A Poisonous Thorn in Our Hearts

Three years after South Sudan became independent from Khartoum, both countries remain in fragile states. Aid agencies are sounding the alarm for a looming famine in violence-ravaged South Sudan, while in the north, political repression is a constant threat for dissident and opposition figures. James Copnall delves into the world of the post-independence Sudans in his new book, “A Poisonous Thorn in Our Hearts: Sudan and South Sudan’s Bitter and Incomplete Divorce.” Copnall joins the Monkey Cage for a Q&A on the Sudans’ political, security and economic futures.

TMC: Early in the book, you caution readers to avoid characterizing the Sudans as entirely negative places full of nothing other than war, famine, and poverty. Why do you think this negative image persists outside of the two countries? Why does so much reporting on Sudan and South Sudan fail to capture complexity?

Copnall: Anyone who has lived in a country at war can tell you that there are always pockets of peace and (relative) prosperity. And anyone who has lived in the Sudans can tell you about the generosity and warmth of the people there. At a panel on Darfur in Washington, D.C., a distinguished American scholar of Sudan stood up and pointed out to the audience that – I paraphrase here – Sudanese were like everyone else: nice and nasty, clever and stupid, rich and poor. Just like Americans, in fact. At first, I was astonished that this needed to be said; but actually the decades of depressing news from the Sudans seems to have dehumanized their peoples.

So why this distorted image? The Sudans have suffered through a seemingly never-ending series of conflicts, which have dominated media coverage, perhaps understandably. All reporting, by its nature, is the art of simplifying. The Sudans are complicated countries, and perhaps reporters (myself included) have sometimes failed to portray their many nuances well enough. They are not easy places to report from, either, in particular Sudan, which controls the movement of journalists (and aid workers, and diplomats). The public image of the Sudans in the West has also been shaped, to a large extent, by advocacy groups. Far too often these groups adopted a misleading binary: Khartoum is bad/Everyone fighting Khartoum is good.

TMC: Could you explain how Sudan’s ruling party, the NCP, operates, and how its internal divisions affect political behavior and institutions in the country and in its interactions with South Sudan?

Copnall: Omar al Bashir presides over an unwieldy coalition of Islamists, pragmatists, his fellow generals and officers from the national security service, NISS. Everyone uses the language of political Islam in an attempt to justify their actions, but in reality the only goal now is regime survival. Often the politicians are forced to take a back seat to the military or the security. The various components of the informal coalition are constantly jockeying for power, making it difficult to tell at any one time who has the upper hand. This has real implications. For example, the July 28, 2011, peace deal for South Kordofan was thrown out shortly after it was signed when different parts of the coalition rejected it. In the long and complicated negotiations with South Sudan, too, the different factions come into play. At times “enemies of peace,” hardliners, hold the upper hand and oppose any sort of concession or deal with the old foes in South Sudan, despite the evidence that better relations benefits both countries.

TMC: After the long struggle for independence, South Sudan almost immediately became a one-party state, just like the one whose domination its leaders fought so long to escape. Why?

Copnall: Partly this is a result of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended what was Africa’s longest-running civil war, and paved the way for South Sudan’s 2011 independence. It was a deal between Sudan’s ruling NCP and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement rebels. Other northern and southern Sudanese groups, political and military, were excluded. Some South Sudanese armed groups subsequently signed a deal to join the SPLA. Then came the 2010 elections, which were deeply flawed, but accepted by the international community, which had its eyes on the 2011 referendum on southern Sudan’s future. The elections entrenched the rule of the NCP in Sudan, and the SPLM in what quickly became an independent South Sudan. After the split, the SPLM did not allow space for the political opposition to flourish (and the opposition parties are weak); it restricted press freedoms; and it was accused of serious human rights abuses. The SPLM also centralized power and resources in the capital Juba. In all this there were echoes of the old Sudanese model. South Sudan’s leaders have grown up in the Khartoum system, and they haven’t managed to escape it completely – or, perhaps, they haven’t wanted to, since it now benefits them, if not the country.

TMC: What is the role of dissidents in Sudanese and South Sudanese politics? Is there any hope that political space will open in the years to come?

Copnall: Sudan has more developed opposition parties than South Sudan, but they aren’t particularly trusted by the people, in part because many of them have been in government before, without notable success. South Sudan’s opposition is very weak. Often the strongest critical voices come from civil society or from within the SPLM itself. In fact, the tensions within the SPLM led to South Sudan’s new civil war, less than three years after independence. As long as the SPLM dominates – as liberation movements often do after freedom is obtained – it seems unlikely that much more political space will open up. The same is true in Sudan. The NCP has called for a “national dialogue,” but most of the unarmed opposition and all the rebels see this as a divide and rule tactic rather than a real offer. After all, opposition politicians are still frequently arrested, and the press is muzzled. If there is a hope, it is that the current crises in both countries have convinced the leaders and the people that things cannot continue as they are. But this is a faint hope.

TMC: Your discussion of economic and development issues in the two countries was fascinating. I especially loved the story of the air-conditioned cow barn! What needs to happen in Khartoum and Juba for ordinary Sudanese lives to improve in material terms? Is there hope for the growth of a middle class outside of the Khartoum area?

Copnall: Ah yes, those cossetted cows! They are definitely an exception. Underdevelopment, and unequal development, have been recurring themes in Sudan – and South Sudan, too. It’s been one of the reasons there have been so many conflicts. So what needs to change? Sudan’s economy is handicapped by the loss of South Sudan’s oil, by corruption and by the huge portion of the budget that goes to the military and NISS. There are also U.S. sanctions and a crippling debt burden. Part of the solution is then political: Sanctions will only be removed and debt forgiven if governance is improved. If military and security spending were reduced, there would be more available for health and education. All this seems unlikely as long as Omar al Bashir is in power. Even if this sort of sweeping change happened, Khartoum would still have to commit to spreading wealth, power and development equally throughout the country. Successive governments – going back to the colonial period – have failed to do this.

In South Sudan the situation is both simpler, and bleaker. South Sudan still has some international goodwill, so it doesn’t face economic sanctions, for example. Yet it also started life as an independent country as perhaps the least developed place on earth. The old soldiers who now run the state spend almost all available money on salaries, particularly for the military. It’s a sort of ersatz welfare system, but one which only helps a lucky minority. An awful lot of money is stolen, too. So the solution is clear: Clamp down on corruption, spread the wealth among the people, and develop the whole country – not just Juba. All this is impossible with weak institutions, leaders with a sense of entitlement and, above all, while the current civil war continues.

TMC: The book’s discussion of insecurity in the two Sudans ends in early 2014. What has happened since, and what, if any, hopes are there for a resolution to these numerous conflicts today? What are the barriers to lasting peace in the region?

Copnall: Not much has changed. In Sudan, the fighting in Darfur has intensified, and conflicts in South Kordofan and Blue Nile continue, out of the media spotlight. Negotiations are fractured and failing. In South Sudan, the government and the rebels have signed two cessation of hostilities agreements, in January and May, but these have not been respected. More than 1.5 million people have fled the violence. Already the U.N. and others are warning of the threat of famine. South Sudan’s worst nightmare has come true.

Resolving the conflicts in both countries will not be easy. Wars in the Sudans usually continue for years. Real peace will require improved leadership from military rulers, greater involvement of civil society and opposition politicians so any agreement reflects more than just the views of the warring parties, and above all a fundamental change in the way both Sudan and South Sudan are run. As long as inequality is part of the DNA of both states, and as long as the summit of power is the only place worth being, both countries will be trapped in a cycle of violence.