Residents gather outside the United Nations Mission in Sudan headquarters in Kadugli town June 9 after fleeing clashes between northern forces and southern-aligned groups. Reuters photo

Meet the world’s newest country: the Republic of Southern Sudan. In a referendum early this year the Christian-dominated region voted overwhelmingly to separate from the Muslim-dominated North, effective July 9. There is great optimism that a new era of prosperity has dawned, but the new country also faces serious challenges of nationhood. 

The most important gain will be peace. The region was in the grip of war for 21 years, as the Southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army fought for independence from the North. More than 2 million people died, and others were displaced to neighboring countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda.

Recent unrest 

But a dark cloud still hangs over the fragile hope for peace. Recent events have indicated that it is still possible for conflict to explode. 

Bishop Kussala

“Although the people of Southern Sudan have breathed a sigh of relief that the war is over, the truth is that the danger of resumption of violence is still there,” said Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala of Tombura-Yambio in Southern Sudan. “The recent attack on South Kordofan by the North is a clear indicator that we need to be extra vigilant. The international community should continue exerting pressure on the North to exercise restraint in this fragile period.” 

The bishop’s fears emanate from an incident in which soldiers from the North overran South Kordofan on May 21. President Omar Hassan al-Bashir justified the attack and said that his army would not leave, as the area belonged to the North. The incident caused the death of hundreds of people from both the North and the South. About 60,000 Southern Sudanese fled the area and became internally displaced, according to the United Nations. The Southern Sudanese government described the actions of Sudan’s army as genocide. 

On June 21, Bishop Kussala testified before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights about the humanitarian situation in Southern Sudan. He urged the U.S. government to contribute technical and financial assistance to programs that promote peace building, community reconciliation and conflict early warning systems. 

South Kordofan is in Abyei, the oil-rich area whose ownership is disputed between the North and the South. Abyei did not take part in the referendum because of its contested status. Under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, a separate referendum would be held for the area for residents to decide whether to be part of the North or the South. However, the referendum failed to take place because the two sides differed over voting procedures. 

Calm has returned to the area. Under a deal brokered by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, the Khartoum government and Southern Sudan signed an accord to demilitarize Abyei and to allow U.N. peacekeepers to police the area, which is 10,000 square kilometers. The U.N. has 1,000 peacekeepers and plans to deploy another 4,000 troops drawn from the army of Ethiopia.

Outside assistance 

“The agreement signed today is an important first step — but the real test of the parties’ commitment will be the full implementation of its provisions in the coming days,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a June 20 statement after the signing of the deal. 

The United States has taken a keen interest in the events in the country. President Barack Obama’s administration has made it known to the Khartoum government that it will remove the country from the list of terrorist-sponsoring countries if it cooperates in the peaceful transition to independence by Southern Sudan. 

Aid agencies have been helping to alleviate the humanitarian situation. Caritas Internationalis provided water, food, shelter and health care to those displaced by fighting. Caritas, working with the local Church, plans to spend $7.6 million to help refugees through July 2012, according to a statement from Caritas headquarters.  

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) also plans to increase its help even as the country becomes officially independent. 

“Peace building in the aftermath of any conflict will be imperative,” said Luc Picard, CRS church partner development adviser in Southern Sudan. “The demand on basic services placed on the region by host communities, returnees and the displaced and the subsequent struggle for survival in the face of limited resources could easily create a series of conflicts within the community.” 

In the long run, the biggest test for the new independent nation will be integrity in leadership. When African countries got independence in the 1960s, many descended into corruption that undermined development. There are already signs of emerging corruption in Southern Sudan’s administration. 

In 2008, the government decided to buy grains to be distributed to people to ease food shortage. The government gave out contracts worth $2.7 billion to more than 700 contractors to provide the grain. It was later discovered that out of this amount —equal to the entire annual budget of the region — only $200 million was used for the intended purpose. The rest was stolen by government officials through an intricate web in which money was released to ghost contractors. 

“This is a very worrying scenario,” Bishop Michael Didi Adgum Mangoria of El Obeid told Our Sunday Visitor. “We have many examples of other African countries that have been unable to uplift their people from poverty because of this shameless greed. If we start doing the same, how will we fulfill the great expectations of our people for a better life?” 

Additional challenges 

The new country will also face the challenge of entrenching democracy in an environment dominated by one political party. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) constitutes about 97 percent representation in Parliament. This is practically a one-party state, which may not be responsive to voices that question the way the country is governed. 

“The numerical strength of SPLM in Parliament has meant that our opinions don’t matter,” said Andrew Okuny Ayom, a member of Parliament from Sudan People’s Liberation Movement for Democratic Change, an opposition party. “But we will continue pointing out areas where we think the government is getting off the line. That is the only way to ensure that the new republic starts on a democratic path.” 

Even if the government succeeds in nipping corruption in the bud and achieves political stability, it faces a serious challenge of sourcing money for development. The country has few resources for vital infrastructure such as schools and roads. Although the region has oil reserves, the money earned from the oil will need to be supplemented with foreign aid. This presents the risk of the country becoming donor dependent, and it might take years to develop a self-sustaining economy. 

These challenges notwithstanding, the people of Southern Sudan have an opportunity to translate their dream for freedom and nationhood into reality. 

Whether the country turns out to be a model for development or an example of a failed state will largely depend on the vision of the country’s leadership now and in the future. 

David Karanja writes from Kenya.