by Alex Gallafent
The semi-autonomous region of southern Sudan is preparing to hold a referendum on its future. The vote will take place against a history of civil war, millions of deaths and — most recently — a five year period of relative peace between the north and south of Sudan.
When the people of southern Sudan vote on January 9th, they are expected to choose independence. If such a result is accepted by all parties, it will result in the peaceful creation of the continent’s newest country.
Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth heads the Government of Southern Sudan’s mission to the United States. He and others are already preparing for an independent future.
“We have capable southern Sudanese who are working day and night to make sure that we are ready to go on the 9th of July 2011,” Gatkuoth said.
That date is when the new country would become official, after a transitional period and if the referendum results in a vote for independence. Still, Southern Sudan isn’t waiting. It has already chosen its own flag. And while it hasn’t yet decided on a new name, it is in the process of selecting a national anthem.
“The competition is still going on but we have actually shortlisted some of the people who are good at composing,” Gatkuoth said.
Flags and national anthems are relatively easy to come by. Actually operating as a new country is more complicated. Southern Sudan has something of a head start: the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement established an interim constitution which means there is already a functional government and a legal system.
But observers say southern Sudanese have high expectations for independence: they’ll want life to get better, and quickly.
Susan Purdin lives and works in Juba, the capital of southern Sudan. She’s the country director there for the International Rescue Committee.
“There’s tremendous goodwill on the part of the people of southern Sudan,” Purdin said.
“They feel that the people who are in the government have been their advocate for all those years. And they will tolerate a little bit of disappointment. But not a lot. Most folks expect their government to provide healthcare, to provide schools. And in southern Sudan that’s not happening yet.”
The southern Sudanese government would have to rely on outside help for a good while to come, Purdin added. Others confirm that view.
“There is a huge problem of capacity, of skilled and experienced people who can provide the backbone of a state machinery,” said Michael Bleby, a reporter for the South Africa-based newspaper Business Day.
Bleby added that the people who are now running the southern Sudanese government are not bureaucrats, but former members of a liberation army.
“Fighting a bush war for the best part of 40 years teaches you how to fight, it doesn’t teach you how to govern, how to build schools, how to lay pipes and to wire up electricity,” Bleby noted.
After the 2005 peace deal, there was hope that educated southern Sudanese who had gone abroad would return home to help, said Susan Purdin.
“People did come back and try but it was too difficult,” she said.
“They could not live there because it was so different to what they had become accustomed to as professionals in other parts of the world.”
Purdin said that there have been no opportunities for education in southern Sudan in generations.
One way to develop opportunities, and relatively quickly, is through foreign investment. That brings its own challenges, as Michael Bleby learned recently when he met a Ugandan businessman in southern Sudan. He told Bleby that operating there was incredibly difficult.
“He was saying, ‘we have American companies who refuse to pay us into a south Sudanese bank account, because they believe there are American sanctions that prevent them from doing so,’” Bleby recalled.
US sanctions against Sudan do not generally apply to southern Sudan. But perceptions matter. If southern Sudan is to flourish it will have to prove itself viable to the outside world.
For the past five years diplomat Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth said that is exactly what the government of southern Sudan has been trying to do, even ahead of independence.
“We have more than eighteen missions worldwide, and the US is one of them,” Gatkuoth said. “We’ve been having excellent relations with the world.”
If independence is achieved, most pressing would be southern Sudan’s relations with its neighbor to the north and former enemy. Many issues surrounding border security and the control of energy resources, namely oil, are still being worked through.
Even if all the practical challenges were met, that probably would not do everything necessary for the building of this new country.
Southern Sudan needs time to heal.
“How do you go from having been a family that survived war to being a family that’s a participant in a community?” said Susan Purdin with the International Rescue Committee.
“What if next week there’s a war, what if there’s no food in the market, what does that mean for the way you live your life?”
If all goes as expected, come January the government of southern Sudan is going to be under a great deal of pressure. Purdin says there is no way it can deliver on all fronts. Still, if it can provide some measure of stability, and avoid a return to conflict, that will amount to a major achievement.