Published: June 19th 2008June 17th 2008
In this blog entry, I attempt to provide a little background of how South Sudan became what it is today. I hope to be fair with a population that has suffered too much for too long, while adding some ‘spice’ to the story. You can skip this entry if you are not interested, but I think is a tale worth telling.
If you like stories like the one of Che Guevara, you should definitely read about John Garang. His face is everywhere in Juba, but not enough time since his death has passed to become a pop-culture symbol as Ernesto Guevara has become in the West. There is something of a cult surrounding Garang here.
Since the times of the turco-egyptian sultan Mohammed Ali, Arabs from North Sudan used the South as a source of natural resources, occupying lands of the largest tribe in South Sudan: the nomad Dinkas, characterized for being slim and very tall. Since those days, in the 1820’s, southerners (blacks) have had fear of the northerners (Arabs).
Britain administered both regions as separate, but when independence was ‘granted’ in 1956, ill-prepared and poorly educated southerners were easy prey of Arab administrators of the North. The first Civil War would immediately start, all the way until 1972, when a Federal Sudan with certain level of autonomy of the South was agreed. The North, however, never respected the agreement, and continued to extract oil and other resources, taking them and refining them in the north.
Here’s were Garang appears. A Dinka of origin, Garang had been assimilated by the Sudanese army in 1972. Got his PhD. and military training in the US. When he was ordered by the Sudanese Army to lead a group to control a new rebellion in the South, he defected and with his battalion, joined the rebel forces, and founded the Sudanese People Liberation Movement (SPLM), and its military arm, the Sudanese People Liberation Army (SPLA).
The SPLA was mainly an army to defend Dinka and Nuer interests, the largest tribes here in South Sudan. The field was divided in this way: The Sudanese government of Khartoum armed and funded other tribes traditionally rivals with the Dinkas and Nuers, so Southerners could kill each other. The SPLA, on the other hand, found a great ally in the Ethiopian Marxist regime of Mengistu. People displaced by the Sudanese government from their lands in the south were received in huge refugee camps in Ethiopia.
Garang was a god for many of his followers, but was a ‘little’ authoritarian with his own people: this caused a faction of SPLA to rebel against their leader. The Nuers, guided by Gen. Riek, formed their SPLA-United group, and massacred 2,000 Dinkas in the town of Bor, while displacing 100,000 people. Riek made a deal with the Sudanese government, receiving lots of money and arms. Also, Khartoum redirected any UN or NGO aid away from areas controlled by the Dinkas.
After 1991, Garang’s forces were surrounded by Nuers, Northern Sudanese, and Ethiopians, who supported Khartoum after the Mengistu dictator was deposed there.
Finally, the ‘happy’ ending, with an unexpected turn of events: General Riek ‘realized’ he was being used by the North, and joins Garang again, leveling the field again. With the peace of 2005, Garang became the vice-President of Sudan, until his ‘accidental’ death, when his plane fell only a couple of years ago.
Movie material, don’t you think?
This is a country emerging from 50 years of war. There is no capacity, no infrastructure, a low human capital in terms of education. All government positions are held by former SPLA/SPLM cadres, with little or no preparation to govern. Many ministers have a very negative, even, suspicious attitude towards the UN and NGOs, because some of them felt betrayed more than once by the UN during the war, when aid only reached their enemies. An NGO official told his story when meeting the Minister of Health for the first time, with the Minister saying: ‘Ah, you with that group that is killing the children of South Sudan’…. Talk about starting a relationship with the wrong foot….