E Pluribus Unum: South Sudan's quest to forge a unified identity

South Sudan will become an independent state on July 9. Will it be able to unify its disparate ethnic groups to form its own national identity?

Pete Muller/AP
A South Sudanese man watches a publicly televised broadcast of the formal announcement of referendum results in the southern capital of Juba on Feb. 7. Referendum officials indicated that nearly 99 percent of all voters cast ballots in favor of southern independence.

“Welcome to Africa’s Youngest Nation” reads a prominent billboard recently erected in the South Sudanese capital. The sign is taller than most of the buildings in this town of mud huts and plastic container hotels, and its bold message raises an interesting issue facing the soon-to-be independent, oil-rich southern half of Sudan. Although the south will become a state on July 9, how will the South Sudanese people go about forging a unified nation in the years to come?

The process of a new government trying to build a singular nation out of disparate parts is not new. As a British academic friend reminded me the other day in Juba, back when Italy became a state in 1861, one of its founders remarked: “We have made Italy, now we have to make Italians.”

This notion is no doubt on the minds of the southern leadership. In a speech on Tuesday in Juba, the South Sudan President Salva Kiir had compelling words for his people:

"Dear Citizens, today I call upon all of us to put behind the long and sad history of war, hardship and needless sacrifice imposed by violent conflict. Nonetheless to say, we are also mindful that the legacy of war will stay with us for some time to come. By this referendum, we have ended one struggle and now we must start a new one, that of nation building. We must consolidate our institutions and begin to play a major role in the region and among the community of nations."

When I asked the Juba government’s Minister of Culture and Heritage for his views on the process of shaping a “Southern Sudanese identity” in a place where loyalty to one’s ethnic group has usually reigned supreme, he was optimistic. “I think the national identity of the people of Southern Sudan has already been identified when they conducted that unique referendum,” said Minister Gabriel Changson Chang. “They identified themselves as a people. One people. And that was why they were able to score the turnout of over 98 percent and also they voted overwhelmingly for their identity and that is the independence of South Sudan.”

There is indeed something to be said for the overwhelmingly unanimous secessionist sentiment among southerners. But as the common wisdom in Juba goes, once the south declares independence and the “common enemy” of the Khartoum government is less of a looming presence in the lives of southerners, internal challenges within the south may come to the fore.

The state-building challenges facing the south have been widely reported on in the weeks following its successful referendum last month. The challenges of building a nation may be more subtle, but are no less daunting.

Maggie Fick is a Juba-based freelance journalist who blogs here.

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