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

Nicholas Coghlan Author Of Collapse of a Country: A Diplomat's Memoir of South Sudan
By Nicholas Coghlan

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.

The books I picked & why

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Acts of Faith

By Philip Caputo,

Book cover of Acts of Faith

Why 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.

Acts of Faith

By Philip Caputo,

Why should I read it?

1 author 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,…


Emma's War: A True Story

By Deborah Scroggins,

Book cover of Emma's War: A True Story

Why 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.

Emma's War: A True Story

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,…


The Weekenders: Travels in the Heart of Africa

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

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

Why 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. 

The Weekenders: Travels in the Heart of Africa

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…


The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age

By Elizabeth Shackelford,

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

Why 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.

The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age

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…


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

By Carol Berger,

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

Why 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.

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

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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