The referendum held in Sudan from Jan. 9 to Jan. 15 to determine the South’s secession from the North has created mild ripples in the international press.
Outside analysts claim that the referendum will almost certainly pass, creating the world’s newest state. Several questions remain to be resolved between the North and the South, however, including the demarcation between the two states, the status of Southerners living in the North and the status of border areas such as the contentious Abyei region. All of these questions have to be answered to build two successful and lasting states where only one existed before and the Sudanese, both Northerners and Southerners, will almost certainly require outside aid and advice to fully achieve the goal of peaceful independence set forth in the referendum.
Sudan is a polarized country. The predominantly Muslim Arab North is more industrialized and surprisingly modern compared to many other African states, largely due to oil revenues. Education levels are relatively high and national infrastructure – including roads, schools and medical facilities – is far from perfect but still effective. The South, on the other hand, is a predominately black African society with Christian and animist beliefs that is lagging significantly behind the North in terms of development and economic product. While it is true that the majority of Sudan’s oil reserves lie in fields in the South, refineries and export facilities are almost entirely based in the North, creating a national economy that enriches Northern businesses and workers while leaving Southerners to practice more traditional subsistence farming.
Given the South’s significant differences from the North, secession is a logical step. Colonial boundaries were drawn with little regard for cultural differences, and they have led to internal conflict throughout the continent – especially in places like Sudan, where violent civil wars have engulfed the country almost continuously since its 1956 independence. Simply put, when European colonialists granted independence to Sudan, they created a state where none had existed before. With different ethnic and religious groups fighting for different laws and espousing different fundamental national interests, it is only rational that the South would want to secede from the North.
Unfortunately, the world’s newest state will not be able to hit the ground running. Provided the referendum passes (which it almost certainly will) the South will face significant challenges and problems as it establishes a government planned to take over all Southern Sudanese affairs by summer 2011. Not least of these problems is the simple fact that many of the Southern leaders are not skilled government administrators — the men in charge of the Southern Sudanese ruling party, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M, sometimes just referred to as the SPLA) are just that: former military officials. Those who will soon take power in Sudan are not civil servants, but rather guerrilla warriors who put on politicians’ suits when they signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the central Khartoum government in Nairobi in January 2005.
To prevent instability from taking root in Sudan, the international community must help the fledgling new Southern government in Juba establish rule of law and effectively carry out the duties of good governance. The new government will need further assistance in literally building their state: modernizing infrastructure, raising an effective military force and establishing an economy that includes a significant share of the oil revenues that are pumped every day by its northern neighbor. All of these issues will require significant effort.
Western powers must work guarantee the safety and civil rights of those Sudanese citizens living on the border between the two new states. In places like Abyei, a region historically considered a bridge between the North and the South that is home to significant oil reserves, conflict has already begun to erupt between diverse tribal groups with varying stakes in the course of the referendum. To prevent another highly destructive war from taking place in Sudan, the international community should take a hands-on role in peacekeeping and peace enforcement along the new border between the two states.
Given the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other stability operations worldwide, the highly professional military forces and diplomatic corps of the world’s most powerful states are well versed in the operational constraints inherent in peacekeeping and state building. While it is true that the United States and its allies are overcommitted around the world, it is time that we use this vast operational experience for good, in an effort to ensure the secure and legitimate transfer of power in what may no longer be Africa’s largest country.
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