South Sudan: Out of Struggle, Nationhood

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David Azia / AP

“When you cry, we cry; when you bleed, we bleed,” announced Gen. Salva Kiir Mayardit, president of the world’s newest nation, on the occasion of its independence in early July. These soothing words—directed at a long-suffering people—befit the gentle, quiet warrior who has patiently overseen the long-contested emergence of the Republic of South Sudan as the world’s 193rd country.

Sudan has experienced devastating conflict since it gained independence from Britain in 1956. (Some would date the conflict to several centuries earlier, beginning with Arab slave raids in the heart of present-day South Sudan.) From the perspective of most Southern Sudanese, nationalization merely replaced an external colonizer with an internal oppressor: successive regimes in Khartoum marginalized the South. The schism led to two civil wars, killing millions of Sudanese (mostly Southerners) through violence and starvation or disease.

Finally, in 2005, the North and South signed a peace agreement that promised a referendum on South Sudan’s independence. The vote came this January, with a landslide—more than 98 percent—choosing secession.

It’s no accident that Kiir was the man tapped to lead the new nation. His defining qualities—steadfastness, humility, determination, discipline—place him as a likely hero in the modern history of Sudan.

Like most post-independence African leaders, he rose from humble beginnings. A member of the pastoral Dinka tribe, Kiir was born in 1951. He abandoned his formal schooling to fight with Southern rebels in Sudan’s first civil war in the late ’60s. His years in the bush nourished his military acumen and cultivated a sophisticated understanding of revolutionary African politics he now keenly displays.

After the war ended in 1972, Kiir and his revolutionary comrades were absorbed into the Sudan Armed Forces, where he spent time as a low-ranking officer. But peace was short-lived, and in 1983 Kiir joined the mutiny of Southern SAF officers, headed by the iconic leader John Garang de Mabior. (The group eventually morphed into the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which now runs South Sudan’s military.) In the ensuing civil war, Kiir spearheaded many successful military campaigns. Comrades widely describe him as a leader who was respected by all ranks of soldiers. In 2005, just after the signing of the peace treaty, Garang died and Kiir assumed his place as vice president of Sudan and president of the new autonomous Southern government, with strong support from the Army.

Now, as head of the world’s newest nation, Kiir faces steep challenges. He must maintain unity and cohesion in one of Africa’s most diverse regions. His cabinet must oversee economic and social development in an area devastated by war. He’ll also have to grapple with the fact that South Sudan has some of the lowest socio-economic-development index scores in the world.

Moreover, the government depends nearly exclusively on oil exports for revenue and foreign currency and must rapidly diversify its economic base. Kiir must also oversee rapid disarmament of a population that is all too familiar with violence. The population has lost so much in the successive wars that Southern Sudanese now expect peace dividends for their longstanding patriotic sacrifices. And if all these internal issues were not enough, Kiir must resolve a host of ongoing issues with the North, from border delineation to the simmering conflicts in Darfur, Abyei, and Southern Kordofan.

Nevertheless, there are several reasons for optimism. Kiir has demonstrated strong leadership in the period following the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. He maintained great calm in the crisis and chaos that erupted after Garang’s death. Those who know him well report that he has a quiet, patient, and consensus-building leadership style.

Although it’s easy for pundits to naysay, Kiir’s accomplishments dwarf the criticisms. He saw the CPA through to independence, the ultimate prize for the Southern Sudanese, even in the face of numerous provocations by the recalcitrant Khartoum government. He has repeatedly granted amnesty to renegade generals and soldiers, the latest such declaration made during independence ceremonies. Kiir has been a steady voice of wisdom and restraint regarding the conflicts raging in other marginalized regions of Sudan.

One of the best gifts the world can give to the new nation is unwavering support of President Kiir’s cabinet’s efforts to forge a successful nation-state under what at times will seem like impossible circumstances.

Beny is a professor at the University of Michigan.