JUBA, Southern Sudan – Just days into my first trip to Sudan, I’ve seen an unmistakable excitement about southern Sudan’s self-determination referendum, slated to take place just over a year from now. But at a conference held last weekend here in the South’s capital city, it was clear that the challenges in the South are immense, whether the people choose independence in 2011 or not – perhaps even more so if the South secedes.
Almost five years ago, the National Congress Party and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and committed to work together to “make unity attractive.” In recent months, intense negotiations in Khartoum over crucial CPA benchmarks seem at best to be a last-ditch attempt to salvage any remaining goodwill that exists toward keeping Sudan united as one country. In Juba, it is clear that much less attention has been devoted to preparing for the option of southern independence, which the CPA, signed in 2005 to end the 23-year North-South civil war, recognizes as a right of southern Sudanese people.
But now, one year out from the monumental vote, people often give an obligatory nod to the ‘possibility’ that Sudan could remain united. However, there seems to be little doubt in anyone’s mind: the Southern Sudanese people will vote overwhelming for independence in 2011.
Discussions, both formal and casual, with local civil society leaders, internationals, and even my astute motorbike driver begin to reveal the daunting laundry list of issues that must be worked out in the next 12 months if there’s to be any hope of a peaceful transition in 2011 into two separate states. It is startling to realize how few of these issues have been taken up in a meaningful way thus far. To list some of these meaty topics:
- Border demarcation
- Use of the Nile River
- Nationality vs. citizenship: what should happen with southerners in the North and northerners in the South?
- Currency: which should the South use? For example, in the Ethiopia-Eritrea split, Eritrea’s choice to launch a new currency was a prominent point of contention.
- Debts, assets, and liabilities: The North and South have some serious squaring up to do if the two regions go their separate ways.
- International agreements/protocols signed by the Government of Sudan: The southern government needs to decide whether to sign many international agreements and to join international organizations to which it will suddenly no longer be a member.
It’s an understatement to say that the expectations for an independent southern Sudan are high. In conversation after conversation, people say they anticipate that many current challenges in day-to-day life will subside once the South is no longer struggling against the North. But the reality is that many of the hot button issues currently confounding the North-South relationship will remain: from demarcation of the contentious border, to sharing of the oil that the North wants and pipeline and refineries that the South needs, and use of the Nile waters, on which the South is reliant but which cut straight through the North. As an analyst I met in Juba remarked, “Northern Sudan isn’t going away – as much as the SPLM may wish it would. The South will always have to deal with the North in some capacity.”
Still, the excitement about the opportunity for independence afforded by the referendum/CPA is high. Interviews conducted by the National Democratic Institute in southern Sudan provide a snapshot:
We shall be in charge of our own resources [after separation]. Oil and gold and all their benefits will come to our children and our land. There will be many schools, roads and hospitals, and I believe no one will again die of disease and hunger. (Nuer Gawaar Chief, Ayod)
Perhaps the SPLM should add to their long to-do list:
- Talk frankly about the challenges that independence – as highly anticipated as it is – will present.
- Manage expectations.
Photo: Flag of South Sudan. (Enough/Maggie Fick)