfortune.

He begins his book on Sudan’s Islamist hydocracy with a compelling vignette: President Omar al Bashir opening the Merowe Dam on the eve of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court demanding an arrest warrant for him. Verhoeven zeroes in on the figure of Osama Abdalla, head of the Dams Implementation Unit (DIU).

The Merowe Dam alone cost at least $3.5bn, fully 40% of the national investment budget in the early 2000s. That fact alone is striking enough. Verhoeven makes grander claims: that Osama was heading up a hydrological state-building project, foundational to the ruling Islamists’ ideological ambition.

He approvingly quotes a government minister, ‘Usama Abdallah is the only man who does what he wants in this country. He controls more money and anyone else and commands immense power from the shadows. He is the real face of Al-Ingaz [the Salvation regime].’ (p. 3)

Verhoeven tells the story with panache and confidence. But, between the time of completing the book and its publication, Osama Abdalla was dismissed and his unit unceremoniously disbanded. Its offices were closed and its website was taken down. Sudan is a country with few secrets and the word is that the reason was overreach in dispensing political funds.

This suggests that the common wisdom on the street was correct: the main function of the DIU was to launder political funds for the oligarchy—securocrats, soldiers and party business managers—and helping the National Congress Party (NCP) finance its enormously expensive electoral campaign in 2010. When the DIU had fulfilled its mission, and its corruption became politically as well as economically inefficient, Bashir shut it down.

Being caught out by events is an occupational hazard of political analysis. Only by shying away from writing anything of immediate interest, can the writer be safe. Verhoeven is to be commended for taking this risk. And indeed his book contains much fascinating detail that fills in important gaps in the literature on contemporary Sudanese politics and governance.

Given that the Nile waters and the Gezira Scheme were the focus of a vast amount of Sudanese sociology over the decades, it is remarkable how this topic has been neglected over the last twenty years—testament perhaps to the way in which western academics were unwelcome in Khartoum after 1989, and instead followed the humanitarian agencies to the country’s peripheries, and studied the country from that perspective, inverting the centre-periphery disparity in English language scholarship.Gezira scheme

The term ‘hydrocracy’ was popularized by François Molle, as a synonym for hydraulic bureaucracy, and more recently and expansively by Naho Mirumachi, to refer to those responsible for water governance. Mirumachi observes that hydrocrats in different countries typically have more in common with one another than with the ordinary water users in their own countries—a sociological fact that helps explain why governments that are otherwise locked in enmity can often cooperate on managing transboundary rivers (India and Pakistan being a signal example).

Verhoeven doesn’t use the term ‘hydrocracy’ nor draw on this literature, which is a shame because one unanswered question in his account is the relationship between Sudan’s long-established hydrocrats and its ruling securocrats and Islamists.

One of his many useful vignettes is noting the estrangement between the DIU staff—selected for loyalty rather than competence—and Sudan’s established corps of water engineers and managers (pp. 143-6). The former were the servants of a vast exercise in recycling domestic and foreign investment into the political budget, the latter are the hydrocratic mandarins. But Verhoeven does not detail this divergence further, nor explore its implications.

Since the construction of the Sennar and Roseires dams and the Gezira Scheme a century ago, control over the waters of the Blue Nile has lain at the centre of Sudan’s governance. Flying over Gezira is like flying over the Netherlands: it is a totally manmade landscape, relentlessly geometric from horizon to horizon, testament to the accomplishments of an astonishing hydrocracy.

The scheme supports more than two million people—one million tenants and their family members, and an equivalent number of seasonal or migrant labourers. There is an extensive literature on the Gezira Scheme and how it has persisted despite recurrently failing to pay its way.

In Tony Barnett’s words it is an ‘illusion of development’ and a reality of consolidating governance. I hesitate to use the political scientists’ favoured term ‘state formation’ because that implies a one-way street, and the Sudanese trajectory is not uni-directional. But, pace Verhoeven, if state-building is to be found in Sudan, it is here.

The Gezira is an exercise not only in controlling the landscape but ‘disciplining development’. One of the conclusions of this scholarship is that the Gezira Scheme is founded on a structural inequality between the tenants and the migrant labourers—tenants are full citizens, and the labourers, many of whom are ‘migrant’ only in the tenuous sense that their origins are non-Sudanese, but who nonetheless can be deprived of full residence rights and paid lower wages.

Another conclusion is that the Scheme remains important because it long maintained the best public education in the country. If we are looking for state-formation in Sudan, the sociology of the Gezira hydrocracy would be a good place to start. This provokes the question: why would the Inqaz regime bypass this resource if it were truly intent on statebuilding?

Verhoeven cites Abdel Rahim Hamdi, the most lucid and candid of the Islamist financial engineers, at some length. This is valuable in itself and the passages are well chosen, including a seminal 2005 paper in which Hamdi focuses on the electoral logic of concentrating investment within what he called the ‘northern axis’ defined by Dongola, Sennar and el Obeid—the area popularly dubbed the ‘Hamdi Triangle.’

This is a remarkably close echo of the colonial and early post-colonial logic of unequal development in the Gezira, analyzed by Mark Duffield in his early fieldwork, and further explored by Tony Barnett and Abbas Abdelkarim.

Hamdi claimed that the dams would pay for themselves (he would, of course), but the actual statements quoted by Verhoeven point to another rationale: financing the NCP’s political machine during the CPA interim period and securing a viable region to which the Islamists could retreat if they were to lose South Sudan and Darfur (pp. 136-7).

Verhoeven rightly questions the economic justification of the dams and the NCP’s claims to economic competence. He lists some of the companies that profited from contracting, giving a glimpse into how the army and national intelligence have become dominant commercial actors in the country (p. 211).

Yet Verhoven’s central thesis is to take at face value the NCP’s claims to be pursuing a ‘civilization project’ and a ‘serious state-building agenda’. He writes that ‘the Al-Ingaz regime, due to historically established patterns of thinking about state building and potent contemporary political and financial opportunities, has launched one of the most radical political-economic offensives in the Nile Basin’s history.’ (p. 116)

He disputes the ‘dominant view’ that after the removal of Hassan al Turabi in 1999, ‘[t]he Salvation Revolution was quietly buried as pragmatic neo-patrimonial management took over. This book disagrees with that conclusion: one of the core arguments here is that one of military-Islamist Sudan’s boldest attempts at state building came after the end of Hassan Al-Turabi’s supremacy and that the implications of the devastating rupture inside Al-Ingaz have thus been misinterpreted.’ (p. 125)

But it’s no surprise that the massive spending on infrastructure began after 1999, simply because for the first time the government had the financial means. It should also come as no surprise that Bashir and others have continued to trumpet the same Islamist slogans, proudly showing off the dams as evidence for the regime’s triumphs. There is still an Islamist constituency to keep onside. But to conclude that ‘Mashru Al-Hadhari [the civilization project] is very much alive’ (p. 149) is to mistake rhetoric and manoevre for a genuine state project.

The view on the street, endorsed by the members of the political elite whom Verhoeven cites, is that the central purpose of the DIU was larceny and political finance, and that building an Islamic state was just hot air. Indeed, Verhoeven’s own verdict is that the hydro-transformational project has ended in a ‘mixture of incompetence, myopia and extraversion’ (p. 248).

So why does Verhoeven insist that there really is an Islamist state building project in Sudan? It’s a debating point not a substantiated argument.

Egypt has the most hegemonic hydrocracy in the region (if not the world), while Ethiopia’s developmental project is progressing at speed, generating a new cadre of hydrocrats where none existed before. For both countries the Nile is a national security issue.

The Aswan High Dam and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam are two of the largest hydro projects in the world, each of them capable of storing more than the river’s annual flow, and—until the March 2015 declaration of principles signed by Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan—without any formal coordination mechanism. The long-standing strategic rivalry between Egypt and Ethiopia, much of it over the Nile, has been the context in which Sudan has developed its dam projects.

Verhoeven has some interesting details on how Sudan was able to restore normal relations with Egypt after 1999 and in the process, generate sufficient political space to construct the Merowe Dam and plan others (p. 157). But he doesn’t address the contest between Cairo and Addis Ababa for Sudanese political alignment that made this possible.

He doesn’t mention the fact that the leases for the additional irrigated land in Sudan, to be opened up when the GERD allows for year-round discharge from the Roseires Dam, had already been sold by early last year—giving Khartoum an immediate financial interest in the project. Verhoeven has a few quotes from senior Ethiopian figures but they are tidbits rather than a cogent argument.

I was asked by Cambridge University Press to provide a promotional comment for the back cover of this book. I eagerly started reading the manuscript but became quickly disappointed. I wrote back to the editors, saying that had I been asked to review a draft manuscript, I would have recommended publication but only after a thorough revision to bring it up to standard.

Verhoeven states his central tenet repeatedly and strongly, that dam-building is an ideological state-building project, but nowhere does he demonstrate it. The real story is more complicated and much more interesting. Verhoeven has enough material to write an important account of Sudan’s water politics, and with a little more time and rigour, he may yet do so.

Alex de Waal is director of the World Peace Foundation.



Barnett, Tony, 1977. The Gezira Scheme: An Illusion of Development. London: Routledge.

Barnett, Tony and Abbas Abdelkarim, 1991. The Gezira Scheme and Agricultural Transition, London: Routledge.

Bernal, Victoria, 1997. ‘Colonial Moral Economy and the Discipline of Development: The Gezira Scheme and “Modern” Sudan,’ Cultural Anthropology 12.4, pp. 447-479.

Duffield, Mark, 1981. Maiurno: Capitalism and Rural Life in Sudan. London: Ithaca Press.

FDRE (Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia), 2002. ‘Foreign Affairs and National Security Policy and Strategy,’ Addis Ababa, Ministry of Information, November.

Miromachi, Naho, 2015. Transboundary Water Politics in the Developing World, London: Earthscan.

Molle, François, Peter Mollinger and Phillipus Wester, 2009. ‘Hydraulic Bureaucracies and the Hydraulic Mission: Flows of Water, Flows of Power.’ Water Alternatives, 2.3, 328-349.

Salman Salman, 2010. ‘The World Bank and the Gezira Scheme in Sudan: Political Economy of Irrigation Reforms,’ Washington DC: The World Bank, Report 69873, June.

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One Response to Sudan’s Hydrocrats – Book Review

  1. Khalid AlMubarak says:

    There is another point of view.I am surprised to read statements by the most distinguished Sudan watcher Alex de Waal that are based on hearsay and gossip .To say that Osama Abdalla was dismissed because”of overreach in dispensing political funds”without providing any evidence is a departure from the method that elevated Dr De Waal’s contributions above less objective Sudan critics.The same goes for strange statements like alleging that the main aim of DIU was” to launder political funds”.
    The Merowe Dam was first suggested by the colonial administration(together with other projects).It was endorsed by Sadiq AlMahdi’s 1986 government.President Bashir’s government should be praised for making it a reality.Dams were built in the UK and US as part of industrial progress .Why isn’t the same true of the Sudan?
    A comment on the Civilisation Project.I prefer to put it the way I have written in both Arabic and English articles:It is unfair and clearly biased to say that the coup of 30 June 1989 has continued until today.That coup was based on Turabi’s delusional International Project that saw the Sudan as leader of all Arabs and Muslims against the West.The split that removed Turabi put paid to that project.The moderates continued along a modest Sudanese project (without which the Western -brokered Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 05 would not have happened.)
    I liked the comment on the Gezira scheme. It is the melting pot at the heart of the Sudan.The labourers mentioned have gradually become Sudanese and intermarried.
    The observation about Western academics Following humanitarian agencies is true.The Sudan has lost by not being more open;but who can blame bureaucrats who saw evidence of bias, lying and broken promises even from heads of government,if they became excessively suspicious of all Khawajat?
    Hamdi’s triangle is given too much weight.It was not an official Islamist document.Hamdi ,whom I know fairly well, is a neo-liberal economist and loyal supporter of IMF and world Bank policies.His triangle was never adopted as policy;but has been quoted by Andrew Natsios and others.
    Lastly.The Islamists in the Sudan did not descend from the moon.They are Sudanese nationals and patriots.Among them are some of our finest and dedicated citizens.There are cases of corruption and nepotism and errors of inexperience(as is the case in many Western countries and parties).Their real project is building roads,bridges,dams railways schools and universities.This is the raw material of modernity.It unites them with other patriots.They should also be judged in comparison to the hapless lobby-controlled Sudan Revolutionary Front .The West is actually undermining moderation in the Sudan by suffocating the government and pushing young men and women towards the arms of ISIS.They quite forcefully ask:what has President Bashir’s moderation and Statesmanship vis a vis the West earned us?

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