The Perils of Nation-Building


South Sudan was carved out of the south of the erstwhile state of Sudan. Predominantly Christian and tribal, there were inherent differences and simmering tensions between the South and the primarily Muslim and Arab North.

Post-independence from Britain, there was intermittent fighting, which led to an all-out civil war beginning in the 1980s, and was directly responsible for the deaths of over a million people and the displacement of millions more.


The well-armed, well-trained army of Sudan, drawn mostly from the North, waged a devastating battle with the South, led mainly by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, or SPLA. The SPLA was headed by John Garang, and counted Salva Kier and Riek Machar among its other leaders.

The fighting, besides being about the Christian-Muslim and Arab-African divide, was also about something much more base – the possession of rich oil fields in the Nile Basin, more than 85 per cent of which would lie in a future state of South Sudan.

A large aid-economy grew in North-Western Kenya, where many international agencies set up base in a non-descript town called Lokichoggio, which was selected as a forward base for aid operations primarily because of its proximity to the border with Sudan and the fact that it had an airstrip from where large aircraft could operate.

It is a commonly known secret that many of the aid organisations operating in Lokichoggio were fronted operations for international spy agencies that were funding and arming the SPLA and other guerilla fighters in South Sudan. Christian missionaries, in the form of priests, pilots, and trainers, were involved in the operation.

The result was a stalemate, as the well-armed Sudan Army could not push far in to South Sudan, courtesy the tremendous fire-power possessed by the rebels. In 2005, an internationally brokered ceasefire took effect, which led to a stop in the fighting, and a road-map for elections in 2010 and a referendum in 2011, with possible independence in 2011 for South Sudan.

John Garang was made Vice-President of the united Sudan, in 2005, but remained so for a short three weeks. He would die in a helicopter crash a few days later. Chaos followed, but Salva Kiir took the reins and led South Sudan through to elections, referendum, which voted 99.1 per cent for independence, and through to independence in 2011.

Things appeared to be going smoothly in South Sudan, save for the occasional border skirmish with the Sudanese Army. Smoothly, that is, until recent events.

Salva Kiir, the first President of South Sudan sacked his Vice President, Riek Machar. Kiir, a tribal Dinka, is from the more powerful and more populous Dinka tribe, while Machar, a Nuer, is from the second most powerful tribe, the Nuer.

Both have a long history of animosity and skirmishes between them, and live relatively separate lives with their own customs and traditions. It is easy to identify each – they both possess unique tribal markings, which are tattoed on foreheads and faces when the child is believed to have come of age.

The members of the South Sudan Army that were Nuer are believed to have gone on a rampage, followed by revenge attacks from the Dinka. The resulting chaos in Juba, the capital of South Sudan is believed to have seen the deaths of thousands. In the country-side, cut-off from the capital by its remoteness and backwardness, the Dinka and Nuer quickly divided the country among themselves.

Towns began to fall to the more populous tribe on the ground. Bentiu, the capital of Unity state, fell to the Nuer rebels. Unity state is the State where most of the oil reserves are believed to be, and many international oil companies are operating.

In a few short weeks, the entire, carefully crafted process of nation-building, that had been working perfectly, came crashing down. Although the African Union took a major step in not neglecting the conflict, and quickly forcing the warring parties to come to the table for talks, by then a lot of blood had been split.

Those in the know of South Sudan politics are aware that the tribals do not forget and forgive deaths and defeats easily. The bitterness may be buried, but it is quickly passed on from generation to generation, while lying in wait for an opportunity to settle scores.

The lessons from South Sudan are plenty. One, you can carve out an independent state easily. Keeping it together and running the state successfully is a different game altogether. Second, transitioning from a rebel movement of disparate tribes with a common enemy to an Army without a war, is not easy.

Third, literacy and awareness are crucial tools to the success of any state – had the South Sudanese been literate and more aware of their responsibilities, possibly the battle would not have been so bloody, uncontained and rebellious.

Fourth, dividing people up along ethno-religious lines is easy, keeping them together after such a division is difficult.

One can point to Pakistan and say that a country similarly carved out on religious basis apparently did well to survive ethno-religious strife – if you could forget the division of 1971. Over the past few years, the battle for the soul of Pakistan has taken an immense toll on its people, but the events of 2013 are a pointer to the fact that an educated, politically motivated middle class can carry a country forward.

You could also point at Syria, and see how vested interests and power-hungry, divisive politicians, can sabotage a perfectly legitimate, peaceful movement for democracy. The Palestinian independence movement, so much of an inspiration for people worldwide for decades, lies discredited and divided. Lebanon lies perilously close to the brink of another bloody civil war.

It is sad to watch South Sudan, formed with much fanfare and expectation, welcomed with no resistance from any quarter whatsoever in the world community, become just another failed, Central African country. The lessons must be etched in the minds of the leaders closer to home.