LSE’s Chris Suckling reviews Edward Thomas’ comprehensive, multi-layered examination of the forces that have shaped the South Sudan of today.

The civil conflict pitched between President Salva Kiir’s ruling Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM), and political and military defectors led by former Vice President Riek Machar, has typically been presented in both cynical and cyclical terms: broken ceasefires are predictable and inter-ethnic violence is inevitable. For Edward Thomas’ South Sudan: A Slow Liberation, such stylised analyses do not, however, ‘readily fit’ the economic and political vestiges of southern Sudan’s confrontation with international markets and state power since the early 19th century.

Beginning with the Turkiyah system of governance installed under Ottoman-Egyptian colonisation, and perpetuated by the later British system of indirect rule, Thomas outlines the institutionalisation of political SouthSudan_A_Slow_Liberationpatronage and slave trading that ensured capital accumulation was largely monopolised by the state, and that in turn ushered in the use of ethnic and racial categories as a technique of social control for authorities grappling with Sudan’s restive southern periphery. The south’s longer confrontation with state power and uneven development is convincingly demonstrated to have left an enduring legacy that radically shaped the diverse region’s struggle for independence from Khartoum and its present day “return” to ostensibly ethnic conflict staged around the SPLA-dominant Dinka versus the SPLA-IO-dominant Nuer.

Drawing on a decade’s worth of experience living and teaching in the southeastern Jonglei state, secondary ethnographic material and two hundred interviews, Edward Thomas finds traces of optimism in the narratives that breathe life into his account of South Sudan’s slow liberation: ‘Let our stolen cattle be the bride wealth for peace’ (pg. 16). Thomas makes insightful use of such ethnographic material to help decode the largely non-monetised south’s postponed development, despite the early development plans of Turkiyah governors in the early 19th century. Retelling the personal vignette of Gabriel Anyang, a Dinka who twenty years prior had been abducted by Murle raiders, Thomas illustrates the violent entry of complicated networks of dowry exchange and reciprocity that were otherwise explained by Sudan’s cosmopolitan and moneyed elites in primordial terms. ‘Cherchez la vache’; such was anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard advice to students during his lectures on Jonglei in the early 1940s. The resulting pessimism regarding southern Sudan’s prospects for developing agricultural trade and public infrastructure is demonstrated to have served political utility for British colonists who violently pacified the south’s constituents over three decades. Such ethnically-loaded and pessimistic rhetoric, Thomas poignantly argues, only worked to further exclude the south’s access to communication and trade in the name of ‘protection’ and ‘security’.

Parliament in Juba Credit: BBC World Service via Flickr ( CC BY-NC 2.0

Parliament in Juba Credit: BBC World Service via Flickr ( CC BY-NC 2.0

Following an end to colonisation and Sudan’s tumultuous independence in 1956, a new core-periphery relationship emerged that precipitated formation of the south’s first politically organised armed resistance movement, Anya-Nya. Although Sudan’s left-leaning, Islamist military regime cooperated with Anya-Nya and devolved the government’s purse by establishing the Southern Regional Government in the early 1970s, Thomas astutely highlights the continuities of uneven development – ignited by the 1970s and 80s global debt crisis – and patrimonial political representation. Rightly placed in scarecrow marks, the south’s ‘economic autonomy’ from Khartoum is shown to have pushed it towards war on the back of an emerging collective consciousness. As the south’s intelligentsia suggested, ‘What seems to have happened is that a new way has been opened for any politically conscious Black to enter and to become economically Awalad [bound by slavery]’ (pg. 102-3).

Anya-Nya and Joseph Garang’s early influences on the south’s struggle for independence are claimed to have drawn on African liberation movements and Marxist-Leninist ideology. Together, these strands of thinking provided the bedrock for Garang’s more programmatic view of history, albeit one ‘mistakenly’ mobilised – and Thomas’ quote of Walter Benjamin here – on, ‘its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of the spirit of liberated grandchildren’ (pg. 109). Liberation was, therefore, decidedly double-edged, for it ‘smashed’ British colonialism at the same time as it depended on new pay masters in Khartoum for its fruition. In the proceeding chapters Thomas outlines the more familiar history of the SPLM/A’s emergence and its confrontation with Sudan up to and during the 1997 Khartoum Peace Agreement and 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The same techniques of power re-emerge: policies of ethnicisation in the drawing of county boundaries and the use of ethnic categories as a tactic of mobilisation by the south’s new political interlocutors, Riek Machar and Salva Kiir. Such patterns resonate with South Sudan’s current contradictions, in which a long-delayed peace agreement has been immediately followed by the SPLM’s passing of legislation to create a federal structure splitting its communities into 28 new states.

Aside from a detailed analysis of intra-SPLM rivalries familiar elsewhere in the literature, Thomas remains attentive to the complicated social relations and practices that underpin the mobilisation of ethnic militias and decision-making of state governors amid the apparent turmoil outside of the capital Juba. The role of bunam age sets are examined in relation to Machar’s mobilisation of the Nuer ‘White Army’ and, as elsewhere in the book, Thomas explains how the, ‘illusion of unified Nuer power has proved to be one of South Sudan’s most tenacious’ (pg. 192). Ethnic Dinka and Nuer were not so much socially unified, but rather imagined, and functioned according to a more complex economy of cattle rustling and cross-border raiding. As Thomas fits the pieces of South Sudan’s puzzle together, the reader returns to Gabriel Anyang’s abduction with a new appreciation for the contradictions and predicaments facing our newest nation.

Edward Thomas’s book is a humane analysis, carefully grounded in the continuities of uneven development and contradictions of political power. It should be widely read by South Sudanese citizens at the forefront of the young country’s on-going liberation.

South Sudan: A Slow Liberation. Edward Thomas, Zed Books. 2015.

Chris Suckling is a doctoral researcher in the Department of Geography and the Environment at LSE.


The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.