A short history of South Sudan

South Sudan’s population of around 6 million participates mostly in rural, subsistence economies. The devastating impact of the civil wars is evident in the lack of infrastructure and economic development, as well as in the significant loss of population through war casualties and displacement. More than 2 million people have died, and more than 4 million have been displaced as a result of the civil war.

  • First Civil War 1962-1978

  • Second Civil War 1983-2002

  • North – South Peace Deal 2005

  • Independence Vote 2009-2011

  • A New State Is Born 2011-2013

  • Internal Tensions 2013-Present

But the rich history of South Sudan begins far before the civil war.

Throughout its history as a nation, Sudan has been divided between its northern, Arab heritage and its southern, African heritage. Historically, the geographical area that came to be known as Sudan was a collection of small, independent kingdoms of peoples from black African and Mediterranean backgrounds. However, in 1820, after long-term trade with these peoples, Egypt invaded the northern regions of Sudan, and established themselves as colonial masters. During their 64 years of rule, the Egyptian Arabs denied the indigenous peoples their basic civil rights, and access to educational and economic opportunities. Because of it geographical isolation and “inhospitable” climate (alternating rainy and dry seasons) and terrain (swamps and lakes), unlike the north, southern Sudan remained largely free of Egyptian control. Southern Sudan continued as a fragmented collection of indigenous tribes, whose sole purpose was to serve as a source of slaves for the developing north.  

After an uprising by the northern Sudanese in 1899, the British, who now ruled Egypt as a colonial power, suppressed the uprising and assumed joint leadership, with the Egyptians, of Sudan. Under this joint leadership agreement, in acknowledgement of the cultural, climatic, and geographical differences in the southern and northern territories of Sudan, the British designated the territory south of the twenty-second parallel as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. 
From this time until independence in 1956, the British sought to modernize northern Sudan by modeling its economic and governmental institutions after those of Europe. However, southern Sudan's remote and undeveloped provinces received little official attention from the British. The British essentially closed the area to northerners and left the southern regions of Sudan to develop along indigenous lines. Consequently, the south remained isolated and undeveloped. The few remaining Arab merchants and government bureaucrats were asked to leave. The British discouraged the practice of Islam, Arab culture, and the wearing of Arab dress. They also banned the slave trade that prevailed in southern Sudan. The British then encouraged an influx of Christian missionaries. The missionaries proceeded to establish schools and medical clinics, providing the area with limited social services. The British envisioned the region as eventually being integrated into the British colonies in East Africa.
During the 1940s, however, British colonial officers began questioning the policy of separation of the northern and southern regions of Sudan. By 1946, in preparation for the formation of the independent nation of Sudan, the northern and southern regions became unified, with the northern city of Khartoum becoming the center of government, and Arabic the official language. British colonial officials in south Sudan were replaced by Arabic-speaking officials from northern Sudan, leaving no one to protect the civil and economic rights of the south Sudanese. Many objected to the imposition of northern “outside” rule on the once protected region.

Sudan became an independent nation in 1956. However, those governing from the north failed to address the concerns of those living in the south. Southerners were essentially given no voice in planning the structure of the new nation of Sudan. After much political and economic turmoil, in 1962, the nation of Sudan became embroiled in a series of devastating civil wars. Given its economic and military superiority, northern Sudan inflicted much of the damage of the civil wars on its southern counterpart. 
The ongoing civil war displaced more than 4 million southerners. Some fled into southern cities, such as Juba; others trekked as far north as Khartoum and even into Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and Egypt. Because much of the conflict took place on southern soil, those remaining were unable to grow food or earn enough money to feed themselves, resulting in widespread malnutrition and starvation. This time of civil war resulted in what many call a "lost generation" – those who lack the access to education, basic health care services, and opportunities for employment in the small and weak economies of south Sudan.

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