South Sudan’s journey to independence

by Anna Folz

Our partners in World Mission have issued a call to prayer for South Sudan in this extremely tense time in the country’s history. Presbyterians have a long history of partnership with the people of South Sudan. This brief reflection on South Sudan’s independence seems appropriate at this moment.

On July 11, 2013, South Sudan celebrated its first two years of independence.  At the main stadium revelers danced, sang and cheered in order to mark the second birthday of the world’s youngest nation. Following decades of fighting to free itself from Sudan, South Sudan became the world’s newest sovereign state on July 9, 2011. While its first two years brought the new country to the brink of renewed war with the north and almost to economic collapse after switching off its oil, its only source of foreign revenue, crowds of people waved the South Sudan flag and sang it’s newly written national anthem, rejoicing on the second anniversary of independence as if it were their very first.

South Sudan was part of Sudan until 2011.  South Sudan has a history of conflict with the region to the north based largely on ideology, religion, ethnicity, resources, land and oil. Egypt conquered Sudan early in the 1800’s. The invasion began in 1820, marking the official start date of the 191-year-old struggle for independence.  At this time there was an increase in Arabs from Egypt into Sudan. Over time, non-Arabs were pushed into South Sudan in large part because of their nomadic lifestyle. During these years there was an increase in slave trade and many men and women were taken from South Sudan, as their nomadic way of life made it easy for raiders to collect individuals for slaves. The government of Sudan saw the domestic and international exports of slaves as a commodity. The use of the Sudanese in the south as slaves helped in creating a strong distinction between northern and southern Sudanese.

During the scramble for Africa in the 1800’s Britain ceased control over Sudan and increased the export of slaves.  As Britain colonized Sudan, they developed schools, hospitals and developed a significant number of businesses.  This development occurred mainly in the north, as it was difficult to impose regulations within the south.  Islamic religion spread through the north, while the south remained largely Christian, Christianity being brought to the south by the early British settlers and missionaries.  As greater economic development began to unfold in the north, distinctions between north and south Sudan continued to grow.  Values began to differentiate the north from the south, as the northern populations became more educated and had a more structured form of government.  The divisions were no longer Arab and non-Arabs, but the north vs. the south.

In 1924 the British separated the administration of north and south Sudan. At the Juba conference however in 1947, the two regions were again rejoined.  With independence from the British in the mid-1950’s, southerners, fearing the domination by the Muslim north started a revolt that lasted for 17 years. This civil war left over 1.5 million southern Sudanese dead as a result of fighting, starvation and disease. The rebellion ended with an agreement signed in 1972 between the government and the Southern-Sudan Liberation Front.

A second civil war began in 1983 by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army when the Sudanese government revoked the 1972 agreement and imposed Islamic law. It was during this time that the conflict in Darfur grew. A government supported militia called the Janjaweed, meaning “devil on horse back” in Arabic, went into Darfur and killed non-Arabs, those who did not have the same values or common view on issue. This second conflict lasted for years. In 2002 the Sudanese government and the SPLA agreed on a framework for peace that called for autonomy for the south and a referendum on independence after six years. Conflicts however continued particularly in Darfur.  A truce was signed in 2005.  During the second conflict over 2 million people died mostly from disease and starvation. In January 2011 a weeklong South Sudan independence referendum was held, a month later the final results were released with almost 99% of the vote calling for separation.  On July 9, 2011 the independence of South Sudan was proclaimed. Salva Kiir became South Sudan’s first president.”

Sudan’s wars were the longest running conflict in Africa: two rounds of civil war spanning nearly 40 years were fought over ideology, religion, ethnicity, resources, land and oil. The last round, from 1983 to 2005, left some 2 million people dead and 4 million displaced from their homes. There continue to be disputes mostly over oil and border issues. Both South Sudan and Sudan have been accused of arming each other’s rebels.  In 2011 and 20112 there were significant ethnically based cattle raids.

Despite these disputes, July 9, 2013 was marked with revelry and fanfare. President Salva Kiir, reminded the large crowds that much work needs to be done.  There are enormous challenges ahead for the people of South Sudan.  “They have suffered enormously and that suffering has left scars on the people,” states Joe Feeney, head of the UN Development Program in South Sudan. Mr. Feeney says that “the vast majority of the country remains inaccessible during the rainy season, a country twice the size of Ireland has no paved roads. South Sudan has lucrative oil reserves, but remains one of the most impoverished and least developed country in the world.  The UN’s World Food Program said it helped feed about half the population last year, or some 4 million people. Statistics developed by the UN suggest South Sudan has the lowest routine immunization coverage rate in the world, stating a 15-year-old girl has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than completing school.  One out of seven women who become pregnant in the south will probably die from pregnancy-related causes. Mr. Feeny said, “The acid test of success will be what changes the people out in the states will see in their lives as a result of independence.”

During the 2013 celebrations Kiir promised to deliver services and vowed that corruption would not be the legacy of independence. Kiir said that public money would deliver “fruits of peace” such as education, health and clean water, which would lead to development and job creation in one of the most underdeveloped nations on earth. South Sudan will require assistance from the international community if there is to be lasting peace and development.  As South Sudan celebrates it’s second year of independence, our prayers are that their dreams and aspirations are realized.


Ahmed, Abdel Ghaffar M. “Sudanese Trade in Black Ivory: Opening Old Wounds.” The Slave Route. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, n.d.

Mamdani, Mahmood. When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2001. Print.

Dealey, Sam. “Is Darfur Genocide?” US News. U.S.News & World Report, 20 Aug. 2008. 02 May 2013.

Muhammad Ahmad.” – New World Encyclopedia. N.p., 27 Sept. 2005. Web. 22 Apr. 2013.

“Sudan: A Historical Perspective.” History of Sudan and Timeline. N.p., 2011. Web. 25 Apr. 2013


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