March 30, 2014 9:35 pm

‘A Poisonous Thorn in Our Hearts’, by James Copnall

A first-hand account offers an even-handed, insightful perspective on the creation of South Sudan and a bleak assessment of its future
‘A Poisonous Thorn in Our Hearts’ cover

A Poisonous Thorn in Our Hearts: Sudan and South Sudan’s Bitter and Incomplete Divorce, by James Copnall, Hurst, RRP£19.99/RRP$30

There is no sadder nor more useful time to write the history of South Sudan’s creation than at its collapse. Just two and a half years since its launch, after decades of conflict with the Khartoum regime to the north, the world’s newest nation is riven by its own civil war.

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Within months of secession from Khartoum, the country that was born, in the words of James Copnall, “swaddled in goodwill”, went back to war with its erstwhile foe and incurred the threat of international sanctions. It saw dissidents assassinated; lost $4bn to corruption; turned off production of the oil that provides nearly all its revenues; appalled the US, its greatest backer; and was overwhelmed by internecine violence. Today close to 1m people have fled fighting following a high-level political fallout between former liberation bush fighters President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, his sacked deputy, reducing the country’s chance of success – perhaps even survival – for good. It is hard to imagine a worse scenario so soon after the ecstasy that I witnessed when southerners won their independence.

Copnall’s book, whose visceral title is drawn from a Sudanese hardliner’s description of his country’s relationship with the South, goes beyond the history of the divorce. Unlike the authors of other tub-thumping works that pick a side, the former BBC correspondent for Khartoum is conscientious in his effort to cover the concerns, prejudices and failings of both north and South. In a largely dispassionate and thematic primer, he assesses life and politics on both sides of the border, always starting with the view from Khartoum, which was his home for three years. These offer the rarer insights.

After all, security services in the Arab Islamist-dominated state loom large and journalism must be practised with caution. He was physically attacked by security officials on three separate occasions covering protests against Sudan’s military Islamist regime. In Christian-led South Sudan, he hid behind a tree as Khartoum’s Antonov aircraft disgorged themselves of four bombs. But he casts himself only as a bit-part player in his tale, sparing the reader the triumphalism of some other journalists turned chroniclers.

At independence he watched northerners who mourned the break-up of Africa’s largest country so profoundly that they wrapped their homes in black material. Today, he notes, Sudan’s “martial shadow” has so overwhelmed society that even school uniforms are made in camouflage print. But although the break-up is bitter, one country has no future without the other; the economic, cultural and security crossovers are too great. In the most poignant example of this, he meets a couple who eventually married across the divide, after 10 years of trying to bring the wife’s grudging northern family on side.

The crises north and south of the border are largely homegrown, though both sides have regularly dodged responsibility in their theat­rical, and deadly, blame games. At present relations between the two are in fact the best they have been in months, following agreements to restart oil production – the deposits are mostly in the South but pumped out via the north – and reopen the border to deliver trading arrangements worth billions of dollars a year.

The most significant problem facing the pair is that separation failed to address the reasons that led to South Sudan’s breakaway – and that continue to hamper nations. They come down to a failure to brook diversity.

Khartoum ruled its margins using a combination of crackdown, coercion and corruption fed from the centre. As a result, it faced rebellion not only in South Sudan but also in Darfur, South Kordofan, Blue Nile and, it seems, soon the east and parts of its own capital. South Sudan was merely the one that got away.

In independence, however, South Sudan has so far failed to begin to integrate its own margins, replicating the intransigence of its pre-independence aggressor and its antidemocratic, authoritarian tendencies, kindling for today’s inferno.

 

If Copnall offers little in the way of measures that will put all this right, he is nevertheless clear on what must happen. “South Sudan has to stop its march in Sudan’s dirty footsteps, and Juba should spread wealth and power as it has promised to do.”

He lays heavy clues that this is unlikely to happen, however. He points to a historic strategic commitment to delaying tactics – termed “tajility” by the British colonialists who ruled Sudan with the Egyptians until 1956, after the Arabic word for “forestall” – and notes the possibility of a return to cross-border war. “Peace in both countries seems a long way off,” he concludes.

The reviewer is the FT’s east Africa correspondent

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