South Sudan’s Independence


07/13/2011 By Richard Weitz

On July 9, the Republic of South Sudan became the world’s 193rd independent country. A moving independence ceremony, attended by many of the world’s leaders, occurred at the new country’s new national capital of Juba. In a welcome development, the Republic of Sudan, the new country’s northern neighbor with its capital in Khartoum–and a past and possibly future adversary–was the first foreign government to recognize the new state.

Thousands of Southern Sudanese wave the flag of their new country during a ceremony in the capital Juba on July 9, 2011 to celebrate South Sudan's independence from Sudan. (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)


Both Sudanese states face major domestic security problems. The north is plagued with several protracted insurgencies, including one in Darfur. This conflict has recently overshadowed by other more news-grabbing issues, but still presents an obstacle impeding a normalization of relations between Khartoum and many foreign governments. The fighting in Southern Kordofan could also be resolved through granting more autonomy to the Nuba people rather than punishing them for siding with the southern fighters in the 1983-2005 war.

Physical and job security are intimately related in the Sudans, where firearms and military training are widespread. Without steady jobs and income, many of the tens of thousands of former soldiers will engage in violent activities such as robbing or fighting because it is the only skill they know. Their activities will in turn require the authorities to divert more resources toward security and defense rather than more urgent and productive uses.

Building up the national security organs and arming paramilitary groups also risks creating conditions favorable for security forces’ interference in politics, perhaps ending in a military coup in yet another African country.

But if they can be demobilized, reeducated, and retrained, they can then hold civilian jobs—if they can find them. South Sudan also needs to reduce the approximately 200,000 unexploded mines located on its territory or its people will remain constantly in danger of injury and death.

Although fighting persists in both Sudans, thus far it largely involves local groups fighting the central governments in Khartoum and Juba. But these intrastate conflicts could easily spark a larger conflagration of renewed fighting between the North and South. There are worries that many northerners have not reconciled to the South Sudan’s independence.

In addition, independence could embolden southerners to provide greater military assistance to those northern groups that supported the South’s independence and are now fighting Khartoum for greater autonomy or to join the South.

Recent developments in the contested region of Abyei show how this dynamic might work. The main problem is that two groups of people use the region, but in different ways. While members of the Ngok Dinka tribe reside in the area year-round, Misseriya nomads have been visiting Abyei for centuries from the north to obtain water and food for their animals. The Dinka would like to join South Sudan, but the Muslim Misseriya identify with the Republic of Sudan, whose government has supplied them with military assistance in the past. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) had envisaged holding a separate referendum in Abyei in January 2011 to allow its people to decide which option to chose, but the ballot was deferred since its organizers could not agree on who should be eligible to vote, with disagreements over how much time Misseriya members had to spend in the region.

The unresolved status of this region mirrors the generally mixed progress toward peace in the Sudans seen often during the past year. In addition, the Abyei situation demonstrates the positive role that the foreign actors can play in containing violence in the Sudans.

Last month Khartoum reacted to a southern attack on a UN convey by making a demonstration of its superior conventional force. The northern Sudanese Armed Forces seized the main town in Abyei, driving tens of thousands of Dinkas to flee southward.

But international intervention by African leaders and other governments has since prompted a return to the status quo based on temporary security arrangements signed on June 20. Perhaps more importantly, the violence in Abyei did not spread to other regions, indicating that neither Khartoum nor Juba is seeking pretexts to resume a large-scale war.

The UN Security Council recently decided to send 4,000 Ethiopian troops to help prevent further fighting, but they lack the means to resist another full-scale northern attack. As in many areas, foreign actors can help contribute to peace if the parties want it, but neither the UN nor its member governments can impose it on them if the parties continue to fight. The Ethiopian troops can help end the recent fighting but cannot by themselves resolve the underlying reasons for its recurrence. There is no easy answer on how to achieve an enduring solution in Abyei, but proposals to allow members of these two tribes dual nationality status should be considered.

In terms of economics and energy, wherever their final frontiers, both countries will depend heavily on oil sales—which amount to around 500,000 barrels of oil per day—until they can develop alternative sources of income. At present, oil exports account for almost all South Sudan’s revenue, while over half of Khartoum’s budget derives from oil exports. Under the CPA, the two sides were to divide evenly the oil sales, though southerners claimed they received less than their due share in practice.

The legacy of united Sudan’s integrated oil industry will require the two states to cooperate further to continue benefiting from their oil wealth. Some 80% of the country’s oil reserves, estimated at 6.7 billion barrels, is located in the south, but the refineries are in the north. In addition, the landlocked South’s sole oil pipeline goes northward to Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

For at least a few years, the oil sector will reinforce the economic interdependence between the two states–at least until the South can construct its own pipeline through Ethiopia or Kenya, whose construction would require many years and may not occur at all unless South Sudan’s oil reserves can be expected to last for much longer than the common estimate of two decades.

The South’s immediate economic challenges are enormous. Its ten million people, some of whom have only recently returned from exile or residences in northern Sudan, have perhaps the lowest per capita income in the world. Foreign assistance provides a major share of the remaining income but donors need to raise their standards. Oil revenue also flows to a few ministers in Juba with limited transparency, raising the risk of corruption. Although Juba has been experiencing a building boom in recent years, the county’s physical infrastructure is otherwise terrible, with few modern roads, airports, or hospitals. The lack of roads and other infrastructure make it difficult to bring food crops to markets or engage in many other economic activities that are essential for breaking the cycle of dependence and moving to that of the South’s independent economic development. The shortage of schools combined with widespread violence has disrupted national education and left the country with vary weak human capital.

In addition to oil exports, the South also has some 100,000 square hectares of cultivable land. Southern planners aim to take advantage of this fertile farmland and their country’s considerable rain to become a leading agricultural exporter. With the end of the fighting, South Sudan could also develop a major mining industry to extract what could be lucrative natural resource deposits such as gold, diamonds, copper, and coltan. The years of fighting have thus far prevented extensive prospecting for these and other minerals. They have also hindered efficient use of the South’s extensive water supplies. The South has abundant water but it is poorly managed.

The South will naturally need to create favorable conditions for such investment, including reducing corruption, respecting property rights, and providing greater security for foreign investors. Conversely they will need to counter perceptions that foreign investors and companies are buying or leasing valuable land at unreasonably low costs, leading many people to believe that bribe-taking politicians are arranging sweetheart deals.

The northern Republic of Sudan also needs to reconstruct its economy to respond to the loss of South Sudan. Despite being subject to numerous foreign sanctions, the country has experienced surprisingly rapid growth in recent years, primarily due to its oil boon. But with South’s departure, the remaining wells in the north will likely provide only enough oil for the country’s internal consumption.

At the same time, it is the exclusive heir of the former united country’s enormous debt burden, estimated at almost $40 billion, since Southern leaders successfully rejected any of the debt by arguing that Khartoum used most of this money to buy weapons and fund the war against the South. As a result, the Republic of Sudan has one of the highest per capita debt burdens in the world. Many of these loans are also in arrears.

It is unfortunate that the North did not try to use these borrowed sums, or its oil revenue, to develop other economic sectors that could generate additional income streams. Now that its oil revenue will decrease, Khartoum will focus more attention on removing these sanctions, which will provide the international community with an important source of leverage on its policies.

Bashir has called for refocusing his nation’s attention on agriculture. He and others have visions of joining the South Sudan as one of Africa’s breadbaskets. More precisely, he would like the Republic of Sudan to become a major grain supplier to the Arab world, helping them meet their food security problems while affirming Khartoum’s continuing importance to other Arab countries despite its reduced size, wealth, and status. The South may also exercise some influence on key Arab countries like Egypt due to its influence over the waters of the Nile.

Neither Sudan will be able to realize its economic potential without more effective public administration and local security. Both states suffer from problematic relationships between their central government and its periphery. Their resources flow toward their capital cities while other areas feel isolated and alienated from their central governments. More equitable resource and revenue sharing is needed to counter widespread perceptions that corrupt politicians are plundering natural resources for their own use and for their relatives, friends, and tribes. Anger at the perceived corruption, nepotism, and cronyism and sometimes reaches a level that local groups take up arms against the capital in a quest to gain greater autonomy.

Although the South has gained independence, it has yet to finalize its constitution and political structure. Its current provisional constitution is flawed, giving too much power to the president, currently Salva Kiir Mayardit, and the ruling SPLM party—leading to fears that yet another personal dictatorship or one-party state will emerge in yet another African country. Journalists covering sensitive issues such as official corruption complain about official harassment.

Reducing the political and ethnic rivalries within the SPLM leadership and among the country’s 50 tribes will require a more inclusive approach toward political decision making, greater power sharing among people and institutions, and more autonomy for tribal authorities that might otherwise adopt confrontational policies towards the central authorities in Juba.

The existence of such a diverse range of tribal groups can actually serve as a a blessing if, as in the United States, they result in governing majorities consisting of a constantly changing coalition of tribal representatives. Since the Dinkas constitute only about one-third of the South’s population, a democratic political system would force them to work with other ethnic groups, especially the one million Nuer and 400,000 Shilluk, to obtain majority support.

The South also needs to recruit more civil servants on the basis of merit rather than as an award for past military service with the SPLM. Many of the South’s most skilled people were educated or in exile abroad. Inducing them to return will require allowing them to compete for major public administration positions on an equal footing with inexperienced party loyalists.

Similarly, the North should take advantage of its “rebirth” to adopt a new constitution and adopt new public administration policies. The recurrent military coups in Khartoum underscore the importance of reinforcing prohibitions about military interference in politics. The country also needs to be more open to opposition political parties.

Denying peaceful opponents any influence on public policy and harassing their activities only encourages their members to join more militant anti-regime groups. Bashir’s willingness to move in this direction has declined in recent years since, facing potential challenges to his leadership, he likely feared losing additional popularity for “losing” the South. But the lack of visible opposition in Khartoum to this weekend’s independence process in Juba suggests such fears had been overblown. Many northerners seemed to welcome the South’s freedom and wished they could share it.

With respect to the international relations of these two states, an amazingly diverse group of countries and international institutions have actively sought to achieve peace in Sudan and allow the people of South Sudan to achieve their autonomy aspirations. Now they need to continue this support since it is easier to declare a state than to build a nation.

On many occasions in different ways, Khartoum has tried to hinder the mandates and capabilities of the international institutions active in the various regions of Sudan. The challenge of dealing with events in Sudan, and similar primarily intra-state issues elsewhere, has had the interesting effect of inducing the United Nations and many of its member governments to relax traditional inhibitions against interfering in what are traditionally considered states’ internal affairs.

The African Union (AU), despite the influence exercised by Khartoum as a member government, has found it surprisingly easy to set aside its commitment to upholding the national borders that existed at the time its members obtained independence. Although the principle of national sovereignty remains important, the international community now recognizes that other values—such as the responsibility to protect people from genocide or other mass violence—can trump them.

In coming years, both Sudanese states would benefit from continued UN, AU, and other foreign support. In addition to the important roles they could play in helping the two states recover from the economic costs of the war as well as realign their diplomatic relations with the world, they could assist with such important security functions as demilitarization, de-mining, border security, and constructing confidence-building institutions between the states.

Although South Sudan’s independence does not look to lead to the proliferation of additional African states any time soon, one hopes that the other African governments have learned from the experience, especially the need to treat their national minorities better and avoid imposing one group’s religious beliefs and lifestyle on another.

The neighbors of both Sudans can also continue to encourage them to pursue responsible domestic and regional policies. Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia supported the South in the war and now needs to continue such support in peace. They can make a special contribution by helping curb the activities of cross-border cattle raiders and the horrific transnational activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which are impeding agricultural and other rural economic activities in several southern regions.

The United States has an important and legitimate role to play in addressing these and other issues. Sudan has been a major area of concern for many Americans for years. U.S. officials played a major role in helping achieve the 2005 CPA and in subsequently helping bring it about.

In addition to ensuring that the South is not affected by any U.S. sanctions meant to apply only to the North, American officials can profitably help South Sudan develop its private businesses, attract foreign investment, and construct its critical national infrastructure such as rural electrification and sanitation.

At the same time, U.S. officials can press their South Sudanese colleagues to how greater respect to upholding the political and personal freedoms of their citizens and to curb corruption and other economic abuses. These issues need to be addressed at the international engagement conference that will occur in Washington this September and beyond.

(For an earlier piece see