The Promise and Peril of an Independent Republic of South Sudan

By Eric Reeves

February 3, 2011 (SSNA) — Over the past year, many commentators on the January 2011 self-determination referendum for South Sudan have presumed to ask, “Will an independent South Sudan become a failed state?” As often as not, their answers have been in the affirmative, providing a brief summary of the obvious problems the South faces and an inevitable invocation of Somalia. But as recent events and developments make 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 date for implementing referendum results, which were over 98 percent in favor of independence. Nor should we be surprised that Khartoum has not committed to a military stand-down in South Kordofan State on the North/South border, and refuses to allow the UN force in the South to create a buffer zone between the northern Sudan Armed Forces (and its allied militias) 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 these attempts to undermine or threaten southern independence highlight the fact that it will be enormously difficult for Khartoum to survive economically once it surrenders the oil revenues it receives from southern reserves (75 to 80 percent of Sudan’s oil reserves are in the South). 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. Sudan is certainly a candidate for the kind of rebellions seen in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Arab world. In fact, there has been significant, ifunderreported, popular unrest in Khartoum and other urban centers. Northern opposition political parties may finally be awakening, after two decades of somnolence, representing a threat that is likely to increase an already severe crackdown on news publications and human rights work.

The NCP/NIF will have little patience 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 beyond the control of this narrowly based cabal. One cause, the rising prices of sugar and petroleum, is a function of both the regime’s mismanagement of the crucial agricultural economy and its fiscal irresponsibility, which has resulted in an inability to provide subsidies for food and fuel purchases. Despite oil revenue and massive foreign commercial and capital investments in the North, the economy seems headed toward disaster. Inflation is rapidly rising; the Sudanese pound has experienced an unplanned but damaging devaluation; foreign currency reserves are extremely low; the national budget remains well under water; and Khartoum has no way to deal with or service its staggering $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 is mainly from arrears and penalties, reflecting the NCP/NIF’s mismanagement of the economy. Oil revenues and investment funds have gone to the pockets of party members and their 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 debt relief, but the Khartoum-based economy can’t begin to meet either the fiscal or monetary criteria for relief— especially while it continues to sustain, at great cost, a grim “genocide by attrition” in Darfur.

EXTERNAL DEBT isn’t the end of North/South issues that remain to be negotiated. Issues of citizenship and rights for Southerners in the North are far from settled; some regime officials have threatened to strip Southerners of citizenship and national benefits. President al-Bashir’s language promising a return to strict shari’a law is rightly a source of fear for southerners in the North: “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 in the North; 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 its 2,000 kilometers. These areas contain substantial oil reserves, large tracts of arable land, and vying ethnic interests. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the hotly contested Abyei region, which remains the most likely flashpoint for renewed war. In addition to bombing Southern military and civilian sites to the west in North Bahr el-Ghazal prior to and during the referendum, Khartoum has helped orchestrate an assault in Abyei 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…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.”

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 about the southern referendum if it is willing to take such extraordinary risks in the most contested and militarily tense region along the North/South border. While the Misseriya militia attack was 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.

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, specifically for peacekeeping assistance along the border.

THE CHALLENGES in building a new nation in southern Sudan are staggering; and southerners must confront these challenges without the great advantage that derived from having a common strategic political goal, one that has increasingly unified the South over many years. For in pursuing the nearly universal objective of a self-determination referendum and the chance to secede from the North, many southerners have put simmering political and ethnic disputes on hold. But now that the larger political goal has been met—secession has been overwhelmingly approved—the various and often competing interests among southern constituencies are likely to become more divisive. At the same time, it is important for the international community to recognize the challenges Juba faces in dealing with the Khartoum regime.

The NCP/NIF has never been a dictatorship under Omar al-Bashir, 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, and the heads of the security services and the army, have actively wielded control over domestic and foreign policy, as well as making decisions about supporting international terrorism. But though it is foolish to personify the regime by means of al-Bashir alone, 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 a humanitarian disaster, 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. The SPLM has always struggled to convince international actors 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 toward the oil fields in Unity State and Upper Nile (sites of the two largest oil consortia, both dominated by China National Petroleum Corporation). The South will have no effective international military assistance. Perhaps Uganda and Kenya will assist logistically, the United States with military equipment—but the front-line fighting will all be done by the SPLA. Though this force is 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. If there is another war, the SAF will attempt to seize and hold the oil pipeline and infrastructure, and 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, a renegotiation of the North/South borders (and hence oil reserves) would be conducted on more favorable terms if Khartoum has military control of key territories.

IF WAR is avoided, the new Republic of South Sudan will still face difficulties meeting its economic and political needs. Developing 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. 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 country, essentially from scratch. They can hardly be abandoned now, however, and integrating them into a peaceful society and rapidly changing economy will be an enormous undertaking. We must hope that educated Sudanese in the diaspora return to the South at this moment of great 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 as 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 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, and build an educational system that is self-sustaining and self-renewing. Most Sudanese I’ve spoken with agree that this is the priority in developing the country.

South Sudan’s churches also represent a tremendous source of existing capacity, much of which has served the region 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 that arise among South Sudan’s highly diverse communities.

Capacity-building must include transportation infrastructure as well. The nearly completed road from Kampala (Uganda) to Nimule (Central Equatoria) and on to Juba is an admirable 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.

Communications capacity is also critical. 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 it lacks a cellular infrastructure, and satellite phones are (at least presently) too expensive. The new government should work to secure contracts that make network construction self-funding, and should partially subsidize phone purchases. The ownership of solar- and crank-powered radios should be strongly encouraged, and non-government-controlled radio broadcasting fostered. 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.

Banks, typically a lucrative part of any economy, must be able and committed to providing small business loans, and must be guided by strict transparency requirements to safeguard against corruption. There has already been a dangerous proliferation of corruption among Southern leaders, though President Salva Kiir has made efforts to limit the scale. His vigilance must be relentless. A decision about the Southern currency must also be made quickly.

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. Given the possibilities represented by eco-tourism, South Sudan is in a position to make environmental regulations a self- funding 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—internal and external—are all too real. 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 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.

January 28, 2011

Eric Reeves has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade. He is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.

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