Book Reviews

Book Cover: Collapse of a Country

Collapse of a Country

by Nicholas Coghlan
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017
283 pages, $39.00
ISBN 978-0-7735-5126-8

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Reviewed by Roy Thomas

Collapse of a Country provides some rationale as to why the present Canadian Government has failed to deploy ‘military elements’ to a UN mission in Africa as promptly as promised. This book accounts for why helicopters, not ‘boots on the ground,’ were Canada’s contribution to Mali, where the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) has over 11,000 soldiers, not counting the French. In the case of South Sudan, an even larger UN force of soldiers, including tanks and 2000 police, did not prevent collapse. ‘Boots on the ground’ do not necessarily translate into either success or stability. Mali and South Sudan have something in common. Canadians are advised not to travel to either. Ten Canadian soldiers serve in the South Sudan under the auspices of Operation Soprano, and the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has suffered 55 fatalities to date.

Collapse of a Country is a memoir written by Canada’s first official representative to South Sudan upon that entity becoming the 193rd sovereign state to join the UN in 2011. Ambassador Nicholas Coghlan was well qualified for this appointment in the new capital, Juba. He had been the sole Canadian diplomatic presence in the capital of the Sudan, Khartoum, from 2000 until 2003. As outlined by Coghlan, Big Men seeking political power at any price contributed to the demise of peace in the fledgling state within two years of its birth.

Ambassador Coghlan was an ‘audio witness’ to the clash that sparked outright war between the Dinka supporters of one Big Man, the President, Salva Kiir, and Nuer supporters of the next Biggest Man, Vice President, Riek Machar, in Juba, just before Christmas, 2013. The book’s prologue testifies to what Coghlan heard and first reported to Ottawa on 16 December 2013. Big Men seeking power were the cause of the conflict, and the resort to weapons is no surprise in a country which ‘our man on the ground’ described as a “…lawless wasteland where all that matters is your ethnicity and the calibre of your weapon.” Recent history, demographics, and geography, combined with an almost-complete lack of infrastructure all played roles in the Dinka/Nuer civil war that followed. There are mentions of other smaller tribes who either had to fight (Chapter 4, The Murle War), or flee to an UN-protected enclave (locally-labelled POC), which did not necessarily provide safety (covered in other chapters).

Ambassador Coghlan was familiar with the historical and physical landscape, as well as being the “Head of Office,” a title used to conceal ambassadorial duties in both Khartoum and Juba, in the face of the downsizing of Canada’s Foreign Service. Although on arrival in Juba Nicholas found his “embassy” was in a garage, he states early in his book that the substance of his work was more important than any title or trappings. Ambassador Coghlan’s role was to ‘try to figure out the political scene,” as well as to provide the oversight of over 100 million dollars in Canadian humanitarian and development aid. Communications were a problem… In South Sudan, there were no land lines, only cell phones. The Embassy’s means for contacting Ottawa are an embarrassment to read about. There were almost no roads, except in towns and also from Juba to Kenya. The United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) was used by the Ambassador to go almost anywhere outside the capital, to any South Sudan destination. There are maps on the covers of this book that are very useful for reader situational awareness, as are the three pages dedicated to maps. Two maps depict what we might consider a form of gerrymandering, when the President expanded the ten Provinces into 28 provinces.

Ambassador Coghlan provides some additional facts. “Southerners,” i.e. South Sudanese, were in the Khartoum Government (AKA, the enemy). South Sudan did have a source of revenue from the oil fields found primarily in Unity and Upper Nile provinces. That oil reached the sea through the Sudan, which charged a “fixed passage” fee, which, in times of low prices for oil, substantially lowered the government’s revenue stream. With an estimated 180 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in country, there was substantial ‘tied’ money coming into the Sudan, not to mention a significantly well-off foreign presence. There were also refugees coming in from the two areas which had not been allowed to join the “South,” where fighting continued with the Sudanese government. Fortunately for the reader, there is an excellent chronology of four pages in this book, as well as eight pages of acronyms, such as for “POC” in context. Further, many of Coghlan’s insights are well-indexed.

The situation Coghlan faced during his tenure is captured in the acronym list. The simple acronym for the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, (SPLM) founded in 1983 by John Garang as the political wing of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, (SPLA) has several modifiers, starting with the states that did not join the new country, the SPLA (N) and the SPLM (N). Then there is the SPLM-DC, as well as the SPLM/A-10. The latter is often referred to simply as the “10.” The South Sudan Liberation Movement/ Army (SSLA) which resisted integration into the SPLM and SPLA until 2013, is a very similar acronym.

The Ambassador did his best to see as much of the country as possible, especially where Canadian aid or development dollars were at work. This involved some risk, as he tells us in the chapter labelled, “Maybe You Should Leave.” A UNHAS helicopter had landed Coghlan and an accompanying NGO team close to the village of Leer. No crowds rushed out to greet them, as was the norm when a helicopter landed. Instead, a surprising silence greeted the team, and it was interspersed with gunfire. No wonder… The village had just been assaulted. The leader of the attackers used the words that give this chapter its title. Mopping up was still ongoing when the helicopter departed.

There is no happy ending. There is no suggestion for success. No ‘good guy’ is seen on the horizon, only more villains and victims. Only retirement could have permitted publication of these memoirs in this easy-to-read but difficult-to-digest memoir of being our first man in Juba.

Major (ret’d) Roy Thomas, MSC, CD, MA, was awarded Force Commander Commendations for distinguished service in both the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) and the United Nations Multinational Interception Force (UNMIF). A veteran of Canadian Forces service in seven UN mission areas, he has also served tours in the NDHQ Planning Directorate (NATO and J3 Contingency Plans). Roy has written about his UN experiences, particularly about his nine months as Senior UN Military Observer, Sector Sarajevo, 1993–1994, and he has testified at four separate International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) trials.