Jubilation and Trepidation: The Birth of South Sudan

On January 9, 2011, nearly 99% of the voting population of South Sudan voted to leave the North.  As a result, on July 9, 2011, South Sudan became the world’s newest nation. It is the 54th sovereign nation in Africa, and the first one since Eritrea declared its independence from Ethiopia in 1993. The occasion has been greeted with much fanfare and jubilation in Juba, the capital of this new country of over 8 million people.

Key Conclusions

The birth of South Sudan has been a difficult one. There will also be growing pains ahead. The South is a highly fragile state with enormous governance and development challenges. Reconciliation between the Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A)-led central government and breakaway factions of the SPLM/A will be a major priority moving forward.

The Republic of Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan have yet to make agreements on several key issues dividing them. They have not agreed on the status of Abyei. Border demarcation, oil revenue sharing, and citizenship are among the other matters yet to be resolved.

In addition, South Sudan’s independence has large cultural, political, and economic ramifications in the North. As Ibrahim Gambari, Joint Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the African Union and the United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), pointed out, “the secession of South Sudan will effectively result in the creation of two new nations in Africa, not one.”


The main challenges within South Sudan are:

1) The Government of South Sudan will need to manage the expectations of its people, many of whom are flush with the euphoria of freedom from the North.  Indeed, independence cannot change the fact that South Sudan remains an enormous development project. There are only a small number of well-trained senior civil servants, perhaps fifty, in the central government. Only about 15% of the country’s population is literate. South Sudan has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. Food insecurity is widespread. Infrastructure outside the capital of Juba is lacking. While South Sudan must take charge of its own development, it will require significant assistance from outside donors over the long-term to have a prosperous future.
2) Reconciliation among tribes and rebel factions within the South will be necessary if it is to have a peaceful future. Fighting in the South has claimed about 2,300 lives thus far this year. Tensions between the Ngok-Dinka, who constitute much of the leadership of the SPLM/A, and the Nuer are high. The SPLM/A, which runs the central government in Juba, is engaged in conflict with breakaway factions. True to its origins as a rebel movement, the SPLM/A has ruled in a heavy-handed manner over the years. Moving forward, to develop legitimacy as a ruling party, it must create an environment in which the political and civil rights of all South Sudanese are respected.

Among the key challenges between the North and the South:

1) Both South and North continue to stake claims to the disputed Abyei region. The North violently seized Abyei in late May, but in June, the two parties agreed to demilitarize the region, and allow a peacekeeping operation of 4,200 Ethiopians to monitor the arrangement under UN mandate. The Ethiopians may temporarily bring stability to the region. They will buy some time and space for negotiation. But both parties appear far from reaching an agreement on Abyei’s status.
2) The border between the two countries still needs to be demarcated, a delicate matter since a significant amount of oil runs along either side of the border.
3) The parties have not agreed on how to share oil revenue; while most of Sudan’s oil is in the South, all of its refineries and pipelines are in the North.
4) It is also unclear what citizenship will entail for the one million southerners living in the north, and for the thousands of northerners living in the south.

South Sudan’s decision to form its own nation has large implications for the identity and policies of the North:

1) Having lost the South, the identity of the Republic of Sudan is clearly that of an Arab Islamic state. Islamist hardliners committed to implementing Sharia law, repressing dissent, and ruling the rest of the country with an iron fist have the upper hand in the ruling National Congress Party.
2) In recent months, Khartoum has in brutal fashion consolidated its control over the rest of the country.  This is a powerful signal to rebel groups in Sudan’s other regions seeking inspiration for their own cause in South Sudan’s secession. Some believe that the regime is deliberately orchestrating a campaign of violence against specific ethnic and tribal groups.  The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) has stepped up attacks in Darfur, especially against Fur and Zaghawa tribal groups.  It also continues to conduct air and land campaign in South Kordofan against the Nuban population, tens of thousands of whom fought with the SPLM/A during the civil war.
3) Some experts have argued that Khartoum’s military actions in recent months, especially in Abyei, represent an effort to gain leverage on remaining unresolved issues from the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, including borders and oil.  The North may be calculating that it can get favorable agreements if it negotiates from a position of strength. Any deal that is struck on the sharing of oil revenues will have an important impact on the economies of both countries.