Free at Last

South Sudan has earned independence, but keeping it won't be easy.

Southern Sudanese men ride a motorcycle past a billboard celebrating the choice of the south to separate Africa’s largest nation in two in the southern Sudanese capital Juba on February 7, 2011 hours before the expected announcement of the landmark independence referendum's final results. AFP PHOTO/PETER MARTELL (Photo credit should read PETER MARTELL/AFP/Getty Images)

JUBA, Sudan — This Saturday, July 9, Sudan will formally split in two, with the resource-rich south proudly declaring itself the world’s newest state. But when the celebrations die down, the young country will need to reckon with the many problems challenging its continued existence.

Managing the aftermath of its “divorce” from the north won’t be easy for the young government here, particularly given the ongoing hostilities along the contested border. African Union-supported negotiations between north and south Sudan ground to a halt once again this week in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, meaning the official split will take place without any deal to settle the future of Sudan’s oil wealth. The dominant role oil revenues play in both countries’ economies — particularly the south’s — mean that the weeks and months ahead may well be marked by uncertainty and brinkmanship, a characteristic trait of Sudanese politics that has historically produced mixed results for peace and stability.

Foreign relations aside, even domestic security poses a monumental risk for the new country. Many ordinary citizens of South Sudan harbor legitimate grievances against the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which has governed the country during the past six years of fragile peace, for its exclusionary and repressive policies. In the remote but strategic oil-producing areas of the south, for example, local officials have recently been sacked for speaking out against recent fighting between the national army and local militias — fighting that has driven many locals from their homes. In Juba, meanwhile, motorcycle-taxi drivers and market vendors routinely risk arbitrary arrest by disorganized and often predatory security forces that routinely harass, intimidate, and solicit bribes from citizens.

More often than not, southern politicians and military leaders blame shortcomings and abuses on the northern government. Owning up to some of their own failings could at least be a start for the SPLM in assuring citizens of the government’s commitment to upholding the basic rights and freedoms that southerners lacked under northern rule.

At the same time, many here argue that the only reason peace has held to a degree over the past six years in the south is due to the cautious and clever policies of southern President Salva Kiir. The Stetson-wearing, quiet, and unassuming former rebel commander has adopted a “come one, come all” approach to various militia leaders who have challenged the government and its ruling party — particularly in the past year, after elections in April 2010 split open wartime wounds between rival southern factions. But the International Crisis Group’s Sudan analyst Zach Vertin notes that the “big tent” the president has erected may prove to be another pitfall for an army that is dangerously bloated and extremely expensive to maintain. There are currently some 140,000 troops in the army, all of whom are drawing a salary from the impoverished state, but few of whom are fit to fight.

Ultimately, it’s that national army that will be the greatest barometer for progress in South Sudan. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) has its roots in a guerrilla movement that human rights groups and ordinary citizens hold responsible for egregious violations against its own people. Only if the army is reformed will it be able to serve as a solid foundation for a country that shares dangerous borders with conflict-ravaged countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic, not to mention Sudan. To that end, the U.S. government is spending approximately $40 million per year to professionalize the army. That money is being use to fund the construction and operation of army hospitals, to pay the salaries of Ethiopian troops training future elite southern forces, and even to improve the English-language skills of the soldiers, many of whom missed out on schooling, spending their childhood years fighting a bush war.

But the United States is not yet doing enough to monitor what’s being done with its funding. Despite State Department efforts to closely follow the work of the American military contractors it has hired to train and equip the SPLA, the army is still acting ruthlessly in its campaigns to rout anti-government militia forces out of three of the south’s oil-producing states. According to the United Nations, nearly 2,500 people have been killed this year by the violence.

Moreover, the government in Juba has also yet to reckon with the fact that it will soon need to give greater priority to nonmilitary needs. More than 40 percent of the south’s budget currently goes toward its military. After July 9, the citizens of South Sudan will be expecting their government to provide basic services like education, health care, water, electricity, and roads. The government must also reckon with the many promises it has made to the refugees arriving in the new country after being forced from their homes in the north. Thousands show up every day, though few provisions of food or housing have been made for them.

The south hopes to gain a new windfall of oil profits in the coming years, but corruption and mismanagement could still stymie the government’s grand plans to build airports, oil pipelines, and railways, among a number of other ambitious infrastructure projects. That said, the news from the new state is not all bad. Lise Grande, the United Nations’ top humanitarian official in South Sudan, witnessed the south’s horrific famine in the 1990s and has overseen the U.N. assistance in helping the new government build its institutions from scratch in recent years. Grande argues that the government has had a “hell of a start” with “astonishing achievements” over the past six years. But many international officials here in the southern capital fear that after independence, donors will end their support, cutting the southern government adrift.

Official entrance into the international community brings another opportunity for South Sudan to continue to prove the most pessimistic of observers wrong. But its success will largely depend on how other countries respond. The new nation deserves not just a warm welcome from the world, but a promise of continued and carefully conditioned support.

Maggie Fick is based in Juba, Sudan, as a researcher for the Enough Project. She writes in a personal capacity.