Nicodemus Minde recommends ‘A Poisonous Thorn in Our Hearts’ to students and practitioners of peace and conflict in Africa. According to him, the book offers an excellent socio-political and economic analysis of the two Sudans from the time of the divorce in 2011.

Having served as the BBC Sudan correspondent from 2009 to 2012, James Copnall in this updated edition gives an account of the bitter-sweet split of the two Sudans (Sudan and South Sudan) in July 2009. This updated edition is a timely contribution that further highlights the intricacies of what Copnall terms as “bitter and incomplete divorce.” Since the book was first published in 2014, South Sudan has descended into two civil strives linked to the author’s analytical prognosis of the split. As for Sudan, the country still reels from the aftermath of the split. The underlying unresolved tensions between Khartoum and Juba had threatened to spill into an all-out war in 2012 and Copnall contends that “the two states are still joined by conflict” (p.4).

Copnall’s central thesis is the intractable relationship between the two states despite the split in 2011. Based on his experience in the two states, Copnall in a thematic analysis looks at the points of convergence and divergence in the two states with an aim at illustrating the closeness of these two once hostile enemies. His analysis of the differences of the people and identity in the Sudans moves away from the simplistic dichotomy of African and Christian South and the Arab and Muslim North. He explains these using examples that indicate some cultural, religious, linguistic and geographical intersections that point to the rich diversity of the two countries.

Building on the people and identity, the updated edition further draws our attention to the similarity in the politics of power consolidation in the two countries. Sudan’s President Omar Al Bashir and his South Sudan’s counterpart Salva Kiir continue to decentralise powers so as to strengthen their domestic hold on to power. While the book looks at how this has shaped the political landscape in the Sudans, it further sheds light into the binary of power politics and economy that continues to join the two countries by the hip. While Sudan’s Bashir consolidated his power on domestic and international fears, Kiir strengthened his ethno-political and military base which led to breaking ranks with Riek Machar, his one-time ally and Vice President.

The book also touches on the crucial aspect of instability and insecurity in the two Sudans. The inter-ethnic rebellions which in some cases cut across the border divide have been a cause of instability both in Sudan and South Sudan. While the former grapples with the yet-to-be resolved Darfur civil war, the two areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile “show how Sudan and South Sudan’s destinies are still interwoven” (p.142). Rebel insurgencies around these border areas in both countries point to the insecurity challenges that still characterises the two states even after the split. This is compounded by the presence of oil reserves in the contested areas which remains a source of instability and insecurity.

Further to the analysis around insecurity, the book captures the regional and international interests in the two countries. The author highlights the differing relations with players around the world, and also mentions some of their economic interests in the two countries. He looks at the relations between the Sudans and the US, UK, Norway (Troika countries), China as well other regional interests such as Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

As an updated edition, the book fails to comprehensively capture the two spates of the post-independent civil wars in South Sudan. The book gives an abstract overview of the violence that broke out in December 2015 – the culmination of the ethnic and political differences between President Kiir and Riek Machar. The Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict of South Sudan (ARCSS), which was settled between the two warring factions of SPLM in Government (SPLM-IG) and that in opposition (SPLM-IO) led by Riek Machar, is minimally captured in the updated edition. The nuances around the two civil wars strives and the negotiations leading to the ARCSS in August 2015 could have strengthened Copnall’s central argument of the interplay between the two countries even after the divorce.

Despite it being a journalistic account of the two Sudans, Copnall’s analysis also has a measure of academic input. The book is drawn from vast interviews of party officials, rebels, religious leaders, activists, journalists and academics in both Sudan and South Sudan. This makes it a good reference text in understanding the ethno-political and the confluence between politics and economy that surround the bitter-sweet divorce.

The book is a timely contribution in understanding the split of South Sudan from Sudan. It also offers an excellent socio-political and economic analysis of the two Sudans from the time of the divorce in 2011. I strongly recommend the book to students and practitioners of peace and conflict in Africa.

A Poisonous Thorn in Our Hearts: Sudan and South Sudan’s Bitter and Incomplete Divorce. James Copnall. Hurst. 2017.

First published by LSE – Africa Blog