Old challenges give rise to new celebrations at birth of South Sudan

July 18, 2011
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On July 14, 2011, The Republic of South Sudan (South Sudan) became the 193rd member of the United Nations (UN). This admission sealed the newest African country’s independence from The Republic of Sudan (North Sudan), following years of ethnic and religious violence along borders in northeastern Africa. This week, we speak to Thomas Tieku, lead researcher for the Africa Initiative, on what South Sudan’s priorities should be, and what its secession means for North Sudan, the region and the world.

CIGI: After decades of conflict with North Sudan, what would you argue should be South Sudan’s top priority as it establishes itself as a new state?

Thomas Tieku: For South Sudan, independence is unique because it is the only country in Africa that has drawn its own borders outside of the 1964 legal framework, when the Organization of African Unity affirmed colonial boundaries as the basis for independence and statehood in Africa.

There are at least three things that the government of South Sudan needs to make a priority. Number one is to create a shared identity and form a genuine government of national unity so that everyone in South Sudan can feel part and parcel of the new state. This inclusive government must be reflected in the security forces of South Sudan as well. This is of fundamental importance because the group that campaigned for independence was dominated by Dinkas, the largest ethnic group in South Sudan. The Dinkas and the Nuers, the second largest ethnic group in South Sudan, deeply distrust each other. How the South Sudanese government, still dominated by the Dinkas, treats the Nuers and indeed the other 198 ethnic groups will be key to keeping the smiles on the faces of those who campaigned for the divorce of North and South Sudan.

The second thing the South Sudanese government, and in particular President Kiir, will need to do is to try to avoid the tendency for post-colonial leaders to treat their country as their properties. Many of the African leaders who won independence for their countries thought citizens of their countries owe them. Instead of thinking that it is a privilege to rule, they often thought the citizens were privileged to have them as their leaders. They quickly became legends in their own minds, without waiting for their citizens to confer iconic status on them.

And finally, the South Sudanese government needs to see itself as an example for other countries. Within the continent, government officials should be seen as exporters of peace, not makers of war. Outside of the continent, they should be driven by a moral imperative in their foreign relations, similar to the post-apartheid foreign policy of South Africa. This means that human rights abuses should not be overlooked in favour of profitable business relationships.

CIGI: As a result of South Sudan’s secession, North Sudan has lost a number of borders with neighbouring states as well as important natural resources. How do you think this will affect North Sudan’s foreign relations?

Tieku: There were two things that gave North Sudan a degree of clout in Africa: the first was that it had the largest territory; the second was that it had oil money that it would throw around. Therefore, North Sudan can no longer make the argument that it should be seated at the high table of African politics. It has now joined the league of poor, resource-challenged countries in Africa, and could perhaps even be considered a banana republic. Alternatively, South Sudan cannot assume the position of united Sudan as it will be seen as a baby. It will take a long time for South Sudan to fill the shoes of united Sudan, given the culture of unconditional respect for elders in Africa’s international affairs.

My worry, which is a bigger challenge, is that South Sudan’s independence sends encouraging signals to other secessionists groups on the African continent. Here I’m thinking about the Oromo of Ethiopia, some ethnic groups in Nigeria, the Tuareg of the Sahel. I can also see Somalia, for example, being a more difficult situation to resolve, because the South Sudanese example makes it harder to bring everyone in Somalia together. We might see other groups beginning to campaign for independence.

In the global context, al-Bashir and the government of North Sudan are in a different game. The leverage they had in the past was based on their relationship with China, which would always support them in the UN Security Council. The result of this secession makes it harder for China to do that. China will not see it rewarding enough to support the North in Security Council politics. Unfortunately for China, South Sudan is in the US’s camp. So the former will have to refocus its foreign policy, either on a country like Angola to satisfy it energy needs, or find a way to appease the Southern elite. So it changes a number of dynamics.

CIGI: Some have strongly argued that in order for a lasting peace to endure between North Sudan and South Sudan, the international community has a very important role to play. Do you agree and, if so, what do you think such a role should be for the international community?

Tieku: I agree fundamentally, and the UN has a role to play in helping North Sudan and South Sudan negotiate post-independence issues by presenting itself to the Sudanese parties as a neutral and fair mediator, willing to help them co-exist peacefully. It is disappointing that the UN did not agree to extend and deploy a larger peacekeeping force along the borders, but South Sudan actually took the easier route by claiming independence without negotiating all of the difficult and fundamental issues, such as oil revenue sharing. Both parties also have to resolve the question of Abeyi and it should be the UN that sends a negotiating party — not individual states such as the US or China, or even any African state. Here the UN can team up with the African Union to bring the two parties together with a view to settling all the outstanding issues and leading them to develop closer relationships, which will not be easy.

The broader international community and in particular Canada have done well maintaining a presence in South Sudan in the last decade or so. Moving forward, the states that have traditionally supported the Sudanese peace process will have to be seen not just as a friend of South Sudan, but also as a friend of North Sudan. If major global powers push it away, it could become a of draconian, anti-democratic state. Sharia law may be introduced. Omar al-Bashir has been trying to make Sudan an Islamic state, and if he does, major global powers will have to double their efforts to encourage North Sudan to liberalize political spaces.

The ICC has a role to play too. The court should be open to the idea of deferring the arrest of al-Bashir if he becomes a genuine partner for peace. He is talking about a new Constitution for the North and there are signs that he may open up, if the sanctions imposed by the US and the threat of arrest are eased. There is a real danger he will turn the other way if the status quo remains. This will require countries like Canada, and Nordic countries to encourage al-Bashir to embark on reform. Canada can also play an important role by drawing on its comparative advantage in policing and the rule of law to help build a modern police and judicial system for both the North and the South.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.