A Dream Too Long Deferred: The referendum and the future of Sudan


A mini report with a bit of a personal reflection by Fr. Mike Schultheis SJ, a Jesuit priest from the USA, is the Vice-Chancellor of the Catholic University of Sudan. Among his other assignments during more than thirty years in Africa, he was the first president of the Catholic University of Ghana, lectured at Makerere University (Uganda) and the University of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) and assisted in establishing the Catholic University of Mozambique. He also served as Associate Director, the International Secretariat of the Jesuit Refugee Service, and Director, JRS Africa. Fr. Mike Schultheis SJ, Vice – Chancellor Catholic University of Sudan P.O. Box 257, Juba (CES), Sudan.

For Southern Sudanese, Sunday – 9 January, the First Day of the Referendum, focused their dreams of more than half a century. Long before daybreak, Southerners began assembling to vote in a Referendum that would decide their future and the future of Sudan. In Juba, the mood was one of jubilation. When the voting stations opened at 8:00 that morning, some queues circled a city block, not once but twice. The choice: to remain united with the North as one country or to secede and form an independent nation. For most, the choice was clear: to secede and form a new country. For too long, Southerners lived as second or third class citizens in Sudan. With independence, Southerners will be able to claim the rights and responsibilities of citizens, choose their leaders, worship as they wish, and enjoy equality before the law. The Referendum was a next step in realizing a dream too long deferred. Although the results will not be known for a month, the early returns indicate that S outherners overwhelmingly are choosing secession.

Nor is their choice surprising. During the two periods of civil conflict, 1955 to 1972 and again, from 1983 to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005, more than two million Southerners were killed and another four million were displaced. Many became refugees in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Congo. Others, displaced, moved for safety to the peripheries surrounding Khartoum. Only the brave and the desperate choose to live in hot-day/cold-night desert areas. They built houses, churches and community centers from grass and there they slept and prayed and brought their children for basic school lessons. Regularly the Northern Government bulldozed these chapels and schools. During Christmas week three weeks ago. I visited communities in the desert some 40 kilometers south of central Khartoum. Small churches/chapels were packed and people talked enthusiastically about going home. In the weeks prior to the Re ferendum, to UNHCR estimates, 180,000 were on the move, some waiting two weeks by the side of the road for trucks and buses that would transport them and their few possessions to home areas 600 kilometers and more to the South. To my question about their plans, one person replied simply – “we are happy because we are finally going home, to be part of building our country. At home, we can build our churches and pray as we wish.”

When Sudan gained independence from the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium in 1956, it became the first independent country in Africa. However, Southern Sudanese quickly discerned that the terms of independence favored the northern elite and relegated Southerners to second class citizenship. Already by 1955, Southerners began to resist the “domestic colonization” that was emerging. After independence, the northern dominated Government attempted to crush the “rebels,” – the result was the first Anya Nya civil war that continued until 1972, when the Addis Ababa Agreement granted a measure of self-rule to the South. However, by 1983, militant Islamic leaders had gained control of the Government, abrogated the 1972 Agreement. decreed Islamic law for Sudan and began it impose Arabic in the schools. Southerners again resisted and led by John Garang, the Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) took up arms to defend their rights and their communities.

Twenty years later, the Northern Government realized that it could not win militarily. Pressured by the International Community and faced with expanding conflict in Darfur and uprisings in the northern and eastern regions, in January 2005 it reluctantly signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that established a Government of National Unity (GoNU) which gave the SPLA/M 28 percent of the cabinet offices and the first vice presidency and granted the South autonomous status. The CPA also provided for a Referendum in January 2011 that would give Southerne rs the right of self determination. Although the North signed the CPA, it took measures to divide the South so that the Referendum would not take place. A centrist view among Northerners even today is that the South is not capable of governing and if secession, Southern Sudan will be a “failed state”, marked by corruption, incompetency and conflict. More radical Northerners assert that Sudan, by divine decree, is an Islamic nation and must remain so forever. The South cannot be allowed to secede.

In the early 1970s I was in Uganda for nearly three years at Makerere University. There I first met Sudanese refugees, mainly women making reed baskets on the shores of Lake Victoria to support their families and a few students studying at the University. Colleagues asked my help in supplying seeds and farm tools to communities in South Sudan, a program that stopped when the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement was signed. From 1988 to 1992, I again was in the Region as Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Africa with an administrative office in Nairobi. JRS began a modest outreach to the growing number of Sudanese who were fleeing the conflict in Sudan. Once a month, many families gathered at Hekima College (the Jesuit Theologate in Nairobi) to celebrate the Eucharist, to provide religious education for their children and to share news and concerns over a common meal. One Sunday, several youth received their first Holy Communion – I remember reflecting to myself, “these young people, what will their future be?”

Now some 15 years later, after time with refugees in other areas of Africa and with Catholic Universities in Mozambique and Ghana, I am again in Sudan, serving as Vice-chancellor of the Catholic University of Sudan. Church leaders first talked of an institution of higher education at independence. In 1983 Pope John Paul II spoke of a Catholic University when Sudan’s President visited in Rome. Twenty years later, prompted by t he canonization of Bishop Daniel Comboni the Holy Father again encouraged the Bishops to establish a Catholic University. After the CPA when this seemed possible, the Bishops commissioned feasibility studies and in July 2007 they decided to establish the Catholic University as a national institution. The Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) granted provisional approval to the University on 1 August 2008; in late September the University welcomed the pioneer group of students to the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences in Juba. Now in its third year, the Faculty has 200 students. In Wau the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences is in a second year with 50 students. Additional Faculties and programs will be added in response to need and the availability of resources. “The baby is born” and already is making a modest contribution to training the next generation of leaders for the New Sudan. Indeed, this too is the realization of a dream too long deferred.

Barring unforeseen problems, Southern Sudan will become independent on 9 July 2011, as outlined in the CPA. Many ask about the prospects for the future – will independence introduce the era of peace and development that Southern Sudanese have dreamt of over the past half century? Indeed the challenges and the tasks ahead are daunting. The population is largely rural and poor – 78 percent depend on subsistence farming or livestock for their livelihood. Half the population is below 18 years of age; of the population above 15 years, 27 % are literate; only 37 % above the age of six have ever attended school. Thousands of persons are returning to their homes in Southern Sudan and need assistance to reconstruct their homes and communities. Caritas Internationalis has launched an appeal to assist families on the move and when they return.

After the CPA, GOSS began to chart a strategy for creating the structures of government and improving access to basic services. One priority is ensuring food security; another is rebuilding the education systems. Both were largely destroyed during the years of conflict. GoSS, with other Governments, International Agencies and the Churches, is working with local communities to address food security issues and to provide primary and secondary education programs.

The international media often pictures school children in Southern Sudan as studying under trees and scratching lessons in the dust. While there is some truth in this picture, changes are underway. From 2007 to 2009, primary school enrolment increased by more than 22 percent, from 1,127,963 to 1,380,580 students (boys: from 710,703 to 871,804; girls: from 417,260 to 508,776) and primary school classrooms by 62 percent, from 6,587 to 10,663. Over the same period, secondary school enrolment increased by 75 percent, from 25,144 to 44,027 and secondary school classrooms increased by 85 percent, from 414 to 764.

With increased enrolmen t in both primary and secondary schools, there is a great need for teachers. As promising students complete primary and secondary school, the Ministry is concerned that they continue their education – Southern Sudan needs men and women with the professional skills required for the development of a modern nation and an increasingly complex economy. In recognition of this need, GOSS is beginning to promote the expansion of tertiary institutions and higher level training institutions. This too was one of the Bishops’ objectives in establishing the Catholic University of Sudan and a teaching training institutes in Malakal and Riimenze, run by a coalition of religious congregations under the name “Solidarity with Southern Sudan”. Solidarity has also resurrected the Church’s Health Training Institute in Wau. The Bishops recognize that the Church, at this historic moment, is called to assist at every level in building the new Sudan.

With all the challenges and difficulties ahead, there are many encouraging signs. First and perhaps most important, Southern Sudanese are courageous and committed. They have suffered much. Adults and teen-agers carry the marks and memories of conflict and war. Leaders are intelligent and heroic – for them, the CPA was an interlude in their struggle for a just and decent society. The Referendum is yet another step in that struggle. Among the significant achievements of the past six years: the basic institutions of government are in place; ministries function; special commissions are working with dedication and commitment, often with Northern counterparts, in addressing critical issues – demarcating borders, sharing natural resources (some 75 % of known oil reserves are in the South), dividing national debt, creating separate financial systems, clarifying citizenship, and building the economic and social infrastructure, with a focus on education, health and transport.

In their Pastoral Letter of November 2 010, “Peace be with you; do not be afraid: A Message of Hope and Healing,” the Catholic Bishops of Sudan urged communities to turn away from conflict, to look beyond the Referendum, and to construct new forms of living and working together. They stressed the importance of developing modalities of North – South cooperation and new approaches to being neighbors. Good neighbors resolve difficulties, if and when they wish to do so. But neighbors too need neighbors, good neighbors who are present to assist in meeting the tasks and addressing the problems of the day to day and beyond.

The continued support of the international community over the coming months will be essential for the development of this new nation. Building a nation is not something that can be done in a month or a year. It is the work of this generation and the next and beyond. It will require the active support and the concerted effort of Southern Sudanese assisted by their many friends – Governme nts, Non Governmental organizations and Church communities – to realize the dream too long deferred.

A note on the author. Fr. Mike Schultheis SJ, a Jesuit priest from the USA, is the Vice-Chancellor of the Catholic University of Sudan. Among his other assignments during more than thirty years in Africa, he was the first president of the Catholic University of Ghana, lectured at Makerere University (Uganda) and the University of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) and assisted in establishing the Catholic University of Mozambique. He also served as Associate Director, the International Secretariat of the Jesuit Refugee Service, and Director, JRS Africa. Fr. Mike Schultheis SJ, Vice – Chancellor Catholic University of Sudan P.O. Box 257, Juba (CES), Sudan. [ mailto:mschultheis@netzero.net ]mschultheis@netzero.net