LSE’s Janel Smith finds James Copnall’s writing style and analysis refreshing in A Poisonous Thorn in our Hearts: Sudan and South Sudan’s Bitter and Incomplete Divorce.
A Poisonous Thorn in Our Hearts: Sudan and South Sudan’s Bitter and Incomplete Divorce by James Copnall provides a rich and vivid account of the period immediately following the separation of South Sudan from Sudan and represents a fascinating introduction to a wealth of views and experiences of Sudanese peoples residing in both Sudans from politicians, businessmen, and civil society activists to celebrities, cow herders and tea sellers. As the BBC’s Sudan correspondent from 2009-2012, Copnall travelled extensively throughout the Sudans and has reported from over 20 African states, thus, possessing knowledge and familiarity with the political, economic, and social climate and cultural contexts of the region.
Published in 2014 the book includes material from well over 100 interviews as well as first-hand accounts from the author’s own travels within both countries. It covers the recent violence in 2013 in both Sudan and South Sudan that saw protests and a violent clampdown by government take place in Khartoum, and political tensions between President Salva Kiir and former Vice-President Riek Machar in South Sudan that plunged the world’s newest country into civil war in December 2013. As such, A Poisonous Thorn in Our Hearts is an extremely timely and relevant publication.
The question of who the Sudanese peoples are on both sides of the border and how the Sudans will define themselves, particularly in relation to one another, is at the heart of this book. Brought to life through Copnall’s rich tapestry of narratives of the peoples of the two Sudans, Copnall explores the nature of the challenges that the Sudans face in the early years of separation as they seek to tackle an array of issues. These range from ethnic, religious, class-based, and gendered identities, to economic mal-development related to over-dependence on oil at the neglect of other vital industries, continuing border disputes and skirmishes between the two nations, political in-fighting and corruption, and (geo)political considerations involving the relationship of the Sudans with countries around the globe and indeed with one another. Ultimately, Copnall concludes that like many “divorces”, the separation of the Sudans has neither ended the necessity of relations between the two states nor occurred in a straightforward, harmonious, or conflict-free process.
Diagnosing the failings of the two states across political, economic, and social dimensions, Copnall argues that both the challenges and possible solutions to the tribulations facing the Sudans are multi-dimensional, interdependent, and requiring long-term efforts to shift the deeply ingrained narrative of hostility that has characterised perceptions of the Sudanese “other” and which “divorce” has yet to mitigate for either of the Sudans. Copnall writes that there has often “seemed no way to remove the poisonous thorn from their hearts” (p. 245). Yet his conclusions do not end on a note of pessimism regarding the possible path forward for both nations. Rather Copnall paints a potentially more positive future. He asserts that shifts in the nature of governance, including likely changes of the guard with respect to leadership, stemming from attitudes of racial and religious superiority, an embedded culture of violence, and the so-called “liberation curse” in South Sudan, are required if the hope of a lasting peace for the Sudans is to become a reality.
The roundness of Copnall’s analysis is one of the most refreshing and insightful aspects of the book. This is not only with respect to its portrayal of the conflict between and within the Sudans, but also concerning the tendency of the 24-hour news cycle, policy-makers, and academics alike to often oversimplify the nature of conflict in their quest to present the most sensational, cost-effective prognosis of the situation, or to frame it within the confines of a particular theory or conceptual body of work. Likewise although not explicitly stated as an objective of the book, the narrative presentation found in the detailed personal accounts and introductions to the lives of many Sudanese peoples from varied walks of lives makes for an intriguing read that stretches beyond the somewhat detached analyses often found in many academic texts. This adds a feeling of personal connection to the different worlds in which Sudanese peoples inhabit and vividly brings to life the historical, political, economic, and social complexities that characterise the two countries.
However, despite the depth of Copnall’s analysis and complex tapestry of experiences and issues he weaves together, the nature of the conclusions Copnall reaches rest heavily on governance and politics. “Grassroots” and community-level activities that both support and hinder peace as well as the impact of geopolitical power considerations concerning major global actors would have been a welcome addition to the conclusions reached. Such well-rounded conclusions would have further represented an excellent way to wrap up an otherwise strong example of the ability of detailed first-hand accounts and narrative style writing to bring life to manuscripts that students and academics could learn much from in contemplating the methods and writing styles they embrace in their own research.
Furthermore, scholars may do well to remember that the book is not an “academic” text per se, instead favouring detailed and informed accounts over in-depth explication and application of the central conceptual framings, such as identity and insecurity, introduced, albeit briefly, in the book. While this does not detract from the overall quality or depth of analysis presented, it would be to the benefit of readers to have some familiarity with the theoretical and conceptual categories that are touched upon as well as perhaps possessing their own analytical framings. This will enable the reader to comprehend and translate the full relevance of the information presented in contributing to knowledge on the nature of the conflictual relations within and between the two Sudans, and its broader applicability to such areas as development, peace and conflict, governance, and African studies.
Ultimately, within the classroom setting, it is recommended that the book be utilised by students who possess familiarity with conceptual and theoretical tools of analysis as the book would make an excellent accompaniment to exercises and assignments that require students to apply theoretical approaches and lenses, while obtaining indepth knowledge of the situation in the Sudans. A Poisonous Thorn in Our Hearts is a highly informative and interesting read with many lessons to impact to the public, practitioner, and scholarly communities alike.
A Poisonous Thorn in Our Hearts: Sudan and South Sudan’s Bitter and Incomplete Divorce by James Copnall
Hurst Publishers 2014
Dr Janel Smith received her PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has written on a variety of issues relating to peace and conflict studies such as the politics of peace-building in instances of victor’s peace; globalisation, conflict, and the formation of transnational identities; social movements and the roles of social media within highly securitised settings; the impacts of the social media mobilizations and lessons for global leadership; and inter-group dynamics within ‘global’ aid and advocacy campaigns. She is currently a Senior Associate and Consultant with The Leadership Alliance Inc.