South Sudan – Are they heading for a crash?
Next year Africa could get its first new country, to be called South Sudan, for almost 20 years. But the fledgling state looks perilously weak
Sep 23rd 2010 | Juba and Khartoum | from PRINT EDITION
ON OR about January 9th, the people of southern Sudan should have an opportunity to vote in a referendum on whether to break away from the Republic of Sudan and create their own country. If, as seems likely, they vote overwhelmingly for independence rather than to stay with the north, Africa will get a freshly minted country by the middle of next year.
The government-in-waiting of the new country calls the referendum “the final walk to freedom”. For the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the southerners’ main party, led by Salva Kiir, it is the culmination of half a century of often bloody struggle for recognition against successive Islamist regimes in Khartoum. These tried to impose an Arab and Muslim culture on the largely black African, Christian and animist south. By the time the fighting stopped in 2005, Africa’s longest civil war had cost 2.5m lives and displaced many millions more. Much of the region was devastated.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the war set up the semi-autonomous region of South Sudan, to be ruled by the SPLM, as well as a government of national unity in Khartoum led by President Omar al-Bashir, to include the SPLM. The two sides were to work for the country’s unity in a new federal arrangement, but the south also won the right to a referendum on outright secession.
Despite the odd rhetorical nod towards unity, as demanded by the CPA, it is rare to find anyone among the 8m southerners who is not going to vote for independence. Indeed, Juba, the south’s biggest town and capital, exudes a mood of expectation. After a five-year makeover of the government quarter, it gives every appearance of being ready to take its place among the capitals of Africa.
Smart paved roads (and even streetlamps) now lead to brand-new air-conditioned ministerial offices. Workers are putting the finishing touches to a new presidential compound that occupies an entire block in the middle of town. The president’s own palace is a colonial-era building, but it has been completely revamped with a splash of contemporary mock-Pharaonic styling and buttresses tapering towards the upper floors. Behind it is a helipad.
The shiny new presidential buildings include an office suite and large conference and dining halls. The South Korean interior designer enthusiastically invites your correspondent to admire the chandeliers and carpets from his own country. The door frames are from China and the floor marble has been imported from Uganda. But it is not all for work. Adjoining the palace is a sizeable swimming pool and a presidential gym, though the exercise bikes are still in their containers. There is even a pinewood sauna, though you can work up just as much sweat by standing outside.
But beyond the SPLM leaders’ rosy poolside view is a more worrying picture. For a start, it is not certain that the Sudanese government in Khartoum will let the referendum proceed as planned. Even if it does, the outcome will be extremely messy. Moreover, outside Juba the condition of southern Sudan is still dire.
Most southerners think they are marching relentlessly towards independence. But the view from Khartoum is, as ever, utterly different. There, most Sudanese are in a state of denial about the referendum, let alone about independence. When it is mentioned, which is rare, it is only in terms of “maintaining the country’s unity”. Although Mr Bashir has stated publicly that the north will not stop the south if it wants to break off, almost nobody in the north can bring himself to contemplate the probability that, in less than a year, the country will be dismembered and broken into two. Some fear that this attitude could even lead to a new war.
This state of denial stems partly from the fact that the north’s politicians never wanted the south to have a referendum in the first place. It was forced on the north, as part of the CPA, only under extreme pressure from the West. And as only people of southern ethnic origin will be voting in the referendum, the rest of the Sudanese have had little reason to think about it at all. Many politicians from Mr Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) genuinely seem to believe that keeping Sudan as one big country is so obviously better for everyone than breaking it up that they have only to do a little bit of campaigning and spend a little bit of money, and the southerners will come to their senses and forget the whole idea.
Denial is a river in northern Sudan
This delusion shows how little northern Sudan’s ruling Arab politicians understand southern sensibilities. In practice, it means that since June, virtually for the first time since the peace deal was signed in 2005, the north has been releasing money for road-building and other development projects in the south. This is an extremely belated attempt to show the benefits of sticking with the Khartoum government. The northerners’ belief that this may suddenly compensate for decades of oppression, aggression and neglect illustrates how lightly many take southern feelings. It is also indicative of the north’s attitude to the referendum that the man appointed to oversee it for Khartoum is Salah Gosh, well known to the CIA and to Britain’s MI6 as a long-serving former head of Sudan’s intelligence services.
Northern efforts to drag out, delay or sabotage the referendum are increasingly blatant. A commission to oversee the referendum has only just been settled upon, with four months to organise the vote. Even with everyone working at full speed it will be barely possible to meet the January 9th deadline. If it is missed, southerners will suspect that the north is trying to deny them their vote, increasing pressure for a unilateral declaration of independence, a doomsday option for the south, to be voted on by its own parliament. This could well provoke another war with the north, as Mr Bashir would refuse to recognise the new country—and many countries, especially in Africa, would side with him.
Just mess it up
The other way in which the north might disrupt the referendum is by stoking dissent and rebellion in the south to reduce the chance of what it calls a “credible” referendum. Northern leaders have been doing this for decades, using rogue groups, such as the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army that originated in neighbouring Uganda, as proxy militias to weaken the south and keep its SPLM off balance.
The SPLM says the north is already up to its old tricks again. One rogue SPLM politician, General George Athor, who alleges that an election for governor in Jonglei state was rigged against him in April, when he stood as an independent, has taken to the bush in the north of the state with hundreds of armed followers. In a recent battle, the SPLM claims to have captured a helicopter and loads of ammunition supplied to the general by the Sudanese (ie, northern) army.
In northern minds, destabilising the south and mucking up the referendum would undermine the legitimacy of any putative new country. Perhaps a new bout of trouble will persuade errant and ignorant southerners to drop their flirtation with secession and come back to the fold.
(picture) Can Salva Kiir save the south?
Meanwhile, the south’s own politicians are playing into northern hands by misruling and enfeebling the region on their own. Most of the huge number of willing and devoted outsiders working for international charities or the UN despair over the chronically slow pace of reconstruction over the past five years. The disbursement of foreign money to rebuild the south has been lamentably slow. But many also blame the SPLM leaders in Juba. Even among the SPLM’s usually loyal cadres frustration and criticism are growing.
The UN has produced a list entitled “Scary Statistics” to show how things are going wrong. “It’s as bad as bad can be,” says a senior UN official. The south still has one of the world’s highest maternal mortality and infant mortality rates. Some 85% of adults cannot read or write.
In the fields, so slender are the margins between success and failure that a single bad harvest last year almost tipped the south into famine. More than half the south’s population is on “emergency assistance”, meaning that they will need food handouts this year. Some 1.5m will face “severe food insecurity”. The south has been saved from famine only by American money pumped into the UN’s World Food Programme. And even as malnutrition has increased during the past five years of peace, the SPLM government has spent more than $6 billion of oil revenue, received under a wealth-sharing agreement with the north, not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. Where, people ask, has the money gone?
The answer is to the army—and the Juba government. The SPLM leadership spends 60% of its income on weapons and army pay, as an insurance, it is argued, against renewed hostilities with the north. Corruption has also become a problem.
The southern centre may not hold
The town of Bor, half an hour by plane down the Nile from Juba, was once a busy trading post but now feels on a different planet. Signs of progress are few. The Dr John Garang Memorial University, named in honour of the SPLM’s former leader who died in a helicopter crash in 2005, was set up in 2008. It has about 100 students and has received $3m from Juba. Some southerners educated in Kenya, Uganda and the United States during the civil war have come back to teach. Bor’s population has grown by about 70% in the last few years, as families displaced in the war have returned. Its central market does a brisk trade.
Yet only in the past year have a handful of brick buildings been built. There is still no completely paved road in Bor or in the entire state of Jonglei. In the rainy season, which can last for over half the year, getting from one side of town to the other, let alone elsewhere in the state, can become impossible. Security in Bor itself has improved, but the roads immediately to the north and south are plagued by bandits. This summer the WFP was feeding 44% of the state’s population of about 500,000. Recent floods may push that figure up.
The state’s governor, Kual Juuk, a former guerrilla who was once close to Mr Garang, laments that the lavish development of the centre of Juba has been at the expense of the rest of the region. This galls him since Mr Garang identified the concentration of development in Khartoum, at the expense of the neglected regions in the south and west (especially Darfur) as a prime cause of Sudan’s civil wars. “The SPLM was supposed to be different, for fiscal and political decentralisation,” he says. “Now we are falling into the same pit.” He argues with the government in Juba but it ignores him. “They are inward-looking,” he says. “It is the same attitude in Khartoum.”
Such disaffection is growing dangerously. The SPLM is not a democratic outfit and barely tolerates criticism. In April’s election, it sometimes resorted to bullying and intimidation to see off independent candidates. But in the south’s incipient state of anarchy, these men, such as General Athor, may become rebels all over again, and head off into the bush to wage war, often backed by their own ethnic groups. Besides General Athor, another losing candidate, David Yau Yau, is at large in Jonglei with hundreds of armed followers in Pibor, in the state’s east.
Such rebels will cause more instability, shut more roads and hamper development even more. They may also open up ethnic cleavages between the various southern groups, especially the Dinka and Nuer, which are the most prominent at the heart of the SPLM.
There is also a worry that some neighbouring countries do not openly support the prospect of southern independence, even though they all signed up for it under the CPA in 2005. In truth, if the south does become independent, it will need all the regional and international help it can muster. Its people’s shared detestation of Arab northerners will no longer be enough to bind them together.
from PRINT EDITION | Middle East & Africa
· Related topic: Sudanese politics
Hello country number 193
Introducing South Sudan
Middle East and Africa
Nov 22nd 2010 | from The World In 2011 PRINT EDITION
In January 2011, if all goes to plan, the citizens of the autonomous southern part of Sudan will vote on whether South Sudan should become an independent country. Despite an astonishing lack of preparation for the referendum, the vote will be a chaotic but resounding “yes” for independence. And that is when the trouble will start. Or rather, restart.
War between Sudan’s largely Arabised north and the largely non-Arab south began in the early 1960s and stopped after a peace accord in 1972, only to start again in 1983 and continue until 2005. In a land of immense differences, history says that those between north and south are played out through civil war.
But the emergence of South Sudan as the world’s newest country (number 193 if you count by UN membership) will not spark a new war. Instead, the conflict will be within South Sudan. This is a place of tribes, jealous of their cultures and lands. The largest think they have a natural claim on the oil revenue that will come with independence. Where oil is the only resource beyond the subsistence economy, that is a recipe for disaster.
Sudan’s oil has been known for 30 years. First estimates were that there was some, but not much. Now there is believed to be plenty. Proven reserves are 6.7 billion barrels, according to BP. That may be only a 40th of Saudi Arabia’s reserves, but it is an awful lot relative to Sudan’s poverty.
Sudan’s productive oilfields are right on the border between north and south, and many have assumed that this fact of geography ensures conflict. Yet the opposite is true: oil has smoothed the road to peace. It was only after the Khartoum government became oil-rich enough to equip its army properly that it realised it had to make terms with the south: no matter how much was thrown at defence, the oilfields were never going to be controllable by force of arms.
The terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 included a 50-50 split of oil revenues between the north and the south, until 2011. What happens to the oil money after the referendum on southern independence is open to negotiation. Bad temper and walkouts from the negotiating table are guaranteed; but armed conflict is unlikely. Although the oilfields do indeed overlap the border, most of the significant wells are in the south—just. But the export pipeline that runs to the Red Sea and turns oil into money is in the north. For a long time to come, both sides will have to compromise around that reality.
What is more, both north and south have enough on their plates without more fighting. Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, is a brutal pragmatist. He already faces a catastrophe largely of his own making in the far western province of Darfur, along with a demoralised army and a rural population fed up with repression and poverty. Another round of civil war is the last thing he needs: he is more likely to wait for the new South Sudan to unravel of its own accord.
The cash flowing into the south since 2005 has evaporated
That need not happen if South Sudan gets far-seeing or even just plain capable leadership. It will have neither.
The president of South Sudan will be Salva Kiir—a Dinka and civil-war stalwart but no visionary. His vice-president will be Riek Machar, an opportunist warlord from the next-biggest tribe, the Nuer. Both have spent the past couple of years securing the interests of their own kinsmen, and frightening off international investors.
No road to happiness
Meanwhile the cash flowing into the south since 2005 has evaporated. A best guess is that $7 billion has come and gone. The government of South Sudan says correctly that there are more schools and clinics. But where is the infrastructure to support the economy? Half a decade after the oil money began to flow, this remains a land of rutted tracks and kerosene lamps.
Other countries with competing tribes manage to carve up economic interests and keep rivalries in check. But first there must be something to carve up. South Sudan has no skills and virtually no economy beyond oil. That oil will produce another $1 billion in 2011. Like the billions before it, it will be squandered, generating popular disappointment, distrust and dissent.
Richard Walker: freelance writer who has lived in the north and the south of Sudan
from The World In 2011 PRINT EDITION