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  • The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars: Old Wars and New Warsby Douglas H. Johnson
  • Luka Kuol
Douglas H. Johnson. The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars: Old Wars and New Wars. 3rd ed. Suffolk, UK: James Currey, 2016. xix–252 pp. US$25.95 (paperback). ISBN 9781847011510.

The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Warsis a thorough attempt to document, from the vantage point of a historian, the unaddressed core conflict issues that seem to be haunting Sudan and South Sudan in a vicious cycle of violence and fragility. Although Johnson is professionally seen as an outstanding eminent historian on Sudan and South Sudan, he is equally an anthropologist, as he lived and continues to live the historical events in South Sudan and Sudan. My personal encounter and interaction with Johnson made me appreciate how history is so relevant in diagnosing the root causes of the contemporary conflicts in Sudan and South Sudan.

During the negotiations (2002–05) of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), the parties almost deadlocked over the contested Abyei area, as the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) sought this area to be returned back to South Sudan but without historical evidence to support such a demand. Johnson, with his knowledge and access to historical records, provided a historical account of how the Abyei area was transferred from south Sudan to north Sudan in 1905. [End Page 98]This historical evidence helped in reaching the final agreement on the conflict in the Abyei area.

Also, when I joined the University of Juba in 2014 there was acrimonious debate about federalism—one of the issues that derailed the conclusion of the Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS) in 2015. As the South Sudanese government began to censor debate about federalism and crack down on the voices calling for it, I invited Johnson to deliver a public lecture at the university titled “Federalism in the History of South Sudanese Thought.” Although the title of the lecture was carefully crafted to focus on history rather than current debate, the government unsuccessfully attempted to cancel the lecture.

The lecture was attended by over one thousand people from different ages, professions, and ethnic groups; particularly the elders of various communities. After the lecture, the attendees did not only appreciate the talk, as it allayed the fears and misunderstanding about federalism, but they discovered that the demand for federalism was popular by all the people of South Sudan. Interestingly, the elders from the former region of Bahr el Ghazal and Equatoria, who were having different and opposing perceptions about federalism, met after the lecture and agreed to support the demand, which was later on recognized in the ARCSS as the popular demand of the people of South Sudan.

Besides the apparent power of history, as elucidated by the two incidents of Abyei and federalism, Johnson eloquently traces the root causes of conflict in the two Sudans through a comprehensive lens. This holistic assessment of the causes of violent conflict helps not only in addressing it, but also in correcting myths of attributing the complex phenomenon, like civil war, to one single cause, such as ethnicity (Nuer-Dinka conflict) or greed and rent-seeking behavior or grievance. Economists and political economists have come to recognize that historians have been successful in studying the process by which societies have been entrapped or escaped from fragility and violent conflict. There is no doubt that Johnson has provided a compelling historical account of why the two Sudans are trapped in a vicious cycle of fragility and violence.

As rightly argued by Johnson, most peace agreements tend to prescribe predetermined solutions rather than diagnosing the root causes of civil wars. This is vividly reflected in the various peace agreements that barely show that the parties have agreed on the root causes of conflict. In these peace agreements, the root causes are sparsely referred to in the preamble of these agreements. This prescribed solution-driven approach rather than a thorough analysis of the root causes as the basis for resolving civil wars may explain the current fragility and predicament [End Page 99]haunting the two Sudans. There is...


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