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Sunday, July 10, 2011

Conflicts overshadow South Sudan independence

South Sudan’s independence celebrations on Saturday masked the grim prospect that the new state’s immediate future is likely to be marked by armed conflicts. (File photo)

South Sudan’s independence celebrations on Saturday masked the grim prospect that the new state’s immediate future is likely to be marked by armed conflicts. (File photo)
South Sudan’s independence celebrations on Saturday masked the grim prospect that the new state’s immediate future is as likely to be marked by one if not multiple armed conflicts as it is by huge developmental challenges.

It is hard not to get caught up in the sense of elation surrounding the birth of the world’s 193rd state. But it is equally hard to deny that conflict and deprivation are likely to be as much part of South Sudan’s future as they have been part of its hard road to independence.
Many South Sudanese focussed in the run-up to Saturday’s independence celebration on the opportunities they expect their new state to produce.

For soccer player Isaac Maku, who hopes to play for South Sudan’s yet to be established national soccer team, it is the ability to represent his people. “South Sudan needs soccer for the people,” Mr. Maku gushes.

Reality is like to intrude on Mr. Maku’s world sooner rather than later.

The state of soccer in South Sudan, which bets on its oil-wealth to fund economic growth, reflects the region’s overall lack of development, the result of decades of armed struggle to achieve independence and negligence from the central government in the capital Khartoum.

Turning south Sudan into the world’s newest soccer nation, like all other issues that its first government will confront, constitutes no mean task. It means building from scratch in one of the world’s poorest nations.

South Sudan has no national team, no major soccer clubs and will have to develop skills almost from scratch. It lacks pitches and has only a few student teams sponsored by local businesses. Sudanese officials say enthusiasm and the energy garnered from independence for which some 99 per cent of the population voted in a referendum will compensate for those deficiencies.

Oil like in many oil-rich states is certain to be both a blessing and a curse. It already threatens conflict in the border regions of Abyei and South Kordofan. Sudan, out of which South Sudan was carved, is bombing the northern part Unity State province, which is part of the newly created state and supports armed militias in the region.

Abyei is a festering wound. The long expected referendum in the region on whether it will join Sudan or South Sudan has yet to be held. The United Nations Security Council-endorsed Ethiopian peacekeeping force agreed last month by the two countries has yet to be deployed. Its rules of engagement and status have yet to be decided although the force was supposed to be in place on July 6.

Few doubt that the Ethiopians will eventually arrive, but their authority to thwart Khartoum-backed Arab militias in the region is likely to be vague at best. It will be a mission description that is unlikely to persuade an estimated 110,000 Ngog Dinka tribesmen who fled violence in the region earlier this year to return any time soon. Uncertainty over whether the Ethiopians will stay beyond their initial six-month mandate adds to the uncertainty.

Fuelling the uncertainty is a sense that Sudan wants to keep the status of Abyei in limbo because of disagreement between the north and the south over who would be allowed to vote in the referendum on the region’s status. Sudan wants a referendum dominated by the Misseriya, who migrated from the north, that effectively would exclude the Ngog Dinka, whose allegiance is likely to be to the south.

The Nuba in South Kordofan, a rebel Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA) stronghold which straddles the border between north and south and is home to Sudan’s major remaining oil fields after South Sudanese independence, have been under continuous attack from Sudan in a bid secure control of the region’s resource and arable land.

Supply routes to the outside world have reportedly been cut, a Sudanese army is massing at the foot of the mountain range and the population faces daily bombings designed to persuade it to abandon their homes and crops. As a result, food supplies are running low and fields are left unplanted.

Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir’s continued attacks on South Kordofan in the absence of any meaningful negotiations about the region’s future is likely to increase pressure on South Sudan to come to the aid of its brothers in arms. South Sudan is certain to be also drawn into potential hostilities in Blue Nile region, another region straddling the frontier between north and south. The conflicts are likely to distract from the huge development challenges the country faces.

South Sudan’s declaration of independence was the one thing Mr. Bashir never wanted to see happen. Nonetheless, he attended the independence celebrations. It is not however what he says that matters, it is what he does and that is evident along the new state’s borders.

The UN has promised 7,000 border monitors. That’s a start but the international community will have to do a lot more if soccer player Maku is to fulfil his dream of playing unencumbered for his newly constituted home.

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