South Sudan: Darkness After the Dawn

A NEW DAWN FOR A NEW NATION. A MAN CARRIES THE SOUTH SUDANESE FLAG DURING INDEPENDENCE CELEBRATIONS ON 9TH JULY OF THIS YEAR. PHOTO: BABASTEVE. FLCKERA new dawn for a new country. After fifty years of bitter struggle, South Sudan officially became an independent nation on 9th July 2011. It has been a tough five months for the South since its independence. The challenges facing the new country are as grave and problematic as ever. Internal conflicts, food shortages, as well as more serious oil and border disputes with the north, have all contributed to making it an extremely difficult period for the world’s newest country. 

South Sudan seceded from Sudan following a referendum held in the former Sudan’s ten southernmost states in January 2011. The referendum was held as a result of the 2005 Compressive Peace Agreement which brought an end to Sudan’s second civil war. Around 2 million people lost their lives in what was Africa’s longest-running civil war. The former Sudan consisted of two vastly different regions – a dry, Arab-dominated ruling north, and a more lush, ethnically, politically and economically marginalized African south. After an unhappy marriage lasting over fifty five years, Sudan and South Sudan were at long last divided into two separate nations.
Despite a peaceful transition to independence for South Sudan in July, its relationship with its northern neighbour has deteriorated rapidly since then. The most contentious issues have been disputes over oil reserves and border conflicts. When South Sudan seceded from Sudan, it inherited the bulk of Sudan’s oil wealth with an estimated 75% of the former Sudan’s oil reserves in the South. However, South Sudan needs the north’s pipelines to export its oil to the world. Consequently, the two countries have been stuck in negotiations over the price Sudan should receive for the South’s use of its pipelines but no agreement has yet been reached. This resulting uncertainty has contributed to sharply rising inflation in both countries, whose populations are already among the world’s poorest and most deprived.

As well as the oil dispute, border conflicts, both north and south of the border, have further strained relations between the two nations. This is arguably the more urgent and disturbing issue and certainly the most costly in terms of human life. Conflicts have been taking place in the disputed region of Abyei as well as in the northern states of Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan. Many people from these states supported and fought alongside the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement during the long years of the civil war. However, when South Sudan became an independent nation, these two states suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of the new border. In early June, rebels began an armed campaign against the northern government. This campaign has since intensified with the rebels holding their ground in both Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan despite fierce attacks from the northern Sudanese army.
Another contentious border row is over the disputed region of Abyei which currently finds itself neither part of the north or south. A referendum to determine what nation it should belong to has been delayed for months due to ongoing disputes.

UN PEACEKEEPERS ON PATROL IN THE DISPUTED REGION OF ABYEI IN MAY OF THIS YEAR. PHOTO: UNITED NATIONS PHOTO. FLCKR

Internal conflicts, namely security issues, food shortages and tribal disputes, have plagued the new state. Due to a lack of rainfall, border insecurity and a huge number of returning southerners, UN agencies are warning of chronic food shortages. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warn that South Sudan will produce only half the amount of food required for next year while 1.2 million people, an increase of nearly 250,000 from 2011, will be ‘severely food-insecure’. The return of more than 340,000 southerners from troubled regions such as Blue Nile, Abyei and South Kordofan as well as the northern capital Khartoum has put even more pressure on the state.

Although secession itself was peaceful, internal tribal conflicts in the south have been ongoing for months. Despite 98.83% of people voting for secession, the result reflects more the desire of the south to free itself from decades of oppression by the north rather than a vote for southern unity. The South is made up of several distinct ethnic and linguistic groups with no real collective identity with the majority of the population following numerous different traditional religions. Since independence, waves of inter-communal ethnic fighting have left thousands dead or misplaced. Historic tribal and ethnic conflicts along with a more recent tradition of using armed force make peace a distant aspiration for the south.

Despite the numerous challenges facing it, South Sudan is still a country with enormous potential. The new nation has been handed a fresh start with the population in control of their own economic and political destiny for the first time in their history. Yet dangerous waters lie ahead. A stable, functioning relationship with the north needs to be achieved if the South’s internal and external problems are to be solved. Greater support from the international community as well as negotiations and practical agreements between the two nations are urgently required to not only establish a functioning relationship but also to prevent a full-scale war from breaking out in the near future.

If urgent action is not taken soon then the July light of South Sudan’s new dawn will quickly fade into the darkness.

BRIAN BOLGER