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South Sudan's Critical Question: Can Oil and Water Mix?

What shapes the chances for the hopeful new nation that others call a 'pre-failed state'?

By Cam Sylvester 13 Jul 2011 |

Cam Sylvester teaches Political Studies and runs the Global Stewardship Program at Capilano University in North Vancouver. He is presently in travelling in Africa and will file more reports for The Tyee.

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First day of voting in Southern Sudan referendum. Image by United Nations Photo published under a Creative Commons Licence.

Last Sunday, the newly minted Republic of South Sudan's (RSS) national soccer team played its very first game against a Kenyan side, defying the odds by securing the first goal in the match -- a sliver of hope in what some are calling a "pre-failed state" whose future is anything but secure.

As with the day-long celebrations marking the declaration of the RSS's independence on Saturday, thousands of South Sudanese crammed into the stadium. Those unable to secure a ticket hung from trees beyond the fence to catch a glimpse of the historical occasion. They enthusiastically joined in when the stadium exploded (figuratively, thankfully) when the goal hit the back of the net, igniting yet another warbley rendition of the day-old national anthem, and unleashing a tsunami of waving black, blue, green, red and yellow flags whose bold colours seemed to fade under a punishing sun.

For an optimist, this spectacle was a promising first step towards forging a functioning nation-state. Even Nelson Mandela came to see sport (in South Africa's case, rugby) as a way to unite a fractured society. But for those of us who see South Sudan's glass as less than half full, and in danger of evaporating completely under that same relentless sun, there was the recognition that it is still far too early in the match to claim anything close to a victory.

In fact, in some ways the game is fixed. The world's 193rd state, and Africa's 54th, the RSS itself is deeply fractured, having only recently emerged from a tortured civil war, the roots of which reach all the way back beyond 1956 when the British ignored the protestations of the mostly Christian and traditionalist African south and forced it to merge with the predominantly Muslim Arab north.

The making of South Sudan

In 1983, fed up with a string of broken promises for limited southern autonomy, Dr. John Garang created the Sudan People's Liberation Movement and the civil war really began heating up. The number of casualties from that period are numbing: as many as 2 million killed (the most of any conflict since WWII); countless forced to flee to refugee camps in neighbouring Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia; the lucky ones, like Winnepeg-based rap singer hot Dogg, shipped off to join a growing Sudanese diaspora scattered around the world.

In 2010 alone, 210,000 South Sudanese were displaced internally because, despite the most recent ceasefire, war still rages along the yet to be determined border between the north and the south. Depending on who you believe, there are between half a million and two million southerners living in the north, and countless northerners in the south. Those in the north have been given a six-month deadline to return to the south or risk becoming stateless.

Even in the south west, miles from the highly contentious northern border areas of Abyei and South Kordofan, people are still being abducted or killed or sent fleeing from their homes by the Lord's Resistance Army: 18 major incidents have been reported there since January of this year.

Rather than one Southern Sudanese people, there are upwards of 100 different tribal groups, whose differences have been magnified by decades of civil war, famines, and droughts.

On the front lines against disease

The demographic numbers are, if anything, even more chilling. Even before separation, Sudan was a perennial bottom-feeder on the UN's Human Development Index: 84 per cent of females living in the south are illiterate; few school-aged children have the opportunity for any education, and one out of seven won't make it to his or her fifth birthday. As one editorial noted, a girl in South Sudan has a better chance of dying in childbirth than of finishing primary school. That's because 75 per cent of the South Sudanese don't have access to even the most basic health care, and 80 per cent of what little health care there is available is provided by international NGOs, like Medecins Sans Frontieres.

In fact, my youngest brother has just been posted to the RSS as a logistician with MSF. It will be his all-consuming task to secure supply lines for medicine, refrigeration for that medicine, and bed linens -- everything in fact so the nurses and doctors in his compound can continue battling the outbreaks of measles, kala azar, and meningitis, along with the effects of chronic malnutrition that haunt the people of the RSS. All this in a country where there is not a single kilometre of paved roads outside the capital city.

(It was our plan to get together in Nairobi on his way through from Vancouver last week, but so quickly was he needed in the RSS, he had barely cleared customs at midnight before he was back on a plane heading for the RSS at 6:30 a.m. the next morning. He'll be based near the northern border where the fighting continues, so the outcome of this particular nation-building exercise is not just a game to watch from afar, at least as far as our family is concerned.)

Can they mix?

One more last bit of bad news: oil and water. Most of the oil is located in South Sudan and has to be shipped by pipeline through its northern neighbour. The separation talks to date have included vague statements about sharing oil revenues 50/50 between the two Sudans.

But no matter how the deal shakes down, the north will immediately lose at least one third of its revenue, which the government badly needs to maintain its monopoly on power. And then again, neither Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir nor the new president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, has been shy to play the violent card in the past. Al-Bashir is a fugitive from the International Criminal Court, indicted for crimes against humanity in the Darfur region of Sudan, and a man looking increasingly uncomfortable presiding over a shrinking state, once the largest in Africa. Kiir is a general in the SPLM who seems to never have taken off the oversized black cowboy hat since George W. Bush gave it to him.

Recognizing that the north could either shut off the taps or forget to forward South Sudan's share of the oil revenues, the RSS has already begun talks with Kenya to bypass the north by building a pipeline southeast across the Rift Valley and on to the Indian Ocean -- a turn of events that must have al-Bashir's knickers in a twist. Further stirring the pot, both Russia and China made sure to mention in their speeches on the podium last Saturday that they would be more than willing to assist South Sudan to exploit its oil.

And if South Sudan really wants to get nasty, it can shut down the Nile, the north's primary source of water.

In short, the RSS can hardly overcome these problems on its own. Without both regional and global support for South Sudan, this nation-building experiment is most likely doomed to fail. One result may be the creation of yet another one-man state, which civil society groups in the RSS have warned will happen if the new draft constitution isn't amended to counter the centralization of power.

But the political will was there before: it took regional and global pressure to get the two sides to come to the negotiating table and remain there long enough to sign the 2005 agreement that lead to the January 2011 referendum which saw 98 per cent of southern Sudanese vote in favour of independence.

So it was heartening -- perhaps not as heartening as an early goal, mind you -- to hear UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon promise to send 20,000 peacekeepers to the RSS to join the 4,000 Ethiopian troops already in the country.

The problem is, mere peacekeeping isn't the solution. A protracted and expensive period of peace-building is needed, with its corresponding infusion of cash and expertise to build the infrastructure, as well as the medical, educational, security and legal systems required for a functioning nation- state.

More than the north, the RSS will rely on the kindness of strangers. It is a landlocked nation, one of four major impediments for any country to pull itself out of the Bottom Billion according to Paul Collier.

As for that Sunday soccer game, the RSS will have to wait a bit longer for its version of South Africa's "Springbok" moment. After letting in the first goal, the Kenyans responded with three unanswered goals and took the match 3-1.

If the international community chooses to merely watch from the stands and not take the field, the South Sudanese people's bold new experiment will go down to defeat as well.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice

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