Law's Fragile State: Colonial, Authoritarian, and Humanitarian Legacies in Sudan. By Mark Fathi Massoud. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013. 277 pp. $79.00 cloth.

Published date01 December 2014
Date01 December 2014
Law’s Fragile State: Colonial, Authoritarian, and Humanitarian
Legacies in Sudan. By Mark Fathi Massoud. Cambridge:
Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013. 277 pp. $79.00 cloth.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Adam Sachs, Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill
By any account, Sudan would seem to be uniquely inhospitable to
law. As an authoritarian state that was, until recently, the site of one
of Africa’s most brutal and longest lasting civil wars, it would be easy
to assume that law and legal institutions play little role in Sudanese
life. Few other countries have so consistently been labeled a “failed
state,” nor been the subject of such withering international sanc-
tions. What hope, then, does the rule of law have?
Quite a bit, it turns out. This is the argument presented in Mark
Massoud’s fascinating book, Law’s Fragile State: Colonial, Authoritar-
ian, and Humanitarian Legacies in Sudan. Surveying the last one
hundred and fourteen years of Sudanese history,Massoud finds that
law has played a decisive role in bringing stability and public order
to a notoriously fragile country. In practice, this has usually meant
the perpetuation of authoritarian rule, but the pervasiveness of law
has created openings for opposition movements and civil society
groups as well. By exploring how colonial, authoritarian, and
humanitarian actors have all deployed the law for their own ends,
Massoud aims to show both the potential and the limits of law as an
instrument of political power, even in the most unstable of states.
The first half of the book sets out Massoud’s theory of “legal
politics” and presents some of its most successful applications. Legal
politics, according to Massoud, is the strategic use of legal texts,
practices, and arrangements to achieve political or economic goals
(p. 24). The framework here draws heavily on the so-called “rule by
law” literature, which focuses on how authoritarian regimes use
their judiciaries to overcome some of the pathologies of nondemo-
cratic rule (e.g., Ginsburg and Moustafa 2008). In colonial Sudan,
for instance, the British government used its vast network of
secular, religious, and customary courts to ensnare private griev-
ances in public institutions, where litigants could be monitored for
signs of nationalist or anticolonial sentiment (Chapter 2). Likewise,
during the first chaotic years following independence in 1956, a
succession of weak governments relied on the judiciary to imple-
ment policy and preserve social order (Chapter 3). Massoud is
especially convincing in his discussion of legal politics under the
regime of Umar al-Bashir (Chapter 4). Following the 1989 coup
that brought Bashir to power, his government launched a nation-
wide campaign to “shorten the judicial shadow” (p. 143), a policy
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