The best books on South Sudan: how it all went wrong for the world’s newest country

Who am I?

I grew up in Britain and emigrated to Canada in 1981. I was a late starter in the Canadian Foreign Service, which I joined for the not-very-laudable reason that I wanted to travel to interesting places and get paid for it. Little by little, starting with the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Mexico, I found myself drawn to conflictive states—Colombia, Pakistan, Sudan, South Sudan—where, with growing seniority and responsibility, it fell to me to recommend Canadian government approaches to aid, development, human rights, and conflict resolution. South Sudan is a tragedy that I can’t help thinking about. I can see where everything went wrong, but it’s much more difficult to see how it can be fixed.  


I wrote...

Collapse of a Country: A Diplomat's Memoir of South Sudan

By Nicholas Coghlan,

Book cover of Collapse of a Country: A Diplomat's Memoir of South Sudan

What is my book about?

Few outsiders know South Sudan as well as Nick Coghlan, who first saw this troubled land from the rear door of a relief aircraft in 2001 as civil war raged, and then went on to serve as Canada’s first Ambassador to the new country. He witnesses the hope and euphoria of the post-independence years, then the violent implosion of the capital, Juba. He travels to every corner of South Sudan, meeting with dignitaries, aid workers, and ordinary people. He hears of unimaginable atrocities and despairs of the inefficiencies of aid efforts, finding some consolation in the stoicism and endurance of the women he meets in grim camps for the displaced. If you think the life of a diplomat is all small talk and servants, this book might put you right.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Acts of Faith

Nicholas Coghlan Why did I love this book?

Philip Caputo made his name—and won a Pulitzer—for a memoir of the Vietnam War. Acts of Faith is a novel but is equally searing: an indictment of adrenaline-driven aid junkies, missionaries, and uncritical western politicians who connived in the 1990s with African warlords to create what would become South Sudan. I turned the pages of this book with a growing sense of familiarity. Many of Caputo’s characters—the soldiers, the bush pilots, the priests—are based on real people that I knew. But you don’t need to know the history to find this a compelling read.

By Philip Caputo,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Acts of Faith as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Philip Caputo’s tragic and epically ambitious new novel is set in Sudan, where war is a permanent condition. Into this desolate theater come aid workers, missionaries, and mercenaries of conscience whose courage and idealism sometimes coexist with treacherous moral blindness. There’s the entrepreneurial American pilot who goes from flying food and medicine to smuggling arms, the Kenyan aid worker who can’t help seeing the tawdry underside of his enterprise, and the evangelical Christian who comes to Sudan to redeem slaves and falls in love with a charismatic rebel commander.

As their fates intersect and our understanding of their characters deepens,…


Book cover of Emma's War: A True Story

Nicholas Coghlan Why did I love this book?

Emma McCune was a beautiful young British aid worker who fell for—and married—Riek Machar, a rival of John Garang for most of the long years of Sudan’s second civil war (1983-2005), reluctant leader of a bloody post-independence revolt, and now one of the country’s five (sic) Vice-Presidents. Emma died in 1993 in a traffic accident in Kenya, but wherever I have been in both Sudan and South Sudan, hosted by aid workers, I have found echoes of her. Emma wanted to make the world a better place—who can knock that?—but her naivete allowed her to be easily manipulated and impressed by raw power, increasingly blind to the corruption and violence within the cause she had adopted. She is buried at Leer, South Sudan, the hometown of Riek Machar.

By Deborah Scroggins,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Emma's War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Glamorous aid worker Emma McCune conformed to none of the stereotypes: although driven and committed to her work she was at least partially attracted to Africa because it enabled her to live in a style she could not achieve in Britain, and she was famous in East Africa for wearing mini-skirts and for her affairs with African men. Initially much admired, if also suspect for her social flair, she appalled the aid community with her marriage to a local warlord, who was deeply enmeshed in both rebellion and murder. She had fallen in love and, a rebel to the end,…


Book cover of The Weekenders: Travels in the Heart of Africa

Nicholas Coghlan Why did I love this book?

This is a collection of short stories by well-known writers—Irvine Welsh and Alex Garland among others—whom The Daily Telegraph newspaper assembled and flew to Africa in 2000, with an open brief to write one short story each; the book’s proceeds went to famine relief. One story in particular, by Telegraph editor W.F. Deedes, resonated in particular with me. The British government, responding to concerns that a UK-based oil companyPhoenix—is contributing to human rights abuses committed in the context of the Sudanese civil war, establishes A Small Mission of Inquiry” (the title of the story). For most of my diplomatic posting in Sudan (2000-2003), I found myself dealing with strikingly similar allegations against a Canadian company, addressed equivocally by the Canadian government with just such a commission. 

By Alex Garland, W.F. Deedes, Tony Hawks , Irvine Welsh , Victoria Glendinning , Andrew O'Hagan , Giles Foden

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Weekenders as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What would happen if you took some of Britain's best writing talent, put them on a plane and flew them to one of the most extraordinary and inaccessible places on the planet? What would happen if you took Irvine Welsh from the streets of Edinburgh and showed him a remote, dangerous village in Africa? Or if you flew Alex Garland into one of the world's most hazardous war zones? And how would Tony Hawks react if you dragged him away from his tennis and asked him to write a song with a Sudanese tribesman? With Victoria Glendinning, Andrew O'Hagan, Giles…


Book cover of The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age

Nicholas Coghlan Why did I love this book?

Lizzie Shackleford, serving at the time as a junior Foreign Service Officer at the American Embassy in Juba, was of invaluable assistance to me as I tried to orchestrate the emergency evacuation of Canadian citizens (nearly all of them dual South Sudanese/Canadians) when Juba imploded in December 2013. With Canada declining to send evacuation aircraft I depended largely on her to secure seats on USAAF Hercules aircraft. She helped save dozens of lives. So, I read her account of the opening of South Sudan’s civil war with great interest.

It’s an eye-opening counterpoint to the glamour and sophistication that many outsiders associate with the diplomatic lifestyle, but it’s also an indictment of short-sighted and misguided American policy-making in the region. The eponymous Dissent Channel is the outlet US diplomats have to express their personal discomfort with official policy. More than once I have found myself wishing that the Canadian diplomatic service had one too.

By Elizabeth Shackelford,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Dissent Channel as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 2017, the State Department lost 60% of its career ambassadors. Hiring has been cut and the budget slashed. The idealistic women and men who chose to enter government service are leaving in record numbers, jeopardizing operations both domestically and internationally, and eroding the U.S. standing on the world stage.In There Are No Good Guys, former State Department official Lizzy Shackelford shows this erosion first-hand through her experience within the precarious rise and devastating fall of the world's newest country, South Sudan. Shackleford's excitement about the possibility of encouraging democracy from the ground up quickly turns to questioning, then to…


Book cover of The Child Soldiers of Africa's Red Army: The Role of Social Process and Routinised Violence in South Sudan's Military

Nicholas Coghlan Why did I love this book?

Carol Berger is a Canadian journalist and anthropologist with decades of experience in Sudan/South Sudan. This book is a meticulously-documented dissection of one of the founding myths of South Sudan: the supposedly glorious deeds of the rebel SPLA’s Red Army (made up of child soldiers) and the associated romance of the phenomenon known as the Lost Boys, as featured by Hollywood (The Good Lie). The truth is that during the second Sudanese civil war (1985-2003) thousands of young boys were ruthlessly exploited and/or abandoned by warlords, many of whom now hold positions of power in South Sudan. A fascinating sidebar is the story of the Cuban Jubans: the young boys who made their way from displacement camps in Ethiopia, via a long sojourn in Cuba, eventually settling in Alberta, Canada. Some two dozen returned to South Sudan in 2011/12 to work as doctors, and I had the pleasure of hosting them at my Juba home.

By Carol Berger,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Child Soldiers of Africa's Red Army as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book examines the role of social process and routinised violence in the use of underaged soldiers in the country now known as South Sudan during the twenty-one-year civil war between Sudan's northern and southern regions. Drawing on accounts of South Sudanese who as children and teenagers were part of the Red Army-the youth wing of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA)-the book sheds light on the organised nature of the exploitation of children and youth by senior adult figures within the movement. The book also includes interviews with several of the original Red Army commanders, all of whom went…


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The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


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