South Sudan Modern History

By | January 30, 2023

South Sudan is a country located in Eastern Africa. With the capital city of Juba, South Sudan has a population of 11,193,736 based on a recent census from COUNTRYAAH. South Sudan’s modern history is closely related to its northern neighbor Sudan. Decades of war between these areas, from the 1950s onwards, have resulted in up to 2.5 million dead and widespread refugee flows throughout the region. The conflict led to the division of the country in July 2011, when South Sudan became its own state. However, the first decade after independence came to be characterized by political power struggle and civil war.

Today’s South Sudan was the southernmost part of the new state of Sudan, which became independent from the British in 1956. At the time of independence, a civil war was going on for a year between the northern and southern ends of the country (see Older history). At the same time, the country was plagued by economic crisis due to falling prices of the most important export commodity, cotton.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: List of most commonly used acronyms containing South Sudan. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.

Weak governments succeeded each other and in 1958 a military junta took power. The military’s corruption and unwillingness to end the war led to a popular revolt in 1964, and a communist-led major strike drove the junta away.

The next five years were marked by the fragmentation of civilian political parties, while all attempts at peace failed and the economy quickly eroded. In 1969, militants, led by Colonel Gaafar al-Numeiri, seized power in a communist-backed coup. Politically strengthened, al-Numeiri ended the war in the south, which demanded around 400,000 lives. In 1972, a peace agreement was signed with the guerrilla Anya Nya (The Serpent Gift) and the South was promised autonomy in a number of areas.

The Second Civil War erupts

The government’s relationship with the south gradually deteriorated over the next ten years. One reason was disappointment among the residents of the South that the promises of self-government were not fulfilled, another reason was a strong resistance in the South to the Jonglei Canal (see Agriculture and Fisheries), which President al-Numeiri had begun to build through the Suds in collaboration with Egypt.. When al-Numeiri introduced Islamic sharia laws in 1983, South Sudanese took up arms again. They did not trust the regime’s promises that Sharia would only apply to Muslims. A Christian Dinka, John Garang, formed the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) with the military branch SPLA. Civil war broke out again after eleven years of hiatus and was going on for 22 years.

After a new military regime under Omar al-Bashir seized power in the capital Khartoum in 1989 and profiled itself with a strict Islamist policy, the contradictions between the regime and the South Sudanese guerrilla SPLM hardened. The opposition in the north and the SPLM joined forces in a broad alliance against the military regime. The SPLM’s contacts with politicians in the north were facilitated by the fact that Garang did not primarily demand independence for the South but was prepared to content himself with autonomy, within the framework of a Sudanese federation.

It has been known for a long time that there is oil in Sudan, but only in 1999 did the extraction begin – initially on a small scale. The problem was that the richest deposits were found in the disputed border areas between north and south. In the first phase, oil recovery led to the escalation of the war. The Khartoum government used the new oil revenues to buy weapons. The guerrilla responded by sabotaging oil lines and other installations.

Immigrant oil money contributes to peace

To provide space for foreign oil companies, the government army, under brutal forms, forced locals from the areas closest to the oil wells. The fact that smallholder farmers and livestock nomads lack statutory land rights has been an important factor behind many conflicts in Sudan since long ago.

With the American and European oil companies, journalists and others who reported back home followed what was going on. In the western world many were already upset by previous famine disasters in Sudan and by the atrocities of the civil war. Now the oil companies were protesting the cooperation of the oil companies with the Sudanese government. This led to Western companies withdrawing from Sudan – among them Swedish Lundin Petroleum, which was then called Lundin Oil. Instead, Asian companies, mainly from China but also from India and Malaysia, took over oil recovery.

Nevertheless, it was the oil recovery that gave both sides reasons to end the war. Northern Sudan wanted to put a stop to the sabotage against the oil industry, southern Sudan wanted to share in oil revenues.

The neighboring countries also wanted to end the war, which among other things gave rise to refugee flows from southern Sudan. Egypt and Libya offered to mediate, but the South Sudanese would rather have mediation assistance from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. The United States joined Igad, and in 2002 negotiations began under the group’s leadership in Kenya. The UN, the EU and other international organizations also supported the peace negotiations.

War’s horrendous fact

After many, though, the Khartoum government and the SPLM / SPLA were finally able to sign a peace agreement in January 2005. The war’s face was terrible. Estimates of the death toll alone in the second round of the war – from 1983 – commute between one and a half million and over two million.

More than four million South Sudanese had fled. Three million were in central Sudan, where the authorities set up permanent refugee camps outside Khartoum. Perhaps a million had gone to surrounding countries.

Both sides of the war had committed severe atrocities. Both the North Side Army and the SPLA had recruited child soldiers, prevented aid shipments to civilians and deployed land mines. Arab militiamen, who helped the North Side soldiers, had brought home about 11,000 black compatriots as slaves.

The South Sudanese economy was in disarray. The little that existed of modern infrastructure before the war – school buildings, hospitals, water and wastewater pipes – was torn apart; the few roads that were still there were mined.

The Peace Agreement CPA

The peace agreement signed by the government and the SPLM / SPLA on January 9, 2005 is called the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (roughly the Basic Peace Agreement). According to it, during a six-year transition period of July 1, 2005, Sudan would be a federation between the northern and southern parts with a joint federal government and a joint president. The north and south would also have their own government and their president. Towards the end of the transition period, South Sudanese residents would have to decide in a referendum whether they would remain in the federation or form an independent state.

During the transitional period, northern and southern Sudan, individually, would administer their own affairs and share the revenues from the oil recovery. The north side army would be withdrawn from the south and the south side army from the north.

Contested areas along the border between northern and southern Sudan – South Kurdufan (with the Nuba Mountains), the oil-rich Abyei and the state of the Blue Nile at the border with Ethiopia – would be monitored by integrated forces with soldiers from both sides.

Shortly after peace was concluded, SPLM leader John Garang, who had just taken over as president of the autonomous Southern Sudan and who was the first vice-president of the entire country, died. He was killed in a helicopter accident on the way from a meeting in Uganda. He was succeeded in both positions by Salva Kiir Mayardit.

Problematic peace process

The continuing peace process did not go smoothly. The south side accused the Khartoum government of retaliating the census that would precede the promised general elections and of not pulling away its soldiers from the south. During a period in 2007, SPLM boycotted the work of the joint government.

SPLM also criticized the census that was carried out after long discussions and delays in 2008 and which would form the basis for the distribution of resources between north and south in the event of a division. According to the South side, the figures had been manipulated to make the South Sudanese appear fewer than they were.

In April 2010, general elections were held in a tense political situation. Shortly before, Salva Kiir had recommended for the first time voters in southern Sudan to vote for full independence. In the past, SPLM had always, at least outwardly, complied with the request in the peace agreement that all parties before the referendum would work for continued cohesion.

Preparations for the elections left much to be desired. The press was censored, the parties did not run any public campaigns and the media did not inform about the elections. Nonprofits that tried to run information campaigns were thwarted. The US-based human rights organization Human Rights Watch described harassment, demonstration bans and other human rights violations that authorities have committed in both northern and southern Sudan.

Referendum on independence

Salva Kiir, who received 93 percent of the vote, was elected president of Southern Sudan. Opposition candidate Lam Akol, a former foreign minister, received 7 percent. He represented the breakaway party SPLM-DC (DC = Democratic Change) and opposed rapid independence for the South. In the elections to the newly established parliament in the south, SPLM won almost all places. The sitting president of the north, Omar al-Bashir, became president of the entire country, while Salva Kiir became vice president. The SPLM took about a quarter of the seats in the federal parliament.

At the end of July 2010, al-Bashir announced that the border between southern and northern Sudan must be established before the referendum on independence for the south could be held. The dispute mainly concerned the oil-rich border district of Abyei. The Permanent Arbitration Court in The Hague had determined in July 2009 where Abyei’s boundaries would go, but the parties still did not agree.

Preparations for the referendum in January 2011 were greatly delayed and doubts were raised as to whether it could be lost at all. In most areas, however, it could be carried out in orderly form, but in Abyei violent riots broke out. At least 30 people were reported to have been killed. In Abyei, a separate referendum on the future status of the region would have been held, but it had been postponed until further notice, as it was not possible to agree on who would be entitled to participate. Most residents are Dinka with affiliation with the South, but periodically the Arab nomad people misseriya come there with their livestock. The south side accused Khartoum of bringing more misseriya into Abyei and driving off the Dinka to change the population structure to the north’s advantage.

More than 80 percent of those entitled to vote participated in the referendum, in which 98.83 percent voted for independence. To the relief of the entire world, President al-Bashir declared that he accepted the result.

Violent in the face of independence

In the months leading up to Independence Day, July 9, 2011, internal violence in southern Sudan increased. Several rebel groups in various parts of the country attacked the SPLM, which accused the north side of inflicting violence to eventually try to sabotage the new state. A militia called the South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA) openly said it would try to overthrow the government. In April, an SSLA affiliated with SPLA’s official army collapsed and about 20 people were reported to have been killed.

In disputed Abyei, there were new unrest that the South Sudanese blamed on the intervention of the Khartoum government. After a period of troop contractions on both sides of the border, army units from the north entered Abyei in May, causing SPLA to retire from the border area. Over 100,000 civilians fled south.

A few weeks later, both parties were involved in fierce fighting in the neighboring northern state of South Kurdufan, where there is a large population with ethnic ties to South Sudan. Concerns were great for a new large-scale conflict when only weeks remained for the intended partition of Sudan. In early July, just days before South Sudan’s Declaration of Independence, the two governments agreed to put Abyei and other unresolved issues of conflict on ice for the time being and continue negotiations after the new state’s creation. According to the UN, the struggles from the turn of the year 2011 up to South Sudan’s independence cost 2,400 people their lives.


When independence was proclaimed, the South Sudanese could allow themselves to forget all the problems for a few days. The worn-out capital of Juba had been refurbished to accommodate all the visiting top politicians and diplomats from a number of countries. Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, whose honor was the first to recognize South Sudan, was present at the ceremony during the ceremonies.

From the outset, the SPLM government was criticized for being too dominated by the country’s two largest groups of people: Dinka, to which President Kiir belonged, and Nuer. After independence, Kiir therefore replaced several ministers to involve other people groups in government work. One of the new government’s first decisions was to have a new capital built in Ramciel in central South Sudan – a project that will take many years to complete.

Very soon after South Sudan’s emergence, fighting erupted in several border areas. Sudan accused South Sudan of supporting the SPLM’s northern branch SPLM-North, which fought against the al-Bashir regime in the Sudanese border states of South Kurdufan and the Blue Nile (see Conflicts: Sudan-South Sudan). South Sudan, for its part, accused Sudan of an attack against a refugee camp south of the border at the end of 2011.

Conflict about the oil

The battle over the lucrative oil in the border regions was far from settled. Already during the first months of independence, the government of Juba claimed that the Sudanese authorities were hampering South Sudanese oil exports, which must go via pipelines in Sudan to the port city of Port Sudan on the Red Sea, where the oil is being shipped further. South Sudan accused Sudan of stealing South Sudanese oil on the road and the countries had failed to agree on how much South Sudan would pay to transport its oil through Sudan.

In February 2012, the government in Juba stopped all oil production due to disagreement with Sudan about transport costs. The decision meant a huge loss of income for South Sudan, which froze all development projects in the country for 30 months to save money. In October of the same year, oil production resumed after the two countries’ presidents signed an agreement on oil management and security issues.

The right to the oil-rich border area Abyei was another stumbling block. In September 2011, following mediation by the African Union (AU), Sudan and South Sudan agreed to remove all soldiers from the area that had been occupied by the North Side forces prior to the Sudan’s division. In October, the countries decided to appoint several commissions that would solve the remaining problems between the countries. The parties further agreed to establish ten border crossings to facilitate travel between the countries and in early 2012 they signed a non-aggression pact pending the resolution of the dispute issues.

Civil war erupts

Dispute issues with Sudan were overshadowed from 2013 by an even worse conflict when power struggles within the SPLM government as well as old rivalry between Dinka and Nuer developed into outright civil war at the end of the year. The war had catastrophic consequences for the civilian population when millions of people were displaced and as many were at risk of famine. All economic and social development in the already impoverished country stopped.

Already in August 2012 reports of hundreds of dead in fighting in the state of Jonglei in the east. The riots stemmed from traditional livestock raids that became depleted because of the large numbers of weapons in circulation following the war against the Khartoum regime. The fighting continued during the fall and by the New Year, warriors from the Lou Nuer People’s Group were reported to have driven about 100,000 members of the murals on the run from the area around the city of Pibor near the Kenyan border. With the help of UN unions, the government army was able to stop the ravages and take control of the situation, but after this came reports of revenge attacks from murals. The government announced disaster states throughout Jonglei and appealed to the outside world for help.

In July 2013, Kiir dismissed a number of senior politicians and police officers without explanation. Among them was Vice President Riek Machar. When a new government was introduced later that month, Machar was not included in it. In December, the power struggle within the SPLM became apparent when several prominent politicians in a call accused Kiir of being a dictator. In the same month, fierce fighting broke out in Juba between the government army and a rebel faction led by Machar. Tens of thousands of Juba residents fled the city and sought shelter in UN camps. Soon the war had spread to much of the country. The number of soldiers in the UN force in South Sudan (Unmiss) almost doubled to around 12,000 men.

The war began as a power struggle between leaders who had been rivals for decades, but over time the fighting became increasingly marked by ethnic conflict. Centuries of suspicion and rivalry between Dinka and Nuer were exploited for mass displacement of people and led to great brutality against civilians. The thing is that Kiir is Dinka and Machar is Nuer.

A humanitarian disaster

In January 2014, peace talks between the warring parties in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia began. The mediator was the regional cooperation organization Igad. But despite the fact that close to ten ceasefires were negotiated, the fighting continued. The abuses against the civilian population became more and more common. These were mass killings, rapes, extrajudicial executions and destruction of property and looting. In addition, around 16,000 children were forced to become soldiers. Both sides were charged with such crimes.

In the summer of 2014, the UN said that nearly four million South Sudanese were not getting enough food and warned of the “worst food shortage in the world”. Although the world’s largest humanitarian effort was now underway in the country, the measures were insufficient to alleviate human suffering.

In February 2015, the government decided to postpone the general election that would have been held during the year. The following month, Parliament voted to extend the mandate of its own members and the president for three years. The reason was that the prevailing situation in the country made it impossible to make a free and fair choice.

An increasingly united world lost patience with the South Sudanese leaders. Faced with threats of UN sanctions, in August 2015, the government and the rebels were pressured to sign a peace agreement that established power sharing and new elections within two and a half years. A Truth Commission would be appointed to investigate war crimes and a war criminal court, in collaboration with the AU, would investigate the worst offenses.

South Sudan Modern History