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Nicholas Coghlan

Canadian diplomat

Nick graduated from Oxford University in 1978, narrowly ahead of Britain’s Winter of Discontent. Labour disputes between government and trade unions would soon rock the nation and dramatically reshape its political landscape.

“…UK in the late seventies was a fairly depressing place,” he recalls.

This was a transitional period both for the country, and Nick, as he ventured out to begin his adult life.
Trained as a teacher and having studied Spanish, he and his partner, Jenny, settled on tropical Buenos Aires, a world away from the tumult back home. His mother was a teacher, as was his father before taking an administrative role at the UK Sports Council, making it no surprise that Nick decided to enter teaching as well. 

A few years following his arrival in Argentina, he and Jenny moved to British Columbia, Canada's westernmost province, after an opportunity presented itself in 1981. It was around this time that his passion for offshore sailing was beginning to blossom. This would become, “almost a parallel existence,” throughout his working career.

“In the mid-eighties, in between two teaching jobs, we set off for four years and sailed around the world in a 27-foot sailboat.”

It was this voyage that led Nick to reconsider his career trajectory, and not long after, he joined the Canadian diplomatic corps as a mature entrant.

“It’s a very superficial reason – join the foreign service to travel and get paid for it. I think most people would like to say, ‘I joined to change the world.’ To be frank, I was not that politically aware at that time.”

As for teaching, Nick has no second thoughts about closing that chapter: “In hindsight, I probably drifted into teaching. Teaching is one of the worthiest things you can do, but I think you have it or you don’t. I didn’t particularly have it, so I moved on.”

Nick’s career as a diplomat began in Mexico as a junior officer. It was an important time for the Canada-Mexico relationship with the birth of NAFTA on the horizon - but trade was not his focus.  

“Most people love their first posting and mine was no exception. I found myself very much getting into the issue of human rights, which at that time was particularly the rights of the Indigenous Peoples in Mexico.”

This assignment was then followed by terms in Colombia, Sudan, South Africa and Pakistan.

Unlike the United States, diplomats in Canada are rarely political appointees. Of our approximately 120 ambassadors, “only four or five would actually be handpicked by the Prime Minister,” Nick reveals, who rose through the ranks to become Ambassador of Canada to South Sudan in 2013.

Located in northeastern Africa, South Sudan is one of the most underdeveloped countries on earth; less than two per cent of its citizens have access to electricity.

The country gained independence in 2011 following a landslide referendum in which 99 per cent of respondents voted in favour of secession from northern Sudan. Though, independence did not come easily; it took two devastating civil wars that combined spanned 39 years and saw millions of lives lost.

The conflicts were complex and impossible to simplify. One source of animus were the vast cultural and religious differences between the regions. The north, populated largely by Arabic-speaking Muslims, and the south, by Africans of Christian or animist faiths. Another factor was control over natural resources. In the late seventies, fighting was precipitated by northern Sudan’s attempt to redraw the borders once oil was discovered in the south.

Given the high level of instability, this area was typically not the first choice for most diplomats, but Nick tells me, it is in this environment that he feels most effective.

“A lot of people think it would be wonderful to be in Paris, Rome, London or Washington – go to all those cocktail parties … I much prefer the little-known places, where you can really get to know what’s happening, get an understanding.”

The Government of Canada’s introduction to the Sudan region began in 2000 by opening a small embassy in Khartoum, the north's capital, during the second civil war.

The presence of a Canadian energy company, Talisman, prompted the embassy’s formation. As allegations emerged that its oil operations might be exacerbating the war, Chrétien’s Liberals had to assess the situation on the ground.

Formerly BP Canada, Talisman was once Canada’s largest independent oil and gas enterprise. In 1998, it took up a small concession in Sudan, in partnership with one domestic outfit and two foreign (Malaysia and China).

“Talisman was the blue-chip company that really got the oil production going,” Nick recounts.

But while oil was being drilled, carnage raged in all directions.

Khartoum (the north) was a ruthless rival. They regularly used proxy militias to carry out atrocities against the south ranging from widespread killings; looting and setting villages aflame; to raping women and abducting their children. (The president of Sudan during this period, Omar al-Bashir, will soon face trial at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.) 

Following the embassy’s creation, John Harker (head of Canada's Assessment Mission to Sudan) issued a report concluding that Talisman’s presence was, indeed, exacerbating the war. Among the evidence was an airfield designated for oil-related traffic that was being used by Khartoum to massacre southern civilians. 

“You had a western oil company sending its oil to Khartoum, which is one side of the conflict.” Nick explains, “The money that it was supplying allowed Khartoum to pursue the war much more effectively and energetically than they would have done otherwise.”

This evidently led to large-scale protests both by concerned Canadians and NGOs alike. In light of John Harker's findings, the Ontario Teachers Fund divested its $191.5-million stake in Talisman.

“I have no quibble with the organizations that claim Talisman was feeding the war – it was – but once Talisman was out, Canada then lost any leverage it may have had over Khartoum.” Nick lays bare, “We no longer had a lever to say, ‘rein in the war, rein in the fighting, because you’ve got our oil company down there, and they’re important to you.’”

Due to sustained shareholder pressure, Talisman withdrew from Sudan in 2003 and sold its stake to an Indian company. From Nick’s point of view, Talisman was a big political embarrassment for the Canadian government, but it did set a precedent.

“This has been the first time a major enterprise, an oil company, was forced out on human rights grounds, so it was a bit of a ground breaker. They still made a profit in the end, but that’s oil for you.”

Nick arrived in South Sudan two years after the independence vote. He drew on experience from previous postings as he worked to tackle the humanitarian challenges engulfing the region. But only months after his arrival, an independent South Sudan collapsed into its own civil war.

“A lot of optimism around that time turned out to be unjustified,” Nick recalls.  

There are more than 60 ethnic groups in the country; Dinka and Nuer are two of the most prominent. The fallout started when President Salva Kiir (Dinka) accused his Vice President, Riek Machar (Nuer), of attempting to stage a coup d’état. South Sudanese leadership has long struggled with issues of factionalism.

Salva Kiir assumed the presidency unexpectedly after his predecessor died in a helicopter crash and comes from a military background. Dr. Riek Machar, on the other hand, is a western-educated scholar.

Nick personally met with both leaders and experienced the tension firsthand. Due to his strong English fluency, Machar was made the point of contact for western diplomats. Eventually, this led to resentment and paranoia from Kiir, who thought there was something conspiratorial in the works.

“I think western governments that were applauding the creation of the new country overlooked those tribal tensions within South Sudan,” Nick says. “We shouldn’t have been surprised that the tribal tensions have remerged once the common focus of the war was taken away.”

Since December 2013, an estimated 500,000 people have died, and another four million have been displaced due to the conflict. Several short-lived peace agreements and ceasefires have been struck over the years; the latest, in early 2020, has brought Kiir and Machar back together to form a unity government.

Nick partially faults the international community for infantilizing the region with unending supply of humanitarian aid without a long-term plan to ensure the nation’s self-sufficiency.

“It freed up the SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army] and the rebel movement. All they had to do was fight, and so they never really developed a relationship of responsibility to their people. We were really bad at weening them off that dependence.”

The west continues to provide heaps of humanitarian aid to South Sudan without exercising very much political leverage. Instead, governments are relying on neighbouring countries to steer the country towards peace. But, as Nick points out, “They have their own agendas.”

Khartoum remains in South Sudan to protect the oil fields, as it continues to reap a share of the revenue. Uganda is also present to secure its commercial interests.

“They’re perfectly fine with the South Sudanese government being very weak as long as they’re both making money,” Nick explains, “and that’s the very sad situation we’re in.”

In 2017, then-U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley informed President Kiir that America would cease aid to the country if it did not begin taking the peace process seriously. 

Despite the threat, United States remains a big player in the region. As Nick puts it, however, they "are not very focused these days.” Right now, several critical posts remain vacant at the U.S. State Department.

“We know President Trump’s views of Africa in general are pretty negative and simplistic.”

In a highly publicised closed-door meeting with lawmakers on immigration, President Trump referred to select nations in the region as ‘shithole countries' in 2018.

China has become the dominant player in South Sudan in recent years. With China at the helm, oil production in South Sudan has become very “opaque” according to Nick.

“When there is no history of institutions to control or to track that, corruption becomes massive as it has done.”

South Sudan is the most oil-dependant country on earth; with 98 per cent of its revenue relying on the industry. 

“It’s a great mystery of exactly how much money South Sudan makes from the oil and even more of a mystery of what that money is spent on.”

Beijing’s expansionist ambitions are threatening the sovereignty of many African nations. China is frequently an eager lender of vast sums of money to developing or underdeveloped countries for infrastructure and other projects. Victims of China’s ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ include Kenya and Sri Lanka; each have found important seaports under siege after failing to meet the demanding payback schedule.

“The speculation is that South Sudan has pledged future oil production to China. In other words, they are very much in China’s debt,” Nick explains. “We don’t know for a fact, but that’s the only explanation for how the economy is still afloat.”

Since departing Global Affairs, Nick still follows South Sudan closely and has done consulting on issues pertaining to the region. For Nick, life as a diplomat included lots of anticipation and excitement. Though, he acknowledges, diplomats tend to get stuck in a “rarefied atmosphere” in meetings with VIPs and political figures.

“My best memories were all of travelling out in rural South Sudan and meeting with ordinary people. Even though things could be pretty depressing in Juba, the strength of the ordinary people, and their resilience and anger. They have this anger, which I find quite encouraging. The problem is, there's no structures to channel that. If at some point somebody is able to channel that, and channel it positively, then I think South Sudan really will go places.”

On the other hand, one of the less favourable aspects of the job was competing for Ottawa’s attention.

“Arguing the case to Ottawa of why we should remain focused, why we should remain interested, that’s always one of the most challenging things. That applies to every posting I’ve been in. From Ottawa’s point of view, you are one of 120 ambassadors, and headquarters has to prioritize.”

Prime Ministers Harper and Trudeau‘s different governing styles have also extended into the realm of Canadian diplomacy.

“Under Prime Minister Harper there was certainly a lot more control over ambassadors speaking out. In other words, anything you said in public, even on some local radio in Juba, had to be vetted in Ottawa. Those gags now have been taken off.”

Prime Minister Trudeau campaigned on bringing increased transparency to the public sector. The Liberal government has worked diligently to reverse many of the Harper era muzzles.

“If you’re at ambassador level, frankly you’re quite well paid, you’re quite experienced … give us some credit that we won’t put our foot in our mouths. Let us speak out, let us represent the government, because that’s what we’re paid for.

“Having said that, you do have to recognize, as a civil servant, you have to put your own political views on the backburner because you’re there to serve the elected government of the day.”

Nick is very candid about the role his wife, Jenny, has played in making his career possible. As he admits, none of it would have been possible without her support. They have done six foreign postings together.

“Your partner’s career basically goes out the window, and my wife has degrees from Oxford and Cambridge University. Although she’s got work everywhere we’ve been, it’s very difficult when you’re constantly moving for two people to maintain a career. So, there are sacrifices.”

After the civil war broke out in 2013, Jenny played a key role in helping hundreds of Canadian citizens escape the brutal carnage in South Sudan. She sorted through documents, ensuring their safe departure from Juba International Airport. In 2017, she was honoured with the Meritorious Service Cross, along with her husband, at Rideau Hall.

In addition to their expedition around the world in the eighties, Nick and Jenny have managed to intersperse a number of sailing trips while working abroad.

“We had a posting in Cape Town, so we bought a boat down there and then sailed it back in stages.” They also sailed during their summers away from South Sudan.

“I grew up as a kid reading a lot of books about climbing and long-distance sailing. The climbing… frankly, I’ve never really had the physique or strength to climb Everest. But sailing was a great dream, sail around the world, which is what we did.”

In 2011, he published a book about his experience sailing as a Canadian diplomat, entitled Winter in Fireland: A Patagonian Sailing Adventure.

He continues to sail from the south end of Vancouver Island, where he and Jenny currently reside.

Upon reflecting on his career, it is the people he has met along the way who continue to inspire him.

“In Colombia, I counted at the end of the three years, 12 individuals whom I had known, who had been killed for their beliefs. For campaigning – for being activists – nothing but admiration for many of those people.

“Human rights activists, feminist activists, labour rights, huge admiration for them. There’s no money in it, and there’s not much of a career, and in some countries, in some parts of the world, they pay with their lives.”

Catch up with Nick on Twitter.

Interview Recorded: 2019 | Updated: 2022

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