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Field Dispatch: To the Referendum and Beyond- South Sudan’s Lesser Known Flashpoints

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Field Dispatch: To the Referendum and Beyond- South Sudan’s Lesser Known Flashpoints

Posted by Maggie Fick on July 29, 2010

Field Dispatch: To the Referendum and Beyond- South Sudan’s Lesser Known Flashpoints

In less than six months, the people of southern Sudan will vote in a self-determination referendum that is expected to result in the secession of the South roughly a year from now. The dynamics shaping the historic and dramatic changes in Sudan are fluid, yet some of the core issues facing southern Sudan will endure regardless of the outcome of the referendum. Because these issues are likely to be flashpoints for conflict within the South in the years to come, international actors engaged in Sudan must now closely monitor and address them during the pre-referendum period. In her last field dispatch for Enough, southern Sudan field researcher Maggie Fick identifies some of these key, lesser recognized, flashpoints.

Unity Poster

Photo Credit/Maggie Fick

JUBA, Southern Sudan—While it may be taboo in international capitals to speak frankly about the results of the looming self-determination referendum before the vote actually occurs, here in the southern Sudanese capital, it seems unrealistic, even naïve, not to acknowledge the widely shared sentiment of southerners. To use a phrase I’ve frequently heard in my time here: “The South is going.” In other words, the people of southern Sudan widely favor independence. I have learned that perceptions in southern Sudan often shape—even directly impact—reality here. Based on recent conversations with Sudanese and internationals in Sudan, the following are some of the flashpoints and factors that seem likely to have a destabilizing impact on the South in the near future.
Managing sky-high expectations
Southerners have endured decades of war and internal conflict accompanied by death, displacement, and enormous suffering. It is to be expected that many hope to enjoy better and more peaceful lives as citizens of an independent South rather than as citizens of Sudan in its current construction. Indeed, holding out hope for a brighter future sustained many southerners throughout the brutal war and has continued to sustain them through the challenges that have plagued the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA, since 2005. Unfortunately, this hope—or rather, expectations built on this hope—could pose a serious threat to stability and security in the South following the referendum.
Many southerners believe that their lives will be dramatically altered by the referendum and that life on the day after the vote will be vastly improved.  The “lag time” between the referendum in January 2011 and the end of the CPA’s interim period in July 2011, which, according to the CPA, would also mark the official independence of the South, should the southerners vote for separation in the referendum, is in itself a chance for tensions to build further in anticipation of independence. However, the more significant lag time is likely to occur between independence and the delivery of even the most basic of services that a government must provide.
It is unrealistic to expect that the Government of Southern Sudan will quickly or easily transition into a highly functioning and responsive government with the capacity to extend services throughout the South’s vast and remote territory. The government has done very little to account or explain to its citizens why crucial infrastructure such as roads and basic services such as health clinics are still rare more than five years after the peace agreement was signed. Nor can the ruling Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement, or SPLM, provide effective security for the citizens of the region. If the post-election period has been any indication, the diverse array of internal threats facing the South are beyond the capacity of the Government of Southern Sudan or its security forces to respond to, and international interventions to bolster this capacity have not succeeded in stabilizing the most volatile areas nor in helping to address the fundamental security dilemmas of the South. The Juba-based government must find the time and resources in the aftermath of the referendum—when negotiations with the National Congress Party, or NCP, are likely to be at a fever pitch—to communicate to its citizenry that an independent southern Sudan will not instantly be capable of delivering security, stability, and the “peace dividends” that both the NCP and SPLM promised to provide to all Sudanese citizens when the CPA was signed.
A lack of information among populations at the grassroots level, and particularly along Sudan’s North-South border, is another potential trigger for conflict. A vacuum of information about crucial questions such as citizenship and grazing rights could easily be manipulated by spoilers into a platform for misinformation among disenfranchised local populations. Proxy warfare, a tactic used to great effect by the NCP in its wars throughout Sudan, has long been a feature of the enduring tensions in Abyei. Astride the North-South border and shared by two groups that have strong and opposing loyalties to the governments of the North and South, Abyei is emblematic of how tensions between political elites in Khartoum and Juba frequently manifest in violent clashes between local communities at Sudan’s periphery.
Photo Credit/Maggie Fick
Disaffected Youth
A passionate southern Sudanese women’s rights leader once told me that the young men and women of southern Sudan do not have a reason to believe in politics, because they have never seen a positive example of how government can improve the lives of people. Youth in southern Sudan still have reason to hope that life in an independent South will provide them with new opportunities and that the government will make good on its promises. Changing the fundamental realities for youth, however, will mean addressing complex issues such as the loss of traditional livelihoods, the challenges of urbanization for a largely rural population, and the deficiencies in the current education system, to name a few. Young people may lose hope if the government of the newly independent South does not quickly begin to show signs of working to address these challenges.
At this moment, there is one clear incentive for youth to resist picking up the readily available arms and engaging in banditry or other forms of violence: the referendum and the prospect of independence. But after the referendum, if it becomes clear to the average young person that life is not going to change for the better anytime soon, youth may choose to come together based on shared tribal, economic, or political interests, with potentially serious consequences for security in the fledgling state. One feature of war-time violence in the South was the use of proxy youth militias by both the NCP and the SPLM, and there are already signs of resurgent, well-armed youth movements mobilizing in Jonglei and Upper Nile states. Given the divisive, often violent nature of politics and inter-communal dynamics in these states, the additional X factor of discontent youth must not be ignored.
Various international donors, NGOs, and the United Nations are already working to engage youth living in the South’s historically tense and remote areas—along the state border of Jonglei and Upper Nile, and in Abyei, for example—but international interventions are not enough. The Government of Southern Sudan must also take responsibility for its future generations by investing in its youth and providing them with the chance to become leaders, instead of spoilers. The efforts of the United Nations and other actors to support and empower youth will have a more lasting impact if they are developed in close partnership with relevant government institutions like the Ministry of Peace and CPA Implementation and the Community Security and Small Arms Control bureau. It is imperative that young men and women begin to see their own government—instead of internationals—taking the lead in providing security, services, and opportunities to its people.
Centralization and Abuse of Government Power at the Local Level
It is sometimes difficult to generalize about the political and security dynamics of southern Sudan because of the inherently local nature of these dynamics in particular areas of the South. The localized nature of southern politics, however, is not only related to the geographical, historical, and tribal specificities of various regions, from the Equatorian states to the region formerly known as Greater Upper Nile. It is also linked to the way in which the decentralized model of government in southern Sudan, implemented through the 10 state governments formed during the CPA’s interim period, has enabled local administrative authorities and politicians to exercise significant power within their particular domains. For example, state governors, depending on their political influence at the Juba level, their history during the war, and the level of loyalty they wield among SPLA field commanders in the state, have proven capable of turning entire states into personal fiefdoms.
While decentralization of power from the Juba capital-level is essential, a consequence of this governance model to date has been that certain state government officials have used their power to disproportionately promote their interests within their area of authority. As I discussed in a recent field dispatch, the heavy-handed responses of some state government leaders to the challenges posed to their authority during the elections have already begun to generate hostility among certain constituencies. This hostility and discontent is poised to increase following the referendum, potentially in the form of more political-military uprisings of the sort that have plagued the southern government in the aftermath of the elections.
Efforts planned by the Obama administration to extend the U.S. government’s reach in southern Sudan by deploying American foreign service officers to state capitals will be energy well spent for many reasons, not least because it is  impossible to understand the dynamics at play in the South’s vast peripheral regions merely from observing the situation from Juba. Sustained interaction by the U.S. consulate in Juba with the state governments throughout the South will complement existing USAID-funded government capacity building efforts and promote accountability among these local bodies. In the aftermath of the referendum, this local focus will be even more crucial, as local rivalries are likely to build in intensity over the prospect of access to the spoils of the newly independent state.
The “Juba Disconnect”
All of the potential sparks for internal southern conflict highlighted above are linked to a fundamentally dangerous issue that is likely to plague the southern government for years, if not decades, to come, if serious and sustained efforts are not taken by the government itself to change its ways. The “elite deal-making” that has characterized relations between the NCP and the SPLM during the five and a half years of CPA implementation has effectively cut the most Sudanese citizens out of the peace-building process,  even while leaders continue to make lofty promises about an inclusive system of governance in Sudan that will deliver “peace dividends” to its diverse peoples. Neither the NCP nor the SPLM have kept these promises, but it should be noted that the SPLM’s efforts to implement the CPA have frequently been stymied by the NCP.
The SPLM-led government will have the chance following the referendum to change these dynamics by breaking from the Sudanese tradition of elite politicians ruling with little consultation or regard for the citizenry. The government in Juba must make genuine efforts to reconnect with its peoples at the grassroots level: in remote areas of the South that remain inaccessible during the rainy season because there are no roads connecting them to central towns, in areas where insecurity from the Lord’s Resistance Army and other threats prevent NGOs from bringing aid and supplies, and even in small clusters of huts mere kilometers outside of Juba, where people displaced by cattle raiding and other conflicts struggle to feed their families.
The single best thing that the southern government can do to prevent conflict and promote peaceful interactions between its peoples in the months and years following the referendum is to show its citizens—through actions, not words—that the government is trying to bring a new style of governance to Sudan, modeled after the “New Sudan” envisioned by Dr. John Garang. The good news is that the people of southern Sudan are committed to building this “New Sudan” because they have fought for decades for the chance for self-determination. Utilizing this hope, strength, and determination by empowering citizens to have a stake in this process will enable the southern Sudanese government to better address the daunting challenges ahead.