For most of the 20th century, British colonial rulers viewed the north and south of Sudan as separate entities. The first Sudanese civil war (1955–1972) erupted just before independence, prompted by angry southerners who had been promised and then denied regional autonomy. The fighting resulted in the death of half a million people, mostly civilians, and forced hundreds of thousands to flee from their homes. In 1972, the Addis Ababa Agreement negotiated peace between the southern rebels, known as the Anyanya, and Khartoum. The peace deal included power-sharing agreements, security guarantees, and political and economic autonomy for the south.
In an attempt to quiet critics in the north and consolidate his power, then-Sudanese President Jaafar al-Nimieri introduced legal measures in 1983 that abolished southern governing autonomy. Nimieri returned power to Khartoum, declared Arabic the official language, and imposed Sharia’a law over the entire country. In response, southerners mobilized around the southern rebel army, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), led by Dr. John Garang. Rather than fight for southern independence, the SPLA posited that Sudan could be transformed into a multiracial, multilingual, multireligious, and multiethnic state.
In the north, Islamists gained political strength and on June 30, 1989, Brigadier-General Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir led a military coup, bringing to power the National Islamist Front (NIF) government. The NIF intensified the war with the south, conducting the fighting with systematic and widespread assaults against civilians.
The war continued until 2005, when a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in Abuja, Nigeria, between Garang and Bashir. As part of that peace agreement, citizens of the south were given the opportunity for a future vote as to whether to remain part of Sudan or to break off and become an independent country.
Amid much optimism, and with support from the United States and the international community, the referendum was held in January 2011, and the citizens of South Sudan voted overwhelmingly for independence. On July 9, 2011, the Republic of South Sudan was born.
There are unresolved issues that make for an uncertain future for the world’s newest country. Sudan and South Sudan share not only a history, but also significant cross-border interests, including trade, migration, and resource development, especially with regard to the oil rich border areas. Because of the long history of violence and fears of ongoing interference, southerners greatly distrust their northern neighbors, and the two countries have yet to find a way to respect each other’s sovereignty and peacefully negotiate their relations.
There are tensions over the disputed region of Abyei, which has large oil reserves, and these tensions threaten the economic well-being and security of both countries. In the border areas of the Nuba mountains of South Kordofan, a humanitarian crisis, in the context of a civil war between the government of Sudan and rebels from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement—North, has impacted large swaths of the population. By mid-2013, hundreds of thousands of civilians had fled the fighting as the Sudanese air force indiscriminately bombed civilian targets, and humanitarian groups reported on the dangers of widespread famine because the government of Sudan had blocked aid to peoples in the mountains.
Within South Sudan itself, intercommunal violence continues to be widespread, due to a range of issues—the availability of weapons, ethnic tensions among armed groups, corruption, and limited economic opportunities. The country faces an ongoing challenge of creating a democratic system of governance in a region with little history and few models for such practices. A political crisis that began in December 2013 has erupted into a large-scale civil conflict that has taken on an ethnic cast, as Dinka militias and supporters of the president, Salva Kiir, battle Nuer forces loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar for control of key cities and towns. Citizens are being targeted on the basis of their ethnic identity, and some one million civilians have been displaced as of May 2014.