South Sudan – a new country, new beginning in Africa

As the product of an agreement between the governments of north and south, it is highly unlikely that the subsequent referendum and secession of South Sudan will create a new precedent in international relations, nor negatively affect countries that have similar demands for border changes.

By Savo Heleta

From 7th to 15th January 2011, South Sudan held a referendum in which citizens chose between staying in Sudan and independence. Apart from many technical difficulties, the referendum passed peacefully and without significant incidents.

A referendum on independence is part of the peace agreement signed in 2005 between northern and southern Sudan. According to final results, 98.83% of the citizens of South Sudan voted for secession and independence.

This result is not a surprise for those who are familiar with the history of Sudan. Between 1955 and 2005, the north and south of Sudan lived in relative peace for only eleven years, without including the last six years since the peace agreement was signed. Over three million people lost their lives in the south in the wars since 1955, mostly by military forces from the Muslim-inhabited north, while Christians and those who practice traditional local African religions are in the south. In addition to war, no government of Sudan since 1956 has made any significant investment in southern part of the country. Therefore, after signing the 2005 peace agreement, South Sudan had to start from scratch in almost every area.

Unsolved problems

Although the referendum is over, and the official results have been announced, Sudan will be really divided only in July this year, when the formal declaration of independence of the southern part is planned. It is expected that most African and other countries will recognize the new country, especially taking into account the fact that the northern part of Sudan officially recognized the results of the referendum and pledged its assistance in securing international recognition. An interesting fact is that there is still no consensus on the name of this new, 54th African country. A few names are being circulated, though the name of South Sudan will likely remain.

The period between the referendum and the declaration of independence will not be easy. North and south have a number of unresolved issues, starting with the border, state property, foreign debt, international treaties signed by the government of Sudan in the past, to the future of the oil industry. Although the most ideal solution would be that the two sides reach agreement on controversial issues before July, it is possible that this will not happen and that the talks would continue in the future.

Of the above topics due for negotiations, foreign debt and the oil industry are the most pertinent. Sudan currently owes to international creditors more than $37 billion. This debt has accumulated since the 1970s, when the government of Sudan borrowed money for purchasing weapons for the war against the south, and for the development of infrastructure and economy only in the north. Of this sum, the smallest part was spent on constructing South Sudan. Realistically, however, on the question of external debt, north Sudan should take on most of the debt; even some 90%. On the other hand, many politicians in South Sudan know that this would cause a complete collapse of its economy and unrest in the north, which could easily be extended to the south. Therefore, it is possible that South Sudan will take over some 35-40% of external debt, particularly having in mind that the major part of the foreign debt of South Sudan will be written off in the next few years.

As for the oil industry, many analysts are wrong when they talk about the future share of oil revenues. The majority of oil deposits (70-80%) is located in South Sudan, while the oil pipelines, refineries and ports in which customers are buying oil are located in the northern part of Sudan. Although the north and south share billions of dollars in oil revenues (50-50) since 2005, it is unrealistic to talk about the division of revenues between the two independent states after July 2011. Instead, Southern Sudan will only pay for the use of infrastructure in the north. Similar to the external debt, politicians in South Sudan plan to offer more money to North Sudan for the use of oil infrastructure, which surpasses its real cost. Through this agreement, the northern part of Sudan could receive some 25-30% of future oil revenues. This agreement would be valid for the next 5-10 years, or until South Sudan – with the assistance of foreign investors – builds its oil facilities and pipelines that should pass through Kenya and Uganda.

Interests and influence of the international community

When it concerns the international community, China, America and Norway have the greatest influence in South Sudan. China is the major buyer of oil and the largest source of income. Regardless of the relationship between South Sudan and the West, the government in the south has made a formal guarantee to the government of China that South Sudan considers China one of the main economic partners, and that Chinese investment in the oil industry will be fully protected in future.

American influence derives from the end of the Cold War, when rebels from the south who now govern South Sudan realized that they no longer had any use of Marxism and communism and instead started promoting democracy, free trade and capitalism. From then onwards, South Sudan has received significant humanitarian, technical and financial assistance from the U.S. authorities. In return, it is expected that in the next few year leading American oil companies will get a chance to explore new oil wells.

The influence of Norway in South Sudan dates back to the war that began in 1983, when the Norwegian government delivered humanitarian aid in southern Sudan even when other countries and organizations, including the United Nations, succumbed to pressure and threats of the regime in the north and stopped delivering aid to civilians. This assistance has never been forgotten and today Norwegian officials often have more political influence on the government of South Sudan than some of the world’s greatest powers.

Challenges facing the new state

Even if the north and south resolve all burning issues within a very short period, and if South Sudan gets recognized by most countries in the world and becomes a member of the United Nations and other international organizations, the challenges facing the new country are great.

After a century of social, political, economic and cultural marginalization, South Sudan is starting from scratch in almost all areas. In addition to reconstructing and constructing infrastructure, the authorities in the south will have to carefully manage the expectations of citizens, many of whom expect that following independence, their living standard will improve overnight. This will not be easy to perform, given the enormous problems, deficiencies and needs in all areas.

In addition, to the need to build an economy that would not solely depend upon the exploitation and sale of oil, South Sudan will also have to work on creating functional state institutions and the nation. So far, national identity in a multi-ethnic south was primarily based on hostility towards the regime from the north. In addition, the political and economic stability of South Sudan will largely depend on the ability of local governments to include all ethnic groups in social, political and economic processes and share resources without favouritism.

Finally, many in Africa and around the world are wondering whether the referendum and secession of South Sudan will create a new precedent in international relations and negatively affect the countries that have similar demands for border changes, ethnic or religious divisions. The possibility of it actually exists, although it is very small. The referendum in South Sudan is the product of an agreement between the governments of north and south, and not a unilateral declaration of secession and independence, as was the case with Kosovo.

Savo Heleta lives in South Africa, where he is currently completing a doctoral degree in post-war reconstruction and development. Since 2009, Savo has been employed as a consultant to the Leadership Programme designed to improve the capacity of the government of South Sudan. Savo is a member of TransConflict’s Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) Advisory Board.

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