This week marks the first week of full independence for the world’s newest country, South Sudan. Today the United Nations General Assembly is expected to admit South Sudan as its 193rd member state. The people of South Sudan, voted overwhelmingly (99% in favour) to secede from the north in January following years of war and exploitation by the north, resulting in the death and suffering of millions.
However, anyone thinking that the partition of the country will simply give way to a new dawn of peace and prosperity for the region, as much of the Western media appears to believe, is deeply naïve. There is no acrimonious secession in history that has brought automatic peace. Consider for example the break up of Yugoslavia, the USSR, North and South Korea or, my own particular interest, the long-suffering island of Cyprus.
The wrenching apart of two countries brings with it a myriad of intractable problems – how to create new political institutions, how to establish two economies and divide the gains and losses, how to deal with internally displaced people (now refugees). There is also the problem of developing a new national identity and trying to forget the sins of the past. It is these problems that have thrown many dividing countries into bloody wars in the past.
The new countries of Sudan display these problems in abundance. There are millions of southerners living in the North who will no longer be considered citizens and therefore must either return to a bankrupt South or face persecution in the North. In terms of the economy, much of Sudan’s revenue comes from oil: the oil fields are located in the south and concentrated on the disputed border between the two countries. In addition, the State of Abyei, which holds much of the oil, has not yet decided whether to be part of the North or the South. The North, whose rulers have maintained their position by creaming off the profits from oil revenue and using it to fund subsidies will find that the loss of this income means the prices of many staple goods will go up dramatically. Steep inflation in a poor country may well lead to political upheaval: it was increases in sugar and bread prices that overthrew Sudan’s Nimeiry regime in the 1980s.
Along with this, South Sudan is not a country that stands much of a chance of blossoming into a liberal democracy. It is desperately poor; a woman there has greater chance of dying in childbirth than of achieving literacy. Within the entire country there are only 100 miles of paved road with many areas being totally inaccessible. Nor is the south as heterogeneous and united as it may claim. There are a multiplicity of different tribes who, temporarily united against the North, will soon have to do politics with each other and have very different agendas and their own tribes to seek advantage for.
The South also has no history of democratic rule. Many of its incoming leaders have cut their teeth in the rebel army, not exactly the best preparation for democratic politics. Already there have been reports of serious conflict in the region, with rising tensions. There have been escalating clashes along the disputed borders of Abyei and Kordofan in recent weeks, displacing and injuring thousands. The UN decision to deploy peacekeepers is to be applauded but this problem requires more than just troops. To ensure lasting peace the countries both need to learn to function and develop independently and sustainably. They also need to learn how to forget past evils and negotiate their future together. I believe that Sudan is not yet capable of climbing this mountain on its own, it will need external support and a coordinated aid programme – currently lacking.
Europe and the West as a whole not only has its own problems to deal with at the moment but also its current forays into Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq. I understand this is enough to keep everyone busy. But, if we simply turn a naively hopeful blind eye to developments within Sudan it could have dire consequences for both the North and South, and the wider region. This will impact upon us more than we think, in terms of increasing amounts of refugees and in terms of the conflict legacy it may store up for the future. The West should bite the bullet and give South Sudan the aid, supervision and assistance it needs to enable it to get through its rebirth. If not, we could well have another disaster on our hands, one which will haunt Africa and the West long into the future.