I had several friends from southern Sudan while in medical school in Jimma, southwest Ethiopia. It was back in the early 90s during the second Sudanese civil war that lasted from 1983 up until the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 that paved the way for the creation of the newest nation in Africa, the outcome of which was threatened after the death rather unexpectedly on July 30, 2005, of Dr John Garang de Mabior, the charismatic leader of Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M).
Those were trying times for many of my southern Sudanese friends who were the lucky few who got scholarships to attend 2 year pharmacology and related health science fields in what is now Jimma University after surviving extreme harsh conditions to escape to refugee camps in border towns in Ethiopia. I remember the heated debates about the civil war, its tragic cost on human life, the necessity of the struggle for justice and freedom. Almost every one of them had lost a brother, a sister, a parent, a close relative or a friend. Some perished in the wilderness trying to escape the brutality of the war. All had hope that one day there would be a better Sudan or if not, an independent South Sudan where its people will have the chance, if you will, of determining its fate. The war would continue long after I finished medical school but even then, back in the 90s, there was a feeling that it lasted far too long and had claimed far too many, over a million, lives. The southern Sudanese that I met in Jimma never identified themselves as Dinka or Nuer but as the oppressed people in Sudan. Whether Dr Garang wanted to see a fair but united Sudan where its entire people are all treated equally but not necessarily as an independent states is better left to scholars on Sudan politics for we will never know for sure what the outcome would have been had he lived to see the peace agreement. General Salva Kiir skillfully put together all the different interests and led to South Sudan’s independence, the newest country in Africa with riches such as oil but lacking even the very basic infrastructure. With its capital as Juba, the Republic of South Sudan became officially an independent country on July 9, 2011 following a referendum that passed with 98.83% of the vote. That was a day that put smiles on many faces such as mine, driven in many ways by an early exposure to the plight of its people through close friends in Jimma some of whom would advance in their studies to become doctors.
It will only take two years before the country would go up in flames in another civil war manufactured in South Sudan itself by the same leaders who spend their lifetime fighting for justice and independence yet with suppressed hunger for absolute power. The Kiir-Machar civil war started after the former, the president of the republic, fired the later, the vice president in what appears like a power struggle within the ruling party claiming tens of thousands of lives and displacing hundreds of thousands. The conflict had ethnic dimension pitting the Dinka and the Nuer, the largest and second largest tribes in the country belonging to the president and former vice president. I don’t know where my friends are today but I know some of them went back to South Sudan after independence but to think about the possibility that any of them, their families, relatives or friends may have died in this senseless war, drowned in the Nile trying to escape to safety, or making another trip to the all familiar refugee camps in neighboring countries pains me.
After all when Jon Garang said, “This peace agreement signals the beginning of one Sudan regardless of race, religion or tribe,” he may have foreseen the challenges of South Sudan as an independent country. In Sub-Saharan Africa, independence is not always a solution for injustice.
In a continent with no culture of resolving conflicts peacefully, how can one dream of one South Sudan regardless of tribe or different political opinion?
For God’s sake, leaders of South Sudan come to your senses and stop the misery of your people and put a smile on our faces.