Analysis: South Sudan – What now for the world's youngest country?

C. J. Stanton 12 July 2011

The independence of the Republic of South Sudan, which was formalised last Saturday, is in one sense just that – a formality. The south has been effectively independent since the US-backed peace deal of 2005. This concluded the long-running civil war between the government in Khartoum and the rebels in the south.

The secession of the south is not surprising, and was in many senses inevitable. The Sudan was granted independence from Anglo-Egyptian rule in 1956 as an artificial country in many ways, perhaps most. It merged, in one set of borders, the Arab Muslims of northern Sudan, who have comprised the ruling majority of the country ever since – dominant politically, socially and economically – with the sub-Saharan African agriculturalists of the south and east, who were traditionally Christian and animist. Major tensions between these groups dominated the history of the Sudan since independence. In fact, for thirty out of fifty five years, the Sudan was in a state of civil war. Two major civil wars between north and south occurred: the first, from 1955 to 1972, and the second, from 1983 to 2005. In both cases, the root cause lay in the northern-opposed demands of the south for greater autonomy/independence. The history of the nation consisted of an Arab-dominated Khartoum government repeatedly trying and failing to impose control over its outlying areas. The growth of radical Islam and the imposition of Sharia law contributed heavily to southern opposition to the government, and northern determination to hold on to South Sudan was exacerbated by the vast reserves of oil there. These began to be properly exploited in the mid-1990s. The boost they gave to the Sudanese economy is a key reason why Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was, for so long, unwilling to negotiate with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the southern Sudanese rebel movement and political party.

So where does the region go from here? The oil that was discovered in South Sudan lies at the heart of the conflict between north and south, and is crucial to the future of both. Although some three quarters of oil fields lie in the south, the only pipelines allowing export run through the north. This gives Omar al-Bashir considerable leverage over South Sudan, led by President Salva Kiir of the SPLA, and gives him the ability to negotiate, from a position of strength, favourable terms of access to southern oil. While the north retains this stranglehold over the southern economy, it would seem that South Sudan is not truly independent. However, the south is already in negotiations to build a pipeline through Kenya, and so release itself from the possibility of blackmail by the Sudanese government. Moreover, now that the age of cheap oil seems likely to end, al-Bashir and the shrunken Sudan face a grim future. Bashir is already something of an international pariah, with an international arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court against him, for war crimes in the Darfur conflict. This latter war seems unlikely to end any time soon, and while it drags on, Sudan will have few friends on the international stage.

While, under the terms of the 2005 deal, the income from Sudan’s oil is divided equally between north and south, this will not hold long past independence. If the Kenyan pipeline is constructed, then South Sudan will have little reason to grant Bashir the favourable access to cheap oil that he requires to sustain the economy of the Sudan. The BBC predicted this week that Sudan will soon experience real economic difficulties. All the more reason, therefore, why the ongoing struggle between Sudan and South Sudan over the oil rich border province of Abyei will simply not end of its own volition. More than anything else, this dispute has the potential to ignite a new war.

Equally, Salvaa Kiir’s regime is vulnerable to internal rebellion and external pressure alike. There are already several rebel groups in South Sudan. Refusing to acknowledge the authority of the central government there, they pose an increasing threat to a young and vulnerable nation. Moreover, as foreign correspondents have repeatedly highlighted, the external threats to prosperity are enormous. Potential northern hostility and border disputes are the major issue here, but this is and will remain one of the least developed countries in the world. It has an incredibly underdeveloped economy, and so the risk of an over-reliance upon oil revenues – with the associated corruption and civil strife this tend to produce, as seen in Nigeria and Angola – is high. A slide into political authoritarianism must also be prevented: the new President’s Dinka tribe is growing ever more politically dominant. This creates risks of a backlash, and the potential for the undermining of an extremely fragile democracy by tribalism.

The Horn of Africa is already notorious for civil war and famine, especially in Somalia. How, therefore, can the West prevent the independence of South Sudan from destabilising an already unstable region, and help South Sudan, and Sudan itself, on the path to an economically prosperous and democratic future? Investment is required at all levels, not just for the oil industry. Real efforts must be made to end the conflict in Darfur, and to persuade al-Bashir to face international justice for his actions there. In South Sudan, the West should work to ensure that the grand words of last week do not become hollow gestures. This should only be the beginning of EU and US involvement there. We must not allow South Sudan to become another failed nation in Africa, that unhappy continent Tony Blair has called ‘a scar on the conscience of the world’.

One stitch at a time. The real work for South Sudan starts here.

C. J. Stanton