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The World’s Newest Nation: The Republic of South Sudan

Last fall, the Museum invited Andrew Natsios, former US Presidential Envoy to Sudan, to travel with staff to southern Sudan to assess conditions in the region on the eve of its vote for independence from the North. In early July he returned to Juba to attend the independence ceremonies for the new state of South Sudan. Here he shares his personal reflections on his most recent trip. The world’s newest nation—the Republic of South Sudan—was born July 9 amidst parades, speeches, and banquets attended by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, the Crown Prince of Norway, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, 29 other heads of state, and some 200,000 to 300,000 South Sudanese. I had the privilege of attending the ceremonies as a guest of the South Sudanese government. As I sat in the reviewing stand with others in the 95-degree heat, listening to 13 speeches of congratulations and the reading of the new nation’s Declaration of Independence, I had time to reflect on the extraordinary cost of creating this new republic. Four million Southern Sudanese lost their lives in two civil wars spread out over 49 years, with some of the most horrific atrocities—committed by the North against the South—in recent human rights history. In June 1989 I met and became friends with Dr. John Garang, who led the southern rebellion and negotiated the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that made South Sudan’s eventual independence possible. One of the saddest of my trips to Sudan was the one I made to lead the US government delegation to Dr. Garang’s funeral, after he died in a helicopter crash six months after signing the peace agreement. Over the years, many of the South’s leaders, including President Salva Kiir, have come to my home for dinner; my wife, Elizabeth, and Dr. Garang’s widow, Rebecca, became friends. I must admit I seldom thought the day of the South’s independence from the North would ever come, given the bloody history of Sudan. But it has. The new republic was created when the South voted by a 98.8% margin on January 9, 2011, to become an independent state. The referendum on which they voted was a result of the 2005 peace agreement signed by the North and South, which ended 22 years of civil war that had led to the deaths of 2.5 million South Sudanese. For me, one of the more surreal elements of the independence ceremonies was the presence of many of the North’s political party leaders—such as former Prime Minister Sadik al-Mahdi and Parliamentary Speaker Hasan al Turabi—who had designed the strategies that caused the deaths of so many South Sudanese. I spoke with both Mahdi and Turabi and they seemed quietly resigned to the breakup of the country, something they had both sought to avoid with an enormous loss of life. These leaders, who had opposed allowing the South to go free, were purposely invited as a way of securing their implied consent to the region’s independence. But their presence, and the positive words we heard from President Bashir—who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide in Darfur—disguised the ominous direction the North has taken in recent months. That direction was a major topic of discussion among the government leaders and politicians I met while in Juba. I was told that last month Bashir ordered Sudan’s military to disarm some 38,000 rebel troops in the Nuba Mountains, a region in the North that had joined with John Garang’s Southern rebellion but was never considered part of the South. The 2005 peace agreement between the North and South had required a popular consultation process for the Nuba area in South Kordofan province to enable its residents to express their views on governance, Sharia law (which they do not want since 60% of them are Christian and 40% Sufist Muslim), and perhaps some measure of autonomy. Though Bashir’s government agreed to the process in writing, in practice it stonewalled it at every stage. When Bashir ordered the Sudanese army to disarm the Nuban rebel forces last month, 61 garrisons refused and as many as three battalions may have switched sides and joined the rebels. Following these battlefield defections and defeats, Khartoum once again employed the same bloody tactics it had used against the South and in Darfur: it killed as many local civil society and political leaders as possible, burned their villages, and cut off the food supply to starve out rebellious locals. Khartoum is using its air force, flown by mercenaries, to terrorize the Nuban population, resulting in mass population displacement with potentially high death rates since the Nuba are now separated from their farms and herds and Khartoum will not allow NGOs and UN agencies humanitarian access to the area. Bashir sent Nafie ali Nafie, leader of the Khartoum government’s hard-line faction, to Ethiopia to negotiate a deal to end the fighting. This led to an agreement in mid-June to implement the provisions of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which Khartoum had already signed in 2005 but had stonewalled honoring it. Bashir promptly tore up the June agreement and continued his military campaign, humiliating Nafie and alienating his following in the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS). Two months ago, Salah Ghosh, NISS’s former director, was arrested for plotting a coup to overthrow Bashir. With Khartoum’s ruling party in disarray and Bashir’s own military defecting, observers in the South told me his days are numbered. What no one can predict is what will follow should Bashir be overthrown. Some fear an Islamist coup; others hope for a democratic revolution. The question is how many innocent civilians will die in the process of the dissolution of the Northern Sudanese state.