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Apr 30, 2014 | Commentary

A Poisonous Thorn in Our Hearts: Sudan and South Sudan’s Bitter and Incomplete Divorce by James Copnall

Published by Hurst and Company, London, March 2014.

In his exhaustive and perceptive book, among the first to assess the birth of South Sudan in 2011, author James Copnall argues that Sudan’s bitter divorce is incomplete. On many facets – economic and cultural – the fate of the Sudans is intricately linked in a labyrinth of relations that are difficult to untangle with a political decision inked at a negotiating table in a foreign capital.

Sudan - bookThe devastating effect of the incomplete divorce is brought to life through characters whose lives have been shattered by it, especially along the border regions that are home to some 13 million people. People like Abdelaziz Hussain, the half Arab Misseriya, half Dinka herdsman who bristles at the fact that he now needs a passport to cross into South Sudan to graze his animals. Or Garang Thomas Dhel, a southerner who defied convention and married a northerner, an Arab Muslim lady; but now wonders how to sustain that love in the face of the new artificial border between them.

What appears galling, Copnall argues, is the fact that politicians from north and the south are so oblivious of the intertwining socio-economic fabric of the two countries to the extent they push for policies designed to bring the other entity down. Cases in point are the confiscation of South Sudan’s oil by Khartoum in December 2011, and South Sudan’s shutdown of oil exports through Port Sudan in early 2012. Both decisions were catastrophic to both countries’ economies. This example typifies the fact that both countries need each other economically; South Sudan needs Khartoum’s pipelines to export oil and Khartoum needs the oil to flow to generate revenue from pipe rentals.

But Copnall takes extreme care to let readers know that despite the commonalities between South Sudan and  “rump” Sudan, these similarities may be superficial, for still waters run deep. Ancient legacies tied to Arab enslavement of people from South Sudan, political domination of Sudan by the riverine Arabs, and colonialism serve to stymie notions of a common destiny. This is best captured by a quote – from which the book takes its title – by Al-Tayyeb Mustafa, a journalist and uncle to President Omar Al Bashir, who described South Sudan as “a poisonous thorn in our hearts.”

Basing his assertions on interviews with many Sudanese and South Sudanese from various walks of life, Copnall argues that if this generation fails to build bridges between South Sudan and Sudan now, the possibilities of such a feat become highly unlikely in the future. In particular, Copnall makes the point that the next generation of South Sudanese, the bulk of whom grew up in Kenya and Uganda, may have little in common with their counterparts in Sudan in literally every sense of the word, since they speak English and Kiswahili and are philosophically more drawn to East Africa rather than the Arab world.

Touching on the secession of South Sudan, Copnall brings to life the grim reality that independence did not result in the desired outcome—improved livelihoods for South Sudanese. While there are tangible and positive dividends for South Sudanese, such as increased enrollment in primary education, overall, the state is largely absent from the lives of millions of South Sudanese. Service delivery, for example, is non-existent in almost all sectors and most human baseline indicators are in the doghouse. Copnall however cautions against blanket blame on the government. He cites a plethora of issues—pervasive inexperience, corruption, and nepotism—as being behind the government’s poor performance.

In the context of the conflict unraveling in South Sudan, Copnall makes the rather prophetic observation that post-independence South Sudan is an exact replica of Bashir’s oppressive regime and may possibly be headed for a head-on crash with itself in the future if affairs remain as they are. From having the same secret intelligence building as Khartoum, to stifling media freedoms and chocking democratic pluralism, Copnall argues that the SPLM couldn’t be more similar to Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP). Just as oil bred a kleptocracy in Khartoum prior to South Sudan’s independence, Copnall stresses that a similar scenario is also unfolding in Juba. The country’s new oligarchs are living large at the expense of millions of South Sudanese. This has fostered resentment and rebellion in oil producing sections of the country.

Looking to the future, through the eyes of various people interviewed for the book, Copnall argues that the status quo in leadership style needs to change in both countries. With regard to South Sudan, some expressed fear that the dearth of democracy means change will come through violent means, channeled via ethnic lines.  The December 2013 shootout in Juba testifies to this fact.

Over in Khartoum, Copnall, a BBC journalist who spent three years covering both countries, asserts that the biggest threat to the Bashir regime will originate from within the NCP. But that, he argues, is unlikely to change the fundamental characteristics of the regime.

(This review first appeared in The EastAfrican, April 26-May 2, 2014 edition. It is republished with the kind permission of the paper’s editors.)


Brian Adeba is an Associate of the Security Governance Group.