South Sudan’s leaders have learnt nothing from 50 years of independence in Africa – By Richard Dowden

dowden9Its birth was Caesarean, sliced out of the Republic of Sudan by American surgeons.  Reacting to an extraordinary coalition of African Americans and right wing Christian evangelicals, ambitious young US politicians got the governments of both George Bush and Barrack Obama to support the idea of a separate south Sudan and forced the government of Khartoum to a ten year transition to independence.

This weird coalition was possible because of two words that cropped up in the reports from Sudan: slavery and crucifixion. African Americans were outraged by stories of black Africans being enslaved and killed by “Arabs”.  Evangelical Christians because they were told that Christians in south Sudan were being crucified by Muslims. With the human rights lobby in close support, the American government was swept along by the idea and negotiated a ceasefire between the government in Khartoum and the rebel Sudan Peoples Liberation Army. That then led to an independence agreement in 2005.

Whether the government in Khartoum believed it would never really happen or whether they were threatened with dire personal consequences if they blocked independence is not known, but the Republic of South Sudan was born on July 2011and ruled by the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement, the “liberation movement” that had fought since 1983.  After almost permanent war for nearly 50 years the American cowboys had ridden into town and rescued the good guys from the bad guys.

The war had started in 1962 when a group of southern officers rebelled from the national army. It paused in the 1970s and resumed in 1983 when a new rebellion began. But this one, the Sudan Peoples Liberation Front pretended they were fighting to overthrow the government in Khartoum and establish a democratic Sudan. In fact they were fighting to create a separate state in the South.

The roots of mistrust go back to the 19th century when the muslim arabic speaking northerners sent slaving and cattle stealing expeditions into the south. When Britain decided it needed to control the Nile from the source to Alexandria, it ruled north and south as separate countries. “We were never allowed to get to know each other” northern Sudanese will tell you.

Not quite true. Southerners did travel to the north but in slave caravans while northerners only visited the south to grab more slaves. The slang for a southerner in the north is abid – slave. In the 1980s when I first went to Sudan I was struck by the lack of any representation of the south in Khartoum apart from floor sweepers and tea bringers. But all around the hot dry outskirts of Khartoum were vast encampments of southerners who had fled the war and made tents out of plastic sheeting, flattened tin cans or cardboard boxes, neatly stitched together. The government did nothing for them but occasionally would send the police to tear down their makeshift shelters and buildings and chase them further into the desert that surrounds Khartoum.

On my first visit to Sudan I took a bus down the Nile towards Malakal. The people-scape gradually changed from mixed-race Arab-African Muslims who spoke arabic to the very black, very tall Nilotic Africans. I had a long conversation with a policeman, a southerner, who said that the arabs still treated all southerners as slaves and the sooner the south split away the better.

But the south itself is a matrix of peoples of which the Dinka are the most numerous, closely followed by the Nuer, and the Shilluk. Depending on how you define ethnicity there are about 70 other groups. The Sudan Peoples Liberation Army, formed in 1983 by John Garang and other southern officers, was pledged (in public) to a fairer, democratic Sudan. In reality they were fighting for independence for the south.

Why the secrecy? The SPLA was separatist at heart but it was backed by neighbouring Ethiopia which had its own problems with separatist movements in Eritrea and Tigray. These separatist movements in turn were backed by the government of Sudan in Khartoum. Both governments wanted to weaken each other but neither wanted to concede the principle of separatism. So they fought proxy wars through each others’ rebels. This war by proxies lasted until 1993 when the Mengistu government of Ethiopia was overthrown by the Tigrayan and Eritrean rebels and Eritrea became independent.

The SPLA in Sudan however could never have achieved such a direct military victory against northern Sudan. The war there was like a boxing match on a football field – the government army holding most of the towns including the capital, Juba, and the SPLA making the spaces in between unsafe. The rebels had little impact on the north apart from draining the economy by forcing the government to maintain a large inefficient army.

I have never been quite sure why Khartoum ever agreed to the American plan. Maybe President Bashir and his government believed it would never happen, just as the many promises it had made over the years, had never been fulfilled. Maybe they were threatened by the US government. Some of them may have realised that the south was so divided by ethnic rivalry that an independent South Sudan would never work anyway.

And they were right. In 1991 Riek Machar, the Nuer leader within the SPLA, had attempted to overthrow John Garang in a coup. It failed but it sparked a ghastly intertribal war in which Riek was helped by the government in Khartoum. I visited that war soon after it began and witnessed the burning of villages and grain stores and the killing of cattle that caused flight and mass starvation among the civilians. I was struck by the utter carelessness of the commanders and fighters on both sides, not just towards their former allies, but to women and children of their own ethnicity. After an emergency food drop for civilians by an aid agency, they would simply come and steal it and store it for themselves. And I never saw one of them lift a finger to help civilians.

Machar lost and fled to Khartoum where he was given a position in the government. Did that ruin his standing in the eyes of his own people? Not at all. There he was at independence in Juba being sworn in as vice president. When he was sacked from that post in 2013 he took up arms – supplied almost certainly by Khartoum – to overthrow the government of President Silva Kier, the Dinka leader.

I visited the south during that war and was left with the certainty that if the south ever became independent it would result in a war between Dinka and Nuer and possibly the Shilluk as well with the smaller groups being pawns in the great game for power. After the country had been handed to the SPLA warriors by the US-brokered deal, they all wanted pensions. Doing any work was beneath them. That is what I saw during the war too. At Panyagor in 1993 I watched children dying of hunger and exposure while the fighters did not lift a finger to even build a shelter for them let alone share their plentiful supplies with them. On that same trip I flew to Nuer villages that had been attacked by Dinka warriors and saw the shriveled corpses of men, women and children and the burned-out huts of an entire village.

Earlier this year, blessed with some 270,000 barrels of oil flowing per day and with thousands of square miles of some of the most fertile land in Africa, with Khartoum weakened and facing insurrection, with nothing but goodwill from the rest of the world, the most pressing question facing the government in Juba was how to spend it. Now we know. $4 billion was promptly stolen by President Salva Kier and his chums. Just in case he didn’t know, a western diplomat gave him a list of amounts in his cabinet members’ bank accounts.

So what had Africa’s newest government, newest state, newest rulers learned from 50 years of independence in Africa? Nothing.


Death has recently struck three great Africanists who were also good friends. Stanley Uys who did more than any other South African journalist in the 1970s and 1980s to expose the evils and insanity of apartheid with great courage and insight. Komla Dumor of the BBC who was only 41 and was becoming a great BBC presenter and interviewer, asking the most difficult questions in a polite but persistent way.  And Patrick Chabal of Kings College London, a renowned academic and expert on Lusophone Africa. These are great losses to Africa. We shall miss them. May they rest in peace.

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa; altered states, ordinary miracles. Follow Richard on twitter @DowdenAfrica

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6 thoughts on “South Sudan’s leaders have learnt nothing from 50 years of independence in Africa – By Richard Dowden

  1. I suppose if anyone should have learned something from post-independence African governments it is the upper-echelons of the SPLA/M who are largely western-educated.

    Still, the passing of 50 years in other countries means nothing to the vast majority of SSudanese locals who have never had contact (visits, internet, phones) with the outside world. Expectations of leaders are relatively low outside of Juba / Bor / Malakal and a few other larger towns.

    As you stated, Riek Machar’s loyalties have always been to himself, although I doubt he is backed by the North. The flowing of oil would take ages longer to restart if Al-B sided with the rebel forces.

    Good summary of SS. At the end of the day, what is there to say about the conflict there other than it was completely expected?

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  3. Dear Sir Dowden,

    You can post this as an opinion, if not, as a comment, please withold my name for bbvious reasons

    A political joke

    My friend has recently set up a web shop on internet called “Western Equatoria spectacles”

    The frames of the spectacles all look the same but only the glasses differ according to the different tribal users

    The glasses themselves, colourless, come in 3 strengths: normal, medium, heavy

    His business plan on the website states that every tribesman or woman above 18 should wear his tribal spectacles in Western Equatoria

    Zande should wear Zande spectacles, Avokaya should wear Avokaya spectacles etc. It was useless being a Zande wearing Avokaya spectacles because you would not see anything. This applies to any tribe in Western Equatoria

    Buying glasses for a tribe different than your own was useless and a waste of money, this was clearly stated on the website

    This principle applied to all the tribes of Western Equatoria

    Once ordered on line the spectacles were delivered by messenger at the address you gave, anywhere in Western Equatoria !

    Although having visited his website many times, it was nowhere stated WHY every tribe should wear his own tribal glasses

    So I paid him a visit and sitting under a mango tree we started drinking suku suku, this of course after he gulped down the first cup, an old hand like me only trusts family members and even then ……

    So I asked him WHY should every tribe wear his own tribal spectacles

    According to my friend (himself a Zande): if you are for example a Zande, and wearing Zande spectacles, you can recognise easily other Zande just by looking at them, even not talking!!! If you look at a group of people you directly identify the Zande and other tribes present a blurred image. This had enormous advantages in activities as doing business, shopping, looking for a woman if you want to marry, going for a drink in a bar etc etc.
    You are always better of with your own tribesman or woman because you cannot really trust other tribes and by wearing your tribal glasses you avoid a lot of problems. Many customers had e-mailed him praising him and had themselves convinced their own tribesman and woman of buying his glasses and in fact when I drove from the airport to his house I was surprised by the number of people with his glasses
    The same principle applies for other tribes and their respective glasses in Western Equatoria. That was the rationale in setting up his webshop selling this type of spectacles he said

    Why then, I asked him, does he proposes 3 strengths, normal, mean and heavy ?

    Well he said, quite some people went into exile during “the troubles” and some of them got a bit “contaminated” by living among other tribal communities, so if somebody thinks he is not anymore a “true” tribesman or otherwise said, if his cultural heritage had become a bit diluted, he can choose the categories “medium” or “heavy” which gave you a clearer picture of your own tribesman or woman. He went on quite a bit about the relation between what your eyes see and the cultural upbringing and most importantly what your brain thinks but I will not dwell about this philosophical thoughts of my friend, only this one; he claimed that some “pure” (not contaminated) tribes only like fat woman because of their upbringing, other tribes only like skinny woman above 1m80
    If a tribesman or woman does not have any problems he can buy normal lenses: the price was the same for the 3 strenghts

    The suku suku stirred up some more questions from my side

    Then I asked him if there was a relation between the result of recognising your own tribe by wearing the appropriate spectacles and wearing them in the tribal homeland.
    What do you mean he said.
    Because I had extensively looked on his webshop for Avungara glasses but I did not find any, and to my knowledge the Avungara’s tribal homeland originated from outside Western Equatoria but know they claim to be Zande. I wondered what would happen if a Avungara bought Zande spectacles. He answered me that he had never registered complaints from this people.
    Still my friend looked a bit puzzled and then he said: in fact we have remarked statistically significant differences between areas in the tribal homeland of the Zande although there seemed to be some border disputes; in for example Source Yubu almost all spectacles sold to Zande who had remained there during “the troubles” had “normal “glasses”, to the contrary, Zande in Maridi and further east had to buy proportionally more “mean” and “heavy” glasses; the same phenomenon appeared once you had passed Tembura

    What happens, I asked him, if somebody, for example, a Belanda Mviri, a descendant from a mixed marriage Belanda Mviri and Zande, buys Zande glasses

    Well he said, that is a difficult question. Scientific studies conducted were inconclusive, The sex of the Belande Mviri of mixed mariage, male or female seemed to have an influence but not always. Some male Belanda Mviri with Zande glasses could only recognise Belanda Mviri and not Zande, others recognised only Zande without any problem
    His scientific laboratory was still refining the production processes for the category of the Belanda Mviri glasses

    I do not know what happened but the suku suku made me remember something very crucial: when my friend took me to the mangotree to sit down I forgot to relocate my chair a bit

    After I ordered a third bottle of suku suku I finally dared to fire of my last question: why doesn’t he sell SPLA spectacles ??? (because I had heard rumours about this newly discovered tribe in Southern Sudan)

    He looked at me, took his chair a bit closer to mine, looked around and whispered to me: when I started my business, I only sold SPLA spectacles but the people who bought them encountered a lot of mental problems after a while, so I stopped the production of this type of glasses

    When the bottle of suku suku arrived, he seemed relieved to change the subject

    The next day when I woke up, I felt a lot wiser and left my friend

  4. Thank you for this piece; however, I believe you come across very hard and unforgiving. Yes South Sudan is currently in internal conflict, now 2.5 years after gaining independence, but are all African states that have been independent for 50 years free of internal conflict or corruption? Maybe the lessons of the past have not provided paths of correction..

    I think it is naive to assume that because there is history of African development and political lessons that those would have spared South Sudan this trying period. I think what has been learned will come in the resolution of this conflict and the progress forward dictated by those citizens willing to be advocates for their future.

    As for why this was ‘allowed’ to happen, that takes away responsibility and ownership from parties. Yes there may be instances where parties are pressured into decision, yet Sudan ultimately agreed to the referendum, and citizens displayed their desires by voting in a large majority for separation- whether it was the best decision for politics is irrelevant- it is what individuals sharing a common interest felt a right to.

    People are quick to set things in black and white, failures and successes, but instead of dwelling in the past (which has a role for understanding the present) let us look towards the future, however unclear, and see the capacity of leaders in South Sudan to walk their country’s own visionary path and grow from the misdirection already taken those within its borders.

  5. Dowden’s punchline/headline does not quite work, does it? Following through on the logic of the piece, South Sudan’s leaders, in pocketing $4 billion without sharing much in the sufferings of their people, have actually learned quite a lot from Africa’s 50 years of independence. Until the end, what the argument seems to be leading to is rather that the Americans who facilitated South Sudan’s independence – and the ‘wierd coalition’ that propelled them – had learned nothing. But then, what should we learn from the last 50 years? That the West (full of ‘nothing but goodwill’) should work harder to defer African independences and get them set up more cleanly?

    P.S. Torit Mutiny was 1955 not 1962. Fall of Mengistu was 1991 not 1993.

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