Review: James Copnall’s A Poisonous Thorn in Our Hearts

James Copnall was the BBC’s Sudan correspondent between 2009-2012, and reported on the events leading up to South Sudan’s independence, as well as the subsequent clashes between Sudan and South Sudan. His new book, which offers a compassionate, yet understated account of the two Sudans’ “common past, interwoven present and mutually dependent future” could not have come at a more critical time – in December 2013, civil war broke out in South Sudan, triggered by historic divisions within the ruling Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and its army (the SPLA), displacing more than a million people and resulting in the deaths of thousands.

Choosing the independence of South Sudan as his point of departure, Mr Copnall tells a compelling human story of a complex and diverse region, rejecting the easy categorisation of the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan as an ethnic war between Muslim ‘Arabs’ and ‘Africans’ who are Christian or follow traditional religions. Instead, through brief profiles of individuals – a businessman from Khartoum with a penchant for djembé drums, a Darfuri tea lady, a Murle pop-star in Jonglei, a Nuer cowherder in Unity State, he paints a portrait of two states with a range of ethnic groups (most of whom have faced a history of political and economic exclusion), confronting common challenges of weak governance, highly militarised state structures and pervasive elite corruption. These problems are exacerbated by the mobilisation of historic ethnic tensions by the elite for political gain.

Mr. Copnall’s deft exploration of identities, politics and economies suggests that neither country really has a future without the other – the existing historical, ethnic, and economic linkages are too strong. At the same time, the messy secession has not ended the capacity of leaders in both countries “to do each other irreparable harm”. For example, when South Sudan inexplicably shut down its own oil production in January 2012 believing that President Bashir was about to lose power, its own economic collapse was dramatic.

The ruling NCP alliance in Khartoum has centralised economic and political power in Khartoum, and ignored ‘peripheral’ regions such as South Kordofan, Darfur and the Blue Nile state. This, Mr Copnall suggests, is at the root of the various internal conflicts being fought by the Sudanese state. South Sudan was merely the conflict that was addressed, due to a particular convergence of international pressure and internal Sudanese politics. Tragically, the SPLM is beginning to repeat the same policy of centralisation and exclusion in South Sudan. The character of a liberation movement is not the same as the “responsive, collaborative qualities needed to govern a state”.

The Sudanese president’s uncle may well have described the South Sudanese as a poisonous thorn in Sudanese hearts, but the futures of the two countries are inextricably linked. Prospects for lasting peace and cooperation depend on an acceptance of unimaginable governance reform by political elites on both sides of the border. Sadly, as Mr Copnall concludes, “Peace in both countries seems a long way off”.

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