Collapse of a Country: A Diplomat’s Memoir of South Sudan, by Nicholas Coghlan (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017)

Reviewed by Douglas Scott Proudfoot

My former colleague, Nick Coghlan, was in the habit of writing a book after every overseas assignment: Colombia, Pakistan, Sudan, and South Sudan, his last diplomatic posting, all received this treatment. And he was also in the habit of sailing his small yacht between postings. This must have caused all manner of administrative complications, since the Foreign Service Directives, which govern overseas moves, generally assume air travel. But Nick, as he explains in Collapse of a Country, had little time or inclination for administrative detail. I don’t imagine he attempted to get his boat past the sixth Nile cataract to Khartoum, or through the Sudd, the largest swamp in the world, to Juba, but that didn’t stop him from enjoying water sports in either capital, despite the crocodilia.

Nick Coghlan was Canada’s first resident ambassador to South Sudan, though not our first diplomatic representative. He was also my predecessor’s predecessor’s predecessor in that post. In fact, I had agreed to review his book just before I was asked to go back to Juba myself as ambassador, which meant I felt I could not in good conscience publish a review at the time. So apologies to McGill-Queens University Press for a rather late review of a volume which first appeared in 2017.

“Death never seemed to be far away in South Sudan.”

–Nick Coghlan, Collapse of a Country, p. 10.

It is a journalistic tic to begin articles with the factual but nonetheless misleading observation that South Sudan is the world’s youngest country and has experienced two civil wars since its independence in 2011. This observation is true, but diminishes rather than deepens the reader’s understanding. The reality is that even in moments of formal peace, South Sudan is riven by communal and political violence. And that the civil wars of 2013 (the principal subject of Nick’s book) and 2016 were just the latest iterations of South Sudan’s calvary; they were preceded by nearly half a century of civil war leading to formal independence, and centuries of war, oppression and slavery before that. Collapse of a Country is one of the few contemporary books on South Sudan to pay sufficient heed to the country’s history, and Nick devotes the first chapter to that background, situating it during his assignment in Khartoum in the years leading up to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between North and South. At the time, he made friendships with many South Sudanese who had, ironically, sought refuge in the capital of the regime that was persecuting them.

It cannot be stressed enough how this tragic history has imprinted itself on South Sudan today. I have never met a South Sudanese who was not personally and directly affected by violence — the loss of entire families, the destruction of homes, endemic rape, gruesome wounds, displacement and exile. The lucky ones found sanctuary and education in refugee camps in the desert of northern Kenya. And South Sudan’s longer history means that not just individuals, but the entire society, is traumatized. Much of the fighting before independence was between South Sudanese factions, rather than against the North, and the rancour of that internecine strife burst out again in 2013.

Nicholas Coghlan

Nick witnessed first-hand the events of December 2013, when tensions between the President (Salva Kiir) and the First Vice-President (Riek Machar), who were old rivals, broke into open war, followed by ethnic pogroms against the Nuer and revanchist atrocities against the Dinka. Nick recounts the thrilling, and sometimes terrifying, events that followed, and how he assisted with the evacuation of Canadian citizens, mostly dual-nationals who were potentially targeted for their ethnic identity. In the fighting that followed, millions were displaced, and to this day hundreds of thousands remain in IDP camps. 

Having visited Juba many times in the lead-up to independence, and been responsible for the steps take to open the embassy there, I enjoyed reading Nick’s description of the rather unglamorous premises: several shipping containers welded together. The people and places he recounts were known to me, but will be just as vivid for the reader unfamiliar with the terrain. While he points out the drawbacks of Canada’s low-profile presence, he generously allows that without the unconventional “stealth” approach taken to establish the embassy, we would never have achieved a diplomatic footprint in Juba.

Today, the two protagonists of 2013, Kiir and Machar, are back in a coalition government, and despite persistent political/ethnic conflict along with ordinary brigandage and cattle rustling all over the country, their uneasy pact has held for three years. The endemic corruption Nick recounts is unchanged. Standards of public probity are shocking, but the perpetrators are venal, not evil. Many could be enjoying comfortable, safe and relatively prosperous lives in Toronto or Melbourne, but have chosen instead to return to live and work in their native South Sudan. That so many apparently dedicated and well-intentioned South Sudanese officials and politicians also have their hand in the till should surprise nobody when one learns that their salaries (when paid) don’t cover their motorcycle-taxi fares to come to work.

What’s striking in Collapse of a Country, is that despite the horrors Nick recounts, he retains a deep affection for the South Sudanese, their quirks, their odd mix of churlishness and friendliness, and affection for the country, which, despite the cursed circumstances of its birth, retains extraordinary potential.

Douglas Scott Proudfoot was Chair of Canada’s Sudan Task Force from 2007-10 and Ambassador to South Sudan from 2019-20. 

Header photo by D.S. Proudfoot: Boat run aground in the Nile near Juba, South Sudan.

Photo on the right: Scott Proudfoot presenting the book to Pal Chol, a friend of the author. Photo: Gloria Lobojo.

Nicholas Coghlan is the author of The Saddest Country: On Assignment in Colombia (McGill-Queens’s University Press, 2004), Far in the Waste Sudan: On Assignment in Africa (MQUP, 2005), and Winter in Fireland: A Patagonian Sailing Adventure (University of Alberta Press, 2011). Read about Jennifer and Nick Coghlan’s sailing adventures on Bosun Bird.

Posted by Debra Martens

author, editor

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