Beyond Secession

As we midwife the birth of Africa's newest nation, South Sudan is already on the brink of state failure.

Registration began on Monday for the referendum, scheduled to take place over several days beginning January 9, 2011, in which the ten million people of southern Sudan will decide whether they will remain part of a united country or secede to form their own independent state.

The vote is a central feature of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which the United States helped to broker between the government of Sudan and rebels from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), ending nearly half a century of civil war that left at least two million people, mostly southerners, dead and millions others displaced. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declared at the UN Security Council this week that keeping the promise of self-determination that the CPA held out for largely Christian and animist black African southerners long marginalized by their northern Muslim Arab neighbors was a major objective for U.S. foreign policy:

It is critical to peace and stability, not only for Sudan but also for the neighbors, some of whom are here today, and the rest of Africa represented by others, that the referendum for Southern Sudan be held peacefully and on time on January 9 . . . The voting must take place on time, without violence, and in an atmosphere of calm . . . The Sudanese people want peace and the United States wants to help them achieve it. We have engaged in intensive diplomacy to help accomplish that. We have spent more than $200 million to help mitigate conflict, provide election security, create economic opportunities, and fund voter registration, education, and observation. We have sent Special Envoy Scott Gration, Ambassador Princeton Lyman, Ambassador Barrie Walkley, and a whole raft of people to try to increase our presence in Southern Sudan as well as to work with both the government in Khartoum and the SPLM in Juba.

While the focus is on the poll—and, having just returned from two weeks in both Juba and Khartoum with a delegation assembled by the Brenthurst Foundation and led by former Mozambican Prime Minister Luisa Dias Diogo and former African Union Commission Deputy Chairperson Patrick Mazimhaka, I am fully cognizant that the referendum must take place on schedule if a return to violence is to be averted—thought needs to be given to what happens afterward even if the vote goes smoothly. After all, if the international community in general and the African Union in particular are, however reluctantly, willing to admit the possibility of breaking up Africa’s largest state, it is because the present arrangement is no longer tenable—so much so that an alternative dispensation is likely to be more viable.

Numerous contentious issues remain to be resolved between the North and South, including the highly emotive dispute over the status of the oil-rich Abyei border district. However, beyond these, the nascent South Sudan—and there is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of southerners will opt for secession—faces tremendous long-term challenges which behoove its leaders and their international partners to ponder.

Although inheritance is not destiny, there is no getting around the fact that the new state will be born with a very unpromising endowment. Not only is the 640,000 square kilometer territory totally landlocked and more than 3,000 kilometers to its main port, Mombasa, Kenya, but it is totally lacking in the infrastructure that might mitigate these disadvantages. The entire country currently has about 40 kilometers of paved road. Despite the fact that it possesses about 80 percent of Sudan’s proved petroleum reserves—the fifth largest such in all of Africa—almost none of this wealth has trickled down to South Sudan’s people, 90 percent of whom currently live on less than one dollar a day and nearly half of whom require food aid. While 80 percent of the South Sudan is arable, less than 10 percent of it is cultivated—and not particularly productively either.

Nor is it particularly evident that the nearly $6 billion that the international community has pledged in aid since 2005 been particularly effective, except to maintain the veritable legion of international NGOs which have flocked to Juba and driven up the cost of living to unconscionable heights ($12,000 per month for rent of a basic Western-style house, $300 per night rooms at even dilapidated hotels). In fact, in combination with the “curse” of resource wealth, the lavish aid may perversely be distracting South Sudan’s leaders from focusing on the private-sector development they need to grow the economy and, ultimately, lay the foundations of a viable state led by a government accountable to its people.

And the economy must be grown if the government of South Sudan is to be able—assuming no conflict with the North—to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate the up to 200,000 former guerillas whose salaries alone cost it at least $250 million annually (overall, the defense expenditures consume an estimated 40 percent of South Sudan’s budget).

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