This coming Saturday, July 9, 2011, South Sudan will become an independent nation. The southern portion of Sudan, around one-fourth of the total land mass, will separate from the northern part. It will be a big moment in history for the people of this land, to be sure. It makes me wonder: what has their history been up to this point?
By 8000 B.C., people had moved into what is now northern Sudan. They lived in villages made of mud-brick buildings, and supported themselves by hunting, fishing, gathering wild grains and herding cattle. Northern Sudan, then known as Nubia, came under the rule of ancient Egypt in 2600 B.C., and Egyptian culture mixed with Sudanese culture to eventually produce the civilization known as Kush, which flourished until 350 A.D. Less is known about the people of southern Sudan, but they are believed to have lived in semi-nomadic tribes.
Arab miners searching for gold and emeralds began moving into the eastern part of northern Sudan in the A.D. 600’s and brought Islam with them. Much later, in 1820-21, the Ottomans conquered northern Sudan and unified the country. However the Sudd, the vast swamp in southern Sudan, prevented them from expanding into the southern part of the region.
In 1874, Egypt conquered Sudan again, however it was not able to establish control over southern areas. When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, Britain and other European colonial powers became interested in moving into the region. The British army overthrew the Egyptian government in 1882, and began to occupy Egypt and Sudan. At the same time British missionaries began moving into southern Sudan from what is now Kenya, attempting to convert people there to Christianity. In 1924, the British divided Sudan into two separate territories: an Arabic-speaking, predominantly Muslim north, and the South, which was chiefly Animist and Christian, and where the use of English was encouraged. Then in 1946 they reversed this policy and decided to merge northern and southern Sudan into one country, with the government located in the north, and using Arabic as the official language. Southerners were largely excluded from the new government.
Sudan became independent of Britain in 1956. The government remained Arab and in the North, and southern dissatisfaction with northern rule ignited a civil war which lasted for 17 years, until 1972. At this time an agreement was reached which allowed southerners a measure of self-rule, and a period of peace began which lasted ten years. In 1983, the northern government instituted the fundamentalist Islamic law Sharia, which exacerbated the differences between the peoples of the north and south, and the fighting commenced again.
A compromise was reached between the Khartoum government and southern groups in 2004. They agreed that the south would live autonomously for six years, then vote in a referendum on independence. During the vote, which took place on January 9 of this year, southerners chose by a majority of 98.8% to become independent from the north. The new country will be officially known as the Republic of South Sudan, and its capital city will be Juba. Salva Kiir Mayardit, who was a high-ranking officer in the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) during the civil war and who has been the president of Southern Sudan during the autonomous period since 2004, will be the first president of the new country.