Born of War and Poverty

Published: July 18, 2011

South Sudan, the world’s newest country, faces a legacy of violence and dysfunction.

It was delightful to watch on TV the celebrations that greeted the declaration of South Sudan as the world’s newest independent nation. Given the history of this troubled region, and the human suffering that has come with decades of civil conflict ¬¬– in which over a million people have died – the independence of South Sudan is a welcome development for the region. South Sudan is the 193rd country to be recognized by the UN, and the 54th country in Africa.

The promise of a new society and the vision of peace and stability are palpable. The leaders of the country have worked to put in place the rudiments of a new nation: a new national flag; a new national anthem; a new currency; and new political structures. The people of South Sudan, many of whom have spent decades as refugees in neighbouring countries, are returning home in droves in the hope that their new nation will provide them with the security and opportunities for a decent livelihood that have long eluded them. I share in their hope and aspirations.

But it may not quite yet be a complete uhuru, or freedom. Amid the hope, aspirations, and celebrations are significant hurdles that still confront the new nation. While some of these challenges are the usual difficulties associated with forging news nations, some are unique obstacles. Here are what I consider the top four challenges confronting the new nation:

1. Managing citizen expectations and aspirations. We must not expect miracles. Given its history, progress in the new nation will likely be slow and painstaking. Years of war and neglect have ensured that the physical, social, and institutional infrastructure in South Sudan are grossly inadequate. The new country joins the community of nations as one of the least developed in the world. Yet, for millions of South Sudanese, there are great hopes and expectations. These must be prudently managed. The leaders of South Sudan must strive to avoid the mistake of many post-colonial African leaders who promised their countrymen the sun, the moon, and the stars after independence. The aspiration bar was set so unrealistically high that it was impossible to reach.

2. Managing the oil wealth. The new country is rich in oil that must be prudently managed. First, the new government of President Salva Kiir Mayardit must work with Sudan (where most of the oil infrastructure is located) to come up with a revenue-sharing agreement that is satisfactory to both sides. Next, oil revenue must be managed to serve the needs of the people, rather than remain in the hands of a narrow oligarchy, as is the case in some oil-rich African countries.

3. Managing civil tensions and maintaining the peace. The fragile peace that has allowed for the independence of South Sudan must be proactively maintained. Peace must be pursued between South Sudan and her neighbours, as well as within South Sudan. Recent reports of fighting in border areas between the north and south are troubling. There is a real possibility of renewed conflict, and, for this reason, the UN Security Council’s decision to keep the peacekeeping force for South Sudan in place is a wise one.

4. Negotiating citizenship. A new law passed by the National Assembly in Khartoum has withdrawn Sudanese citizenship from all southerners. South Sudan is likely to reciprocate. This is bound to create more problems than it solves. Many South Sudanese have lived their whole lives in the north, and vice versa. There must be a way to allow people to feel a sense of national belonging, regardless of which side of the border they choose to make their home. Citizenship must not become an instrument of ethnic exclusion and alienation.

An African proverb states: “A person is never blinded by a thrown stone that he can see coming.” Here’s hoping that the people of South Sudan and the international community see these “stones,” and work toward avoiding them.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.

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