The Birth of South Sudan: A Difficult Road Ahead

On July 9, 2011, South Sudan became the world’s newest nation. It is the fifty-fourth sovereign nation in Africa, and the first one since Eritrea declared its independence from Ethiopia in 1993. The occasion has been greeted with much fanfare and jubilation in Juba, the capital of this new country of over 8 million people.

Given its tortured relationship with Khartoum over the years, secession may have been South Sudan’s best option. But this recently-born nation will have a very difficult childhood. The creation of South Sudan will have profound political, cultural, and economic implications for its neighbor to the north as well. 

The road ahead for both the Republic of Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan is littered with challenges. Here are some of the major ones:

1. A number of issues remain unresolved between South Sudan and Sudan. 

Both south and north continue to stake claim to the disputed Abyei region. The north violently seized Abyei in late May, but in June, the two parties agreed to demilitarize the region and allow a peacekeeping force of 4,200 Ethiopians to monitor the arrangement under a UN mandate. The Ethiopians may temporarily bring stability to Abyei, buying some time for negotiation. But both parties appear far from reaching an agreement on Abyei’s status.   

Little progress has been made on other issues as well. The border between the two countries still needs to be demarcated, and the parties have not agreed on how to share oil revenue. While most of Sudan’s oil is in the south, all of its refineries and pipelines are in the north. It is also unclear what citizenship will entail for the 1 million southerners living in the north and for the thousands of northerners living in the south. 

2. South Sudan is a very fragile state. 

While reconciliation between Sudan and South Sudan remains high on the agenda, reconciliation among tribes and rebel factions within the south will be necessary if it is to have a peaceful future. Fighting in the south has claimed about 2,300 lives thus far this year, meaning that the country marks independence in the midst of its own civil war. Tensions between the Ngok-Dinka, who constitute much of the leadership of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), and the Nuer are high. The SPLM/A, which runs the central government in Juba, is engaged in conflict with breakaway factions. True to its origins as a rebel movement, the SPLM/A has ruled in a heavy-handed manner over the years. Moving forward, to develop legitimacy as a ruling party, it must create an environment in which the political and civil rights of all South Sudanese are respected.    

One of the SPLM/A’s key challenges in the immediate future will be to temper the expectations of its people, many of whom are flush with the euphoria of freedom from the north. Indeed, independence cannot change the fact that enormous development hurdles remain for South Sudan. There are only a small number of well-trained civil servants with requisite technocratic skills in the central government. Only about 15 percent of the country’s population is literate. South Sudan has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. Food insecurity is widespread, and infrastructure outside of Juba is lacking. While South Sudan must take charge of its own development, it will require significant assistance from multi- and bilateral actors and NGOs over the long term to have a prosperous future. 

3. Two new countries were created on July 9, not one.

South Sudan’s independence has large cultural, political, and economic ramifications in the north. Having lost the south, the identity of the Republic of Sudan is clearly that of an Arab Islamic state. Islamist hardliners committed to implementing sharia law, repressing dissent, and ruling the rest of the country with an iron fist have the upper hand in the ruling National Congress Party. 

In recent months, Khartoum has, in brutal fashion, consolidated its control over the rest of the country—a powerful signal to rebel groups in Sudan’s other regions seeking inspiration for their own cause in South Sudan’s secession. Some believe that the regime is deliberately orchestrating a campaign of violence against specific ethnic and tribal groups. The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) has continued attacks in Darfur, especially against Fur and Zaghawa tribal groups. It has also conducted a vicious air and land campaign in South Kordofan against SPLM/A loyalists. 

Some experts have argued that Khartoum’s military actions in recent months, especially in Abyei, represent an effort to gain leverage on unresolved issues from the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, including borders and oil.  The north may be calculating that it can get favorable agreements if it negotiates from a position of strength.

Any deal that is struck on the sharing of oil revenues will also have an important impact on the economies of both countries. The south derives well over 90 percent of its revenue from oil, and the north also derives significant income from oil.  

4. Partition has a troubled history.

While there are exceptions, the history of partition is often stained in blood. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since 1947. The dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s led to approximately 140,000 deaths. Prior to South Sudan, the most recent African example of secession was Eritrea, which parted from Ethiopia in 1993; the two sides have had strained relations ever since, and fought a brutal war between 1998 and 2000. 

One can hope that South Sudan’s secession will be different. This will depend largely on decisions that are made in Khartoum and Juba. No matter how engaged international actors are in mediating between the parties, key politicians in the north and south will need to demonstrate leadership and foresight if the two Sudans are to live in peace. 

For additional IPI coverage on Sudan please see the following past events:

Salva Kiir: Southern Sudan Vote Delay Could Risk War

Lessons Learned from the Southern Sudan Referendum Process