South Sudan: The birth of a new nation

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by P.T. Mosson

Today South Sudan officially gains its independence from Sudan and will soon take its seat at the United Nations.  At a ceremony in the South Sudanese capital of Juba, the flag of Sudan will be lowered and the new nation’s flag will be raised to take its place.  The event signals the end of a long and bitter civil war which wracked Sudan for generations.

There is a palpable excitement in the air in Juba, streets are being cleaned, banners strung up, roads being repaired in order to ready the city for the dignitaries who will attend the celebrations which will be hosted by the new President, Salva Kiir.  The guest list includes United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon and former US secretary of state Colin Powell, as well as Foreign Secretary William Hague who is representing the United Kingdom.  Security is tight, one guest who will be less popular with the crowds will the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, who led the northern side in the civil war which saw hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese lose their lives or displaced as refugees.  Yesterday, Friday, al-Bashir’s government became the first state to officially recognise the new country of South Sudan.

Sudan was a country that was never meant to be.  In the 19th century the British created the vast county from territories controlled by Egypt, then a puppet state under British control.  These areas had been under Arab and Muslim influence for centuries, and most of inhabitants considered themselves Arab. Nominally under joint British and Egyptian rule, Sudan was effectively governed as a colony of the British Emprire.  

As a sop to Egyptian pride, the British added swathes of territory to Sudan, extending its reach deep into lands which were culturally African and where knowledge of Arabic and the Islamic religion had scarcely made any impact.  One of the last regions of Africa to fall under European control, its inhabitants remained faithful to traditional African religions and were culturally and politically divided into dozens of tribal groups speaking unrelated languages. Under British rule Christian missionaries operated freely in the area, converting many to Christianity.

When Sudan attained its independence from the UK and Egypt in 1956, its government was dominated by Arabic speaking northerners.  Southerners were suspicious of the north and complained that they would still be treated as a colony.  Guerrila groups formed around dissatisfied southern soldiers from the old British administered Sudan Defence Force and began to attack outposts of the army of the newly independent Sudan.  The war continued until an uneasy peace was brokered in 1972.

Southern fears that they were merely a colony of the north were realised as the new government exploited the region’s resources and wealth.  Although rich in water, minerals and fossil fuels, there was little economic development in the south, even today the only paved roads anywhere in South Sudan are within Juba city.  Schooling, health provision and electricity are sporadic in the capital, and practically non-existent elsewhere.  

The northern government embarked upon a campaign to Arabise and Islamicise the south, creating deep resentment amongst southerners.  Although education provision in the south was slight, those who had received any education had usually been taught English.  Christians and followers of indigenous religions alike feared the imposition of Islam and Sharia law.

The discovery of oil and gas deposits in the south in the 1970s brought the social and economic divisions between north and south to the fore.  The fragile truce of 1972 was shattered and in 1983 full scale civil war broke out again as the South Sudanese Liberation Army announced its goal of an independent sovereign South Sudan.  The war was devastating.  It is estimated that around 2 million people lost their lives during the second civil war, and a further 4 million were displaced.  The total population of South Sudan is estimated at some 8 million.  The war was finally brought to an end by the peace deal of 2005, which permitted the independence referendum held in January this year, which returned an overwhelming majority in favour of independence.

The new nation of South Sudan is born with many problems.  South Sudan is still trying to disentangle itself from Sudan and the two sides have yet to resolve many issues, most seriously the borders between the two countries have yet to be defined, and there remains no agreement on the sharing of oil revenues.  Approximately 75% of Sudan’s oil reserves lies in South Sudan but the oil must flow through pipelines controlled by the North.  Sudan’s army is currently fighting pro-southern Sudan elements in the Abeyei region of the northern-controlled state of Southern Kordofan.  

What little infrastructure there is in South Sudan was wrecked by war.  Thousands remain in refugee camps, transportation and communications are difficult and impossible during certain times of the year.  Around 90% of women are illiterate, infant mortality rates are amongst the highest in the world.

Although a sense of South Sudanese identity was forged during the bitter civil war, tribal identities remain much stronger and historical tensions between the different ethnic groups who make up South Sudan may still flare up into open conflict.  Political divisions between the elements who make up the coalition government may not remain To make matters even worse, the eastern districts of the new country are currently suffering from drought, threatening widespread famine.  

But despite the massive challenges the fledgeling nation faces, today in South Sudan there is a sense of hope and expectation.  Speaking to Reuters news agency a resident of Juba, Mr Gabriel Yaac said, “I’m very happy for independence.  There is nothing bad in the future.  If you are alone in your house you can manage your own things.  No one will interrupt you.”  

Today South Sudan becomes the latest nation in the world to choose to be alone in its own house and to manage its own things.