South Sudan flag flying in front of the UN headquarters

South Sudan flag flying in front of the UN headquarters

During the Cold War, Americans wondered if newborn African and Eastern European countries would become democracies. Now we assess how new democracies will live up to their professed democratic values. The world’s newest country, South Sudan, is in the unique position of being able to learn from and construct its constitution from countries that have already gone through the risky process of declaring freedom.

Since the declaration of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, South Sudan has been ruled under an interim constitution, adopted by the people, that firmly established that “the authority of government at all levels in Southern Sudan shall derive from the people and shall be exercised in accordance with their will.” The constitution also separated religion and the state, promised to respect all indigenous languages of the country, established English and Arabic as the official working languages of the government, and even promoted the use of sign language for people with special needs. This interim constitution was a symbol of how far South Sudan had risen from the destructive grasp of two civil wars.

The technical committee, including South Sudan’s Minister for Legal Affairs and Constitutional Development John Luk Jok, reviewed the interim constitution and drafted the transitional constitution that would take its place. The technical committee was unbalanced from the start. The body consisted of 41 members of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), and only 11 officials from other political parties. On March 7, the officials from the other political parties all withdrew from the technical committee citing the unfair majority that the ruling party held over the approval and revisions of the constitution. Together this group of political officials was supposed to address any gaps in the written law and provide a framework to guide a new South Sudan.

Political party leaders, including those that had withdrawn from the constitutional review exercise, did all eventually participate in a review of the draft constitution and finally released the draft of the transitional constitution in April. The transitional constitution recognized English as the official language of the new republic, cementing the belief that English is a global lingua franca that can encourage development and differentiate South Sudan from Sudan where Arabic is the primary language. With more than 40 ethnic groups, South Sudan is very linguistically diverse. Perhaps in choosing English as the official language of the new republic, South Sudan can avoid the problems of a nation like Morocco, where classical Arabic is the official language, the local population speaks the Moroccan Arabic dialect of Darija, and the elite use French and English in the halls of government.

The right to life, dignity, and integrity are enshrined in the transitional Constitution’s Bill Of Rights. The new republic has also agreed to promote the political participation of women, who constitute over 55 percent of registered voters, with affirmative action policies that accord fully one quarter of the positions in the legislative and executive branches to women. This one-quarter figure is not quite the 30 percent representation that the South Sudanese women at the 2005 Oslo donors’ conference demanded, but it’s a start. According to the South Sudan minister of gender, child, and social welfare women will make up 52 out of the 170 members of the National Legislature from 2011 to 2015.

In regards to the disputed region of Abyei, the transitional constitution firmly claims sovereignty over the territory “of the nine Ngok Dinka chiefdoms transferred from Bahr el Ghazal Province to Kordofan Province in 1905 as defined by the Abyei Arbitration Tribunal Award of July 2009.” The constitution makes no mention of when the referendum on Abyei’s future will take place.

Executive-Legislative Tensions

The transitional government of Southern Sudan has ruled with a top-down approach. Edicts are issued from Juba and followed through in the local towns and ten states of South Sudan. South Sudan has established a national legislature composed of two houses (the National Legislative Assembly and the Council of States) that functionally resemble the House of Representatives and the Senate in the United States. For the 18-21 months before the first national elections of South Sudan are scheduled to take place in 2013, the legislative body is composed of representatives who have been serving as members of the unicameral Southern Sudan Legislative Assembly (the predecessor to the National Legislature) and all southern Sudanese members of the National Assembly of the Republic of Sudan in Khartoum. As it stands 90 percent of the legislators are members of the ruling SPLM. The power of the executive branch of South Sudan extends into the legislative branch. In the Council of States, in addition to those representatives elected by their state, the president appoints 20 representatives. Term lengths and limits for the National Legislature were not set out in the transitional constitution.

The new president’s powers include the ability to dissolve elected governments and dismiss elected officials. The transitional constitution limits the presidential term to four years, commencing on July 9, 2011, but does not state presidential term limits. South Sudan Vice President Riek Machar advocates presidential term limits saying “Overstaying in power beyond two terms prevents new ideas.” The decision to extend the current president’s term of office is an over step in power in the eyes of Lam Akol, leader of the opposition group SPLM for Democratic Change. “They said they would just be removing redundant language that reflects a regional constitution becoming a national one but they have set the president’s term without mentioning limits,” Akol added.

The government of South Sudan has agreed to hold a conference in which the transitional Constitution will be debated in order to draft the permanent constitution. The conference will include opposition parties and civil society.


The process of forming and sustaining ethnic coalitions will dominate South Sudan politics throughout the post-Independence period. Out of the 40-plus ethnic groups in South Sudan, the two largest groups are the Dinka and Nuer. In 2010, at least 25 percent of South Sudan’s 9 million people were Dinka. John Garang, the revered leader of the South Sudan independence movement, was a Dinka. President Salva Kiir is also of Dinka heritage, although from a different clan than Garang. Ethnicity and tribal heritage have historically been causes of great strife within new African nations. South Sudan faces the challenge of not only keeping the different factions united under the banner of political rather than ethnic unity but also to quell the recent violent uprisings throughout the country.

Thankfully, tribal heritage is not a factor for citizenship in South Sudan. In the two articles addressing citizenship in the transitional constitution, “Citizenship and Rights” and “Duties of the Citizen,” Jus Sangui is the predominant decider. If a person is born of a South Sudanese parent they are automatically a South Sudan citizen. Southern Sudanese are also allowed to hold dual citizenship with another country. As South Sudan moves forward, it will have to balance the virtues of ethnic cohesion and ethnic diversity. The transitional constitution’s recognition of all indigenous languages as national languages and of South Sudan as a multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation is a great start. The day after the country officially became independent, President Kiir announced that South Sudan would extend citizenship to all northerners living in his country. Kiir also stressed that experienced northerners are vital to the development of South Sudan and he would give them priority in investments and the job market.

The government of Sudan has not been so amenable. Omar Al-Bashir has ruled out any form of dual citizenship, declaring that a “northerner is a northerner and a southerner is a southerner.” Even South Sudanese who have spent their entire lives in Khartoum have not been spared. Al-Bashir has stripped southern Sudanese civil servants of citizenship and declared that all southerners in Sudan after July 9 will be deported to South Sudan. On Wednesday, July 13 the northern legislature voted to cancel the Sudanese nationality of all southerners. But not all southerners in Sudan desire to live in South Sudan. In the historic January 2011 referendum, 98 percent of southerners resident in southern Sudan voted for independence but only 58 percent of southerners in north Sudan did. According to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 1.5-2 million southern Sudanese migrated north during the second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005). Hundreds of thousands of them likely still reside there. In a recent interview one man says he fears for his children: “They are Northerners,” he contends. “They grew up with Northern culture. They studied here in Arabic. Three of them don’t speak Dinka.”

There is a possibility of leniency from the government of Sudan. According to co-deputy chairman of the National Congress Party and top presidential aide, Nafie Ali Nafie, “For the southerners that want to work in the private sector in the north, they will have to get permission and residency permits.” It is still not clear if a southerner in Sudan automatically loses his citizenship regardless of whether they become a South Sudanese citizen. The Khartoum government has offered southerners a nine-month transitional period to settle their situations and either obtain a residency permit or prepare to depart Sudan.

Still, there are reports of discrimination. On the day South Sudan became independent, the government in Khartoum suspended six newspapers because the owners are from South Sudan. Under the Sudanese press law the newspaper owners must have Sudanese citizenship. Reporters Without Borders has accused the Khartoum government of harassing journalists in an attempt to prevent publication of human rights violations. The new restrictive policies against South Sudanese in Sudan serves as the perfect forum to do so.

The UN Security Council voted to include the Republic of South Sudan into the United Nations on July 14. South Sudan is the first new UN member since Montenegro in 2006.

Terah Edun is a Foreign Policy in Focus contributor.