For most of the 20th century, British colonial rulers viewed the north and south of Sudan as separate entities. The first Sudanese civil war (1955–1972) erupted just before independence, prompted by angry southerners who had been promised and then denied regional autonomy. The fighting resulted in the death of half a million people, mostly civilians, and forced hundreds of thousands to flee from their homes. In 1972, the Addis Ababa Agreement negotiated peace between the southern rebels, known as the Anyanya, and Khartoum. The peace deal included power-sharing agreements, security guarantees, and political and economic autonomy for the south.
In an attempt to quiet critics in the north and consolidate his power, then-Sudanese President Jaafar al-Nimieri introduced legal measures in 1983 that abolished southern governing autonomy. Nimieri returned power to Khartoum, declared Arabic the official language, and imposed Sharia’a law over the entire country. In response, southerners mobilized around the southern rebel army, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), led by Dr. John Garang. Rather than fight for southern independence, the SPLA posited that Sudan could be transformed into a multiracial, multilingual, multireligious, and multiethnic state.
In the north, Islamists gained political strength and on June 30, 1989, Brigadier-General Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir led a military coup, bringing to power the National Islamist Front (NIF) government. The NIF intensified the war with the south, conducting the fighting with systematic and widespread assaults against civilians. The war continued until 2005, when a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in Abuja, Nigeria, between Garang and Bashir. As part of that peace agreement, citizens of the south were given the opportunity for a future vote as to whether to remain part of Sudan or to break off and become an independent country.Amid much optimism, and with support from the United States and the international community, the referendum was held in January 2011, and the citizens of South Sudan voted overwhelmingly for independence. On July 9, 2011, the Republic of South Sudan was born.
There are unresolved issues that make for an uncertain future for the world’s newest country. Sudan and South Sudan share not only a history, but also significant cross-border interests, including trade, migration, and resource development, especially with regard to the oil rich border areas. Because of the long history of violence and fears of ongoing interference, southerners greatly distrust their northern neighbors, and the two countries have yet to find a way to respect each other’s sovereignty and peacefully negotiate their relations.
There are tensions over the disputed region of Abyei, which has large oil reserves, and these tensions threaten the economic well-being and security of both countries. In the border areas of the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan, a humanitarian crisis, in the context of a civil war between the government of Sudan and rebels from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement—north, has impacted large swaths of the population. By mid-2013, hundreds of thousands of civilians had fled the fighting as the Sudanese air force indiscriminately bombed civilian targets, and humanitarian groups reported on the dangers of widespread famine because the government of Sudan had blocked aid to peoples in the mountains.
Within South Sudan itself, intercommunal violence continues to be widespread, due to a range of issues—the availability of weapons, ethnic tensions among armed groups, corruption, and limited economic opportunities. The country faces an ongoing challenge of creating a democratic system of governance in a region with little history and few models for such practices. A political crisis that began in December 2013 has erupted into a large-scale civil conflict that has taken on an ethnic cast, as Dinka militias and supporters of the president, Salva Kiir, battle Nuer forces loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar for control of key cities and towns. Citizens are being targeted on the basis of their ethnic identity, and some one million civilians have been displaced as of May 2014.
The international policy responses to the conflict in Sudan (1985-2005) varied greatly over the twenty years of the conflict, affected by the Cold War, multiple conflicts and regime changes in neighboring countries, and other shifting geopolitical and economic interests. The governments of neighboring Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt, Libya, Chad, Uganda, and Kenya all played significant roles. Key players among the broader international community included the US, United Kingdom, and China. Sudan's support for Iraq during the first Gulf War and various radical Islamist movements (including hosting Osama Bin Laden from 1992-1996) resulted in increased isolation from western countries. In 1993, the US placed Sudan on its list of state sponsors of terrorism and imposed sanctions in 1997.
A peace process for southern Sudan, sponsored by the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development and mediated by Kenyan General Lazaro Sumbeiywo, gained momentum with the signing of a framework for peace in July 2002 by the Government of Sudan and the SPLM. The United States, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom increased their engagement in the peace process after 2001.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed by the government and the SPLM on January 9, 2005. It ended the two-decade war and provided the framework within which the South eventually voted for independence, creating the new country of South Sudan on July 9, 2011. Following the signing of the CPA, the UN Security Council authorized the establishment of the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) for a period of seven years. Deployed across Sudan, the 10,000-strong peacekeeping force was unable to prevent a recurrence of fighting between the government army and SPLA soldiers in oil-rich Abyei on the north-south border or in Kordofan.
Beginning in April 1989, humanitarian assistance came from Operation Lifeline Sudan, which was set up following a devastating famine in Southern Sudan—the result of drought and the civil war—which killed an estimated 250,000 people. The consortium included three UN agencies, UNICEF, the World Food Programme and 40 non-governmental organizations. Although it saved countless lives, the system was manipulated by both sides in the war, which limited access to suffering displaced populations and siphoned off aid
The region, historically separate and long neglected by the government in Khartoum, lacks basic infrastructure and social services. In 2003, non-Arab rebel groups, of which the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) is the best known, launched an uprising against the Sudanese government, accusing the government of favoring Arabs over the non-Arab ethnic groups. Since then, the Darfuri civilians of non-Arab descent have come under attack from government troops, nomadic militia, and rebel groups. Entire villages have been burned down, wells poisoned, and people raped, tortured, and killed. In December 2003, some 2,300 Darfuri villages were destroyed by the Janjaweed militia, resulting in a mass influx of refugees into eastern Chad. (The term Janjaweed is an Arabic word meaning “a man with a gun on a horse.”) Janjaweed militiamen, primarily members of nomadic Arab tribes, have fought alongside the Sudan Armed Forces in Darfur against ethnic African rebels.
The conflict in Darfur triggered one of the biggest humanitarian emergencies in recent times, and the plight of Darfuri refugees has drawn international attention. As many as 300,000 Darfuri may have died in the conflict, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that some 2.7 million people, mostly farmers and villagers from non-Arab groups, have been forced to flee their homes (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2007). More than 250,000 have crossed the border into neighboring Chad, while others have fled to Cameroon, Central African Republic, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria.
Need for Resettlement
Given the constantly evolving conflict in Darfur and the continued insecurity there, the UNHCR does not anticipate any possibility for repatriation in the foreseeable future. Insecurity in the countries of asylum, coupled with severely limited economic opportunities, make local integration highly unlikely. As a result, third-country resettlement is now seen as the most viable durable solution for the Darfuri refugees.
South Sudan came into existence as an independent and sovereign country on the heels of a long and taxing liberation struggle. The struggle that culminated in her independence is officially recognized as a journey of nearly two hundred years. State medals now carry a historical timeline running from 1821, when Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman Sultan’s Viceroy in Egypt, sent an expedition to invade Sudan in search of slaves and ivory, to 2011, the year South Sudan gained independence.
Professional historians will debate whether or not the Turkiya from 1820 to 1881, the Mahdiya from 1881 to 1898, the AngloEgyptian Condominium from 1898 to 1956, and the state of independent Sudan from 1956 to 2011, had similar policies of oppression, making the people of South Sudan view all of them as one continuum of colonization. Ever since the country we now know as the Sudan came into existence, the people living in its southern half have had important shared historical experiences ranging from their contact with the outside world and the effects of slavery, several eras of colonialism, and the protracted wars they experienced in the process of secession.
This narrative is now South Sudan’s state history, the official conclusion that, united or not, this new country was once a colony of each of these powers, and has only just ended a prolonged period of foreign rule. This is the historical experience that has shaped South Sudan’s sense of oneness, of a collective national belonging. To paraphrase the national sentiment that is often expressed by South Sudanese, we are one people, if not by genealogy, then by lived experiences, a feeling that has helped counter the notion that ethnic diversity will erode the foundation upon which South Sudan has built its sense of nationhood.
What is it that binds South Sudanese together, to enable them to claim belonging collectively to one nation? What are the similarities they share among themselves that make them more South Sudanese than members of their ethnic nationalities, beyond their differences from North Sudanese? The cultural, religious, linguistic, ethnic and racial differences that made them different from North Sudanese were valid during the liberation struggle, but the country has to now celebrate the commonalities that create their sense of collective national identity.