To begin at the beginning, South Sudan – Africa’s youngest state – was born in the flames of civil conflict. Its achievement of independent status in July 2011 was the culmination of more than a century of armed struggle by autonomy-seeking southern Sudanese activists. But taking up arms to achieve one’s ends is a difficult habit to break. Only four years after its birth, the infant state of South Sudan is itself engaged in a bloody civil war.
The original cause of conflict between northern and southern Sudan is largely explicable in terms of demography. Most inhabitants in the northern parts of the country are Arab by descent, and Muslim by religion. The south is home to most of the 570-plus Sudanese tribes, very few of whom are either Arab or Muslim. A fair proportion were converted to Christianity by western missionaries.
Conquered by Britain in the last decades of the nineteenth century, Sudan was subsequently administered by Egypt, under Britain’s watchful eye, in an arrangement known as the Condominium Agreement. It lasted from 1899 to 1955, but tensions were present from the start between the northern part of the country and the south, which soon began demanding autonomy if not outright independence. The taut situation erupted in 1955 into what became known as the first Sudanese civil war. During the 17 years of conflict that followed, half a million people died, but the 1972 agreement which ended the fighting did not solve the underlying tensions.
So 1983 saw the start of a further 22 years of internal conflict between the central Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army of the south. The conflict officially ended with the signing of a peace agreement in January 2005.
Six years later, in January 2011, an overwhelming majority of South Sudanese voted in a referendum to secede from Sudan and establish an independent state. On July 9, 2011 South Sudan became Africa’s 54th nation state, and the 193rd country recognised by the United Nations. The country was formed from the 10 southernmost states of Sudan.
It is not, perhaps, surprising that the first nation to recognise the new state was Sudan, followed by the US and the EU. An eyebrow might, however, be raised on the news that, within 24 hours, the very next nation to grant it formal recognition was Israel.
Israel’s ties to Sudan’s southern region go back to the 1960s, when it offered aid and training to the rebels fighting the northern government. Prior to South Sudan’s declaration of independence, discreet relations between its government-in-waiting and Israel had been conducted for many months. They culminated in a meeting in September 2011 in UN headquarters between Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, and Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister. An official visit to Israel by President Kiir followed in December.
Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based TV network, explains these close yet discreet relationships as an Israeli effort “to build a Christian alliance in Africa to fend off Arab influence and the growing Islamic trends there.” The relationship has certainly flourished. Israel and South Sudan have exchanged ambassadors, though Kiir’s repeated declaration that he intends to establish the South Sudanese embassy in Jerusalem, the one location studiously avoided by all other countries with diplomatic ties with Israel, has not yet been realised. He has had other things on his mind.
In December 2013 the young state was plunged into a power struggle between Kiir and his deputy, Riek Machar, whom he had sacked. Machar put himself at the head of an armed rebel movement, and the fighting became an ethnic conflict between the president’s Dinka people and Mr Machar’s Nuers. Tens of thousands of lives were lost, and some 2.2 million people driven from their homes
An internationally-mediated peace agreement, signed by the two sides in August 2015, was almost immediately rendered inoperative. The agreement included a power-sharing arrangement allowing Machar’s rebels to choose the governors of two states, Unity and Upper Nile. However on October 4, Kiir suddenly announced that South Sudan’s 10 existing states would immediately be divided into 28. Inevitably Machar declared that the decree amounted to a “violation of the peace agreement and a clear message to the world that President Kiir is not committed to peace”.
As Kiir signed the decree in the capital, Juba, more fighting was already taking place in Unity and Upper Nile, the rebels and the government accusing each other of starting the bloodshed.
In the midst of all this turmoil is there any spark of hope for South Sudan?
Well yes actually, there is, and it comes from a most unexpected source.
On the day that South Sudan came into being – July 9, 2011 – a football player named Richard Justin Lado left Sudan and headed for the land of his ancestors. “My family came from South Sudan,” he told a FIFA journalist, “so it wasn’t a difficult choice for me. I just followed my heart.”
Lado immediately became his country’s first football captain, and it was not long before he became a national idol. Just minutes into South Sudan’s maiden international match against Uganda in the capital of Juba on July 10, 2012, he sent the 22,000 crowd delirious by scoring the Bright Stars’ first ever goal.
And then just a few weeks ago, at their 13th attempt, the Bright Stars scored their debut win, when they unexpectedly beat Equatorial Guinea, the 2015 CAF Africa Cup of Nations semi-finalists, 1-0 in the September qualifier for the 2017 continental finals.
South Sudan had the chance to build on this success when they faced Mauritania, ranked 55 places higher than them, in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia qualifier played on 7 and 8 October (spread over two days because of the weather). To their great credit they drew 1-1, scoring their first World Cup goal, The honour went to Dominic Abui Pretino. The sides met for the second leg on October 13, and although South Sudan went down 4-0, nothing can detract from their success in reaching the qualifier.
A united country – that is the dream of the South Sudanese. “The national team is a great example of unity,” said Lado. “The players come from every ethnic group, from all over the country, and we play in harmony… we’ve tried to make football a force for ending all the damage caused by war.”
If anything is likely to put an end to the endless political rivalries and pull the nation together, it is the continued success on the football field of South Sudan’s Bright Stars.