South Sudan: A Short History

If I was even a minor official in the government of South Sudan right now, I’d be just a little bit pissed off.   A couple of days ago, July 9th, the Republic of South Sudan became the newest nation on the planet.  There was wall-to-wall media coverage.  Juba, the capital, was full of cameramen, reporters and dignitaries — Obama’s grandma was there, for God’s sake!  Even the bimbos at CNN were pronouncing Salva Kiir Mayardit properly.  Everybody and his friend was trying to grab a piece of history.  Today, less than a week later, you can’t find enough news about South Sudan to fill up a good-sized Tweet.  I’ll grant you Mia Farrow and George Clooney have a lot of things to do, and the Western media is busy eating its own over the Rupert Murdoch debacle, but this has got to be one of the fastest kiss-offs in history.

The people of South Sudan have been at this nation-building business for quite some time.  This is because they are totally different people from the folks in the north.  There’s been a lot of rhetoric about Moslems and Christians lately, but don’t take that to the bank; it isn’t worth much.  The fact is the northern Sudanese are Arabs, and the southern Sudanese are Africans.  The only reason they were ever in the same country in the first place is the British wanted to save money in the late 40s when Sudan was still a colony – except it wasn’t.  It’s all rather confusing, but here’s a decaffeinated account.

The entire British Empire was an administrative mess for most of its history, and Africa was particularly complicated.  In the case of South Sudan, first of all, Egypt and Sudan were never actually British colonies.  In the 19th century, Sudan was part of Egypt (although their legal writ didn’t go very far up the Nile.)  Egypt, on the other hand (and therefore Sudan) was, legally, an independent province of the Ottoman Empire.  Of course, the reality was different.  The British were running the show in Cairo.  There was a huge British presence in Egypt because the Brits owned the Suez Canal and they were going to protect it, come hell or high water.  Therefore, they basically told the Khedive of Egypt (the local dictator) he could either do as he was told or Britain would find a new Khedive with better hearing.  The Khedive listened the first time — every time — and it was a good arrangement.  Egypt was independent (wink, wink) and the Brits wandered around as if they owned the place.  Britain extended its formal authority into Sudan only after Herbert Kitchener put a stop to the 19th century’s version of Al Qaeda (with maxim guns) at the slaughter of Omdurman in 1898.  After that, Sudan was considered (get this) a condominium under Anglo Egyptian control, but South Sudan was always administered as a separate province.  Again, it was a good arrangement.  However, after World War II, in a wave of postwar austerity, the Brits decided to save some money and combine the two colonial administrations.  It didn’t really matter who was what in 1947 because the Colonial Office ran the country without a whole lot of input from the local folks – so nobody cared.

Unfortunately, when it came time for independence, it mattered a great deal.  The British screwed up.  They were in such a rush to feel the “winds of change,” they forgot that what they’d been calling Sudan for less than a decade was actually two different countries — and had been for thirteen centuries before they got there.  So, in 1956, when the British said, “You’re all Sudanese now.  Have fun.  Be good.  See you around!” and packed their packs and left, the result was civil war.  It ran hot and cold for the next fifty years.

To the South Sudanese, this week must look like déjà vu all over again.   Here they are trying their best to join the family of nations, and the family seems to have disappeared, just like it did in 1956.  I’m sure there are tons of things going on, but I’m seriously perplexed that none of it is making its way into the media.  It’s like the world’s newest nation dropped off the face of the earth.  Celebrities and the media played a huge role in getting these people a negotiated independence.  They can’t just walk away now.  As of Saturday,

the South Sudanese automatically qualify as one of the poorest nations on earth.  They need everything.  We’ve heard a lot of hot air in the last ten years about nation building; South Sudan is a perfect opportunity for the world to help some pretty diligent people build theirs.  Here is a chance for the rest of us to do it right.  I’m just worried that now that it’s no longer “trendy,” we’re not going to even try it.