Southern Sudan: a failed independence (Africana nr. 192 – 2018/06)

Southern Sudan: a failed independence

Seven years after the declaration of independence, the situation in Southern Sudan is catastrophic: an obvious case of a failed country. Perhaps the enthusiasm did not take into account the endemic shortcomings affecting the country, but the ideal has also been betrayed and battered by its leaders.

Southern Sudan was at war with the North since 1955, a year before the independence of the Anglo-Egyptian protectorate from Sudan. Since then, North and South have been at war with a 10-year break, between 1972 and 1982, when a fragile peace reigned between the contenders. When the referendum was held in June 2011, which was a choice between unity and independence, 98.83% of South Sudanese who went to the polls voted enthusiastically in favour of independence. Southern Sudan became the youngest country on the planet. The abundance of oil and other natural resources held out hope for rapid and continued development, which has not taken place.

Demonstrators during the referendum that led to the independence of Southern Sudan.

A little bit of history

The information prior to the 18th century is based above all on oral traditions according to which the Nilotic peoples (Dinka, Nuer, Shiluk…) entered the present territory of the South around the 10th century, while the Azande people entered it around the 15th century; and later, the Avungara people. Gradually, these peoples settled down until they occupied their present territories. Each of them organized themselves politically and socially according to their own structures until, in 1899, the United Kingdom and Egypt abolished their independence, establishing the Anglo-Egyptian Protectorate in Sudan. The protectorate, although unique, was administered as different territories: the North was Muslim and Arabic-speaking, while the South was animist and encouraged the use of English.

Pre-independence electoral propaganda

In 1953, the British and Egyptians decided to give independence to Sudan as a single country. Egypt hoped that, after independence, Sudan would form a federation with Egypt, thus securing the waters of the Nile. The unitary independence, however, upset many Southerners; they were particularly upset by the fact that Khartoum defined the country as Arab and Muslim. Hence, from 1955, one year before independence, a civil war began, which lasted until 1972. A peace agreement was reached at the time, giving the South an autonomous government, but the discovery of abundant oil in the south sharpened Khartoum’s desire for control. Its president, Yaafar al-Numeiry, dissolved the autonomy of the South and introduced Charía, or Islamic law, throughout the country, although the South was exempted from observing some of its precepts, such as the prohibition on drinking alcohol. This triggered the peace treaty signed in 1972 and began the second stage of the war of independence.

A new peace agreement between the Government of Sudan and the South Sudan People’s Liberation Army, signed in January 2005, ended a 40-year conflict. This agreement re-established the autonomous government of Southern Sudan and provided for a referendum in 2011, in which the South Sudanese people would decide on the unity of the country or the independence of the South. The choice for independence was overwhelming and, on 9 July 2011, Southern Sudan was proclaimed independent. Despite Sudan’s acceptance of Southern independence, tensions and skirmishes between the two countries continued for opposing interests.

The country

Southern Sudan has considerable natural resources, particularly oil. A World Bank report indicates that oil revenues would have been sufficient to reduce poverty in the country and improve the living conditions of its people. Today, however, it is not only among the poorest countries in the world, but its traditional economy is completely destroyed by the new intestinal conflict affecting the country. Southern Sudan could have a population of about 12 million. I say it could be because a couple of millions have been forced to take refuge in neighbouring countries. We will come back to that later. By ethnic group, the Dinka are the largest community, with some three million members.

Although the current constitution of 2011 recognizes all “indigenous languages” as national languages, it considers English as the “official working language in the Republic of Southern Sudan, as well as the language of instruction at all levels of education”. Yuba Arabic (a pidgin or macaroni language) is a lingua franca used, along with English. The most widely spoken indigenous languages are Bari, Dinka, Luo, Murle, Nuer, Pojulu and Zande. In addition, 60 other languages are spoken throughout the country.

In August 2011, the Ambassador of Southern Sudan to Kenya stated that Swahili would be introduced in Southern Sudan to replace the Arab, thus orienting the country towards the East African Community instead of the Arab bloc. In July 2017, the government of South Sudan asked teachers of Swahili from Tanzania to introduce this language into the school curriculum of South Sudan, thus preparing for the adoption of Swahili as the official language.

The independence of Southern Sudan has not led to the reconciliation of its inhabitants.


The economic situation in the country at the time of independence (2011) was encouraging. But it was a poor state, with basic infrastructure and a largely illiterate population. According to the World Bank, only 27 per cent of the population over the age of 15 was literate: 40 per cent of men and 16 per cent of women. Both infant and maternal mortality are high. Only half the population has access to safe drinking water and 80 per cent have no access to sanitation facilities.

However, Southern Sudan has a sufficient basis for considerable economic progress. Although its economy is based mainly on oil, it also has other natural resources: iron mineral, copper, chromium metal, zinc, tungsten, mica, silver and gold. The White Nile River crosses the country and many of its tributaries have their sources there, with possibilities of producing hydroelectric energy. It also has two natural parks: Bandingilo and Boma.

One of the riches of Southern Sudan is cattle.

The basic means of livelihood are low-production family farming (78% of the population) and grazing in bobbins. Cotton, peanuts, sorghum, millet, wheat, sugar cane, tapioca, mangoes, papayas, bananas, sweet potatoes and sesame are grown. It also produces gum arabic. Although Southern Sudan has vast tracts of unused farmland and pasture, it currently imports food from Uganda, Kenya and Northern Sudan. Fishing is up to 37,000 tonnes per year. According to the World Bank, the agricultural sector accounts for only 15% of the Gross Domestic Product.

Oil, on the other hand, would be its greatest asset for the time being. Southern Sudan is the most oil-dependent country in the world. This constitutes almost all of its exports and approximately 60% of its Gross Domestic Product.


Today, Southern Sudan has a 192 km paved road linking Yuba to Uganda; the rest of the roads are dirt roads. It also has 248 km of single track railway.

Yuba International Airport connects the capital of Southern Sudan with Entebbe, Nairobi, Cairo, Addis Ababa and Khartoum. Malakal airport connects with the main towns in the country.

Telephone communications are reduced to mobile phones with 2,853,000 connections in the country. The press has seven daily newspapers and one periodical. Four radio stations and one television station continue to operate, although freedom of expression is very limited.


According to the 2011 census and some studies conducted later, between 60% and 70% of the population would profess Christianity. Of these, 39.6% are Catholics; 20.90% are non-Catholic Christians, belonging to the Anglican Church of Sudan, the Coptic Church and several Protestant churches. 6.20% profess Islam and the rest, about 33%, profess traditional religions.

Conflict and its causes

The conflict in Southern Sudan has ethnic components, but it is not its only cause; political ambitions and access to the country’s wealth, especially oil, are part of it. The many peace agreements are short-lived on the ground.

At first glance, the clash appears to be an ethnic conflict, and this is the version reported by the media: Dinkas and Nuers, the two majority tribes, are fighting each other. The head of state, Salva Kiir, is Dinka, while the then vice-president, Riek Machar, is Nuer; their respective ethnic groups support them in the conflict. However, the real explanation seems to be more complex and, of course, control of the country’s power and wealth is, to a large extent, the reason for the confrontation.

Widespread corruption was soon introduced into the conduct of the classes close to power, to the extent that Salva Kiir accused them of embezzlement of 4 billion. Soon after the independence of Southern Sudan, the Minister of Culture, Jok Madut, pointed to several problems afflicting the government: the army did not function as a disciplined military force; civil society was severely weakened; the government’s service delivery was inadequate, unable to provide security and, finally, political unity deteriorated.

The head of state, Salva Kiir, wanted to remedy the first of these shortcomings by trying to reorganise the army, but his attempt was not well received. Kiir had hinted that some of his rivals were trying to rekindle old disagreements. For the presidential elections to be held in 2013, Riek Machar announced his candidacy. This led Salva Kiir to purge his government of dissent and, in July of the same year, to remove Riek Machar and the entire cabinet from his post as Vice-President.
Since then, tensions have become apparent and the head of state’s style of government has become authoritarian.

On December 15, by order of General Paul Malong (the president’s trusted man), Dinka soldiers tried to disarm the Nuer soldiers stationed in Yuba. They resisted, but the rebellion was crushed and the government-affiliated troops, mostly Dinkas, killed as many Nuer as they could find in the city of Yuba and its environs. The Kiir government tried to justify the killing by saying that Machar and the Nuer soldiers had planned a coup d’état. This alleged attempted coup d’état was reported in the press and accepted by much of the international community.

The result of the massacre, which could have caused more than 6,000 victims, immediately led to the uprising of all the Nuer soldiers in the various garrisons stationed in the provinces. Riek Machar, who had managed to escape, took the lead in the rebellion. Over time, other ethnic groups rose up against the Dinka monopoly and the Yuba government, while government soldiers and opposition militias massacred those they considered enemies in the villages. Thousands of civilians sought asylum at UN headquarters and in churches; those who could sought refuge in neighbouring countries. This chaotic situation has weakened the government and made a possible dialogue for peace more difficult.

Riek Machar (left) and Salva Kirr represent the two warring factions.

However, on 17 August 2015, under pressure from the UN and the US, which continue to regard the established regime as legitimate and Riak Machar as guilty, a peace agreement was signed between the parties. Riek Machar, who feared for his life, asked for assurances to return to Yuba, where he was about to be killed on July 8, 2016. Fleeing on foot, he took refuge in the DR of Congo and was eventually arrested in Addis Ababa, where he had come hoping to find the support of the African Union, which is based there. Since then, he has been under house arrest in South Africa, despite not having been tried.

Contrary to the expectations of the international community, which assumed that the arrest of Machar would help to resolve the conflict, the situation has only worsened. In December 2017, the various groups of contenders agreed to a cessation of hostilities; the agreement was signed in Addis Ababa on 23 December 2017 and was due to enter into force on 24 December. Riek Machar, the former vice president and leader of the largest opposition faction, ordered his rebel forces to cease all hostilities. However, since this pact was signed, both the government and the opposition have continued to accuse each other of violations of the agreement.

In spite of everything, President Kiir launched a process of dialogue in May 2018, most of which is ignored by the contenders. Kiir also announced elections for 2018, although the African Union warns that in the current conditions of conflict, such elections would be impracticable.

The deepest roots of the conflict should be found in the colonial policies of the protectorate that benefited the North while the South remained underdeveloped and uneducated. After independence, the Christian and animist South continued to be colonized by the Muslim North, with greater determination when oil was discovered in the southern part of the country.

The arms trade underpins the continuation of the war.

The fact that the conflict is motivated by political and economic interests is evidenced by the primordial role played by oil. When the fighting began in December 2013, the fighting was particularly violent in the oil states. For its part, the international community is not unaware of these calculations. Both the South Sudanese government and the rebels have continued to arm themselves without an international arms embargo. Interest in South Sudanese oil from countries such as China, Russia and the US explains why this is so passive. Russia and China have been reluctant when the possibility of sanctions or an arms embargo has been mentioned in the United Nations. Five per cent of China’s oil imports come from Southern Sudan, with whose government it has signed beneficial oil development agreements.

Added to this is the fact that the military in Southern Sudan is profiting from the benefits of oil, despite the famine in the country. One organization, which is dedicated to tracking money flowing around armed conflicts and crimes against humanity, has shown how a senior military officer in the South Sudanese army has 2.7 million euros in his personal account from the Kenya Commercial Bank, an amount that could never be explained by the salary he receives. According to the same organization, the President and his relatives have used the state oil company, Nilepet, to obtain funds, avoiding processes and controls on military spending during the civil conflict. Added to all this are other more than dubious businesses.

One of the peace accords that began with a prayer.

The human rights abuses and corruption of senior army officials are corroborated by Alberto Rojas’ article, published in the World on August 25, 2017.

What role does ethnicity play in this conflict?

Undoubtedly, ethnicity plays a role in these clashes. In Southern Sudan, ethnic affiliation has been a source of tension and division for a long time: even during the long years of struggle for independence, the liberation front was divided into ethnic factions: the Nuer, led by Machar and the Shiluk, led by Lam Akol, sometimes opposed each other instead of fighting the Northern army. They even came to accept arms and economic aid from the government of Khartoum, which was using them to weaken the political and military movement of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, led by John Garang.

The war in Sudan has ethnic components.

The betrayal of a great ideal

The conflict has caused several hundred deaths and nearly three million refugees and displaced persons, as well as severe famine throughout the country. Faced with the powerlessness of the political pacts, civil society is beginning to demand an end to the war.

The conflict, which began in August 2012 and continues to the present day, has caused 1,792,000 refugees in neighbouring countries and 2 million internally displaced persons in southern Sudan, in addition to 5 million people in a situation of severe food insecurity. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Uganda has been forced to host 928,000 South Sudanese refugees; Ethiopia 320,000; DR Congo 72,300; Sudan 400,000; Kenya 70,000 and the Central African Republic some 2,000. UNHCR estimates that about 60,000 South Sudanese flee abroad every month.

The exact number of victims is unknown, although it is estimated at some 300 thousand, most of them due to disease and famine, although some 50 thousand would be victims of fighting and killing by both sides. To this must be added the untold rape of women and the unrestrained trampling of human rights.

According to a 2016 UNHCR report, when Kiir and Machar’s forces entered an “enemy” locality, they systematically martyred civilians and raped women.

According to a UN Human Rights Commission, violence in some areas of the country amounts to a process of ethnic cleansing.

Of the nearly two million internally displaced people, 220 thousand have sought refuge in the UN protection camps in Southern Sudan, protected by most of the 12 thousand members of these troops. This does not prevent women from being raped in these camps.

Conflict and drought have added famine to the suffering of the people. According to UNICEF, nearly 5 million people across the country depend on food aid. More than 1.1 million children suffer from acute malnutrition. The fear of being attacked keeps families from going out to farm. Because of food shortages, inflation has reached 800%, preventing families from buying food.

The Churches, some charities, such as International Mercy Corps, and United Nations agencies (UNICEF, UNHCR, FAO and the World Food Programme) are working to alleviate the catastrophic situation of the South Sudanese people, but the means at their disposal are clearly insufficient. Human rights abuses and violations are perpetuated to the present day.

Government investigations rarely lead to prosecutions and convictions. A court martial investigates collective rapes of a group of soldiers. The outcome of this judicial process remains to be seen. UN investigators claim to have identified more than 40 Southern Sudanese army officers suspected of war crimes and crimes against humanity. These include eight lieutenants general and governors from three states.

UN troops are watching to control the conflict.

Looking for solutions

There is only one solution: peace. We have already mentioned the ceasefire’ agreements, which have so far been ineffective. Stronger national dialogue and vigorous and sustained international pressure must be established to achieve a political solution to the conflict.

The NGO, PeaceTech Lab Africa, is running a campaign to eradicate the hate language that inflames social networks on the Internet. A UN expert report (November 2016) warned that “members of all parties to the conflict, including senior government officials, have used social networks to exaggerate incidents, disseminate falsehoods and covert threats or post messages of incitement to violence. Much of the hate speech is generated in the diaspora and spread through family and personal networks: an SMS or a simple phone call.

A good number of South Sudanese are convinced that it is their responsibility to find a solution to the conflict that afflicts them. On May 12, 2017, a group of students from the University of Yuba and activists, calling themselves the New Society, organized demonstrations against government policies. According to the group’s secretary general, who was speaking from Nairobi, dozens of participants have been arrested and are unaccounted for. He also denounced torture, which is unconstitutional and deserves the condemnation of civil society. The pro-government “The Down” newspaper justified the arrests as politically motivated. Theoretically, the right to demonstrate is guaranteed by the constitution of the country.

AnaTaban activists – I’m Tired, in Arabic – have launched Blood Shed Free2017, in which they use artistic expressions such as hip-hop, poetry and graffiti, participatory theatre and street murals to mobilize their countrymen and promote a culture of peace. The campaign takes place in the streets and on social networks. They want to raise awareness among young people and promote dialogue instead of violence. Here is part of AnaTaban’s manifesto: “We are fed up, tired of war and all the suffering it brings with it. Tired of sitting around while our country burns. Tired of having a country with enormous natural resources but a collapsed economy. We are tired of our precious cultural diversity – 64 ethnic groups – being destroyed by tribal animosity. Tired of having a population dying of hunger, even though we have fertile land. We are tired of being used to kill each other for the benefit of a few.

Conflict and sacking make external help necessary.

The manifesto could not be more explicit or eloquent. They call for a permanent ceasefire, a halt to ethnic violence and an end to the insecurity that has turned roads into lethal traps, as well as respect for human rights and press freedom, which is non-existent in Southern Sudan. They also insist on being the ones to settle their disputes: “If the South Sudanese do not resolve their disputes, no one will do it for them”.

Specifically, four clear messages are sent to the entire population, but especially to young people:

  • Ask forgiveness and grant it.
  • Settle disagreements peacefully.
  • Accept tolerance as indispensable.
  • Every South Sudanese has a role to play in laying the foundations of peace.

Against the betrayal of a great ideal and the hopelessness that betrayal engenders, there are those who do not resign themselves, and are still able to wait.

Bartolomé Burgos, M.Afr.
From “Africana” nr. 192, June 2018 – M.Afr. Madrid
Translation with the help of