Book review – Sudan and South Sudan: incomplete divorce

Few issues, in African history, are as intricate and deep rooted in time as the tensions between Sudan and what is now South Sudan. Dealing with it in an unbiased way is a challenge for every journalist or scholar: and this is exactly what James Copnall tries to do in his latest book “A poisonous thorn in our heart: Sudan and South Sudan’s bitter and incomplete divorce”, mainly focusing on the first two and a half years after the proclamation of Juba’s independence.

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A BBC correspondent from Khartoum between 2009 and 2012, Copnall in those years was able to gather a great share of information and commentaries on quite a number of issues regarding the ‘two Sudans’ as they are now known: no less than 120 interviewees are listed as sources at the beginning of the 315-pages book. They include government officials, diplomats, leading opposition politicians of the two countries, but also religious figures, journalists, writers, activists and even common people from the two sides of the border. No doubt, one of the book’s main strengths lies in this invaluable amount of direct experience, which enables the author to deliver a lively and documented account of the various topic he deals with: the peoples inhabiting the two countries; politics; economy; the life of ordinary Sudanese and South Sudanese citizens; rebellions and inter-ethnic conflicts; the international relations maintained by Khartoum and Juba and finally the mutual relationship between the two governments.
On the whole, political, social and historical analysis is the main purpose of the book, instead of mere reporting: human stories are predominantly used as an introduction to the single topics, even if proceeding in such a way might confuse less attentive readers, given that the structure of the whole writing becomes from time to time fragmentary. Also, despite the wide amount of information provided, Copnall does not succeed completely in making “A poisonous thorn in our heart” a jargon-free book suitable for non-specialist readers. Some earlier knowledge of the topic is still necessary to fully understand what the author writes, especially when he makes reference to what he sees as ideological prejudices that have to be overcome (the dichotomy of Arab and Muslim Sudanese and African and Christian South Sudanese is one of such concepts).
As for the thesis underlying the former BBC correspondent’s work, it can be resumed as follows: Sudan and south Sudan still are two sister countries and, even after their “divorce”, cannot live without each other, a concept which Copnall expresses by saying that they have “a common past, interwoven present and mutually dependent future – a hard knot that will take many years to unpick”. This, in turn, has both positive sides, such as “some more fraternal bonds between the people”, that “mistrust cannot completely hide” and negative ones. In fact, “separation has not ended the capacity of the two countries, or more precisely those who lead them, to do each other irreparable damage”.


The former BBC correspondent draws many parallels between the now separated states, regarding the political instability, the ethnic divisions running deep, the role of the military in national policy and the main features of the ruling élites. Ultimately, according to the book – one might say – the “poisonous thorn” (an expression taken from a North Sudanese hardliner) in the heart of the region is not the forced union of the two countries (which was the original meaning of the phrase) but precisely the fact that they have split up. So, it’s not only for methodological reasons that the author counters the widespread tendency to analyze the two Sudans separately, but also for what we could call «ideal» ones.
Such an example shows much of the book’s nature. In its cross-border analysis, which always starts from Khartoum and ends up in Juba, Copnall carefully avoids picking a side. This makes him different from other authors who approached the same subject and surely is one of the main reasons to make “A poisonous thorn in our heart” a recommended reading. However the author inevitably looks at things from a personal point of view: for instance, in more than one occasion, he seems to be supportive of the late John Garang, assuming that following his path would have led to a united and more democratic Sudan, something other analysts might question – and some actually have. In the end, the book manages to be a neutral account of facts, but not a neuter one: despite he aims to do the opposite, when Copnall writes he remains a journalist, never tuning fully into an analyst. This is not necessarily a flaw, though, and moreover the author manages to do it in an excellent way. (D.M.)


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