The Tough Tasks Ahead for South Sudan
The Tough Tasks Ahead for South Sudan
Floods, Displacement and Violence in South Sudan
Floods, Displacement and Violence in South Sudan
Commentary / Africa 5 minutes

The Tough Tasks Ahead for South Sudan

South Sudan’s independence on 9 July was greeted with jubilation by millions of Southerners and their supporters. The hard-won, decades-long liberation struggle finally ended with the raising of the new flag of the Republic of South Sudan. Now, after the convoys of visiting dignitaries have departed, the difficult work of building a peaceful and prosperous independent country will begin.   That task will be an enormous challenge, which will require negotiating a peaceful, mutually beneficial relationship with Sudan; democratic reform and decentralization; and vigorous economic development and diversification.

Despite mutual hostility and mistrust, the two Sudans remain linked and inter-dependent. The North and the South should already have agreed on a host of post-separation matters such as shared natural resource management (oil, water, grazing rights, etc); allocation of the country’s $38 billion debt and assets; the status of the contested Abyei area; citizenship for Southerners who still live and work in the North and vice versa; trade; as well as border demarcation and security arrangements necessary for peaceful cooperation.

The situation is further complicated by the unresolved status of some 30—40,000 former SPLA soldiers (in units recruited from Northern Sudan) in the Nuba Mountains, in Southern Kordofan, and Blue Nile. But because many of these issues are politically charged, they were—typically for politicians—deferred (negotiations are scheduled to resume on 14 July).

Unfortunately, with independence a reality, the incentive to negotiate has lessened even more. Some of these difficult matters could be managed piece-meal, or informally, but if many are delayed indefinitely and allowed to fester and create even greater resentment—as they did between Eritrea and Ethiopia—they could form the pretext for war in the future.
The most important issue remains negotiating a new formula for allocating the South’s oil revenue. Both countries are highly reliant on oil, it was reportedly the source of about a third of Khartoum’s revenue and an astounding 98 per cent of Juba’s income. Nearly Eighty per cent of the oil is in the South, but it is entirely reliant on the North’s infrastructure to export it. Conversely, many Southern border communities rely on Northern trade routes for basic commodities. When Khartoum restricted this trade, several months ago, there were immediate shortages.

The two countries share a huge 2,175-km-long-border that bisects interrelated communities and pastoralist migratory routes. Parts of the border are disputed and highly militarized.  Encouragingly, the two sides have agreed to a 10km demilitarized zone and a joint monitoring mechanism, but the details still need to be resolved. Because of a lack a trust, tensions are bound to remain high and unintended crisis escalation possible. With mutual dependence, especially on exporting oil, the likelihood of an immediate return to war appears quite low, but renewed lower-level, tit-for-tat proxy conflict—where each side arms its neighbour’s enemies—is a real concern. This would be disastrous for both countries, and especially their border regions. Furthermore, any move to harden the border would be economically and socially devastating to border communities, especially pastoralists who seasonally move their huge herds south in search of fresh fodder and water.

South Sudan also faces significant internal political challenges.  The ruling party, the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM) dominates Southern politics and the government: they are virtually synonymous. It is a huge umbrella party with many strong personalities and factions, and has yet to complete its transition from an armed, military-dominated liberation movement to a traditional political party.  The SPLM’s authoritarian and sometimes heavy-handed leadership has triggered resentment both outside and with the party, but much of that was kept in check in the interest of obtaining independence. Now many of these grievances and fissures are likely to come to the fore.  If they are not managed adroitly, there is a real possibility that losers and spoilers will launch armed rebellions to exact concession from the government.  This is what Lt. Gen. George Athor was trying to do when he rebelled after he lost the April 2010 gubernatorial elections for Jongelie state, and tried to force a new election. He since established the South Sudan Democratic Movement and its military wing the South Sudan Army.  A number of other renegade militia leaders have reportedly joined his movement, and the government claims it receives support from the North.

To peacefully manage tensions, the government will need to open up. Opposition parties, particularly those representing minority regions, claim they don’t have enough of a say in the government and policy formulation. This will be particularly important for the drafting of the new constitution and laying the foundations for a robust multi-party democracy.  Opening up will also require greater decentralization of power and resources, lest Juba replicate the destructive domination of the periphery by the centre that has triggered decades of conflict with Khartoum.

The SPLM itself is also not very democratic, and that has led to many frustrations among grassroots members as to their ability to influence policy development by the government. Unless the party opens up its own leadership and decision-making, it risks splintering into many of its component parts. Another priority area is security sector reform. It is still probably too early to “right-size” the army, since releasing large numbers of soldiers with few job prospects is a recipe for insecurity, but rationalizing its force structure, professionalizing its ranks and placing it firmly under civilian control will be important for the South’s long-term stability.  The country also lacks sufficient and adequately trained and effective police.  At the moment soldiers are performing tasks, such as combating banditry and cattle raiding, much better suited to the police.

Lastly, South Sudan faces an enormous development challenge.  One of the poorest countries in the world, it lacks necessary infrastructure and human capital. Most areas are very difficult to reach and impassable in the rainy season.  The capital was only recently linked by an all weather road to the East African transport network centered on distant Mombasa, Kenya. The South also has a disheartening 27 per cent literacy rate, which will make it difficult to create and staff efficient industries and government institutions.  A long-term priority must be to educate the South’s future leaders and workers alike.

The one boon is vast oil deposits, but that brings its own challenges. The oil industry is capital intensive and employs relatively few people. That means it creates very few jobs, those jobs often require significant training and expertise (something most Southerners don’t have), and wealth is concentrated in a very small group of companies and individuals.  The price of oil is also volatile making it difficult for governments to budget effectively. Lastly huge amounts of oil money tend to create inflation, which makes other economic sectors less competitive in the international market. A number of mechanisms have been tried in other countries to ameliorate the “oil curse”, but many have not worked well. South Sudan will have to get the technical and political aspects of its mechanism right for oil to be an engine of development.

The potential for economic development certainly exists. South Sudan is blessed with huge tracks of underdeveloped arable land and lots of water. It has the potential to become the bread basket for the entire region, if the right infrastructure is put in place, and its farmers have access to modern technology and know-how to maximize its potential for agricultural production.  In addition to that, there are other industries such as mining and logging that could also be very lucrative and job creating industries for South Sudan.

The tasks are daunting, but not insurmountable. In successfully managing succession, the Republic of South Sudan has generated a great deal of good will with its people and international supporters. The challenge will be for the government to create the right conditions for stability and development. That means it should resolve its disputes with the North, create the conditions for inclusive and open governance, and give its people the skills and tools to create their own, better future.  The United States can help by both giving generously and making sure the government creates the right conditions that Southerners can help themselves.

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