Its 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