South Sudan - Africa's newest country

Friday, 29 July 2011
Richard Dowden

By Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society

On my first visit to Sudan – more than 25 years ago – I took a bus from Khartoum down the Nile to Renk, a trip from the Islamic, Arabic-speaking north to the culturally African south which is more diverse in its variety of religious faith. Two striking things have stayed with me from the trip. Firstly there was no road between north and south. Somewhere south of Kosti the road disappeared and the driver had a choice of tracks through the bush.  The second thing was a conversation with a police chief - a senior officer. He was a tall black southerner and he told me without my asking that the south should be independent. The northerners, he said, called southerners abyid – slaves, and treated them as second class citizens. 

I was astonished to find a government official, a senior policeman, expressing his views in support of the rebels he was supposed to be fighting against. Since then I have never doubted that, if given the chance, the vast majority of southerners would vote for independence. 

Oddly however the mainly southern rebel movement, the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army, was not fighting for separation. Officially they opposed it - instead they were fighting for a united, democratic, secular Sudan. The movement had come into existence when President Nimieri had made Sudan an Islamic republic. But talk to any southerner about what they were fighting for, and sooner or later they would talk about the oppressive racism of the northern Sudanese. 

That anger was certainly justified by what I had seen in Khartoum over the last few decades. The only southerners I saw there in government offices were people making tea or sweeping the floors and paths with grass brooms. There was one southern minister – a token gesture by a government made up of northern, Arabic-speaking Muslim Sudanese drawn almost exclusively from the towns on the Nile, north of the capital. They had inherited Sudan from the British as a “possession” – and that is what it really is, a conquered territory from the time of Ottoman and then Anglo Egyptian rule. And these inheritors have continued to run it like their personal fiefdom, treating the Southerners as well as other ethnic groups like the Darfurians, Bejas and others as their subjects.       

Though overwhelmingly southern in its make up, the SPLA’s ideological position brought it a lot of support among Khartoum’s intellectual middle class as well as trade unions and Communists and support from other regions fighting for more autonomy. That’s what progressive elements in the Northern Sudan will now lose – the support of the South. So the opposition to the Islamists will be hugely reduced in size. On the other hand they will be encouraged by the South’s victory and may feel that the Bashir regime is weakened by separation. 

This is now inevitable. Southerners have already voted by more than 60% for independence. The only questions now is whether there is the capacity to run and develop a state that has had no development since the 1950s – and precious little before that. And whether the disputed areas such as Abyei will result in a major war between north and south. Oil is the key. The prospect of wealth and development might prevent or cause that war. Sudan will need intense diplomatic involvement for many years to come. This is not the time for the world to say “That’s Sudan sorted” and walk away.


Considering British Airways flies to 19 destinations in Africa, its knowledge of the continent seems no better than that of George W Bush. “Africa is not a good country for prima donnas” reads one sentence in the current edition of its Highlife magazine. So next time you are flying to Nigeria and the check-in desk asks to see your visa you can show them your Kenyan one. It’s all the same.