South Sudan: reflections on a fragile state

Despite continuing North-South tensions, intra-Southern fragility is now one of the most pressing concerns in Sudan, whether or not Khartoum is fuelling the flames of these insurrections. With independence due in just over two months, it needs addressing
Sam Carpenter
22 April 2011

A billboard close to the airport in Juba, South Sudan’s nascent capital, reads, ‘Welcome to Africa’s Youngest Nation’. On 9 July 2011, the Republic of South Sudan will come into being, the product of a vote for secession by Sudan’s largely African and Christian/Animist South from its predominantly Arab and Muslim North. The referendum was mandated by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the National Congress Party in the North and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) in the South, which brought an end to the country’s devastating 22-year civil war, which had resulted in the deaths of around two million people. Despite fears of a return to war over unresolved issues (such as border demarcation, the status of the Abyei region, oil revenue sharing, and land rights) thankfully the worst-case scenarios of the humanitarian contingency plans did not materialise.  The referendum was conducted on time and in an overwhelmingly peaceful manner. It was also pronounced generally free, fair, and credible by international observers.

Yet violence has not left Southern Sudan. In December 2010 and March 2011, there were bombings by the North’s Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) in the Southern states of Northern and Western Bahr al-Ghazal, directly related to Khartoum chasing rebel groups from South Darfur. Meanwhile, in early February 2011, several different SAF Joint Integrated Unit contingents (set up to support the peace agreement) stationed throughout Upper Nile fought amongst themselves, leaving more than 50 dead. Moreover, major tensions with the North remain unresolved in the run up to the end of the CPA implementation period on 9 July. The referendum on the status of Abyei, scheduled to be held alongside the referendum on Southern Sudan, was blocked by a failure to agree on voter eligibility, and, as a result, SAF troops continue to amass near the border with Abyei in Southern Kordofan. Secondly, agreement on an oil sharing deal remains elusive. Thirdly, border demarcation still remains to be agreed upon. And finally, the future of SPLA troops in the North’s Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan States remains uncertain. The resolution of these tensions is essential to ensuring a peaceful separation and positive relationship between North and South Sudan in the years ahead.  

Despite these continuing North-South tensions, it is arguably now intra-Southern fragility which should be of increasing concern to western donors and policy-makers. For the North and South will likely be forced into a modicum of international cooperation to keep the oil flowing out of Port Sudan, at least until a pipeline can be built to Mombasa on the Kenyan coast. But the internal fragility of the South is an issue that is now ripe to be addressed immediately, given the onset of independence in just over two months and the attendant opportunity for a reformulation of international policy on this war-ravaged region.

Three manifestations of fragility

The South’s fragility can be seen in its current armed rebellions, its weak institutions and governance systems, and its extreme lack of basic services. These three aspects of fragility are deeply interwoven and represent the main challenge to achieving stability, pro-poor growth, and human development in the years ahead.

Current armed insurrections are both a symptom of and a contributor to weak governance in Southern Sudan. Clashes between the SPLA and a number of militia leaders persist in three of the South’s ten states. These conflicts have collectively caused hundreds of deaths in the affected areas, but as of yet there is little indication of any serious challenge to the authority of the SPLM/A. Pagan Amum, the SPLM Secretary General, has repeatedly accused the North of arming the rebels to destabilise the South ahead of its separation from the North. Khartoum, meanwhile, adamantly denies any involvement in the fighting. It is clear, however, that even if the North is fuelling the flames of intra-Southern violence, as it did with its divide and rule strategy during the 1983-2005 war, the lack of inclusive governance in the South is a key factor in the rebellions calling out for urgent attention. This has been made all the more visible by the lack of inclusive decision-making, particularly in relation to opposition parties, in the constitutional review process being conducted as part of the current transition to independence.   

The SPLM’s ranks are filled with appointees, in place as much for their war records and military credentials as their political acuity. Since oil has come on stream with the onset of peace in 2005, the wealth distributed in the South from these political patrons to client supporters under the neo-patrimonial mode of governance that pervades much of sub-Saharan Africa has become increasingly important. This is a particular problem in relation to the awarding of government contracts. Under the late Dr. John Garang and the current president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, poor governance and reports of widespread corruption have led to strong criticism of the dominance of the Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS) by the SPLA and the Dinka, the largest ethnic group. Yet in the run up to the referendum, disaffected groups and opposition leaders have been reluctant to voice their discontent for fear of derailing the process. But in the post-referendum period these suppressed grievances are likely to rise to the surface, increasing the potential for intensified intra-Southern conflict.

Compounding the effects of patrimonialism, the South’s high military spending - an average of 34% of total GoSS spending between 2006 and 2009 - has meant little is left in the state coffers for expanding the delivery of basic services such as health care, water and sanitation.  Nor is there enough left for adequate education to the region’s poor, 90% of whom still live on less than a dollar a day. Thus, for example, the maternal mortality ratio still lies at 2,045 per 1,000 live births. The lack of essential services is made all the more pressing by the fact that since November 2010, the International Organization for Migration has registered the arrival of over 261,000 returnees from the North, many of whom are likely to drift back into peri-urban areas in search of better livelihood opportunities.

Getting international engagement right

The nexus of governance and basic service provision is a key point where the challenges and opportunities of international engagement converge, both in Southern Sudan and other fragile and conflict-affected situations. A social contract is essential to building a stable, functional, and accountable state that is responsive to the needs of its citizens. The rights of citizens to health care, clean-water, and education can only be met through a state that is transparently governed and expends its resources towards these human development goals, working with the private sector, NGOs, and other civil society actors to bring about their realisation.

The role of the United Nations Mission in Sudan (and whatever new UN presence replaces it later this year), particularly in terms of a much needed renewed emphasis on protection of civilians and ensuring humanitarian access, will remain vital. Similarly, diplomatic efforts aimed at securing peaceful CPA-implementation and finding a way through the current impasse of North-South tensions will be essential to ensuring stability between the two new neighbours. Yet, for Southern Sudan itself, it is imperative to address the root causes and not the symptoms of fragility. Looking forward, one issue that is likely to become increasingly prominent is the failure of the GoSS and preceding governments to provide basic services to the South’s poor, resulting from a combination of insufficient institutional capacity and political will.

If citizens’ rights to basic services are upheld, then it will provide a grounding for increased legitimacy, strengthened participation and voice, and – ultimately – for improved democracy and governance. Yet this is dependent on serious reflection from international donors to ensure that future basic services funding models serve to strengthen institutions, prevent corruption, and facilitate long-term capacity-building, especially at the state and county levels. Conversely, they should not detract from this institutional strengthening through a myopic concentration on short-term targets or narrowed performance indicators arising from results-based funding models. While it is important to learn lessons from previous experience, models from Afghanistan or Liberia grafted onto the new South Sudan without thoughtful adaptation and a real understanding of the realities on-the-ground will prove inadequate. International actions must also adhere to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s principles for good international engagement in fragile states, particularly the commitment to ‘Act fast ... but stay engaged long enough to give success a chance.’ 

It is clear that oil revenues and government provision of basic services cannot solve all of Southern Sudan’s ills. With oil output projected to provide 98% of GoSS revenue in 2011, but predicted to decline significantly over the next three to five years, there is a clear need for other sources of economic dynamism. Therefore the facilitation of private sector-led growth through the creation of an enabling and well-regulated business environment will be essential to the creation of sustainable livelihoods in the new South. This is particularly pertinent to the use of its vast tracts of fertile land. Specifically, the challenge of negotiating a pro-poor and effectively regulated via media between continuing outmoded subsistence smallholder production and selling or leasing off all the new state’s land to agri-business and the food security concerns of the Gulf States, which are presently reshaping other parts of East Africa.

For South Sudan then, it is clear that a nuanced understanding of the region’s fragility on behalf of the international community will be essential if the problems arising from the loss of the common denominator of self-determination, high expectations, the absence of tangible peace dividends, and increasing perceptions of inequality are not to beleaguer this new state while it’s still in its infancy. This much, at least, is owed to the people of the new South Sudan. 

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