“We thank God at this time, the birth of a new nation, South Sudan, is real,” proclaimed Paul Deng Chol, an Anglican priest in Juba, South Sudan.
This was one of many statements of gratitude expressed by South Sudanese citizens as they waited to celebrate their Independence Day on Saturday, July 9, 2011. The new nation is the 54th country in Africa, and the Republic of South Sudan, as it is officially called, is the world’s 196th country.
July 9, 2011 was actually the second time the people of South Sudan have observed an independence day. As pointed out by the Africa Messenger, “On January 1, 1956, the nation of Sudan officially became independent of British rule, and the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum immediately began a campaign of persecution in the south of Sudan, including the expulsion of most foreign missionaries.” Independence from Great Britain brought nothing but suffering and deprivation to black African South Sudanese. This time around, the people of South Sudan had far more to celebrate.
In January of this year the citizens of South Sudan participated in a referendum on secession, a provision of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the more-than-twenty year civil war between the North and the South. Southern Sudanese voted overwhelmingly (over 98%) to separate from northern Sudan during the referendum. Until the signing of the CPA, Christian-dominated South Sudan was under siege by the Islamic northern regime that was attempting to impose Islamic law and Arab culture on the African Christians and moderate Muslims of the South and other marginalized regions.
Dr. Grant LeMarquand, Professor of Mission and Biblical Studies and expert in Sudanese Christian history notes that, “Sudan has a painful history of civil conflict.”
Even as Sudan was being given its independence from Great Britain, northern efforts to Islamize southern Sudan led to a civil war between the Arab northerners and non-Arab southerners that lasted from 1956 to 1972. A ten-year period of peace followed the signing of the Addis Ababa Agreement. But the agreement was abrogated by Khartoum just as South Sudan was set to become autonomous, and so the more recent and even bloodier phase of the civil war began in which over 2.5 million people died and about 5 million were displaced as refugees inside and outside the country.
Sudan’s methods of war were distinctive in their targeting of civilians – men, women, and children. They included arrests, torture, and executions, government-orchestrated starvation, aerial bombardment of civilian targets, and the abduction and enslavement of hundreds of thousands of women and children. It was a terrible time for the people of South Sudan.
On Saturday, July 9, however, the people of South Sudan eagerly put the final touches on the long awaited Independence Day celebration. On this day, South Sudan was free from the Islamic Shariah- oriented regime based in Khartoum. July 9th will be one of the most significant days in history of South Sudan.
According to the Minister of Roads and Transport for the government of South Sudan, Mr. Anthony Makana, about two thousand dignitaries, including heads of states, had been invited to attend the ‘Big Day,’ or ‘The Declaration Day’, as many referred to it here in Juba, the capital of the new Republic of South Sudan. Workers were busy day and night, putting together the final touches on the single runway at Juba International Airport.
In interviews with the BBC, Makana disclosed, “Juba International Airport will be receiving about 70 to 80 planes” during the week of celebration. “The airport has never received planes at night since South Sudan was created,” he said. But the Government of South Sudan assured the world that the airport was well lit and adequately equipped to meet international standards that ensure safety and security. Sources close to the Government of South Sudan have also confirmed that notices had been circulated to the public that the airport will not operate for the usual commercial flights from the 6th through 12th of July, 2011. This was to accommodate the landing and takeoff of both chartered and presidential jets, which will be ushering invited dignitaries from around the world in and out of Juba.
Juba and other towns across South Sudan were ready and waiting to receive visitors. A thorough cleaning of the less than 10 miles of paved roads in the city of Juba and beautification of the streets took place. Posters adorned the streets expressing the people’s thoughts and emotions about the long-anticipated day. “This is our new country,” “Celebrating the birth of a new nation,” and “Thank you, Dr. John Garang de Mabior” ranked high among the declarations.
Garang, the head of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/SPLA), became the first president of the regional government of South Sudan and the first vice president of Sudan following the signing of the CPA. He was killed six months later in a helicopter crash, returning from Uganda to Sudan. It speaks enormously to the courage and resilience of the people of South Sudan that they continued on in the face of this crushing blow, but they will never forget his leadership.
Another giant board with a portrait of SPLA soldiers was positioned close by the premises of the University of Juba. This billboard read, “We fought, suffered, survived, and won the freedom together from the oppressor.” Just like patriotic Americans thank the troops who ensure their continued freedom, the people of South Sudan are grateful to the troops of the SPLA who endured so much for the sake of finally securing their freedom.
Shops, kiosks, houses, and government residents were painted and decorated. Some shops along the roads around Dr. Garang Memorial Museum had been demolished to provide the place where the president of South Sudan, H.E Salva Kiir Mayardit was to address the nation. Rehearsals involving several choirs had just ended last week for the performance of the new South Sudan National Anthem. One school teacher from Juba Girls’ School had mentioned that several choirs, including those from the churches, schools, and other institutions, were to perform on the big day.
South Sudanese from various parts of the world arrived in large numbers in South Sudan, particularly in Juba, to join the celebration in their own country. John J. Atem, a graduate of the University of Nairobi and Diplomat in Foreign Mission of the Government of South Sudan said, “I consider it a personal obligation that I must celebrate the Independence Day in South Sudan. It is an event one could not afford to miss, for this is a privilege and a blessing to be part of it.” Mr. Atem gently reminded the people of South Sudan, “We must be thankful first to the Almighty God and to our heroes and heroines who have fought voluntarily and sacrificially to enable us to achieve this freedom at last.”
But no such reminder was needed for Thieec Nhialic, a group of Sudanese Anglican women of prayer and intercession from Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya also known as the “Youth Mamas.” Thieec Nhialic is a Dinka phrase that is translated as “Kneel and Ask God.” And this is what these strong women of faith have been doing for years while living in the harsh conditions of Kakuma. The “Mamas” had also arrived in Juba, hoping to perform some of their songs of worship and praise to God on the stage on ‘the day of hoisting the national flag’ as some of them referred to the occasion.
Although the situation was calm, the ongoing horrible violence in the Nuba Mountains, in the disputed town of Abyei, and in other border regions of South Sudan has raised worries of a return to conflict between the South and the North. In the Nuba Mountains, media reports, satellite images from the Satellite Sentinel Project, and testimony from those on the ground have broadly confirmed Khartoum’s campaign of extermination that has been ongoing since June 5, 2011.
Aerial bombardment, helicopter gunship attacks, and militias searching house to house for supporters of the northern branch of the SPLM/A are all part of the Government of Sudan’s agenda of eradicating the black African Nuba people from their land. The resulting massive displacement of people from South Kordofan/Nuba Mountain’s capital of Kadugli, and other places such as Kauda, Kurchi, Dilling, and elsewhere has resulted in a humanitarian crisis on the scale of Darfur.
A similar situation could also occur in Abyei, where northern troops have been massing for months and where in May of this year the northern government took over the region completely. Khartoum has refused to obey the directives of the CPA, an Abyei Boundary Commission, and even the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, all of whom determined that Abyei was part of South Sudan and belonged to the Ngok Dinka. Instead, the Islamists burned the town to the ground in May 2008 while pretending to be concerned for the welfare of the Misseriya Arabs who lay claim to Abyei based on their seasonal use of the land for grazing.
Security is tight in South Sudan, particularly in Juba, in light of these ongoing conflicts outside its borders. Many of the roads leading to government ministries and parliament had been closed up until the big day. Another concern was some militia groups and rebel forces within South Sudan formed by renegade former commanders from the SPLA, particularly Peter Gadet and George Athor. These groups have turned against the Government of South Sudan, citing issues of corruption and nepotism.
But it is widely alleged that the Government of Sudan (GoS) in Khartoum sponsors these rebels to sabotage and threaten the independence of South Sudan. Their activities have caused insecurity and the forced displacement of the civilian population, especially in the border areas of South Sudan. One official from the Government of South Sudan, who has asked to remain anonymous, revealed that “The forces of Peter Gadet have equipped themselves militarily to the full, ready to disrupt the big day.” They obviously failed.
As the new nation of South Sudan celebrates its independence, its leaders face many concerns such as borderlines between the South and North, the rules of citizenship, the national debt, and plans for the sharing of oil. South Sudan lacks many basic services and infrastructure. Health care for all the population is still a plan for the future. At present much of South Sudan, particularly the small, remote villages, is served by tiny NGO-sponsored medical clinics, if at all. Clean water and education are also priority issues that must be addressed swiftly and efficiently by the new nation. In a land of staggeringly abundant natural resources, most of the population of South Sudan lives under abject poverty. But still there is joy. For so many years, all that the people of South Sudan could hope for was to stay alive. Now they have hope for their new nation as a place of peace, freedom, and prosperity.
Thanks to John Chol Daau for his contribution to this article with his reporting from South Sudan.
Faith J. H. McDonnell directs The Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan, and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007). The Rev. John Chol Daau is a priest of the Episcopal Church of Sudan (Anglican), currently a Missionary Lecturer at the Institute of Christian Ministries and Training, Daystar University, Nairobi, Kenya. He is also Founder/Managing Editor of the New Sudan Christian newspaper, a publication of The Good Shepherd Leadership Training Center.