South Sudan: the first shots that laid the foundation for independence
It was August 19, 1955 and a number of soldiers in Sudan were being rounded up for allegedly conspiring to launch an armed mutiny against the authorities in Khartoum.
However, instead of surrendering a unit based in the town of Torit, in today’s Equatoria State in the east of present day South Sudan made up exclusively of southerners resisted, firing shots at their counterparts of the Sudanese army before disappearing into the bush with their weapons.
With that sudden act of defiance, the first shots in South Sudan’s long struggle against domination by Khartoum were fired.
In the intervening days, more southerners in the army mainly officers, warrant officers and a small band of non-commissioned officers mutinied in the cities of Juba, Yei, and Maridi.
They were joined by civilians convinced that autonomy or outright independence for the south was a just cause.
Spearheaded by Father Saturnino Lohure, General Emilio Tafeng and Ali Gbattala, the first spurts of fighting were largely uncoordinated.
There are no reliable figures but it is estimated that the number of mutineers who escaped to the bush and launched sporadic attacks on regular Sudanese government troops were initially between 5,000 to 10,000 rebels.
Last Sunday marked 62 years since those first shots were fired, laying the foundation for the bitter struggle against the north that would eventually lead to the birth of South Sudan as an independent nation.
In the 1950s South Sudanese drafted into the Sudanese army had nursed serious ill-feelings against the north for what they regarded as open discrimination by Khartoum which was then under joint rule.
Britain and Egypt were jointly administering Sudan through the 1899 Anglo-Egyptian condominium.
Soldiers from what was then southern Sudan inhabited by blacks had long resented how they were treated or mistreated by the establishment which guaranteed access for the Arab-dominated north.
The Torit mutiny was the first statement by South Sudanese in the Sudanese army that their domination by the political and military classes in Khartoum will not go unchallenged.
It was also sharpened by a deep suspicion that the government under the British and Egyptians were willing to unilaterally place the south of Sudan under the domination of the northerners.
The sacrifices by the mutineers in an event known simply as Anyanya and the subsequent ones by latter day war veterans are marked under, the War Veterans’ Day which current President Salva Kiir declared on August 18th.
However, despite constituting a watershed moment in the new country’s history no major commemorations took place on Sunday to remind citizens how the event of 62 years ago led to the creation of the Republic of South Sudan.
Known as the Anyanya war, it is reputed to be the first known civil war in the then Sudan, heralding the birth of resistance by South Sudanese which would broke the yoke of colonization by Khartoum.
The Anyanya wars of 1955 through to 1972 were mainly between northern soldiers of Sudan and an armed splinter demanding more representation nationally in addition to regional autonomy for the south.
For 17 years, Anyanya 1 was led by soldier-cum politician Joseph Lagu.
In a recent interview, Lagu explained the term Anyanya, which derived from a word in his native Madi tribe that loosely translates as ‘snake venom’.
500, 000 people died through the course of the 17-year conflict.
Politicians originating from the south believed that the southern part of Sudan was culturally Sub-Saharan African, a distinction which in their eyes made joining the two regions untenable in the long term.
They demanded autonomy from the northern Sudan through a federal system of governance, a demand rejected by the Arabs of Khartoum and set the stage for further confrontations with southerners.
One of whom John Garang would be defined by this struggle to become a colossal figure in the eventual attainment of independence for South Sudan on July 9, 2011.