Coming Soon: South Sudan, World's 193rd Country

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 6/03/2011 05:14:00 PM
98.83%--that's the percentage of South Sudanese voters who chose independence at the polls in December 2010. As someone not naturally disposed to fairy-tale endings, it is nonetheless heartening to note that the South Sudanese are firmly on the road to independence. On 9 July, it will become official--South Sudan will become the world's 193rd country. In a manner of speaking, it's the latest in a still-unfolding saga of Africans coping with borders most often arbitrarily drawn up by imperial powers. The white man's territorial demarcations have often been contested with huge losses of life.

While flipping through the LSE alumni magazine Connect, I found a very interesting article by Mareike Schomerus on this very topic. As you'd have guessed, severe challenges remain. While Khartoum was a distant and rather non-functional government, it is unfortunately the case that Juba isn't much of an improvement in governance at the present time. Even if replacing a remote Arab-Muslim regime with a local African-Christian/animist one is clearly desired, symbolism needs to be backed up by action. And so it is that the world's newest country will face classic state-building problems from inception--infrastructure, education, and other public services need to be provided for by a fledgling state:
Unsurprisingly, when the [election] results were announced a few weeks later, an
overwhelming 98.83 per cent of the southerners who went to the polls had voted
for independence. Although there were reports of rigging and forced voting, it
was clear that the Southern Sudanese wanted to leave Khartoum behind.

The decision on independence had been a long time coming. Southerners often refer to this moment as “a correction”: they think that Sudan should have been split in two at independence in 1956 to reflect what they see as the distinct characters of the two parts of the country. Instead, a bloody civil war ensued between north and south and lasted, with a brief respite in the 1970s, until the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The referendum on independence was anchored in the peace agreement, an ambitious undertaking in a country with minimal to no infrastructure and a largely illiterate population that had suffered tremendously from decades of war violence.
There too is the problem of building identification with a new state whose past has not been very functional. Hence the resort to alternative providers of security (militias), settlement of land disputes, and the allocation of water:
Significantly, many citizens of the nation felt only a tenuous connection to a government that has delivered limited improvement since the peace deal was signed. People resorted to what they had known during the war: to rely on violence for survival. The fledgling state structures provide limited rule of law or justice procedures to stop violence. In the new independent country, providing reliable state structures and connecting to the citizens who have voted the new country into existence will be the government’s main challenge.

Yet it is not only the government that is important. People living close to the new north-south border, with minimal connection to the far-away government structures of Juba, tend to organise their lives not with the help of their government, but despite the government. Few people in the marginal areas of South Sudan – and the margin here is very large – expect change and governance to come from Juba. For many, the state has been so conspicuously absent as an accountable organising force that other governing mechanisms are more important. These might be local institutions to deal with crime, to mitigate disputes over land usage, to administer water sources.

It will take a long time to effectively devolve South Sudan from the central government, so it is necessary to better understand how in reality people tackle the challenges of their everyday lives. To make use of such local structures for development policies requires a deep understanding of how they work and whether they are fair and of equal benefit to all. It may be trite but true: South Sudanese are better of devising their own form of government which builds upon customs and tradition instead of importing Western institutions wholesale. Let's just say the latter path has not fared so well.
Before I conclude, also see a recent Christian Science Monitor article on the challenges of regularizing South Sudanese rebels, the Sudan People's Libertion Army SPLA. While the SPLA was one of the major parties during the peace talks which led to the 2005 agreement, let's say that its revolutionary ways have not yet been redirected towards keeping the peace instead of mounting regular skirmishes with the north.

It's going to be a long, difficult process, but nobody said that independence was an easy option--especially in a place which has virtually known little but hardship.