Unity state confronts a set of challenges unparalleled in South Sudan. Some exemplify concerns that register across the emerging republic; others are unique to the state. Situated abreast multiple frontiers, its political, social, economic and security dilemmas make for a perfect storm. Some have festered for years, while more recent developments – prompted by the partition of the “old” Sudan – have exacerbated instability and intensified resource pressure. Recent rebel militia activity has drawn considerable attention to the state, highlighting internal fractures and latent grievances. But the fault lines in Unity run deeper than the rebellions. A governance crisis – with a national subtext – has polarised state politics and sown seeds of discontent. Territorial disputes, cross-border tensions, economic isolation, development deficits and a still tenuous North-South relationship also fuel instability, each one compounding the next amid a rapidly evolving post-independence environment. Juba, and its international partners, must marshal attention and resources toward the fundamental sources of instability in places like Unity if the emerging Republic is to realise its full potential.
Since 2005, the lion’s share of Juba’s – and international – attention was focused on national issues: implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the civil war, volatile North-South politics, the referendum that brought about Southern independence and negotiations toward a constructive relationship with Khartoum beyond partition. Southerners likewise put the unifying goal of independence ahead of other grievances and aspirations. Now focus is shifting to the latent political, security, social and economic stabilisation agenda at home. Nowhere are the challenges deferred more evident than in Unity state.
Situated along the North-South border and atop much of the South’s known oil deposits, Unity is a strategic territory and a primary source of the country’s economic lifeblood. Its subterranean resources made it a centrepiece in Sudan’s civil war; its people, land, and social fabric were devastated by two decades of conflict that pitted national forces, border-area proxies, Southern rebels and its own ethnic Nuer clans against one another. As both wounds and veiled allegiances remain, the legacies of this era continue to influence the politics, and instability, of the present.
Politics in Unity are deeply polarised, and the reverberations are felt well beyond state boundaries. Citizens in many states harbour grievances about their local governments, but resentment is particularly palpable and widespread in Unity. The dispute at the heart of the state’s body politic is partly linked to broader national politics, the unreconciled legacies of a long and divisive war, and fundamental questions of identity and ethnic competition. As new political realities emerge, it remains to be seen whether the alliances of the recent past will endure. Many have high hopes that independence will pave the way for a new, more democratic and transparent administration in Bentiu (as well as in the national capital, Juba), but those hopes are conditioned on fundamental changes taking place in the state.
A series of armed rebellions emerged in the South in 2010-2011, several in Unity. Though sometimes dismissed as mere armed opportunism, they have together drawn attention to more endemic grievances, some of which are manifest in Bentiu. Divisions over security policy and a flawed counter-insurgency strategy highlighted a familiar dilemma of army integration. An inconsistent response has yielded mixed results, sometimes generating more violence, fuelling community grievances, or hampering efforts to bring other rebels back into the fold. Northern support for such groups is highly inflammatory and must cease, but external subversion remains an exacerbating agent as much as a root cause. A demonstrable commitment to reforms in the security sector and rule-of-law institutions, an opening of political space, as well as a more stable North-South relationship will be necessary to discourage future rebellions.
Meanwhile, boundary disputes and cross-border tensions persist. The North-South border is now an international boundary, but it is not yet demarcated and critical sections – including in Unity – remain dangerously militarised. The seasonal migration of nomadic Misseriya cattle-herders to Unity has been interrupted in recent years, generating violence and anxiety along the already tense border. In the absence of negotiated migratory arrangements and implementation of a North-South security pact, there remains considerable uncertainty as to what the coming seasons hold. Likewise, still undefined internal boundaries fuel inter-communal tensions inside Unity state and many others.
A tumultuous end of the CPA era, partition of the country, domestic turmoil in the North, and the absence of arrangements to govern the future relationship between the two Sudans have compounded instability and left questions unanswered. Tens of thousands of Southerners returned from the North to their places of origin, their future uncertain as the state struggles to absorb them. A Khartoum-imposed blockade of North-South transit routes has choked supply chains and caused economic shock in an already isolated state capital. The outbreak of war in neighbouring Southern Kordofan further undermines cross-border movement and trade, protracts North-South tension and has driven refugees into Unity, many of whom need emergency services.
Finally, resources have driven instability and will continue to shape the political, social and economic character of the state in the independence era. Oil has fuelled the national economy and generated state revenue. But Unity constituents remain undecided about its net effect, as tangible development gains are lacking, allegations of oil revenue misuse are widespread, and the social and environmental consequences of extraction persist. The assumption of greater oil sector responsibility will bring changes and an opportunity to revisit contracts and operating standards; it may also prompt new investment. Though production is in decline, industry management and the relationship between state, oil companies and community will be a key determinant of future stability. Large-scale land acquisitions have also generated controversy and drawn attention to inadequate regulation. The potential for new commercial investment will force land policy issues to the fore.
The brutal lessons of oil sector development in Unity illustrate that rigorous regulation and government oversight are necessary to protect the rights and interests of local populations. Meanwhile, violent cattle raiding afflicts many of the state’s agro-pastoralists, often stoking disputes with ethnic Dinka communities in neighbouring Warrap and Lakes States.
Now that independence has been achieved, the challenges and grievances deferred will increasingly surface in what is already a fragile environment. Many aspire to use the 9th of July – independence day – to make a break with the troubles, injustices, and divides of the past. But untangling Unity’s web of intersecting challenges will prove no easy task.
Juba/Nairobi/Brussels, 17 October 2011