South Sudan was plunged into turmoil again when forces loyal to President Salva Kiir Mayardit and Riek Machar, the South Sudanese Vice President, clashed in the capital city of Juba. There were 300 casualties in the renewed fighting. Negotiations for a unity government was in the process of being implemented when the fighting broke out. Machar whose dismissal from the national government earlier by President Kiir in a cost cutting move claimed by the President, was in the capital city to take up his restored position when struggle for political control of the state started anew. By all measures, South Sudan, the newest nation in Africa, split off from Sudan in 2011, has not lived up to the expectations of those who advocated for its separation from the Sudanese State after decades of war.
The modern Sudanese State which succeeded a European created colonial state was peopled by 2 main population groups—Muslim Arabs in northern Sudan and African tribes in the south of the country. The north and the south shared very little in culture, religion and social evolution, and these differences created great challenges relative to political and socioeconomic cooperation following the establishment of the Sudanese Republic in 1956. Claims of Arab marginalization and discrimination by the African ethnic groups of the south—the Dinka, Nuer and several other —were the impetus for several decades of warfare for political and socioeconomic justice.
South Sudanese military men who lead the struggle during different periods espoused different goals in terms of their hoped-for outcomes of the conflict. Whereas some advocated for complete independence from the Arab north, others advocated a federal state where the rights of all, regardless of ethnicity, would be enthroned. The greatest of these military leaders was undoubtedly John Garang. A respected intellectual who obtained a doctorate degree from Iowa State University, then joined the Sudanese military and rose to the rank of a Colonel, Garang believed in the oneness of the Sudanese State and worked from within the existing structures of the state to push for political reforms that would restore a sense of national belonging to his fellow South Sudanese. A Sudanese State that was fair and equitable to all was preferable to Garang than a dismembered State with the South on its own as an independent state. Garang’s desire was complicated by the religious intolerance of Arab Sudanese in the top echelons of government. With the support of President Bashir, an autocrat in power now for several decades, attempts were made by religious zealots among the Arab politicians to impose Islamic Sharia laws on the animist and Christian South Sudanese. Confronted with this intolerance, Garang broke with the Sudanese Government and launched a full scale guerilla war to secure the future for his people.
Several years of war and mediations by the United Nations and the United States to resolve the conflict facilitated the excision of South Sudan from Sudan and the creation of The Republic of South Sudan. But Garang, on whom much hope had been placed to steer the affairs of the new nation state, died in a suspicious helicopter crash in 2005. Silva Kiir, Garang’s deputy of several years, took charge. Since the inception of the new state, Kiir has tried mightily to run the state but has faced significant challenges not the least of which was maintaining unity among the various ethnic groups of the country. Kirr is an ethnic Dinka as was Garang, but there are many other political leaders who are of Nuer ethnicity. Riek Machar, Kiir’s avowed adversary, is Nuer.
The political struggle between the two has spawned devastating consequences for the young nation. The economy has been disrupted from the instability of the war. Several international and bilateral development projects have been suspended or abandoned as a result of insecurity, and segments of the population have been forced to flee from their homes. The failure of South Sudanese political leaders to get their act together has been a disappointment to the champions of their independence from the oppressive erstwhile Sudanese State. Agitations elsewhere on the African continent for self determination by ethnic groups under the yoke of oppression and marginalization by majority groups have been ill served by the spectacular failure of the political leaders of South Sudan to run a crisis-free nation. They have made it harder for the international community to support new nation states in Africa regardless of justifications for them.