Struggles in South Sudan: Five Months to Resolve 55 Years of Structural Violence

By Hanzich, Ricky | Harvard International Review, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Struggles in South Sudan: Five Months to Resolve 55 Years of Structural Violence


Hanzich, Ricky, Harvard International Review


Operative clause three of the first chapter of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) asserts the rights of South Sudanese to self-determination by referendum to define their political future. Years after the CPA's writing, the people of South Sudan have spoken. In the January 2011 referendum held in southern Sudan, 98.83 percent of the electorate voted for independence over continued unity with northern Sudan. The Southern Sudan Referendum Commission announced on February 7 that 3,792,518 southern Sudanese favored a split from the government of Khartounm after 55 years of Sudan's existence as the largest nation in Africa. The determination of the people of South Sudan to build a new nation from the ground up is clear, and they certainly seem to have the support of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

However, despite the clear election results and positive indications of support from Khartoum, southern Sudan cannot escape its debilitating history. For at least the past half-century, the South has been victim to structural violence, and both governmental institutions and social frameworks inhibit the population from achieving basic human needs. In the case of Sudan, this largely manifested in decades of civil war between northern and southern Sudan. Structural violence has also persisted for far longer, and in some ways more detrimentally, in the forms of institutionalized ethnocentrism, elitism, racism, and colonialism. Yet, in fewer than five months, South Sudan is set to emerge from its troubled past as the world's newest independent state on July 9, 2011.

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For some, the election results have been an inspiring exemplar of what free people can still achieve in the 21st century. For others, South Sudan's action poses a high risk with its impact on separatist claims across the African continent and beyond. Regardless, it is a daunting task for any new nation to emerge at this point in time. After 55 years of repression and neglect, South Sudan in particular faces the unique and challenging task of joining an international community that has failed to aid the region so significantly in the past. To properly comment on the future of the fledgling state of South Sudan, it is important to reflect upon the region's past of marked structural violence.

Motifs of War, Religion, and Colonialism

Sudan emerged as a political entity in 1821, but first came to play a prominent geopolitical role over 60 years later, as Muhammad Ahmad, claiming to be the second great prophet (Mahdi), rallied western tribes to a jihad that gave the Mahdi control of all Sudan except for Khartoum. At that time, the United Kingdom realized that it could not maintain control in Sudan as its colonial overlord--and, in an attempt to leave some kind of order and to ensure that Sudan would not develop relations with Egypt, appointed General Charles Gordon to evacuate thousands of Egyptians from Khartoum. The debacle that ensued led to Gordon's death, the murder of 7,000 loyal Sudanese and Egyptian troops, and the Mahdi's control of Khartoum. This was the first, but certainly not the last, instance of disruptive colonial influences in the region. The Mahdi's own death soon after his takeover of Khartoum in 1885 and various miscalculations by his successor plunged Sudan into its first series of civil wars Taking advantage of Sudan's early state of chaos, the United Kingdom joined forces with Egypt to take over the region in September of 1898.

Sewing the Seeds of Structural Violence

Compared to other nations in Africa, Sudan underwent a relatively short period of colonial rule. However, between 1899 and 1956, Sudan suffered from Anglo-Egyptian rule that severely hindered the country's political, social, and economic development. In the 12 years after the signing of the Condominium Agreement (which gave control of Sudan to Egypt and Britain), the Sudanese government increased its expenditures threefold, its revenues seventeen-fold, and balanced its budget until 1960.

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