Southern Sudan’s Jittery Peace

IN SITU | February 19, 2010     

No Sudan by Next Year?
John Fung reporting from Juba, Sudan.

Just two years ago, the drive from Juba’s rusting airport to the town’s Konyo Konyo market took half an hour – a bone-jarring ride over rutted dirt roads. Today, the same journey takes five minutes of gentle cruising on fresh tarmac. Along the way, there are buildings under construction, new shops and food stalls, shiny SUVs and other signs of sudden prosperity in one of the world’s poorest regions. The capital of Southern Sudan is booming, thanks to a 2005 peace agreement between the Khartoum government and the Southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Movement that ended a devastating civil war and gave the South half of all revenues from its oil fields.

But even with the oil money flowing, there is a growing sense of unease in Juba. A key feature of the peace accord, known as the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), was recognition of the South’s right to self-determination. Next year, in January 2011, Southerners are due to exercise that right by voting in a referendum on whether to secede from the rest of the country and form an independent state. There is no question about how they will vote. After decades of war and marginalization by the Islamic government in the North, Southerners, who belong to numerous African tribes – and most of whom are Christian – have their eyes set firmly on independence. But many believe that the North will not let them go, and that a return to war is inevitable.

There is good reason to doubt the North’s willingness to abide by the terms of the CPA. Since 2005, the Khartoum government, dominated by the iron-fisted National Congress Party (NCP) and its leader, President Omar Bashir, has shown little interest in implementing the deal’s provisions, or working to “make unity attractive” – one of the central tenets of the peace accord. Indeed, there are few examples globally of an authoritarian regime allowing a large chunk of its territory to secede peacefully – not to mention a region as vast and resource-rich as Southern Sudan, which is larger than France, and contains most of the country’s oil reserves. The implications of secession for other restive Sudanese regions, such as the East, the far North, and Darfur in the West, would be significant, and could bring down the NCP government, or even lead to the country’s dissolution.

After having brokered the CPA, the international community’s attention shifted to the conflict in Darfur, at the expense of the North-South peace process. Western donors were slow to get assistance flowing to Southern Sudan and to help Southern leaders establish a new government, which had to be built essentially from scratch. International diplomats continued to talk of making unity attractive long after it was clear that the referendum could only result in a vote for separation. Now, as the referendum approaches, foreign ministries are scrambling to think through how to support a process that is likely to lead to renewed conflict.

There are those who argue that the North will let the South go peacefully. The war, after all, was costly, and the NCP may prefer to govern a more culturally homogeneous nation built around economically developed central Sudan, whence it draws most of its support. Moreover, President Bashir needs to improve his image after having been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes in Darfur. But the international community’s reluctance to face up to Southerners’ intention to secede may have something to do with the fact that even this ‘best case’ scenario offers immense challenges. For one, the South may not hold together as an independent state.

Southern Sudanese are among the most traumatized people in the world. With only a few short interruptions, the region has been at war since 1956. An estimated 85 percent of the population is illiterate. If it were to become an independent state, Southern Sudan would be at, or near, the bottom of almost every human development measure. The fledgling Government of Southern Sudan, set up as part of the CPA, is staffed by former rebel leaders with little experience of governing, and the region is awash in small arms. Tensions between the South’s many tribes, which clashed during the war as a result of the North’s divide-and-conquer tactics, erupt regularly into violence. Although the leaders of these communities have come together under the banner of liberation, they may well turn on each other once independence is achieved.

The international community is thus faced with a serious dilemma. Having brokered an agreement that recognized the South’s right to secede, it must now support a process for which the most likely outcome is renewed conflict, or the creation of what The Economist has called the world’s first “pre-failed state.”

Meanwhile, in Juba, Southerners are making the most of the town’s economic surge. But after decades of war and oppression, they feel that they have earned the right to an independent country – regardless of the cost.

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John Fung (pseudonym) works for a non-governmental organization in Juba, Sudan.

(Photograph: UN Photo / Tim McKulka)

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