South Sudan Becomes Africa’s Newest Hope – and Test

On July 9th, 2011 the Republic of South Sudan became Africa’s 54th state.  There were church bells ringing in the capital of Juba, raucous street parties with people dancing to the beat of drums chanting “oye, oye,” fireworks, military parades, visiting dignitaries, raising of the new flag, and President Salva Kirr signing the transitional constitution.  But with this crescendo of celebration there is remains cause for caution and concern.

South Sudan is born – now the struggle begins.  Having suffered decades of war and with economic prospects dim, the risk of another failed state is a clear and present danger.

Independence does not dispel fears of war; indeed the haunting specter of insecurity is informed by a bloody brutal past and ongoing atrocities.  And the humanitarian requirement for vulnerable civilians in one of the world’s poorest countries presents monumental challenges to the new government which is severely limited in capacity and resources with a staggering economy.

In 1956, Sudan gained independence from Britain.  It was the largest country in Africa in which there were nearly 600 ethnic groups speaking around 400 languages.  In this patchwork of different peoples, different histories, and different religions there was no sense of a single nation or state.  Power was passed from the colonial power to a small group of Arab Muslims in the northern Nile River region, the same privileged small group that the Turks and then the British had relied on to manage this sprawling diverse country.

The new Arab Muslim governors of independent Sudan in Khartoum ruled by marginalizing and dividing the people on the periphery in the Nuba Mountains, in Darfur, in the South and so on.  The periphery areas got: little infrastructure, inadequate education, little health care, suffered injustices and had little political power in the new independent Sudan.  No effort was made to create a sense of nationhood.  From time to time, Khartoum tried to impose Shari law on the non-Muslim Black African peoples in the periphery, and this led to conflict.  The longest and most costly conflict was the North/South Civil War which went on for decades, during which Khartoum, in concert with various Arab militias, committed horrific atrocities leaving murder, mayhem and misery in their wake.

During the North/South Civil War, two million people died and 4 ½ million were displaced.  In 2005, with both sides weary of war, exhausted by the costs, and seeing little likelihood of victory, President George W. Bush and his Special Envoy to Sudan, Senator Jack Danforth, took the lead in brokering a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between Khartoum and Juba.   A myriad of matters were addressed, but critically the deal provided for a 2011 referendum in which the south Sudanese could decide whether to remain part of a greater Sudan or instead take on independence.

During the 6 years under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the international community provided both multilateral and bilateral humanitarian and development assistance to the semi-autonomous southern Sudan.  Lives were saved, but little progress was made on good governance, infrastructure and economic development.  Most of the attention focused on the low intensity conflict that lingered.  This conflict was sponsored mostly by Khartoum.  Efforts were made to resolve and finalize open issues of contention: the future of the politically charged Abyei region; contested border areas; citizenship; the protection of minorities; and not least oil revenue sharing.

Most consequential is the issue of oil revenue sharing.  The billions of dollars per year that comes from the 500,000 barrels a day of Sudanese oil have driven economic growth and political stability in the north.  Under the CPA, the semi-autonomous south has been receiving about $2 billion a year which represents over 95% of the government of southern Sudan’s revenues.  Both the north and the south are heavily dependent on this oil revenue.

The oil problem is that over 75% of the oil reserves lie in the south.  The north does not want to accept only its 25% share.  Khartoum hopes to be able to keep a 50/50 split in revenue sharing at least for the next 7 years.  The south rejects this equal split.  This certainly explains the lack of resolution of the Abyei border question and other contested border areas.

Miraculously the CPA has held and the referendum took place as scheduled in January, 2011.  Nearly 99% voted for independence.  Since January, the United States and African Union have sponsored independent, but coordinated, negotiations with the parties trying to resolve these open issues

On May 21, Sudan Armed Forces and tanks rolled into Abyei and Arab militia set homes on fire.  Over 100,000 innocents were displaced.  Near the end of June, Khartoum began an ethnically targeted military campaign in South Kordofan, an area on its southern border.  Antonov planes dropped bombs and there are reports that Sudan Internal Security forces are going door to door committing summary executions based on ethnicity and political affiliation, including how black you are.  According to the U.N., so far in 2011 2,300 southern Sudanese have died in violence, 500 just in the last week of June.

South Sudan today is overflowing with small arms and there are long running blood feuds dividing tribes with at least 7 internal rebel militias.  There are reliable reports that Khartoum arms and incites some of these rebel militias.

Despite these bleak indicators, on Independence Day the people of South Sudan remain hopeful.  But their big dreams will depend on peace, competent governance and some economic growth.  The sobering truth is that it will not be easy to build a functioning Republic of South Sudan.

By Ambassador Richard S. Williamson
Senior Fellow
Chicago Council on Global Affairs