History of South Sudan: A chapter of a book to be published soon

October 24, 2014 (SSNA) — To fully understand the nature of the current civil war, one needs to revisit the history of the region now known as the South Sudan. The history of the country is largely intertwined within four key sociocultural phenomena: Tribal alliances and rivalries, language/dialectic differences, various religions and their belief systems, and geography. Collectively, these phenomena define the lingering sociopolitical struggles of this country. South Sudan is a landlocked country in eastern Africa with plains in the north and center, and highlands in the south along the border with Uganda and Kenya. The “White Nile”, a tributary of the great Nile River, flows from the north through the country. This river is the major geographic feature of the country and supports agriculture and large wild-life populations. South Sudan is bordered by the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, and Uganda. While the history of the country of South Sudan is very brief, the region has a history dating back thousands of years (Metz, 1991). After decades of political disagreement including warfare between the South Sudan and the Republic of Sudan, South Sudan finally gained independence in July 2011. Since then, South Sudan has been a country in deep turmoil with many growing pains, most notably a tribal conflict between the president and former vice president.

As a result, South Sudan could not happily celebrate its third year of existence as an independent country due to a war that broke out on December 15, 2013. The reason for this conflict is both simple and complex. On the one hand, the president and former vice president are from two distinct tribes who promised to work together. Yet, their respective tribes’ mistrust of each other immediately caused each leader to accuse the other of political oppression, war-mongering, and the fomenting a dictatorship. On the other hand, this civil war, which has become genocidal, is very complex because the government has been both corrupt and disorganized, has managed poorly its resources and economy, and has lost the complete confidence of many countries that initially provided assistance including the United States and Great Britain. Also, many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have abandoned the country because of death threats and political instability. At this moment, it is sad to say that there exists no stable infrastructure in South Sudan and instead, chaos and anarchy pervades the landscape. In turn, the long-standing ethnic hatred and rivalry between the Dinka and Nuer tribes has heightened to a point of no return, with violence spread throughout the country.

In defining this country, Bobertshaw (1987), Ogot (1999), and Mercer (1971) have individually observed that as a land mass, South Sudan was never a part of the original “Sudan region”, but instead has always been a part of sub-Saharan Africa with regard to its geography. Its inclusion as part of the country of Sudan is largely due to the southward expansion of the Ottoman Khedivate of Egypt in the 19th century, and its subsequent inclusion in Mahdist Sudan, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, and the Republic of Sudan respectively, from 1885 to 2011 (Admore, 1967). Thus, if the Ottoman Khedivate had not expanded southward, South Sudan would likely have been an independent country at the beginning of the 20th century, and perhaps possess a different history.

Tribal History

In this chapter, the author presents a comprehensive history of the South Sudan, from its initial tribal history to its current history of an independent country including the ongoing civil war. In presenting such a history, this author discusses the sociopolitical foundation of the country, and how it relates to relations among its tribes and citizens. In turn, the reader has a greater understanding of the origins of the current struggles within the country and how a tribal-political dynamic from the distant past is related to contemporary events. In fact, it is this author’s belief that it was inevitable that the first government of South Sudan would not last beyond a few years because of the tribal backgrounds of the two top leaders. It was a coalition that quickly became unraveled and toxic, and exploded into the civil war that currently engulfs the country.

South Sudan is mostly inhabited by Nilo-Saharan-speaking peoples, with Niger-Congo speaking minorities also being a part of its citizenry (Duncan, Miller, Van, 1968). Historically and geographically, what is now South Sudan was dominated by Central Sudanic-speaking people and includes current countries such as the Central African Republic, Chad, South Sudan, Uganda, Congo, and Cameroon (Duncan at el, 1968). The presence of Nilotic people in this region of Africa has been traced back to prehistoric times. Since about the 14th century, and following the collapse of the Christian Nubian kingdoms of Makuria and Alodia, the Nilotic peoples gradually came to dominate the region (Adams, 1991). The Nuer, Dinka and Shilluk people often claim to have migrated southward from Egypt through the Nile Valley to this region (Adams, 1991). The Nuer are similar to the Dinka in physical appearance, language, and customs, which strongly suggests a common origin. However, their common lineage is often disputed by both groups and still requires inquiry.

The two tribal groups, despite intermittent conflicts, including the current war, have always lived in close proximity to each other, maintained continuous contact, have intermarried, and borrowed cultural patterns from each other. They have an array of myths and legends that speak of their historical unity. Yet, both groups disagree about their common origin. Like all other South Sudanese people, the Nuer and Dinka became part of Sudanese body politic as early as the 1820s when the nation-state was beginning to take shape, and after the Ottoman invasion from Egypt in 14th century.  

Nilotic Expansion

Until about 1500, South Sudan was mostly controlled by groups of people with Central Sudanic languages. Anthropological evidence suggests that over time, Nilotic speakers, such as the Nuer, Dinka and Shilluk became firmly established in the region (see Walter, 1985). These groups, who currently reside around the Sudd marshlands, migrated down southward from Northern and Central Sudan around the time of the collapse of Nubia kingdom, which rendered struggles to ensue among the many people who were ruled by the Kings of Nubia.

Archaeological evidence indicates that a culture based on transhumance cattle raising has been present in that area since about 3000 BCE (Before the Common Era), and the Nilotic culture has continued to evolve to date. In addition, physical evidence suggests that the livelihood of the Nilotes included their dome-shaped houses and tukuls, which may have made a significant contribution to the social order related to governance and wealth of the Nubian Kingdom before and during the 25th Dynasty (Singh, 2002)).  A few Central Sudanic groups remain such as the Mari and Moru in the Equatoria region of South Sudan today.

Based on past research findings, Nilotic expansion seems to have begun in the 14th century after the Cushite kingdom of Meroe was completely destroyed by ongoing wars (Singh, 2002). This coincides with the collapse of the Christian Nubian kingdoms of Makuria and Alodia and the initial penetration of Arab traders into the central region of Sudan (Oliver, 1952). In the 6th century, Makuria and Alodia were independent kingdoms, but in the 7th century, the Makuria kingdom was conquered by Islamic armies. Because of this, Nubia was cut off from the rest of Christendom (Adams, 1977). As a result, the South Sudanese may have departed from the north toward further south on the Nile River. Also, adaptation of cattle as a food staple may have occurred during this period, from the 13th through 14th centuries. Oliver (1952) noted that an “Iron Age” was also beginning among the Nilotic people during this time period.

Africa’s Upper Nile Valley was home to a separate and independent industry of iron metallurgy (Oliver, 1952). In fact, iron work across much of sub-Saharan Africa has an origin dating to before 1000 BCE, with South Sudan being an important center (Singh, 2002). These factors may explain why and how the Nilotic speakers expanded to dominate the region. Around these historical periods, many groups in the Sudd region expanded to new frontiers. One theory, presented as early as 1805 by Bruce, suggests that some of the tribes that are currently living in territories not historically belonging to them, such as the Funj in the eastern part of the Sudan, is because there was pressure from the Shilluk that forced them to migrate toward the north and eventually established the Sultanate of Sennar. The Nuer, Dinka and Shilluk remained in the Sudd area, maintaining their transhumance economy.

The Nuer and Dinka

Nuer and Dinka often ask themselves whether they originated from the same ancestors, or just randomly appeared and shared the region with other South Sudanese tribes including the Nilotic and Bantu. A few researchers suggest that the two rival tribes originated from the same ancestors, and actually coexisted in peace for long periods of time (see Fage, 1962). Archaeological excavations along the Nile River suggest that an economic system almost identical to that of the Nuer existed as early as 3372 B.C.E. (Fage, 1962). For example, it is important to note that like other indigenous populations around the world, there is a very strong oral history among the tribes in South Sudan. The history of the country only existed in oral tradition until a few writers began to publish literature and coined words and printed indigenous dialects in about the 14th century. Oral history suggests that the Nuer expanded to occupy some of their current territories around 1600 C.E. or Common Era. As previously noted, the history of the Nuer is closely tied into that of the Dinka, who inhabited a territory that came under Nuer control during the 1800s (Ogot, 1999). Ogot (1999) states that from 1820 to 1860, the Nuer expanded mostly into regions inhabited by the Dinka.

Historians also believe that floods may have displaced the Nuer causing them to attempt to seek new homelands. Some suggest that inter-tribal conflicts may have been initiated in order to gain of livestock and new territories as tribes were expending. The Nuer were skilled fighters and viewed themselves as warriors or soldiers, and often carried a bow, club, and large lance or spear. Nuer military strategy involved surprise attacks and tactical ambushes, and the Dinka were no match as they were less sophisticated militarily (see Ogot, 1999). As a result, the inclusion and assimilation of the defeated Dinka people into Nuer culture was made easier by the fact that the two groups appear to have had a common ancestry, as well as a similar culture and language.

Over the years, historians have misrepresented the fact that it was not simply through captivity that some tribal members ended up being assimilated into other tribes. Evidence suggests that integration may have occurred through a voluntary immigration process (McFall, 1970). An examination of the Bible, as a historical book, suggests that both Nuer and Dinka, along with other Nilotics, such as the Shilluk in the Sudd region, originated from Cush, the grandson of Noah (McFall, 1970). Moreover, a review of Bible passages including Acts (8:26-40), Isaiah (18:1-2), and Jeremiah (38:7-13) supports this possibility. As a result, this has created a natural linkage between South Sudan and Israel, where Sudanese Christian clergies often refer South Sudan as the second Israel.

As noted previously in this chapter, the root cause of the current war in South Sudan goes back hundreds, and perhaps, thousands of years. In the early 1800s, the Nuer had a number of additional conflicts, with the neighboring Anuak. They raided and attempted to seize their lands (Ogot, 1999). At one point, the Nuer had nearly wiped out the Anuak people, but when the Anuak obtained guns from Ethiopia, they were able to fight back successfully and the Nuer ceased their expansion into Anuak lands. This included the expedition to Bongjak, the Nuer’s southeastern Anuak territory in the late 1800s. Gang Wan, a prominent Nuer and legendary warrior, led an expedition of young men to Bongjak where many died of measles and which eventually forced them to retreat back to the Nuer land. The intrusion of foreigners, including British colonialism, affected many people of southern Sudan, including the Nuer.

About 1801, Arabs from northern Sudan would raid the south for slaves, as they viewed the southerners as inferior and as pagans. When the British arrived in the greater Sudan, they made a concerted attempt to control the interactions of the Sudanese people as part and parcel to their colonialism. The Nuer resisted and fought the British. Unfortunately, the resistance still caused an absence of unity among the tribes. The British attempted to stop the raids that the Nuer conducted upon neighboring peoples, which in the case of the Dinka, led to more organized battles and confrontations. According to Johnson (1994), the Dinka and British often carried attacks against the Nuer. The Nuer were able to resist, and forced their attackers out of the Nuer land. The Lou Nuer, a sub-group of their Nuer, believe they have never been defeated in a war by any group in South Sudan and that their land has never been crossed or touched by war; and as folklore says except for “Birds” in the sky, flying over their land.

The Shilluk

As the history of the inhabitants of South Sudan developed, the decline of the Cushite kingdom of Meroe in 590 B.C.E allowed several small kingdoms to thrive within the Upper north of the Sudd region, and mass migration occurred southward on the east and west of the White and Blue Nile banks (McFall, 1970). As small kingdoms became independent, with different life styles and cultures, they became completely “foreign” and estranged from one another. They also developed different dialects and thus communication among them became difficult. Also, these kingdoms turned against each other for political and economic reasons. This intertribal raiding continued pushing the kingdoms further apart. Eventually, the Nilotes, such Nuer, Dinka, Shilluk and others lost their blood line as miscegenation and inter-marriage occurred (see Mercer, 1971). Mercer (1971) noted that the kingdoms of the Funj, Shilluk, Tegali, and Fur battled one another in the northernmost part of South Sudan in 1800s.

The Shilluk gained control of the west bank of the Nile river as far north as Kosti in Sudan. There, they established an economy based on cattle, cereal farming, and fishing, with small villages located along the length of the river (Duncan at el, 1968). The Shilluk developed an intensive and sophisticated system of agriculture, and these lands, in the 17th century, had a population density similar to that of the land close to Egyptian Nile (Godlewski, 1991). While the Dinka were protected and isolated from their neighbors, the Shilluk were more involved in the regional affairs (Godlewski, 1991). Godlewski (1991) states that the Shilluk controlled the west bank of the White Nile, but the other side was controlled by the Funj Sultanate, and there was regular conflict between the two tribes. The Shilluk where skillful and had the ability to quickly raid outside areas by  canoe, and had control of the waters of the Nile. In turn, the Funj had a standing army of armored cavalry, and this force allowed them to dominate the plains of the sahel (Robertshaw, 1987).

As tribal inter-raiding continued, it became quite clear that territorial disputes sustained and prolonged tribal wars. Historical evidence (see Robertshaw, 1987) suggests King Odak Ocollo who ruled Shilluk in 1600s, led this tribe in a 30-year war against the Sennar over control of the White Nile trade routes. The Shilluk allied with the Sultanate of Darfur and the Kingdom of Takali against the Funj, but the capitulation of Takali ended the war in the Funj’s favor (Kropacek, 1997). Kropacek (1997) stated that in the late 1700s, the Shilluk and Funj allied against theDinka who rose to power in the border area between the Funj and Shilluk. This war pushed the Dinka southward, away from the Nile River bank to the Sudd marshland (Admore, 1967). The Shilluk political structure gradually became centralized under the king or reth. According to Mercer (1971), RethTugo who ruled from 1690 to 1710 established the Shilluk capital of Fashoda. The same period saw the gradual collapse of the Funj sultanate, leaving the Shilluk in complete control of the White Nile and its trade routes (Mercer, 1971).

Bantu Tribes

The non-Nilotic Azande people, who entered southern Sudan in the 16th century, established the region’s largest state (Admore, 1981). The Azande are the third largest tribe in South Sudan. They are found in the tropical rain forest belt of western Equatoria and Bahr el Ghazal (Mercer, 1971). In the 18th century, the Avukaya people entered and quickly imposed their authority over the Azande and became the ruling clan. According to Mercer (1971), Avukaya-Azande power remained largely unchallenged until the arrival of the British at the end of the 19th century. Geographic barriers protected the South Sudanese from Islam’s advance, enabling them to retain their social and cultural heritage order, and their political and religious institutions. The Dinka people were especially secure in the Sudd marshlands, which protected them from outside interference, and allowed them to remain secure and isolated without having large armed forces. Evans-Prichard (1951) stated that these tribes in South Sudan struggled to maintain their territories, which they continue to populate today. The Shilluk, Azande, and Bari people had more regular conflicts with neighboring tribes as has been the case for the Nuer and Dinka.

Linguistic Similarities

Another possible way of examining similarities between the Nuer and Dinka is to consider the origin of their languages. When people speak of cultures and traditions, language is perhaps one of the most powerful modes of transmitting the culture to newer generations. Social psychologists and anthropologists have attempted to relate cultures and traditions across a lineage within a tribe by considering the role of language (Giles, Bourhis & Taylor, 1977). As previously noted, the Nuer and Dinka likely originated from the same ancestral roots; however, language differences have encouraged miscommunication and resentment toward one another. Thus, language can both unite and separate groups from one another as is noted in the case of the Nuer and Dinka. Giles, et. al (1992), observed that language can also play a unique role in affirming one’s social identity while maintaining intergroup distinctions.

Ethnographic research, by its very nature, underscores the importance of language, especially in understanding the meaning of group membership, filial loyalties, and political beliefs. For example, Eastman (1985) has described how a social groups shared attitudes are coded into culture-specific vocabulary or "group talk" and how familiarization with group talk is required for group entry and maintenance (Giles at el, 1992).

In South Africa for example, individuals who were excluded from the “in-group” for political reasons (for example, apartheid) attempted to reaffirm their group membership by emphasizing language as an inclusive attribute for membership affiliation in racial subgroups and tribes (Giles Llada, McKirnan, & Taylor, 1979). Language pervades social life to the extent that it communicates multiple aspects of culture to members within the group (Giles & Johnson, 1981). Thus, language in both verbal and written form is the principal vehicle for the transmission of cultural knowledge and the primary means by which researchers gain access and insight into others’ worldviews. According to Giles and Johnson (1981), language is implicated in most of the phenomena that underlies at the core of the social psychology of each cultural group, nationality, or indigenous group. This includes attitude change, social perception, personal identity, social interaction practices, intergroup bias and stereotyping, social attributions, and so on. Moreover, language typically is the medium by which subjects’ responses including emotions, attitudes, and opinions are expressed (Giles at el, 1977).

When it comes to the Dinka and Nuer relationship, the Dinka peoples speak a series of closely-related dialects which are grouped by linguists into five broad families of dialects (McFall, 1970).  McFall (1970) elaborated on these five formal linguistic “families” and noted that linguists have labeled these as Northeastern, Northwestern, Southeastern, Southwestern and South Central. This language classification and grouping is based on intense study of forms of speech from village to village across the whole Dinka territory (McFall, 1970).

The Dinka languages, like Nuer, are written in Latin script.  A large percentage of the Dinka people are reported to be bilingual in Dinka and Arabic. In the broader Nilotic family, the Dinka languages are most closely related to Nuer and Atuot.  In addition, Atuot, or Reel, are culturally Dinka, but the language is different enough to be a sixth separate language group (see McFall, 1970). The Nuer language is a Nilotic language closely related to the speech of the Dinka and Atwot.  The language is uniform with no definable dialects. Because of the Nuer speaking the same language, and occupied a large territory, they lived in relative peace.

Religious and Sociopolitical Differences: Nuer and Dinka

The profile of the Nuer, as provided by Jenkins (1997), indicates that cattle play an important part in Nuer religion and ritual. In addition, McFall (1970), Burton (1995), Carisle (1990), Walter (1985), and Jenkins (1997) have observed on multiple occasions that cows are dedicated to the spirits of the owner’s lineages, and any personal spirits that may have possessed them at any time in the past.  It has been a belief in Nuer culture that contact with their ancestor spirits is established by rubbing ashes along the backs of oxen or cows dedicated to the ancestors and through the sacrifice of cattle.  No Nuer ceremony is complete without such an animal sacrifice.

The Nuer have a traditional religious worldview referred to as “Kuoth Nhial”.  They worship a supreme deity called “Deng Taath” who has various manifestations and with which some claim to have personal relationships.  The Nuer pray for health and well-being and offer such sacrifices to Kuoth so that he will answer their petitions.  There is no organized religious hierarchy or system, but many individuals serve as diviners and healers, or shamans. The Nuer do not believe in an afterlife for the human spirit, and their religious concepts focus on concerns of daily living.  They believe the spirits of the dead can affect their current life.  The more recently deceased a person, the more influence he/she has in a living person’s life.  The Nuer honor and appease the spirits of their ancestors by slaughtering a cow. Cattle are sacrificed to God and the spirits with the hope of gaining a good life.

Christian Missionaries began working among the Nuer in the 1940s.  Christianity began to be accepted by the people, eventually accepting Jesus as their Savior.  Although some of the decisions regarding joining this religion may have been politically motivated, it is clear that many freely chose Christianity and there are well-established Nuer churches. Currently, 50% of all Nuer are Christians in comparison to other ethnic or tribal groups in South Sudan. 

The Dinka believe in a universal single God. They believe “Nhialac” is the creator and source of life, but is also distant from human affairs.  Humans contact Nhialac through spiritual intermediaries and entities called yath and jak, or shamen, which can be manipulated by various rituals and administered by diviners (Jenkins, 1997; Deng, 1970).  They believe that the spirits of the departed become part of the spiritual sphere of this life.  They have consistently rejected attempts to be converted to Islam, but have been somewhat open to Christian missionaries. Cattle also have a religious significance in Dinka religion.  They are the first choice as an animal of sacrifice, though sheep may be sacrificed as a substitute on occasions.  Sacrifices may be made to yath and jak, since Nhialac is too distant for direct contact with humans.  

The family and general social relations are primary values in the Dinka religious thought. Christianity Missionaries began to work among the Dinka in the 1930s, along with the Uduk and Maban tribes. This religious movement has also politically motivated and reflected colonialism.  From these groups, gospel work following Western traditions spread to surrounding peoples including the Jum Jum or Burun, Berta, Gumus, Ignessena, and Shilluk. It is estimated that 4-8% of the Dinka groups are Christian. Access to Christian resources remains limited because of geography, the political situation in the country and by the Islamic religion.  

Table 1 below presents a timeline of significant events in the contemporary history of South Sudan beginning in 1899 and proceeding through 2014. The table is very detailed and describes the many struggles that the people of South Sudan have endured.

Table 1

Timeline of Significant and Contemporary South Sudanese Historical Events

Year                                       Event

1899-1955   South Sudan is part of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, under joint British-Egyptian rule.

1956 Sudan gains independence from joint British-Egyptian rule.

1962 Civil war led by the southern separatist Anya Nya movement begins with north.

1969 Group of socialist and communist Sudanese military officers led by Col Jaafar Muhammad Numeiri seizes power; Col Numeiri outlines policy of autonomy for south.

1972 Government of Sudanese President Jaafar Numeiri concedes a measure of autonomy for southern Sudan in a peace agreement signed in Addis Ababa.

1978 Oil discovered in Unity State in southern Sudan.

1983 Fighting breaks out again between north and south Sudan, under leadership of John Garang’s Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), after Sudanese President Jaafar Numeiri abolishes South Sudan’s autonomy.

1988 Democratic Unionist Party – part of Sudan’s ruling coalition government – drafts cease-fire agreement with the SPLM, but it is not implemented.

1989 Military seizes power in Sudan.

2001 Sudanese Islamist leader Hassan Al-Turabi’s party, the Popular National Congress, signs memorandum of understanding with the southern rebel SPLM’s armed wing, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Mr Al-Turabi is arrested the next day.

2002 SPLA and Sudanese sign agreement on six-month renewable cease-fire in central Nuba Mountains – a key rebel stronghold.

2005 January – North/South Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) ends civil war; deal provides for a permanent ceasefire, autonomy for the south, a power-sharing government involving rebels in Khartoum and a south Sudanese referendum on independence in six years’ time.

July – Former southern rebel leader John Garang is sworn in as first vice-president. A new Sudanese constitution which gives the south a large degree of autonomy is signed. August – South Sudanese leader John Garang is killed in a plane crash. He is succeeded by Salva Kiir Mayardit. Mr. Garang’s death sparks deadly clashes in the capital between southern Sudanese and northern Arabs. September – Power-sharing government is formed in Khartoum. October – Autonomous government is formed in

Table 1 (continued)


South Sudan, in line with the January 2005 peace deal. The administration is dominated by former rebels.

2006 November – Hundreds die in fighting centered on the southern town of Malakal – the heaviest between northern Sudanese forces and former rebels since the 2005 peace deal.

2007 October – SPLM temporarily suspends participation in national unity government, accusing Khartoum of failing to honor the 2005 peace deal.

2008 March – Tensions rise over clashes between an Arab militia and SPLM in the disputed Abyei area on the north-south divide – a key sticking point in the 2005 peace accord.

May – Intense fighting breaks out between northern and southern forces in disputed oil-rich town of Abyei.

June – Southern Sudanese leader Salva Kiir and Sudanese President Omar Bashir agree to seek international arbitration to resolve dispute over Abyei.

2008 October – Allegations that Ukrainian tanks hijacked off the coast of Somalia were bound for southern Sudan spark fears of an arms race between the North and former rebels in the South.

June – Khartoum government denies it is supplying arms to ethnic groups in the south to destabilize the region.

July – North and south Sudan say they accept ruling by arbitration court in The Hague shrinking disputed Abyei region and placing the major Heglig oil field in the north.

2009 December – Leaders of North and South reach deal on terms of referendum on independence due in South by 2011.

2010 January – President Omar Bashir says he will accept referendum result, even if south opted for independence.

2011 January – The people of South Sudan vote in favor of full independence from Sudan.

February – Clashes between the security forces and rebels in southern Sudan’s Jonglei state leave more than 100 dead. Fighting breaks out near Abyei.

2011 March – Government of South Sudan says it is suspending talks with the North, accusing it of plotting a coup.

May – North occupies disputed border region of Abyei.

June – Governments of north and south Sudan sign accord to demilitarize the disputed Abyei region and let in an Ethiopian peacekeeping force.

July 9– Independence day.

August – UN says at least 600 people are killed in ethnic clashes in the state of Jonglei.

Table 1 (continued)


September – South Sudan’s cabinet votes to designate Ramciel – a planned city in Unity State – as the future capital.

October – President Salva Kiir makes historic first visit Khartoum since independence. South Sudan and Sudan agree to set up several committees tasked with resolving their outstanding disputes.

November – South Sudan blames Sudan for the aerial bombardment of a refugee camp in Yida, in Unity State; Sudan’s army denies being responsible.

2012 January – South Sudan declares a disaster in Jonglei State after some 100,000 flee clashes between rival ethnic groups.

2012 February – Sudan and South Sudan sign non-aggression pact at talks on outstanding secession issues, but Sudan then shuts down the South’s oil export pipelines in a dispute over fees. South Sudan halves public spending on all but salaries in consequence.

April – After weeks of border fighting, South Sudan troops temporarily occupy the oil field and border town of Heglig before being repulsed. Sudanese warplanes raid the Bentiu area in South Sudan.

May – Sudan pledges to pull its troops out of the border region of Abyei, which is also claimed by South Sudan, as bilateral peace talks resume. 

July – Country marks first anniversary amid worsening economic crisis and no let-up in tension with Sudan.

August – Some 200,000 refugees flee into South Sudan to escape fighting between Sudanese army and rebels in Sudan’s southern Border States.

September – The presidents of Sudan and South Sudan agree trade, oil and security deals after days of talks in Ethiopia. They plan to set up a demilitarized buffer zone and lay the grounds for oil sales to resume. They fail however to resolve border issues including the disputed Abyei territory.

2013 March – Sudan and South Sudan agree to resume pumping oil after a bitter dispute over fees that saw production shut down more than a year earlier. They also agreed to withdraw troops from their border area to create a demilitarized zone.

June – President Kiir dismisses Finance Minister Kosti Manibe and Cabinet Affairs Minister Deng Alor over a multi-million dollar financial scandal, and lifts their immunity from prosecution.

July – President Kiir dismisses entire cabinet and Vice-President Riek Machar in a power struggle within the governing Sudan People’s Liberation Movement.

December – Civil war erupts as President Salva Kiir accuses his ex-vice-president, Riek Machar, of plotting to overthrow him, a claim denies by Riek Machar.

Table 1 (continued)


Juba Nuer Massacre rendered uprising within the military. Rebel faction seizes control of several regional towns; thousands are killed and many more flee. Uganda troops intervene on the government’s side. Foreigners are evacuated.

2014 January – A ceasefire is signed but broken several times over subsequent weeks and further talks in February fail to end the violence that displaces more than a million people by April.

February – ex-vice president Riek Machar along with his political colleagues charged with treason.

April – UN says pro-Machar forces sack the oil town of Bentiu, both forces trade accusation for killing hundreds of civilians.

May – UN envoy Toby Lanzer says conflict has resulted in slaughter of thousands, displacement of more than a million and five million in need of humanitarian aid.

July – UN Security Council describes the food crisis in South Sudan as the worst in the world.

August – Peace talks begin in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, given the warring parties 45 days to form an interim government.

Note. Adapted from BBC, News Africa, South Sudan Profile, 2014.

South Sudanese Independence and Subsequent Civil War

South Sudan became a new country on July 9, 2011 after a peace and cessation agreement between the original country of Sudan and the new South Sudan. In essence, South Sudan voted in a referendum to become an independent state and to separate itself from the Sudan in January 2011. One major reason for the break-away of South Sudan from Sudan relates to the profound differences in religion between the two countries, with the population of South Sudan being animist, while the majority of the population of Sudan being Islamic.

Sudan has had continuous conflict and strife over the last five decades because of many differences including those related to religion. Zabker (1963), Waller (1985), Wallis (1970), and Shinnie (1965) have all observed that countless civil wars, as well as religious and ethnic conflicts, have raged across the sub-Saharan countryside causing many Sudanese to flee particular regions and migrate to other regions in or outside of the country what is now South Sudan. Prior to the referendum of 2011, in 2005, a comprehensive peace agreement between the Sudan and the then region of South Sudan took hold bringing an end to the civil conflict and caused many dispossessed persons spread throughout the immediate regions and the rest of Africa return to South Sudan. Juba, the country’s designated capital, has become one of the world’s fastest-growing cities as people have fled the countryside in search of resources and safety. Plans to develop a new capital were considered but have never implemented. A big advantage to South Sudan, when compared to other similar African countries is that this country is very rich in natural resources, sitting on a repository of gold, copper, iron ore, and most importantly oil.

Could being “money poor” as a nation have caused the conditions for this recent and unexpected war? The oil reserves in South Sudan are estimated at 6.7 billion barrels, which is about 1/40th the size of the reserves in Saudi Arabia (Martell, 2011). Yet, this is still sizable for a country the size of South Sudan. Yet, a major challenge facing South Sudan today is that it does not contain the refineries necessary to process the oil, forcing the exportation through a pipeline to the Sudan, and also having to depend on that country’s policies and “attitude” toward the former country . Since its inception as a country, a 50% share from oil revenue was supposed to be allocated to the complete “development” of South Sudan and to jumpstart it on its path toward modernity. Unfortunately, this never comes to fruition as these monies have been stolen or misappropriated by government officials and their cronies.

At the beginning, much monetary support came to South Sudan from countries all over the world including the United States and Great Britain. Significant support also came from many non-governmental agencies or NGOs from different countries in the form of educational and medical support, as well as direct economic aid. Like the foreign countries, the NGOs quickly discovered that much of their assistance, especially monetary, went into the pockets of government officials and not the citizenry, which was in dire poverty. This aid was withdrawn as less and less services to the populace were provided to those with the greatest need.

As a result of the mismanagement of external funding support, which has included graft and corruption by high government officials, the people of South Sudan have had shortages of food and other staples. Also, electricity comes from privately-held generators with irregular and inefficient fuel supplies, and prices that can be unaffordable. South Sudan, being a land-locked nation, has had very limited trade with other countries. Infrastructures, including hospitals, buildings, homes, roads, and schools are crumbling from disrepair. To date, education and medical care are provided in makeshift huts, and not brick and mortar buildings. As a result, the infant mortality and the illiteracy rates for the region are among the highest and most severe in the world with no solution in sight.

Even as plans were underway for the establishment and management of this new country, clashes have broken out almost everywhere in the country causing anarchy. For example, over 100 people were killed near the town of Fangak in 2010, in a clash between the South Sudanese security forces, and rebel forces. Tensions in the country have not only escalated after South Sudan’s referendum for independence, but aggression has at times appeared to be random.

Also as a result of its independence, and because of the lack of a democratic government, the borders of South Sudan have become highly porous, allowing infiltration of well-meaning merchants as well as criminals elements, terrorists, and gangs. In addition, many of the jobs that were available at restaurants, hotels, gas stations, produce stores, etc. have disappeared due to the intensity of violence and political oppression. Other business sectors have been dominated by non-South Sudanese immigrants, which have created a lot of resentment among the populace, and caused increased prejudice and hatred. At the same time, smaller private businesses have been established throughout South Sudan, but continuing violence and confusion has caused many businesses to shutter their winders and close, with owners fleeing the country and draining their money from banks.

While these NGOs quickly mobilized to help bring a sense of development and organization to this young nation, citizens quickly became highly dependent and placed in subordinate positions or which in turn made them feel like second class citizens. These activities aimed at nation-building, overwhelmed the young nation, especially because of the government’s minimal cooperation. The oil revenue was the only hope for the citizens of South Sudan, but that money has been pilfered through fraud and false promises.

This absence of a sociopolitical balance in this new nation is continuing evidence that South Sudan has really never been at peace since its inception three years ago, in 2011. Civil unrest has been a way of life both before and after war with the Sudan. This war, which took more than 50 years, and destroyed livelihood of persons in South Sudan now continues within the country and mainly between two tribes, the Nuer and Dinka. At the same time, the South Sudanese have created a mode of survival, which unfortunately includes aggression such as inter-tribal cattle raiding and theft. In addition to these modes of survival, a number of various political factions, which have existed for many decades, continue to also stir political problems. While the government of South Sudan initially attempted to be all inclusive, it quickly broke down through factions, related to long-standing tribal differences. While promises were made to make South Sudan a democratic country, with an emphasis on uniting diverse people and developing a strong infrastructure including its educational and economic systems, it has failed miserably. Instead, the government attempted to establish peace by disarming its citizens (and tribes) by force, including the Shilluk and Murle tribes.

According to a United Nations report in 2011, the current government’s military has burned and destroyed scores of villages throughout the country in the name of pacification, raped hundreds of women and girls, and killed an unknown number of civilians in Shilluk as well as in Murlei. As the regime has continued to silence its population, civilians have been buried alive in the Shilluk land by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). In the greater Murlei area, civilians have been victims of different types of torture including fingernails been torn out, burning plastic bags dripped on children to force their parents to hand over weapons, and villagers burned alive for aiding rebels including providing shelter and safety to them. In May 2011, the SPLA allegedly set fire to over 7,000 Nuer homes in Unity state (UN, 2011). The United Nations reported those events as blatant human rights violations off the “Richter scale” (UN, 2011).

With no apparent and in sight, it appears that South Sudan will be in continuous crisis for many years to come. At the same time calls for the current leadership to abdicate, including the president, have gone unheeded. In 2010, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) issued a warning that from 2011 to 2016, a new mass killing or genocide would most likely plague South Sudan (UN, 2011). Three years later, in 2014, the killing continues as inter-ethnic and intertribal fighting intensified, especially in the Jonglei state between the Lou Nuer White Army and the Murle youth. The White Army warned it would also fight South Sudanese and UN forces, while vulnerable populations and groups are found in all parts of South Sudan. Activists, including Minority Rights Group International (MRGI), have also warned of genocide for years to come.

Juba Nuer Massacre: The Most Recent Political Storm

The most recent conflict, which is considered the beginning of the civil war in South Sudan as an independent state, began on the evening of December 15, 2013, as a result of a meeting of the National Liberation Council (NLC), which took place at Nyakuron Cultural Center the day before. Prior to this meeting, the members of the SPLM met on December 6, 2013 and released a statement warning and urging the president of the country to call for a meeting of the party. At this meeting, the former vice-president and current first deputy chairman of the SPLM, Dr. Riek Machar, backed by several senior party leaders, called on President Kiir to convene a meeting of the party’s highest executive organ, the Political Bureau (PB). His aim was to pressure President Kiir to set an agenda and call for the actual meeting to resolve tensions within the party leadership. As a result of strong resistance by the President, the party leaders announced to hold a rally on Saturday, December 14th to warn the country about the misdirection of the country. President Kiir decided to call for the NLC meeting on the same day the party leaders where going to rally the public. Because the president responded to the call by the SPLM party leaders, the leaders thought it was a good move from the president and the Saturday rally was canceled.

The meeting was well attended by international/national media outlets and NGOs. During his opening speech, the president attacked the SPLM party leaders, referring to previous problems dating back to the 1991 defection of Dr. Machar from the SPLM party. This speech was viewed as being provocative by the SPLM leaders, including Dr. Machar. Moreover, the president stated that the committee investigated Mr. Pagan Amum, the SPLM Secretary General, and recommended his dismissal, and urged the members to act on the report immediately. As it turns, the president had a long and overdue plan to get rid of the SPLM party leaders, such as Dr. Machar and Mr. Amum. As a result of the president’s speech, Dr. Machar called upon other members of the NLC to withdraw from the meeting because of its “undemocratic processes.”

In the evening, President Kiir ordered the SPLM commander of the Presidential Guard, known as “The Tiger Battalion”, to leave the meeting venue and return to the barracks to disarm the troops loyal to his deputy, Dr. Machar. After disarming all tribal members, the commander ordered that the Dinka members be re-armed. His deputy, from the Nuer tribe, under immediate command of a Brigadier General, began to question this order and a fight ensued when surrounding officers saw the commotion. The Nuer soldiers also re-armed themselves. Fighting erupted between the Dinka and the Nuer elements of the Presidential Guard. The Nuer civilian massacre began when the Dinka elements of the SPLA, began targeting Nuer civilians in Juba.

On the December 16, fighting again erupted and spread beyond the capital, to the region around Jonglei, which was prone toward tribal conflict. It was estimated that more than 1,000 persons were killed and over 800 others were injured. Human Rights Watch reported that those figures were inaccurate, as more and more persons were reported killed or injured in the aftermath. The result of this conflict led to a final death toll of civilian casualties of over 20,000.

As a result of this conflict, thousands had to flee from their homes and neighborhoods, and many became homeless migrants within their country. A Human Right Watch reported one incident in which at least 300 men of Nuer origin were rounded up from the Gudele neighborhood and killed in a facility used by several security forces as a joint operations center (UN, 2014).

According to the UN and the victims’ accounts, each capital subsequently changed hands several times and the fighting continues to this date. Fighting has also occurred in rural areas, among the SPLA members. In this unwanted and unnecessary war, the Nuer people in South Sudan found themselves fighting against 63 different tribes and the Ugandan Army and Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement.

The International Authority on Development (IGAD) initiated a peace talk between the government and the opposition, which has being violated from time to time. As result, this peace process has been stalled due to disagreements between the two parties and poor control of the talks by the IGAD. This unanswered question remains: how does this war come to an end with so many irregularities and special interests involved, not only between the two warring parties but from the regional bloc of other countries? There should be a model that could be created by the IGAD, the Africa, and the world to bring this conflict to an end and use it again once it become a turn of another country in the region because the same issue is facing all the African countries.


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Terms and Profiles of the Tribes cited in the this Article

Anuak (Anyuaa):

The Anuak, also known as the Anyuak, Agnwak and Anywaa, are a Luo Nilotic ethnic group inhabiting parts of East Africa. The Anyuak belong to the larger Luo family group. Their language is referred to as Dha-anywaa. They are primarily found in villages situated along the banks and rivers of southeastern South Sudan as well as southwestern Ethiopia, especially the Gambela Region. Group members number between 300,000 to 350,000 people worldwide.

Atuot (Reel):

The Atuot inhabit Yirol County of lakes of Bahr el Ghazal in the areas of Yirol. They number a little over 100,000. The Atuot also known as Reel or nei cieng Reel. The Atuot are divided into the following subgroups: Luac, Jilek, Akot, Jekei and Jekueu. All speak thok cieng Reel (Atuot langauge). Each of these subgroups has a number of "dor" defined by a particular "wet" or totem


Avukaya is an ethnic group of South Sudan. Some members of this ethnic have fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo due to persecution. About 50,000 members of this ethnic group live in South Sudan. Many members of this ethnic group belong to the Christian minority of South Sudan. The Avukaya traditionally live in a rain-forest area in Equatoria close to the Democratic Republic of Congo in South Sudan.


The Bari people (part of the (para) Nilotic group) occupy the savanna lands of the White Nile Valley and speak the Bari language. Many of the Bari were forced into slavery by Belgians, and used as porters to carry ivory tusks to the Atlantic Coast. Traditionally, the Bari believed in one god along with good and evil spirits. Today most Bari are Christian. Historically, the Bari have defended their land from the Dinka, Azande, as well as Ottoman slave traders. The Bari number about 542,000 and are the country’s 4th largest ethnic group. The Bari tend to have two weddings, a traditional Bari wedding, typically an arrangement between families, that are sometimes made when the children are as young as 10 and includes betrothal and dowry negotiations. Dowry is handed over when the betrothed are of marrying age, followed by a Christian wedding. As with most other surrounding tribes, the Bari embrace a cattle herding, the components of a typical traditional Bari dowry are made up of live animals, averaging 23 heads of cattle (cows, calves and bulls), 40 goats and sheep.

Berta (Bertha):

The Berta are an ethnic group living along the border of Sudan and Ethiopia. They speak a Nilo-Saharan language that is not related to those of their Nilo-Saharan neighbors (Gumuz, Uduk). Their total population is about 183,000 people.

Dinka (Jieng):

The Dinka people are an ethnic group inhabiting the Bahr el Ghazal region of the Nile basin, Jonglei and parts of southern Kordufan and Upper Nile regions. They are mainly agripastoral people, relying on cattle herding at riverside camps in the dry season and growing millet (awuou) and other varieties of grains (rap) in fixed settlements during the rainy season. They number about 4.5 million according to the 2008 Sudan census, constituting approximately 18% of the country’s total population, and the largest ethnic tribe in South Sudan.

Fur (Foora):

The Fur are an ethnic group from western Sudan, principally inhabiting the region of Darfur where they are the largest tribe. They are a Western Sudanese people who practice sedentary herding and agriculture, mainly the cultivation of millet. Their society is a traditional one governed by village elders. They speak Fur, a Nilo-Saharan language, and are Muslims, having adopted the religion following the region’s conquest by the Kanem-Bornu Empire during the Middle Ages. Some of them have come to speak Arabic in recent years.

Gumuz (Gumaz):

The Gumuz are a Nilotic ethnic group inhabiting the Benishangul-Gumuz Region and the Qwara woreda in western Ethiopia, as well as the Fazogli region in Sudan. They speak the Gumuz language, which belongs to the Nilo-Saharan family. The Gumuz number about 200,000 total.

Jum or Burun:

The Burun live in the Fung region of the Blue Nile Province in eastern Sudan and number about 45,700. They are a Nilotic tribe which means that they are a people living in or around the Upper Nile Valley. Some Burun live on the rocky hills of the area, while others live further south in the forests and marshes of Dar Fung. Thus, the Burun are divided into two groups: the northern Burun and the southern Burun (which includes the Meban and Jumjum peoples). The Burun are closely related to the Dinka and the Nuer who live to the west and south. They also are geographically and linguistically related to the Meban and Jumjum tribes, and some scholars have included the three as a single group.


The Moru are found primarily in Western Equitoria, numbering over 152,000, the country’s tenth largest ethnic group with smaller numbers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda. The Moru are highly educated, partly because of the work of the Church Missionary Society, with a large number becoming medical professionals. Traditionally, there are no formal political institutions. Land is held by the community with the Moru economy being agriculturally based, but they have recent begun to acquire livestock. The administrative authority lies with the Paramount chiefs, chiefs, sub-chiefs, head men who adjudicate minor cases of elopement and adultery. Their main role in society is conflict resolution and peace and reconciliation between families and clans.


The Murle live primarily in the State of Jonglei, South Sudan, as well as in Ethiopia and practice a blend of African Traditional Religion and Christianity. With a population of about 130,000, the Murle are the eleventh largest ethnic group in South Sudan. Elders and witches often act as trouble fixers. The language of the Murle is part of the Surmic language cluster. The Murle, like the Dinka and Nuer, have a tradition in which men can only marry when they pay a dowry of several dozen cows. Because of the poverty in the area, the easiest way to secure a bride is to steal cows from other tribes. Historically the youth of the Murle, Dinka, and Nuer seem to have equally raided each other for cattle dowries. However, with the civil wars in both Sudan and Ethiopia, they felt unprotected and the Murle formed their own militia.

Nuer (Naath):

The Nuer people are a Nilotic ethnic group primarily inhabiting the Nile Valley. They are concentrated in South Sudan, with some representatives also found in southwestern Ethiopia after they pushed the Anuak from their land. They speak the Nuer language, which belongs to the Nilo-Saharan family. The Nuer people (part of the Nilotic group) are the second largest group in South Sudan, representing 15.6% of the total population in 2013 (or about 1.8 million). Yet, and due to inconsistencies in the census, the Nuer is believed to constitute 2.8 million. In the late 19th century, British, Arab and Turkish traders exerted influence in the area. The Nuer tended to resist the Arab and Turkish, which led to conflict with the Dinka, who supported the British. Nuer tribe played a crucial role in the history of both Sudan and South Sudan.

For South Sudan to remain under a separate administration until the first rebellion was a result of Hon. Both Dieu’s message to South Sudanese members of the council in the 1947 conference in Juba. South Sudan remained vigilance until the first armed rebellion 1955. Nuer have championed both the first movement and the second movement that led to the formation of the Sudan People Liberation Movement/Amy (SPLM/A), under Samuel Gach Tut. The Independent of South Sudan was spearheaded by Dr. Riek Machar Teny-Dhurgon. Dr. Machar has championed the independent of South Sudan, and will champion the federal system of South Sudan.


Nubia is a region along the Nile River which is located in northern Sudan and southern Egypt. There were a number of large Nubian kingdoms throughout the Postclassical Era, the last of which collapsed in 1504 when Nubia became divided between Egypt and the Sennar sultanate resulting in the Arabization of much of the Nubian population. Nubia was again united within Ottoman Egypt in the 19th century, and within Anglo-Egyptian Sudan from 1899 to 1956. The name Nubia is derived from that of the Noba people, nomads who settled the area in the 4th century, with the collapse of the kingdom of Meroë. The Noba spoke a Nilo-Saharan language, ancestral to Old Nubian. Old Nubian was mostly used in religious texts dating from the 8th and 15th centuries AD. Before the 4th century, and throughout classical antiquity, Nubia was known as Kush, included under the name Ethiopia (Aithiopia).


The Shilluk (Shilluk: Chollo) are a major Luo Nilotic people of South Sudan, living on both banks of the river Nile, in the vicinity of the city of Malakal. Before the second Sudanese civil war the Shilluk also lived in a number of settlements on the northern bank of the Sobat River, close to where the Sobat joins the Nile, with Doleib Hill as an important mission station. The Shilluk are the third largest ethnic group of Southern Sudan, after the Dinka and their neighbors the Nuer and their population is number about 379,000.


The Azande live primarily in the Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, and speak the Zande language, a language of the Ubangian language family. Most of the 713,000 Azandes in South Sudan live in Western Equatoria, and are the country’s third largest ethnic group. Traditionally, the Azande were conquering warriors who practiced African Traditional Religion which included witchcraft. While most Azande are now Christian, there is a sub-culture that views witchcraft as an inherited substance in the belly which lives relatively independent of the host or the person. The Azande are sometimes pejoratively known as Niam-Niam (or Nyam-Nyam), which appears to be of Dinka origin, and means great eaters in the Dinka and Nuer language, supposedly referring to cannibalistic propensities. The Azande are primarily small-scale farmers historically supplying much of the grain for South Sudan.

About the Author: John Chuol Kuek, Ph.D., MFTI,This article is a chapter of his second book to be published soon in the United States. His research has focused on the history of South Sudan and trauma due to civil war in Sudan that took more than four decades. He has published his first book, South Sudanese Community Insights: A cross-generational cross-cultural rescue model for families and family counselors (2012). He is an author of Hunger for an Education: A Research Essay on the Case of South Sudan and the Voices of Its People. FIRE: Forum for International Research in Education, (1), 2-31 (2013). He also contributed a book chapter, The Soul Speaks (2012), by Zara Marselian: La Maestra Publication. He is a visiting lecturer to many schools in San Diego, CA and in Phoenix, AZ. He was born and raised in South Sudan. He immigrated with his family to the United States when he was 26 years old. He currently works as a mental health counselor in a multicultural community health center that has a large Sudanese and South Sudanese clientele. To date, he is the only counselor of South Sudanese background in the County of San Diego, CA. He can be reached at [email protected].

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