South Sudan - Background information


Please note There has been a serious deterioration in security in South Sudan since these pages were compiled, and some of the practical information here will now be out of date. In particular, many areas are currently not safe to travel. You are advised to contact your embassy and local agents prior to travelling. 

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in South Sudan: the Bradt Travel Guide

The CPA and the road to independence

Oil exports brought Sudan economic stability and Bashir turned his attention to international rehabilitation. The events of 9/11 in the States gave Sudan the opportunity to come in from the cold: Khartoum renounced terrorism and gave the USA access to its files on al Qaeda and Iraq. For the first time the government was open to serious negotiations to end the civil war and accepted a peace envoy, Senator John Danforth, to aid the process. By 2002, a new ceasefire had been brokered with the SPLM/A in the Nuba Mountains, allowing peace talks to take place in earnest.

The two warring parties sat down in Kenya and hammered out the Machakos Protocols in July 2002 – a statement of intent to end the war. Khartoum agreed to a six-year interim period after the signing, followed by a referendum on self-determination for the south. It also agreed that Sharia law would not apply in the south. By the end of the year a ceasefire was declared across the south, and in September 2003 hostilities were formally declared over. Khartoum agreed to equally share oil revenues with the south and by the summer of 2004 all the pieces were in place for a final, comprehensive peace agreement.

In January 2005, the finalised peace deal between the government and the SPLM/A was signed in Nairobi to universal acclaim. Providing for an interim period of government commonly referred to as ‘one country, two systems’ that continued until 2011, it was hoped that the settling of Africa’s longest-running civil war would give new impetus to the stalled negotiations to stop the conflict in Darfur. However, the unexpected death of John Garang in a helicopter accident in July 2005, barely a fortnight after being sworn in as Vice President of Sudan, was an early setback to the peace agreement.

The CPA stumbled in October 2007. The SPLM accused the government of violating the terms of the agreement, specifically by failing to withdraw troops from the southern oil fields and implementing the resolution on Abyei. They withdrew from the Government of National Unity (GoNU) but rejoined two months later. North Sudanese troops finally left South Sudan on 8 January 2008. The unresolved status of the Abyei region caused Bashir and Salva Kiir, Garang’s successor, to seek international arbitration in 2008. The issue remained a sticking point, but the two sides did manage to reach agreement on the terms of the referendum when they met the following year. Bashir publicly confirmed that he would accept the outcome of the referendum even if the south voted for independence.

In January 2011, the people of South Sudan did just that. More than 98% of South Sudanese voted for secession from the north, and Salva Kiir was sworn in as the first president of the newly independent South Sudan in July 2011.

Leopard mother and cub by Dave Pusey, Shutterstock© Dave Pusey, Shutterstock

Natural history


South Sudan is rich in all manner of plant life, largely due to the diversity of its ecosystems and the, to date, limited impact of human development. The first botanical surveys of both  South Sudan and the Republic of Sudan (then a single country) took place in the mid 19th century, and the purpose of these early expeditions was to compile a plant list for the entire Nile basin. The first volume to examine Sudan alone, the Catalogue of Sudan Flowering Plants by A F Broun, appeared in 1906 and was expanded as a result of subsequent surveys in 1929, 1950–56 and finally in 1969.

The Sudd is especially rich in indigenous flora and much of the swamp is made up of naturally floating rafts of vegetable matter that can measure as much as 30km in length. Three types of plant, Phramites communis, Echinochloa pyramidalis and Oryza barthii are anchored by their shallow, buried roots in the floodplains and exist only where the waters are relatively shallow. In areas of deeper water, the Echinochloa stagnina, Vossia cuspidate and Cyperus papyrus (the same papyrus found along the length of the Nile and used by the ancient Egyptians for writing) have a greater tolerance for flooding as they float on or just beneath the surface of the water. When this matted vegetation breaks free from its anchoring roots, it forms floating islands and can block the waterways. Given sufficient time, the vegetation rots and the islands break up of their own accord.


In spite of – or, perhaps in some cases, owing to – its war-ravaged history, South Sudan retains a remarkable variety of wildlife. It is home to one of the greatest annual migrations on the planet, and many of Africa’s best-known big game species are represented, including elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard and, just conceivably, rhino. In addition, riverine habitats are good places to look out for hippopotamus and crocodiles, the grasslands support giraffe and numerous antelope species, and forested areas are home to various primates. South Sudan’s protected areas fall largely in the floodplains of the Nile River and comprise a variety of habitats, including grasslands, high-altitude plateaus and escarpments, wooded and grassy savannas, floodplains and wetlands. Such variety also means a rich and varied birdlife.

The best place to see wildlife in South Sudan is in the national parks. You should not expect the same experience as in the better-known safari destinations of Kenya and Tanzania, however, as the infrastructure is less geared towards tourism and years of poaching and conflict have left the wildlife in some places shy and elusive. But you will enjoy the almost guaranteed thrill of having these magnificent wilderness areas to yourself. Plus, with comparatively little still known about the wildlife in much of this young country, there is always a chance of discovering something exciting for yourself.

People and culture

South Sudan is home to 10.6 million people belonging to nearly 80 different tribes. Decades of civil war, the presence of nomadic peoples, and the constant movement of refugees (both internally and internationally) has made the collation of reliable population statistics an extremely difficult task. The most recent census data, from 2008, was collected as part of the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) as accurate statistics were a prerequisite for the South Sudanese referendum on independence.Scarification by Jim O'Brien

South Sudan’s cultural heritage is as diverse as its people, and nearly every tribe has its own folklore, costume and means of artistic expression. Indeed, some of our most memorable and rewarding times in the country were those spent people watching. The sashay of vibrantly coloured textiles, the click-click-click of wooden and clay beads, and the energetic and, at times, seemingly uncontrollable moves of a dancer entranced by the pulsing rhythms of the  drums will stick in your mind long after the journey has ended.

(Photo: Woman with scarification © Jim O'Brien)


South Sudanese music incorporates a variety of influences, from African chants and unaccompanied song, to Arabian melodies and European church music. You can listen to a selection of styles online (search madingaweil); SPLA battle songs make for a stark contrast with the Arabic music and contemporary guitarists. Folkways, the ethno-music collection of the Smithsonian Institute, also has Dinka dance music (usually performed at weddings), war songs and hymns online at Perhaps the most unexpected musical output of South Sudan is that of the rapper Emmanuel Jal. A child soldier rescued by a British aid worker, Jal has released three critically acclaimed Hip Hop albums, which include lyrics in English, Arabic, Dinka, Nuer and Swahili. He performed as part of the Live 8 concert in 2005, was awarded the Gospel Music Award for best international artist the same year, and also sang at Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday concert in London’s Hyde Park in 2008. As well as making music, Jal is a spokesman for the Make Poverty History campaign and he has his own NGO, Gua Africa, which sponsors education for child slum dwellers in Nairobi and for Sudanese refugees.


In the Republic of Sudan, whilst the religious requirement to understand Koranic Arabic has traditionally led to some level of literacy among the elite, this is not the case in the south. Here, literacy remains exceptionally low and hence very little of the country’s literature has been written down, let alone widely published. What South Sudan does have, however, is a lively tradition of storytelling. The oral transmission of myths and legends, particularly those relating to a tribe’s origin or what happens after death, is a key component in intergenerational relationship building, and people believe it enables them to retain an important link with ancestors who have departed from this life. There is inevitably a strong overlap between this orally transmitted literature and religious thought. One of the most popular tales in Nuer mythology is that of the hyena and the rope. Once upon a time (stories across the world always seem to start this way), there was a rope linking the heavens and the earth. Old men could climb the rope at any time, be refreshed by the wonders of heaven, and then go back down to earth looking and feeling as they did in their youth. Like those who drink from Shangri La, these men could live forever.

One day a hyena climbed the rope. Angered at the intrusion, but aware he’d cause even more trouble on earth, the gods ordered him to stay. Now, remaining in heaven shouldn’t be such a hardship, but the hyena was obstinate and he didn’t like being told what to do. Under the cover of darkness he slipped back down the rope and, so that he could not be followed, he cut it just before he reached the ground. The gods pulled up their severed rope, and mankind could no longer climb back to the heavens. Instead, they die. The idea of a divine rope is also found in Dinka stories, but for them it is a woman who caused man’s separation from heaven. A greedy woman, dissatisfied with the amount of millet the gods had given her, set about planting more grain in her field. When one of the gods challenged her, she thrashed him soundly with her hoe, and in punishment he cut the rope to heaven.

Arts and crafts

Although South Sudan has a long tradition of producing beads, leather goods, pots and other handicrafts, production has fallen significantly in the past few decades due to the civil war: displaced populations have not had the opportunity to carry non-essential possessions with them, the pattern of passing down skills from one generation to the next has been disrupted, and the production of such items has understandably come second to trying to survive. The Roots Project ( was established in Juba in 2009 as a centre of craft production. More than 50 women from various tribes, many of whom are widows or returned refugees, now work at the centre. They receive training in traditional and contemporary arts and are also able to sell their works, which include jewellery, handmade leather goods, pottery, paintings, and wood and calabash carvings, in the Roots centre shop.

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