What’s in a name? For south Sudanese quite a lot

South Sudanese children dressed in their Sunday best, who returned to the South by barges on the Nile river, sit amidst their belongings in Juba’s port on January 11. (AP Photo)
JUBA/Sudan, January 11 (AFP): The flag is ready; a national anthem has been written. But as south Sudanese swarmed to the polls this week to vote on forging the world’s newest state, there was still no consensus what to call it. Cush, Nile Republic, New Sudan, or plain old South Sudan -- all manner of suggestions have been put forward. But none has yet won general agreement, let alone captured the public imagination.
Part of the problem is ideological. The leadership of the rebel group that led the south to the 2005 peace deal which paved the way for this week’s independence referendum was only very belatedly converted to the partitionist cause. For most of his life -- he died in a mysterious helicopter crash on the way home from Uganda just months after signing the agreement with the northern government -- veteran rebel leader John Garang fought not for a separate state but for a new, secular, multi-ethnic Sudan.
To this day, the movement he led is still called the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, and its former military wing -- now the southern army -- the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Out of respect for Garang’s legacy and the prestige the SPLM/A won among many south Sudanese for its resistance to northern forces during the civil war, no one has attempted to prefix an extra “S” for south or even shift the apostrophe in People’s to suggest there is more than one.
That is also why the idea of renaming the south New Sudan has resonance among older people. During the 1983-2005 civil war all manner of shops and other institutions in rebel-held areas from bakeries to laundries were called New Sudan. There has long been a rival secessionist tendency within the south, but it never managed to remove Garang and his ideology from the SPLM mainstream.
Riek Machar, now vice president in the transitional autonomous southern regional government, formed a breakaway South Sudan Independence Movement in the 1990s but eventually rallied to the SPLM as Garang moved towards negotiating the peace deal that would lead to this week’s vote. The White Nile runs right through the heart of southern Sudan, used for transport, as a source of food and a place to wash. The editor of Citizen Newspaper, the region’s largest, thinks the country should be renamed the Nile Republic.
“Most of our communities are along the Nile and historically our ties with our neighbours have something to do with the Nile,” Nhial Bol told AFP in his office in the regional capital Juba, which itself sits on the banks of the river. “So from Egypt up to here our relations are only the Nile -- we have no blood relations, it is not anything.”
In a mainly Christian region which has fought five decades of conflict with the Muslim north, the past decade and a half of them against an Islamist-inspired regime that did not hesitate to deploy jihadist-style auxiliary militias, Biblical references also inevitably carry weight. One Christian group has been vocally campaigning for the new country to be called Cush after the nation mentioned in the Bible as extending across a large part of northeast Africa to the south of Egypt.
The new national anthem penned six months ago by the SPLM itself refers to “The Land of Cush.” But the culture minister in the regional government, Gabriel Changson Chang, insists any proposals for a rebranding of the new nation must come through him, and that the name is going to stay the same -- at least for now.
“Cush has no direct relationship with the south,” says Chang, an opponent of the SPLM. “It will be South Sudan, until later on if we think of changing it.” If, as seems almost certain, this week’s vote leads to the international recognition of a new nation in July, southerners may need to hold yet another referendum to choose its name.