South Sudanese Independence: Challenges Ahead
Author: Patrick Mugo Mugo
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 06/06/2011
The world is watching pensively the unfolding events in Sudan, especially those surrounding the oil rich Abyei region. This is after the overrunning by northern troops and tanks of Abyei town on May 21st, the main settlement in a fertile border district. Humanitarian agencies say at least 40,000 of Abyei’s residents have fled the fighting around Abyei, but the government puts the figure at 150,000 – mostly southerners, heading further south in the last few months. Fleeing families have been split, as they add to the number of internally displaced South Sudanese. Images from the Satellite Sentinel Project indicate that the villages they’ve left behind have been systematically razed, providing evidence of possible war crimes.
While the Sudanese government has yet to comply with international calls to withdrawal her troops, the decision by South Sudan leader Salva Kirr that his region will not go back into war with the North has given some cause for hope that negotiations, rather than violence, might resolve the matter. But for how long this will remain the case is still an open question. Both the North and South have been engaged in a military arsenal build-up and restocking since the peace accord in 2005. Being contested are not just boundaries over fertile agricultural land, but the control of the oil rich Abyei boundaries. There is an ethnic dimension to this conflict compounding the economic factors. Abyei is claimed by a southern group, the Dinka Ngok, and northern nomads, the Misseriya, an issue which was left unresolved in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, even after ending Africa’s longest civil war.
The Sudanese military move comes on heels of UN reports on May 9th that North and South Sudan had agreed to withdraw “all unauthorized forces” from the disputed and oil-rich Abyei region. It seems old habits are hard to die. The first shots were fired between the North and the South in 1983, in a struggle over resources, marginalization, religious intolerance, and deprivation. The South Sudanese have paid a heavy price over the last two decades; an estimated two million lives have been claimed by the protracted conflict and its consequences. An entire generation that is now bestowed with rebuilding their motherland has to trade fighting skills with the responsibilities of nation building. Others, completely uprooted from their homeland are moving back home accompanied by a generation that has never before stepped foot in South Sudan. Indeed, the country needs them than ever before.
Heartbroken they might be, but the South Sudan are still very optimistic about their future as an independent state. This is after decisively voting 99% to breakaway from the North through the January referendum. African geography and history is set for revision, as “a new state is set to be born”. And the future is unpredictable.
Top on the list is the unresolved question of sharing the oil benefits. A majority of conflicts in Africa are about contested resources as the underlying factor. Simmering contest over the borders and future of oil rich Abyei region have yet to be resolved – a key shortcoming of the peace accord. Under the 2005 peace agreement, Abyei was granted special status and a joint administration was set up in 2008 to run the area until a referendum decided its fate. (The Abyei’s region is often described as “oil-rich”, but after the 2009 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in The Hague, most of the oil fields now fall outside Abyei’s borders.) An appropriate agreement for sharing oil revenues is needed if one is to avert a possible war between the North and South again (Thomas: 2007). In view of Ramsbotham, Woodhouse and Mial (2005), we must avoid a dynamic where the economic motivation to pursue conflict becomes a compelling factor. The simmering conflict in oil rich Niger Delta tells us that greed and predation are hard to separate from armed conflict when it comes to oil, a precious commodity in today’s global economy.
Another matter of concern to the new state will be the threat from within. With the declaration of independence, the single historical common enemy of the southerners, the “Northern Government”, will be replaced with internal struggles for political and economic influence. The Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement is noted also for some shortcomings when it comes to this issue, including its failure to address the conflicts outside the South–centre axis and its failure to address the conflicts within the South itself (Thomas 2007). On this point, it is worth remembering that enduring peace can only be achieved by satisfying key elements in peacebuilding (Jeong, 1999:3), which in the case of South Sudan, means addressing the serious issues of inequality and livelihood insecurity (Fisher and Ury 1991:4). Though it is rich in oil, Southern Sudan is one of the least-developed regions on earth, and ethnic tensions and troubled relations with the north could provide constant security challenges.
During the protracted war, all the different ethnic groups within South Sudan had a unified narrative and leadership. This might not continue to be the case as recent cases of tensions and sporadic ethnic clashes tell a different story. Incidence of violence between armed civilians from different tribes, or from different sections of the same tribe, appears to have increased since the signing of the CPA (Thomas, 2007). Thomas puts the blame squarely at the feet of South Sudan President Salva Kiir who he says has focused his political energies on uniting the South, rather than transforming the centre. Ongoing ethnic clashes within South Sudan gives sign of an escalating conflict that is simmering as even those who used to mediate such different ethnic groups have now taken sides in the new South Sudan.
The UN has released findings that more than 2,000 people have been killed in ethnic violence in the south since January 2009. The intensity and scale of violence unfolding in remote parts of South Sudan is creating a lot of concern in Juba that things are out of control in the South’s remote regions. Government ministers say they are doing all they can – they have launched disarmament drives and are telling people not to use guns to solve their disputes. But that is an extremely difficult message to get out to heavily armed groups of people in remote areas who are angry over long-lasting enmities and frustrated needs. Once cross cutting organizations are destroyed and potential mediators have taken sides, the political processes that guard against civil strife cannot be depended upon again (Dean and Sung Hee, pp. 2004:168). It’s easier to squeeze the toothpaste out of a tube than to put it back in, and in a similar way, once started, heavy escalation tends to be self-reinforcing. In view of Allan (2000), good settlements should not only bridge opposing interest, but also represent norms and values that are public good for the wider community in which the conflict is situated, so that justice and fairness result from negotiations.
Another challenge that faces South Sudan is the lack of a well structured and effective governance system either centralised, devolved, or federalized. Southern leaders have been preoccupied with independence rather than what kind of new state will be created. This question can no longer be avoided. To avoid future conflict, leaders must provide a genuine and effective governance system, in view of Ramsbotham, Woodhouse and Mial (2005) to accommodate legitimate political aspirations and to satisfy frustrated needs. After all, these are the same frustrated needs that triggered and sustained the protracted conflict for 20-years, and in the end made the Southerners to vote 99% in favour for independence.
Averting a failed state
The key challenge will be making the Sudanese oil a ‘blessing’ rather than a ‘curse’, as the case has been with the Niger Delta in Nigeria, where conflict is fuelled to serve the economic interests of a few – often multinational oil companies from the North. The question at this juncture is – will the UN, AU, IGAD on one side Unites States and China on the other, all interested parties to averting a conflict, be willing to coerce the North and South into finding a modality of oil resources exploitation? The ongoing efforts to restock their respective armories indicate that the international camouflaged interests over the oil are more than willing to resolve the matter the old way. The United Nations should strive to seek a solution to the issue before it delays the much-anticipated independence of South Sudan on July 9th. Statements from the Sudanese government that it might rethink the independence of South Sudan cannot be simply ignored.
Another way of avoiding a failed state will be to set up a transitional structure that will be inclusive, democratic, and acceptable by various ethnic groups. Can the South African transition lessons be borrowed in this case? Zarman (ed, 1995:339) opines that although many tensions still remain in South Africa, and real social economic transformation has been slow, the first all racial elections conveyed ‘participation, legitimatization and allocation’, the three elements necessary to the settlements of internal conflicts. Does South Sudan need a new constitution or a transitional document like South Africa? If anything, the South Sudan leadership is just skirting around this question and thinking that external cooperation is the key to Southern Sudan’s problems rather than an internally driven and drafted charter of governance.
As South Sudan realizes her cherished dream of independence, overcoming external and internal threats remain formidable challenges. Ideally, these worrying signs will be turned into opportunities and a viable and effective state will be built in South Sudan. But where do you start when the foundation is unstable? The roof of any house is only able to hold as long as the foundation is stable.
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Bio: Patrick Mugo Mugo is a Multimedia Senior Researcher from Kenya and a master’s student in Media, Peace and Conflict Studies at UN-mandated University for Peace, Costa Rica. firstname.lastname@example.org