A southern Sudan referendum ballot. <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/usaidafrica/" target=_blank">USAID Africa</a>
A southern Sudan referendum ballot. USAID Africa

The Promise and Peril of an Independent Republic of South Sudan

Feb 1, 2011

Over the past year, much commentary on the January 2011 self-determination referendum for South Sudan has presumed to ask the question, "Will an independent South Sudan become a failed state?" As often as not, the answer has seemed to be in the affirmative, with a brief summary of the obvious problems and an inevitable invoking of Somalia. But both the question and the answers have typically taken misguided form. For as recent events and developments have made clear, the real question is whether North Sudan can remain a viable state once the South officially secedes. We should hardly be surprised that the National Congress Party/National Islamic Front (NCP/NIF) regime in Khartoum has begun to float the idea of delaying the effective date for implementing referendum results, which ran to roughly 98 percent in favor of independence. Nor should we be surprised that Khartoum has not committed to a decisive military stand-down in South Kordofan State on the North/South border—and refuses to allow the present UN force in the South (UNMIS) to create a buffer zone between the northern Sudan Armed Forces (and its allied militia, particularly among the Misseriya Arabs) and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). Khartoum has also refused to entertain the request of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations for an additional 2,000 peacekeepers.

All this highlights the fact that it will be enormously difficult for Khartoum to survive economically once it surrenders the oil revenues it presently receives from reserves that lie in the South (75-80 percent, according to most estimates). For such a loss of revenue comes just as northern Sudan and Khartoum are facing a number of serious economic problems, which may create the "perfect storm" for popular revolt. Events in Tunisia have been invoked by several commentators in connection with more recent events in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world; but Sudan is certainly a similar candidate for rebellion-in Khartoum, Omdurman, Port Sudan, and other cities. In fact, there has been significant, if less well-reported popular unrest in Khartoum and its environs. Northern opposition political parties may finally be awakening, after two decades of somnolence, and this represents a threat that is likely to increase an already severe crackdown on news publication and human rights work. There will be little patience on the part of the NCP/NIF with any genuine political threat, and the regime still controls the potent National Intelligence and Security Services, Military Intelligence, and the army. But the underlying causes of unrest are finally beyond the control of this narrowly based cabal.

The rising prices of sugar and petroleum that have fueled much unrest are a function of both the regime's mismanagement of the crucial agricultural economy and its fiscal irresponsibility, which has ultimately resulted in an inability to provide subsidies for food and fuel purchases. For despite oil revenue and massive foreign commercial and capital investments in the North, the economy seems to be headed toward disaster. Inflation is now growing at a significant rate; the Sudanese pound has experienced an unplanned but damaging de facto devaluation; foreign currency reserves are extremely low; a fiscal crisis looms as the national budget remains well under water—and Khartoum has no way to deal with or service its staggering US$38 billion in external debt.

It's no accident that this external debt remains one of the outstanding issues in North/South negotiations. The South rightly believes that it should incur none of Sudan's debt obligations: the money owed exists mainly as arrears and penalties, reflecting the NCP/NIF's irresponsible management of national wealth and economic development. Oil revenues and investment funds have gone disproportionately to lining the pockets of party members and cronies, and to the profligate acquisition of weapons for use against people in the South and other marginalized regions. The South has seen none of the benefits of this borrowed money, only the destructiveness of the military power it has purchased. Compounding Khartoum's problems are a range of factors that make it a poor candidate for debt relief under the international program for "Highly-Indebted Poor Nations." Not only is a disproportionate amount of debt held by Kuwait and Saudi Arabia (who do not have good track records in facilitating debt relief), but the Khartoum-based economy can't begin to meet either the fiscal or monetary criteria for debt relief—especially while it continues to sustain, at great cost, a grim "genocide by attrition" in Darfur.

The North's Problems Bear on the Future of South Sudan

The South should continue to refuse to accept debt liabilities, although it may be prudent to discuss a generous plan for transport costs of southern crude oil through the pipeline to Port Sudan on the Red Sea. But external debt isn't the end of North/South issues that remain to be negotiated, and no account of what lies in the future for South Sudan can ignore the fact that for an extended period, Juba's most important bilateral relationship will necessarily be with the regime in Khartoum. The issues of citizenship and rights for Southerners in the North are far from settled; ominously, there have been threats from various regime officials to strip Southerners of citizenship and national benefits. President al-Bashir's language in promising a return to strict shari'a law is rightly a source of fear: "If south Sudan secedes, we will change the constitution, and at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity … shari'a and Islam will be the main source for the constitution, Islam the official religion and Arabic the official language." There is other strong evidence that Southerners will face increased discrimination, hostility, and abuse; this has certainly been the fate of many Southerners seeking to make the difficult trek home.

Final boundaries have yet to be settled in five key areas of the North/South border—disputes involving some 20 percent of the 2,000-kilometer border. These areas involve substantial oil reserves, large tracts of arable land, as well as the interests of politically important ethnic groups. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Abyei region that has been so hotly contested and which continues to be the most likely flashpoint for renewed war. Prior to and during the self-determination referendum, Khartoum's military actions were extremely provocative. Not only did the regime carry out bombing attacks on Southern military and civilian sites to the west in North Bahr el-Ghazal, but in Abyei itself the regime helped orchestrate an assault by a large militia force of Misseriya Arabs, numbering in the hundreds (Khartoum has long stoked unfounded fears among Misseriya leaders that the African Ngok Dinka of Abyei plan to deny them pasturage during their annual migration southward toward the Bahr el-Ghazal River). Just how dangerous this attack was became clear only a number of days later, when seasoned reporter Alan Boswell reported from the region:

The apparent target of the Arab militia was a joint north-south military base that lies between the village [of Maker Abyior] and the administrative center [for the Abyei region]. The attack seemed designed to turn the two military camps against each other—as occurred during 2008 clashes that left more than 100 dead—and then proceed to Abyei town, according to a UN official who wasn't authorized to speak on the record and thus asked not to be identified. The result probably would have been explosive. 'Then the SPLA would have been forced to come in,' the UN official said, speaking of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, Southern Sudan's former rebel military. Full military clashes between the old wartime foes very likely would have ensued, possibly even disrupting the southern referendum. 'That was probably the plan,' the official said." (January 20, 2011)

Another assessment comports fully with the UN account: "'We were very close to complete catastrophe,' said one senior Western diplomat in Sudan, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter."

One must ask how serious the NCP/NIF regime is if at this time it is willing to take such extraordinary risks in the most contested and militarily tense region along the North/South border. In any event, while the Misseriya militia attack may have been beaten back, there are no signs that Khartoum has any intention of decreasing tensions: in the regime's view, continued volatility in Abyei gives it diplomatic leverage in attempting to force further compromise upon the leadership in Juba, and to compel further yielding on other outstanding issues. Khartoum's broadest intentions are far from clear.

The South must learn to live with this, although official international recognition of the Republic of South Sudan (the likely name of the new nation) on July 9, 2011 will make it easier for the South to appeal to the UN and specifically for UN peacekeeping assistance along the border.

The South on Its Own

The challenges in building a new nation in southern Sudan are staggering, and must be met without the unifying goal represented by the self-determination referendum itself. For that goal has been met, and we should expect that various and often competing interests among southern constituencies are likely to become more divisive once independence has been fully achieved. At the same time, it is important for the international community to recognize the challenges Juba faces in dealing with the Khartoum regime, a regime that comprises much more than simply the presidency of Omar al-Bashir (under indictment by the International Criminal Court for genocide and crimes against humanity). The NCP/NIF has never been a dictatorship, but rather a security cabal. Immensely powerful men such as Nafi'e Ali Nafi'e, Salah Gosh, Ali Osman Taha, Quitbi al-Mahdi, Mustafa Ismail, Ghazi Saleh el-Din, Abdel Rahim Mohamed Hussein, the heads of the security services and the army—all have been active in wielding control over domestic and foreign policy, as well as in making decisions about supporting international terrorism.

It is foolish, then, to personify the regime by means of al-Bashir alone, a frequent habit in the part of those who have little understanding of what the regime has done over its 21 years in power or the ruthless survivalism that has sustained that power, as well as a monopoly on national wealth. It is even more foolish—especially after what we've recently seen in Abyei—to give al-Bashir credit for praiseworthy statesmanship, as The Guardian's Simon Tisdall does: "It would be refreshing, too, to recognise Bashir's role in holding things together even as his country falls apart." As protests mount in Khartoum, as the Northern economy nosedives, as Darfur descends further into uncontrollable insecurity that radically diminishes humanitarian capacity, as military tensions mount in Abyei, and as the regime remains intransigent on outstanding North/South issues, such a characterization of al-Bashir is simply preposterous.

But it does suggest what the SPLM leadership is up against in attempting to make its way as an independent country. Tisdall's views are not his alone, foolish though they are. The SPLM has always struggled to convince international actors of consequence just who they are dealing with in Khartoum, and why they feel obliged to spend a fiscally debilitating 40 percent of their national budget on military hardware and salaries. No one can argue that the money is spent with sufficient efficiency; but military strength is the South's only guarantor against aggression by Khartoum, which if it comes, will hardly be broadcast in advance (or even discerned clearly by fatuous observers like Tisdall).

Rather, the South well knows that it must be prepared to defend itself, and quickly, if the Sudan Armed Forces move towards the oil fields in Unity State and Upper Nile (sites of the two largest oil consortia, both dominated by China National Petroleum Corporation). There will be no international military assistance of consequence. Perhaps Uganda and Kenya will assist logistically, the U.S. with military equipment—but the front-line fighting will all be done by the SPLA. And though this is a force much more potent than the guerilla force that compelled Khartoum to sign a "cessation of hostilities agreement" in October 2002, it has been dramatically outspent on advanced military hardware by Khartoum, which has increased its aerial military capabilities in particular. Strategically, the next war, if it comes, can be easily summarized: the SAF will attempt to seize and hold the oil pipeline and infrastructure; the SPLA will seek to destroy as much of that infrastructure as possible in a bid to stop the flow of oil. Without oil revenues to sustain its war effort, Khartoum would be forced to negotiate. Indeed, the regime may even calculate that whatever the international condemnation, renegotiating the North/South borders (and hence oil reserves) would be conducted on more favorable terms by virtue of military control of key territories.

If War Can Be Avoided

The economic and political needs of a new Republic of South Sudan have been chronicled at this point from just about every angle imaginable. Some analysis has been useful, some efforts worse than useless because they distort international perceptions of what is practicable in South Sudan. Much is obvious, but there is nuance required at almost every stop on the long list of "urgent needs."

Capacity, in its broadest sense, is the most urgent requirement—or rather the rubric for a range of needs: governance capacity, administrative capacity, humanitarian organizational capacity, business leadership capacity, watchdog capacity, security capacity, and educational capacity. The truth is that South Sudan has lost many of its best and brightest to the diaspora; many Southerners received their educations abroad and have lived comfortably away from their homeland for years. By contrast, many who have remained to fight for the freedom and independence of the South are poorly educated and without the skills needed to build a new government, a new economy—a new country, essentially from scratch. They can hardly be abandoned now, however, and how to integrate them into a peaceful society and rapidly changing economy is an enormous undertaking. We must hope that more trained and educated Sudanese in the diaspora return to the South at this moment of greatest need to assist in the training that will allow for the economic integration of those "lost" men and boys who never left Sudan.

Without a massive increase in capacity—in government as well nongovernmental organizations and private businesses—South Sudan will remain a country defined by its needs, not its potential. There is a clear danger that international humanitarian aid—which remains urgently necessary—will come to substitute for true national development. It's for this reason that education should be given the highest non-defense priority in developing a new nation: South Sudan must create and sustain its own capacity, in many forms, and build an educational system that is self-sustaining and self-renewing. Most Sudanese I've spoken with over many years agree with precisely this priority in developing the country.

South Sudan's churches also represent a tremendous source of existing capacity, much of which has served the region well and courageously for decades, especially in reconciliation and mediation efforts. The churches no doubt have their own visions for a new South Sudan, but they are an extraordinarily important resource, and may be of particular value in arbitrating disputes as tensions inevitably arise among South Sudan's highly diverse communities.

Another kind of capacity-building must take form as transportation and ultimately a transportation network, with the nearly completed road from Kampala (Uganda) to Nimule (Central Equatoria) and on to Juba as the gateway project. Western Equatoria, which typically has a food surplus, must be connected to food insecure regions of the South. Given the enormous challenges posed by the long rainy season, the investment in elevated, all-weather roads will be huge, but the only basis for developing a truly national economy. Rumbek, Wau, and Aweil are towns that need to become part of a commercial artery for Lakes and Bahr el-Ghazal States; Bentiu and Malakal must be integrated into the Southern economy, despite long having been forced into an ambiguous existence on the North/South border.

Communications capacity is also critical. On the one hand, Sudan is an ideal market for cell phones, given the size of the country-in-the-making and the near total absence of land lines; but this will require a cellular infrastructure that exists nowhere (satellite phones are presently too expensive, but this will change). The new government should work to secure contracts that make network construction self-funding, and subsidize phone purchases in limited fashion. The ownership of radios (which can be solar- or crank-powered) should be strongly encouraged and non-government-controlled radio broadcasting made readily possible. Only with the gradual but continual growth of political freedom and democratic institutions will South Sudan outgrow the autocracy that was the necessary condition of political rule during the many long years of war.

Banking, typically a lucrative part of any economy, must be guided by strict transparency requirements. A decision about the Southern currency must be made quickly. The ability and commitment to provide small-scale business loans must be a term of incorporation for banks. Safeguards against corruption are essential. There has already been a dangerous proliferation of corruption among Southern leaders, though President Salva Kiir's anti-corruption efforts have begun to limit the scale. Presidential vigilance must be relentless.

Police training is also essential if South Sudan is going to become a secure and orderly country, and this training must include attention to the rule of law, international human rights law, and particularly a focused concern for gender bias issues. The police must not be seen as a tool of repression.

Environmental issues must be confronted as rapidly as possible, with a coherent and well-enforced set of guidelines promulgated as soon as practicable. Given the possibilities represented by eco-tourism, South Sudan is in a position to make environmental regulations self-funding, a source of employment, as well as a means of preserving the pristine beauties and attractions of the wilderness areas in the South.

The list is long, but time is short, given the unrealistically high expectations of Southerners. And the threats are all too real—internal and external. International actors need to think carefully and creatively about increasing South Sudan's capacity to build itself into a nation. But above all, the world must ensure that war does not resume between the Khartoum-dominated North and the fledgling Republic of South Sudan. This will entail exerting sustained and robust diplomatic pressure on the Khartoum regime, which is notorious for its record of violating agreements with any and all Sudanese parties. The evidence of Khartoum's intentions in the immediate wake of the referendum is ambiguous. Abyei very nearly exploded during the voting, as the regime continues to stir the animosities and fears of the Misseriya Arabs of the region. Khartoum's weapons acquisitions since the signing of the CPA in 2005 have been enormous. Given the outstanding issues, if the regime is looking for a pretext to resume war, it won't be hard to contrive one.

Peace is far from guaranteed.

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