South Sudan faces tough self-inflicted challenges months to independence

By Zachary Ochieng

April 15, 2011 (SSNA) — Despite a successful self-determination vote that led to the creation of Africa’s newest state, pent-up grievances and emerging political disputes pose transitional challenges that could derail independence celebrations.

Though the Southerners were united ahead of the January 2011 referendum that saw them vote almost to a man for separation, discontent is already brewing up as the now complacent Sudan People’s Liberation Movement blatantly practises politics of exclusion.

Since the referendum, the South has also experienced a rise in armed insurgencies, military defections and militia activity, a clear indication that unity and security, key pillars to the stability of the nascent state, are under threat.

Under the circumstances, the soon-to-be independent Southern Sudan may find itself entangled in the same authoritarian state it escaped from after more than two decades of struggle.

The SPLM must realise that the liberation struggle was not an end in itself but a means to an end. Now is the time to initiate dialogue with opposition parties and militia groups and ensure an all inclusive government devoid of the winner-takes-all mentality replete with a top-down military structure.

The government should strive to build a cohesive state to succeed in delivering services to its citizens. For this to materialise, the SPLM must quickly embark on democratic reforms within its rank and file, besides opening up the democratic space to allow for political pluralism.

It is not lost on observers that both the SPLM and Southern opposition parties have been jostling and horse-trading over the composition and powers of a transitional government and the duration of the transition period.

Whereas the SPLM desires to move expeditiously towards a transitional constitution before independence, the opposition fears it is manipulating the process to entrench itself in power.

According to the International Crisis Group, the Brussels-based think tank, a domineering approach from the SPLM has jeopardised the goodwill created by an important political parties’ conference in late 2010.

Stifling debate and poor political management of such processes unnecessarily risk further antagonising opposition parties, particularly at a time when security concerns make unity all the more important.

Taking cognisance of the high expectations among its citizens, the government must adopt sound approaches especially in the management of the oil wealth which is the nation’s backbone.

But the economy will only prosper if there is political stability. This calls for critical decisions now and soon after independence in July.

Whereas the post-CPA arrangements on oil revenue sharing between North and South have taken centre-stage, the same attention has not been paid to future revenue sharing policy within South Sudan.

But a major cause of worry remains the armed militia groups. As the clock ticks towards independence, these militias continue to pose a serious threat to peace in the post-referendum period, if outbreaks of intense fighting in Jonglei on February 9 and 10 that left hundreds dead, and in the flashpoint town of Malakal on February 4, are anything to go by.

The referendum was peaceful in flashpoint regions partly because SPLM managed to reconcile with breakaway militia leaders beforehand. But soon after the results were announced, an unhappy Khartoum regime instigated the dissidents into taking up arms.

Still, as the anti-genocide lobby, Enough Project, notes, the divisions and weak command and control within many of the militia groups may compromise the implementation of any reconciliation agreement with the southern government.

Some of the militia leaders have experienced difficulty maintaining control over their field-based units, while among many militia rank and file, there is a sense of disconnect from, and even distrust of, their commanders.

Ultimately, the soon-to-be independent Republic of South Sudan must rise to the occasion and prove its critics wrong. Any act of failure is likely to vindicate President Omar al-Bashir and other sceptics who doubted the region’s ability to govern itself.

Also in Harvard University, students and educators gathered at Radcliffe Auditorium for a panel examining the current obstacles facing the soon-to-be independent region of Southern Sudan ( The event, moderated by Jacqueline Bhabha, a Harvard Law school lecturer and research director of the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, drew over seventy attendees.

Since the signing of the North-South peace agreement, Southern Sudan’s civilian population has undertaken the colossal task of constructing a new democratic government despite widespread disease and poverty. Southern Sudan has one of the world’s highest mortality rate and is plagued by issues of underdevelopment and inaccessibility to vital resources. The new nation must seek to establish territorial and political boundaries that serve it well, Bhabha said. As 70 to 80 percent of Sudan’s oil reserves are located in the south, “small differences in border marking can make huge differences in accessing vital oil resources,” she said.

But oil reserves are not the only resource not equitably distributed among the two countries. Most developed areas and industries are in the North, said Michael J. VanRooyen, director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. As a result of the development disparity within Sudanese territory, access to education and food security in the South is limited, he said. These factors will augment the new country’s economic burden as it attempts to form a new government, according to VanRooyen.

Poverty in the nation is so severe that those who own a pair of shoes are considered fortunate, said Lant Pritchett, a professor of economic development at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“Seventy percent of the richest quintile in South Sudan owns a pair of shoes. For the poor its only 30 percent,” said Pritchett.

Underdevelopment and extreme poverty are issues that will no doubt take a prolonged period of time to resolve, panelists said. “We cannot impose ideal European economic and political models directly to Sudan,” Pritchett said. “I guarantee you these will not work.” Most of the panelists said the best way to address health problems and economic inequality in Sudan is to implement makeshift infrastructure, which may not be of the highest quality, but will jumpstart the nation’s development. “[The solutions] will be lower cost, lower quality … but will sustain the desired effects over the short term,” Pritchett said.

The author is the Editor of News from Africa; he can be reached at [email protected]

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