The history of South Sudan is very much tied up with that of its northern neighbour, Sudan.

Early History & The British

We know little of the history of early South Sudan, although there is evidence that transhumant cattle-raisers have inhabited the region for around 5000 years. Around the 1500s Nilotic-speakers such as the Dinka and Luo are thought to have moved down into what is now South Sudan from further north.

In 1899 South Sudan became a part of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan under the control of Britain and Egypt. Almost no development at all took place in the area that is today South Sudan, although the British encouraged Christian missionaries to work in the area in order to counter the spread of Islam southwards.

Independence & Rebellion

In 1956 Sudan as a whole became independent and the people of South Sudan found themselves being ruled by Khartoum. Almost straight away southerners complained of discrimination and an unfair division of wealth, opportunities and political power between northerners and southerners. In addition, southern leaders accused Khartoum of trying to impose an Islamic and Arabic identity on the south and of reneging on promises to create a federal system.

In 1962 a rebellion originally launched by southern army officers seven years earlier turned into a full-scale civil war against Khartoum led by the Anya Nya guerrilla movement. In 1969 a group of socialist and communist Sudanese military officers led by Colonel Jaafar Muhammad Numeiri seized power in Khartoum. For the people of South Sudan the defining moment of Numeiri's 16 years in power came in 1972 when he signed the Addis Ababa Agreement which granted the southern provinces a degree of autonomy.


The future looked bright in 1978 when the first oil was discovered in South Sudan: however, civil war broke out again in 1983 after Khartoum cancelled the autonomy arrangements. This time the southerners were led by John Garang's Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) and its armed wing, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).

In the ensuing 22 years of fighting around 1.5 million people are thought to have lost their lives and more than four million were displaced.

The conflict finally ended with the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, under which the south was granted regional autonomy along with guaranteed representation in a national power-sharing government, as well as a referendum for the south on independence. In July of that year John Garang was sworn in as first vice president of Sudan, but then, just one month later, he was killed in a plane crash. Many southerners suspected foul play and demonstrations and fighting broke out again. John Garang was replaced by Salva Kiir Mayardit.

Despite the establishment in Khartoum of a power-sharing government between Omar al-Bashir and Salva Kiir, numerous deadly skirmishes occurred. The oil-rich state of Abyei, which sits on the frontier of Sudan and South Sudan, is, and continues to be, a particular flashpoint.

The Second Independence & Civil War

After many long years of war, in January 2011 99% of southern Sudanese voted in the long-promised referendum to split from the rest of Sudan. In July of that year South Sudan became an independent country.

The independence honeymoon was short-lived: even before the new nation's first birthday South Sudan was back at war with itself after fighting broke out between Nuer and Murle tribal groups in the northeast of the country.

In December 2013, with intertribal conflict erupting in many parts of the country, things went from bad to worse after President Kiir accused his deputy, Riek Machar, of attempting to overthrow him in a coup. Machar fled into the bush and a full-scale civil war erupted between supporters of Kiir and supporters of Machar. Trapped in the middle were the ordinary citizens, and atrocities were committed against them by both sides.

After numerous international attempts at ceasefires – all of which failed – a peace agreement was finally signed in 2015 and Machar returned to Juba as vice president. No sooner had the ink dried on the peace agreement than fighting once again broke out between supporters of the two men, and by 2016 the country had plunged back into civil war.