More Sudans, More Problems?

If and when Southern Sudan becomes independent, it may mean two troubled Sudans instead of just one.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

JUBA, Sudan—The polls are closed and the ballots have been cast. By mid-February, the world will learn whether Southern Sudanese voters voted to create a new, independent state — as initial results suggest that they overwhelmingly did. But as rapturous as independence will be for the south, there’s good reason to fear that secession will leave the governments of both Sudans reeling. In Khartoum, President Omar al Bashir faces mounting political opposition — and for the first time in years, he looks weak, as he braces for the imminent loss of the most oil-rich region of his state. In Juba, a new country must be built from the ground up. And the risk that the new Southern Sudanese state could follow the examples of its regional peers — from Ethiopia to Uganda — and disown democracy somewhere down the road is very real. What is today one troubled Sudan may soon become two fragile states struggling to stay intact, with leaders struggling to stay in control.

The south’s weeklong independence referendum, which ended on Jan. 15, was completed without violence or other any significant disruptions. A few days into the counting process, most of the international observer missions watching the vote had already issued statements  declaring it to have been credible and up to international standards. The referendum commission’s preliminary results, posted online, show most areas of the south at more than 99 percent in favor of secession.

Since 2005, when a peace agreement was signed to end decades of civil war with the north, Juba has operated autonomously — and gotten off to a surprisingly promising start. But after independence, Juba will have to start building its own institutions and delivering visible results to an eager population that has been waiting decades to be free. Expectations are high, even as the challenges remain dire. The new country will boast a youthful and unemployed population, an utter lack of development, and a bloated and internally divided army. Infrastructure will have to be built from scratch, extending into the far reaches of the territory where "remote" takes on a new meaning: Vast swathes of the southern territory are accessible only on foot or in a U.N. helicopter.

The elected officials who must tackle these challenges have little experience in government. Many of the ministers currently serving in Juba were instrumental in the south’s struggle for independence, having been commanders in the rebel army or leaders of the political wing of the movement. Few have ever worked in civilian jobs. Nor can they count on a wealth of talent below them; in the ministries of finance, agriculture, and education, there are only a handful of trained and literate civil servants. Government payrolls are clogged with ghost workers — supposed employees who continue to receive salaries but who no longer work there or are dead. As ministries sort out the fake names from the actual employees, real teachers are going unpaid and clinics are without the usual government-donated medicine. Then there is the perennial issue of patronage. Many ministerial offices in Juba now prominently display signs designating certain times as "personal" visiting hours, in an attempt to keep people from lounging in offices all day as they wait to submit their request for personal funds to their-uncle-the-minister.

But perhaps the greatest challenge for an independent southern government will be to overcome the growing internal threats to its authority without resorting to repression. Inter-communal conflict in the region is common — and seemed to be escalating in 2010 as competition for scarce resources grew. Rival ethnic groups will likely be watching how their interests are represented in a new government. In managing those potential conflicts, Juba will need to avoid the lessons of its northern neighbor. Through his two decades of rule, Bashir has used the state’s military apparatus to suppress insurgencies, often enlisting local proxy militias and external arms suppliers to help. Southern Sudan’s people and its leaders have lived in such a state for much of their lives.

Southern President Salva Kiir deserves praise so far for his efforts to avoid that fate, bringing dissident and potentially dangerous political and military rivals into his administration, for example, and proclaiming a "forgive and forget" spirit across the south. A 60-year old veteran of Sudan’s two north-south wars, Kiir has an understated and underestimated political savvy. Kiir was propelled into the southern presidency when the more charismatic and much-beloved southern war hero John Garang died in a helicopter crash in 2006. Over the past five years, the president has found his stride partly by reminding his longtime friends and past foes — both made during bitter internecine southern infighting during the war — that nothing matters more than internal southern unity against Khartoum.

But now that the south is looking ahead to its new status, there are reasons to be concerned. Lacking a common goal (the referendum) and enemy (Khartoum), potential spoilers may emerge within the southern military if people’s demands and expectations for the new government are not met — and fast.

Unfortunately, at the very moment that Kiir should be thinking most about building a new state in the south, his energy will be instead devoted to a series of negotiations with Khartoum’s ruling National Congress Party. North and south Sudan need to resolve how they will divvy up the country’s $38 billion debt — much of it incurred by Khartoum’s war-related spending for its fights in the south and in Darfur — and its oil wealth, the majority of which lies in the south. Since neither side is keen to offer concessions to the other, the negotiations are apt to drag for months. And Kiir’s key southern negotiators also happen to be the very same politicians and ministers who are needed to drive the post-independence planning agenda. Crucial progress on development, investment, and governance could be indefinitely delayed.

It is expected that a new state in the south will face a host of challenges. But the north, too, may be in for a shock after Southern Sudan secedes. Bashir will have to work to stay in control of his soon-to-be truncated territory, where a long-discontented population sees multiplying reasons for his ouster. Protests broke out after the government reduced its food price subsidies and the cost of staples rose. On Jan. 18, the highest profile northern opposition figure, Hassan al-Turabi, was arrested for calling for "Tunisia-style" protests over the new policies. Cutting subsidies and imposing import restrictions may get the ministry of finance out of hot water in the short term — it faces a fiscal deficit and can’t afford to keep subsidizing basic goods — but it risks angering a population who may soon have had enough of more than two decades of often violent and repressive rule.

Bashir has been promised some "carrots" by various governments if he accepts the results of the referendum — things like the removal of U.S. sanctions and a welcome back into the international community. Yet those rewards won’t help solve his immediate problems locally. The Darfuri rebels and discontented masses in the country’s often-forgotten east are not likely to storm Khartoum tomorrow. But the combination of rioting agricultural workers, protesting students, and an Internet-savvy youth activist movement in the capital can certainly turn up the heat on Bashir. The Sudanese president also faces divisions within his own party; some members would like to see him adopt a more extremist Islamist agenda, which would hamper Bashir’s efforts to shake Sudan’s status as a pariah state.

If the tried-and-true Sudanese tradition of brinkmanship prevails in the coming months, negotiations to see the secession of Southern Sudan will conclude in the summer, close to the July 9 deadline set by the 2005 peace agreement. In the meantime, Khartoum and Juba must be vigilant in order to keep the plans for "divorce" on track. Longterm stability in either Sudan is not the key issue at the moment, but it will be sooner than anyone thinks.

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