South Sudanese Independence and Politics


Where do we come from, where do we go?

Today is South Sudan’s 9th birthday, and we wish the people of South Sudan a happy and peaceful (and socially distanced) celebration of this important milestone. Nine is of course still very young, and we must be careful not to over-expect what any country may achieve in its first decade. Indeed, the Covid-19 crisis has also exposed and exacerbated inequalities and injustices in many much more developed nations.

South Sudan’s independence came after a struggle which dates back at least to the fourteenth century, when the Nile valley’s Christian Nubian kingdoms of Makuria and Alodia collapsed, Arab traders increased their presence in central Sudan, and the Nilotic peoples of the vast marshes of the Sudd – which made especially the predominantly Dinka areas so impenetrable to would-be foreign invaders – started to expand into the rest of what is now South Sudan. By the end of the fifteenth century the Shilluk were the dominant group, with their capital at Fashoda on the left bank of the Nile near what is now the border with Sudan. On the opposite bank were the Funj, in what became the Sultanate of Sennar and which at its heyday in the eighteenth century made up – along with Darfur – the bulk of what is now Sudan.

In 1821, the last sultan of Sennar surrendered to an invading Ottoman force, and over the next 50 years the rest of what became Anglo-Egyptian Sudan was conquered, including Equatoria (in 1870) and Darfur (in 1874). Then came the Mahdist revolt, the first world war and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, some boundary re-drawing, Egyptian independence, and finally the independence of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. It is worth noting from the perspective of identity politics that the original flag was a blue-yellow-green tricolour, designed by a Sudanese poet to be a neutral, non-tribal representation of the Nile, the desert and agricultural lands.

As the largest country in Africa, designed and dominated by outsiders regardless of tribal and religious identities and one of the very first in the continent to gain independence, Sudan was unlikely to find independence easy. The civil service had long been British-led and administered from Khartoum; indeed, one of its most famous Governors-General, Charles Gordon, had first arrived in Sudan as Governor of Equatoria in 1874, and supported the notion of seamless trade routes and spheres of British influence from Cairo to Mombasa and beyond. (Given today’s news headlines it is worth adding that he was also a robust abolitionist in his attempts to dismantle the slave trade in Sudan.) And as the British departed, administrative positions across the country were given not to local people but to the Khartoum-based elite. For most of Sudan therefore, including South Sudan, independence meant replacing one set of outside rulers with another.

Even before independence, the South Sudanese had begun to rebel against the British decision to treat all parts of Sudan as one administrative region. This rebellion was known as Anya Nya, and its main leaders were the fathers of two current FIGS trustees, two men who at the time disagreed fundamentally on the terms and viability of the 1972 peace agreement. Sadly, the violent conflict resumed in 1983 when the then Sudanese president abrogated the agreement, and it was from this resumed Anya Nya armed struggle that the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) emerged.

After 50 years of civil war (including an 11-year hiatus), South Sudan was granted the right to self-determination and, after a referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for independence, became the world’s newest nation nine years ago today.

Fans of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian will be familiar with the inevitable alphabet soup of ‘rebel’ groups in a revolution, and South Sudan’s political landscape may not seem dissimilar! As we have reported previously, President Salva Kiir and his First Vice-President (of five VPs) Riek Machar agreed in February 2020 to implement the peace deal, which the lines of previous agreements in Sudan and South Sudan determines the percentages of political positions held by each party. 55% are allocated to the President’s SPLM-IG (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Government), which includes the 5% originally allocated to a splinter group of leaders who had been detained following a split with the ruling group (SPLM-G10, subsequently reduced to SPLM-G5). The remaining 45% is shared between the Vice-President’s SPLM-IO (SPLM in Opposition – 27%), the SSOA (South Sudan Opposition Alliance, itself a fragile coalition of smaller movements – 10%), and other political parties (8%).

These percentages are difficult to implement when it comes to appointing governors to each of the country’s 10 states, and it has taken several months to agree which states would be allocated to which party. Some continue to complain that the state allocations have been neither transparent nor inclusive, though most governors have now been appointed, including most recently for Jonglei State, which in the end was allocated to SSOA and which has seen serious inter-communal violence in recent months.

The delay in allocating states to parties, and therefore in appointing governors, has of course impinged the states’ capacities to proceed with their own policies and priorities, including for education and the provision of other services. The new Governor of Western Equatoria (which is where Ibba Girls’ School is located, and which was allocated to SPLM-IO) is former commander Hon. Alfred Futiyu. Unfortunately, only one of the 9 governors so far announced is a woman, despite the peace agreement’s commitment to a minimum 35% representation of women in political positions.

South Sudan is currently reeling from the impact of Covid-19, a collapse in the price of oil on which it depends for over 90% of its income, unpredictable rainfall, and increased food insecurity, alongside the underlying political and economic challenges and sometimes violent power struggles. But one of the great qualities of South Sudan is the central importance it places on relationships, supported by its oral culture. Whatever negotiations and stand-offs have been taking place behind closed doors (or over internet conference apps), people at all levels of society will continue to talk to each other. FIGS and the Ibba Girls’ School leadership team are no exception. We continue to chat, virtually or in person where possible, with parents, local chiefs, community, civic and religious leaders, and state and federal authorities – whether in post, recently reassigned, or awaiting potential appointment. Indeed, this is one advantage of being a small charity focused on one school in one place; our strong and wide-ranging relationships.

It is the cultural significance of communication and relationship which also gives me hope for South Sudan. Having observed and been deeply involved with this new nation for nearly 20 years, I have seen time and again how behind the worst excesses of greed or division lie some deeply personal connections. On paper, South Sudan may not yet have many ‘birthday presents’, but we can be sure it has a lot of positive voicemail messages!

Mark Simmons, FIGS CEO, 9 July 2020

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