South Sudan: A Tumultuous Journey

 South Sudan a war zone
Written by: 
Zaharah Nanyombi


Full story on the Tumultuous Journey of South Sudan 

A flicker of hope for peace has returned to South Sudan this week when President Salva Kiir and his former deputy-turned-rival, Dr Riek Machar, met in Ethiopia.

The meeting in Addis Ababa on Wednesday evening was the first between the two protagonists since 2016 when Dr Machar went into exile in South Africa as the country descended deeper into a brutal war.

This has been the story of South Sudan that, almost seven years after independence in July 2011, it is a country in ruins with shattered hopes and broken promises! At least four million of its 11 million population are displaced by the war, three million of whom are leaving in neighbouring countries. Uganda alone is home to at least 1.3 million South Sudan refugees, according to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.

President Kiir and Dr Machar fought on the same side as they pushed for independence from Sudan, in a war that lasted more than two decades. But a string of misfortunes followed shortly after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in January 2005. Not even independence in in July 2011 helped set the country on a firm foundation for peace and stability.

The tumultuous journey

Before independence, the region of Southern of Sudan suffered two civil wars between 1956 and 1972 and again from 1983 to 2005 when the peace agreement was signed, setting the timeline for eventual independence.

The wars pitted fighters from the largely Christian south against the successive governments in Khartoum who were all Arab-dominated. By the year 2000, the United States Committee on Refugees and Immigrants had put the number of deaths as a result of fighting at close to two million people.

Birth of SPLA

In 1983, Dr John Garang, who had joined the Sudan national army after attaining his university education in Tanzania and doctoral studies in the United States, mobilized fighters from the South and waged war against the Khartoum government. Among the people he mobilized was Salva Kiir and Riek Machar. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) was born.

After two decades of a brutal war that outlived three governments in Khartoum, the fighting parties signed a peace accord in 2005 which exempted the province of Southern Sudan from Islamic Sharia law. The peace agreement also granted the province six years of self-rule ahead of a referendum on independence.

Vacuum as Garang Dies

As part of the Peace agreement, SPLA leader, Colonel John Garang, was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-General and appointed vice president of Sudan in the interim period. This was, however, a short-lived moment as Dr Garang died on July 30, 2005, just three weeks after being sworn in as vice president and seven months after the signing of the peace agreement.

What had appeared as a roadmap for independence, peace and stability in South Sudan suddenly evaporated with the death of Dr Garang. While Salva Kiir took over as leader of SPLA and South Sudan, he lacked the charisma of Garang and was not quite a unifying factor that his departed colleague was.

Referendum, birth of a nation

The people of South Sudan sleep-walked through the entire process after the death of Dr Garang and in 2011, a referendum was held. Nearly 99 percent of the voters favoured secession from the north, which Garang was opposed to. Nevertheless, on July 9 that year, South Sudan proclaimed its independence with Kiir as the country's first president and Machar as his deputy.

In his maiden speech, President Kiir mentioned Garang among “the martyrs and heroes” whose blood “cemented” the new nation.

Kiir said: “We have waited for 56 years for this day. It is a dream that has come true!

Peep into the future

As if to predict what was to come a few months after independence, President Kiir against internal “squabbling” which led to bloodshed. “Let me also say that some of our suffering has been self-inflicted. We squabble over issues that can be resolved peacefully. We invite our common enemies to help us kill ourselves. May this day mark a new beginning of tolerance, unity and love for one another. Let our cultural and ethnic diversity be a source of pride and strength, not parochialism and conflict,” he said.

Back to War

He promised citizens of the new nation equality before the law, equal access to opportunities and equal responsibilities to serve the nation. He mentioned cultural and ethnic diversity as a source of pride and strength, not parochialism and conflict.

By 2013, however, ethnic diversity had become the source of conflict, with Kiir, a member of the Dinka tribe, falling out with his deputy, Machar, who hails from the Nuer tribe. This set the stage for a confrontation between two biggest tribes in the fragile nation.

Kiir sacked Machar and his allies from cabinet and in December, the two former comrades rallied their people for war.

The brutal fighting had by 2016 claimed up to 50,000 lives and displaced 2.2 million people, according to a report United Nations conflict monitors. The war split the ruling party (SPLM) and army (SPLA) along the Kiir-Machar rifts.

Media silenced

As the country fell apart, the government went on a mission to gag free and critical press. Killings, illegal detentions, harassment of journalists became commonplace, in most cases orchestrated by the government. In 2015, while leaving for Ethiopia for peace talks, President Kiir was quoted by international media as saying journalists who reported “against the country” would be killed.

“If anybody among [journalists] does not know that this country has killed people, we will demonstrate it one day, one time,” the president told reporters.

By August 2015, at least six journalists had been shot dead. Within days, another journalist Peter Julius Moi was shot dead by unknown gunmen.

While a peace deal was signed that year with Machar being reinstalled as vice president, fighting broke out in the capital Juba in July 2016 when President Kiir accused Machar of plotting a coup. Machar and his forces fled, setting the stage for another round of ethnic killings between the supporters of the two leaders.


So, the latest meeting organized by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali is another effort to restore hope for a fallen country with a displaced population.

AFP quoted Menasseh Zindo, a senior official in his Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in Opposition (SPLM-IO) saying Machar and President Salva Kiir arrived in Addis Ababa on Wednesday morning and afternoon respectively and held talks.


While South Sudan is governed on federal form of governance with 10 states, the war has made it virtually impossible for this arrangement to work. Even the separation of powers worked, since President Kiir’s image and influence is larger than Parliament and the judiciary.

Article 24 of the South Sudan constitution provides freedom of expression, information and media.  A broadcast bill was signed into law in 2013 but all these are largely silent as a country at war can hardly respect the rule of law.

Journalist and researcher, Dominic Kango explains: “You have freedom to talk whatever you want on media but there is no freedom after publication.”

Kango adds that you cannot talk about media freedom in South Sudan when there is war and even the media Authority which is to regulate the media and journalists has been captured by the government.

“May be when peace comes in South Sudan, the media industry will have proliferation in the next two or five years,” he says.


The war has brought the economy to its knees, as it is burdened by increased military spending, low production and corruption. Transparency International ranks South Sudan at number 179 out of 180 countries, scoring only 12 out 100 in corruption perception index.   

According to Kango, South Sudan was the battle field before they separated from the main Sudan. Roads, Agriculture plantations, hospitals and schools were destroyed. By the time they separated in 2011, they were poor.  He added that they depend on Uganda in everything.

Hope the Kiir-Machar meeting in Addis Ababa this week sets the country on a path back to peace and stability.