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Southern Sudan: Birth of a Nation or World's Newest Failed State?
The Washington Diplomat / February 2011

By Larry Luxner

It’s July 9, 2021, and the 17 million people of southern Sudan are wildly celebrating their 10th anniversary of independence. Former Ambassador Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, now the country’s foreign minister, proudly gazes down at rows of housing units from his gleaming office tower in Juba, the capital city.

Juba’s apartment blocks — along with hospitals, factories, power plants and an estimated 20,000 miles of paved roads — have all been financed by $15 billion in annual oil revenues made possible by record-high commodity prices and favorable terms that have lured petroleum giants from Europe, Asia and Latin America.

Thanks to the rush of petrodollars, every southern Sudanese child is now in school, the literary rate exceeds 80 percent (the exact opposite from a decade earlier, when 80 percent of the population was illiterate), and malnutrition is all but a distant memory. In the course of a decade, what was once among the world’s poorest countries has become a prosperous beacon of democracy for all its citizens — regardless of their religious beliefs, tribe affiliation or skin color. Oh, and they’ve made nice with their neighbors to the north after decades of war and bloodshed.

Pie in the sky? Probably, but that’s exactly the vision Gatkuoth has for his struggling nation, which in early January ended decades of second-class subservience and voted overwhelmingly to secede from Sudan. Never mind that the world’s newest nation, which occupies an area the size of France, has barely 30 miles of paved roads.

“You cannot define the wealth of a country based on roads,” Gatkuoth says. “Yes, the infrastructure is very poor, but with our potential, we could be the richest country in Africa. We have oil, gold, copper, uranium, agriculture and timber. We could become a breadbasket for the whole world.”

For now, Gatkuoth’s official title remains head of the Government of Southern Sudan Mission to the United States. He spoke to The Washington Diplomat from his Dupont Circle office on Jan. 5, four days before the start of the weeklong referendum.

Gatkuoth, like 9,000 of the estimated 150,000 southern Sudanese living in the United States, voted in absentia. In his case, the 37-year-old diplomat showed up the morning of Jan. 9 at a polling center in Alexandria, Va., one of eight set up around the country. (Southern Sudanese also voted in Australia, Canada, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and the United Kingdom.)

A few days after voting began, more than 60 percent of registered voters cast ballots, crossing the threshold needed for the referendum to be valid. The Southern Sudan Referendum Commission, an independent body based in Khartoum, won’t release preliminary results until Feb. 2, and depending on whether appeals are submitted to courts or not, the final results could be declared on Feb. 7 or 14. But indications are that 98 percent of the nearly 4 million people registered to vote chose secession over unity.

Among them is Gatkuoth, who after casting his ballot proudly held up his ink-stained thumb for the TV cameras back home.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment for the last 50 years,” he declared as an emotional crowd of fellow south Sudanese milled around behind him. “Finally I’ve managed to vote. I have decided my own future, and on the 9th of July, I will start celebrating.”

On that day, under the terms of the U.S.-brokered 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that brought an end to a 22-year civil war between north and south, secession will formally occur. The very next day, southern Sudan will at last declare its independence and become the 193rd member state of the United Nations.

In the meantime, the six-month separation period is critical to ongoing negotiations between the north and south on sensitive post-referendum issues such as oil-revenue sharing, the division of Sudan’s foreign debt, border demarcation, currency and citizenship rights.

Yet the divorce of what was always an awkwardly arranged marriage could still become pretty ugly. Although the prospect of widespread bloodshed has diminished with the relatively smooth staging of the referendum — a logistical nightmare that just a few months looked like it might not even happen on time — the worst-case scenario of a renewed civil war is never off the table when it comes to Sudan.

Sadly, the 42 million inhabitants of Sudan proper — which at least until July can claim the title of Africa’s largest country in size — have never known peace for very long, regardless of where they lived.

“Southern Sudan was almost an independent country, but when the British left in 1956, they decided to merge the two entities which are so completely distinct from each other,” Gatkuoth said. “This forced marriage created all these problems. Even before independence in 1956, we said no, we are not a part of this country.”

The result was two wars — the first lasting from 1955 to 1972, and the second from 1983 to 2005.

That first war saw the Anyanya movement — representing mainly Christian and animist black Africans in southern Sudan — battling Arab Muslim government forces from the north. Civil war resumed in 1983, when the dictatorship ruled by Gaafar Nimeiry restricted southern autonomy and imposed Islamic law, known as Sharia, on the entire country.

In 1993, Gatkuoth moved to Kenya and resettled in the United States the following year. After going to school in Texas, he became the deputy representative of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in this country, even as the civil war continued to rage back home.

The Second Sudanese Civil War, as the 22-year conflict came to be known, displaced some 4 million people and killed an estimated 1.9 million — one of the largest civilian death tolls since World War II. It ended in May 2004, though Sudan’s economy was left in shambles, the result of strict United Nations sanctions imposed on it by an outraged world.

That civil war is entirely separate from the current crisis in Darfur, which has pitted militias backed by the Arab government in Khartoum against various rebel groups. According to the United Nations, some 300,000 people have been killed in Darfur and 2.7 million displaced since ethnic rebels took up arms in 2003.

Today, in both Darfur and in the south, the big question mark has largely hinged on one man: Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who faces international sanctions and has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and genocide in Darfur.

Days before the referendum began, Bashir — perhaps resigned to the inevitable — arrived in Juba and declared that if southern Sudanese voted for secession, he would be the first to recognize the new country.

“I personally will be sad if Sudan splits,” said Bashir, who, despite the long history of acrimony, was welcomed to Juba with a red carpet and an honor guard. “But at the same time I will be happy if we have peace in Sudan between the two sides. We cannot deny the desire and the choice of the people of the south. This is their right.”

Bashir added: “Even after the southern state is born, we are ready in the Khartoum government to offer any technical or logistical support and training or advice. We are ready to help.”

Reports have even suggested that Bashir offered to take on all of Sudan’s crushing $35 billion in national debt, a magnanimous gesture that would give the south a fresh fiscal slate — assuming Bashir has any intention of following through on that pledge.

For his part, Gatkuoth remains deeply suspicious of the man who for so many years waged brutal war against his southern compatriots.

“Bashir changed his mind only because President Obama wrote letters to all the neighboring countries telling them that the referendum must be held on Jan. 9,” he said. “The man was left with no choice but to accept the reality. If he had had a choice, he would not have agreed to this.”

Now that the referendum is a done deal, Gatkuoth said, “Bashir has committed himself to reaching an agreement with us and has even accepted the choice of the people. This is historic for us because never in the history of Sudan have we had a leader from the north who was committed to making sure we have the right to self-determination. It has been a culture of lies and deceit. They’d have an agreement with us and dishonor it later.”

Asked if the Sudanese president is still a war criminal, Gatkuoth said: “Personally, I think he committed some atrocities in Darfur. As a senior member of the SPLM leadership, I think anybody accused of [war crimes] has to prove that he’s innocent, so we expect him to cooperate with the ICC.”

But when asked if he trusts Bashir, the diplomat replied, “Absolutely not.”

“I have met him many times, as a member of the SPLA leadership, but I will never trust him. I have no reason to trust him.”

Many experts agree with Gatkuoth’s skepticism. “President Bashir is in political survival mode, trying to decide how best to ride out the coming storm and seeking to appeal to multiple and conflicting audiences, at home and abroad,” said Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“But ultimately, the president’s calculations will be determined by pressures from inside, rather than outside,” Downie added, citing Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party. “So while the message toward the South is placatory right now, it is liable to change in an instant if Bashir feels his own position to be under imminent threat.”

Indeed, it remains to be seen whether the regime in the north will wage a campaign — whether by violence through proxy rebel groups or legal challenges — to block or draw out secession. Bashir himself remains unpredictable and at-times bipolar: Shortly before his red-carpet appearance in Juba, he announced that the north would readopt Sharia law based on fundamentalist Islamic tenets if the south parts ways.

“Sharia and Islam will be the main source for the constitution, Islam the official religion and Arabic the official language,” the Sudanese strongman told his countrymen, most of whom are already Muslim.

The provocative comments were hardly surprising. “Bashir relishes the role of standing up to the West, and the south’s secession gives him the chance to pander to his base in Sudan and beyond,” Eliza Griswold, an expert on conflict and human rights at the New America Foundation, told the New York Times.

Gatkuoth said imposing a constitution that no longer recognizes the country’s ethnic and religious diversity would be a disaster because an estimated 1.5 million south Sudanese — most of them Christians — currently live in the north, and they would not be free to practice their faith.

“If Sharia is implemented, that would be very bad,” he warned. “You cannot define Sudan just as an Arab and Islamic country. This is what created the problem in the first place. If he declares northern Sudan an Islamic state, the same thing will happen again.”

But Bashir isn’t the only problem southerners have to worry about. After the jubilation and exuberance of voting to determine their destiny, the southerners now face a grim new reality: How to build a nation that has previously known little but strife, poverty and neglect. Even assuming there’s no major eruption of violence, the birth of southern Sudan could be a recipe for the world’s newest failed state.

The latest census shows 8.5 million people living in southern Sudan — an area the size of Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda combined — but Gatkuoth says that in reality, southern Sudan has between 12 million and 15 million inhabitants. The majority of those people are destitute.

According to the humanitarian group Oxfam, a 15-year-old girl in southern Sudan has a greater chance of dying in childbirth than finishing her primary-school education. In fact, one in seven Sudanese women who become pregnant die from complications, according to the United Nations, which notes that nine out of 10 people in the region live on less $1 a day. In addition to a lack of roads, basic infrastructure such as schools and hospitals is almost nonexistent.

What’s more, it remains to be seen whether the neophyte government in the south will actually be able to govern. A number of opposing factions came together with the ruling SPLM party to project a united front ahead of the referendum, but that unity could quickly dissipate as rebel leaders, political parties and armed actors jockey for power in the new state.

And although the conflict is often portrayed as one between the Muslim, Arab north versus the black, Christian south, Sudan’s divisions are far more complex and unwieldy. The south in fact is the rife with feuding ethnic and tribal groups and is widely split along various economic and even linguistic fault lines.

Gatkuoth, a veteran of the SPLM, doesn’t dismiss the enormity of the task ahead, but he told The Diplomat that he has faith in his people, who are only now “rediscovering themselves” after years of suffering — but who share a sense of national unity and determination.

“The southern Sudanese are very proud of themselves,” he told us. “We will not accept to be a failed state, unable to manage our own resources. That’s why in southern Sudan, people are talking about corruption openly. In many other countries, including the north, they’re not even talking about it.”

A much more immediate concern is the disputed oil-rich border region of Abyei, a flashpoint for violence. Since the referendum, at least 30 people have been killed in Abyei province, which was scheduled to hold its own referendum on Jan. 9 to decide whether to become part of the north or south.

Preparations for that vote though quickly fell apart —overshadowed by the mammoth undertaking of organizing the independence referendum.

“The referendum [on Abyei] was supposed to happen, but the National Congress Party is not allowing it,” Gatkuoth charged. “We’re hoping to have an agreement soon. If we cannot have the referendum, the only solution is to have Abyei transferred back to southern Sudan like it used to be.”

But the northerners insist on guaranteeing political rights for the nomadic Misseriya tribe that regularly migrates to the area during the dry season, while southerners want to ensure ownership of the land by the Dinka Ngok tribe who live there year-round. The two tribes did recently sign a U.N.-facilitated peace agreement on issues such as migration and weapons proliferation, although deep mistrust lingers.

“Bashir and his party want oil, and they’re using the Misseriya as a pretext. But all they really need is water and grass for their cattle,” argued Gatkuoth, insisting that the recent clashes in Abyei were the result of “Misseriya tribesmen being instigated by the north to go and fight the Dinkas.”

Threats could also come from Uganda’s notorious Lord’s Resistance Army and various rebel factions in neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic. But Gatkuoth doesn’t seem too worried.

“The government of South Sudan has a very strong security force on the ground. Our police have been trained with the help of the United Nations and neighboring countries,” he said.

“The referendum was peaceful, transparent, credible and fair. We want the U.N. to help stabilize the country, and we need the U.N. [presence] to continue even after the referendum and independence for at least two years.”

He added: “I don’t know what will happen in the north, but it will be a different country altogether.”

For its part, the north might be able to shed its status as an international pariah if Bashir doesn’t stand in the way of southern independence. After being criticized for neglecting Sudan — and not being tough enough on Bashir — the Obama administration went into high gear last fall to ensure a successful referendum, offering to reward Sudan if the vote and subsequent independence proceed according to plan.

The Obama administration has already offered to normalize relations between Washington and Khartoum, meaning ambassadors would finally be appointed in each other’s capitals. The United States is also prepared to remove Sudan from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism — leaving only Cuba, Iran and Syria on that list — and may also allow additional licenses to increase trade and investment opportunities in Sudan.

“We want to do something in the immediate term to recognize a successful referendum, and we are thinking of ways we can do that,” a senior U.S. official who asked not to be named told the Washington Times. “But we also need to be sure that the achievements to date are at a place where they can’t be rolled back.”

The south already enjoys good relations with Washington. Gatkuoth said his government has bipartisan support in Congress, naming Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback as among his strongest backers. Kerry — who’s traveled to the region numerous times — also introduced the Sudan Peace and Stability Act of 2010, which calls for the U.S. government to boost aid to southern Sudan and develop a multiyear strategy to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Darfur.

Gatkuoth, who in the days since the referendum has been interviewed by CNN, Fox, MSNBC and Voice of America, says that if this “amicable divorce” can be pulled off, Sudan can also establish an embassy in Juba, and the south will open an embassy in Khartoum.

Upon independence, Gatkuoth will become a full-fledged ambassador in Washington, though his day-to-day responsibilities aren’t likely to change.

“For the last five years we’ve been operating here; we’ve been functioning as an embassy. It’s just a matter of a formality,” he said. “What I do as head of this mission, I will continue to do as ambassador — making sure I maintain relations with the White House, Pentagon, State Department, Congress, think tanks and also the faith-based organizations which were so instrumental in helping southern Sudanese reach where we are today.”

He said the mission — established Jan. 16, 2007, and now staffed by 15 full-time employees — will definitely grow as the new nation takes shape. It’s unclear whether the mission will remain at its present location on the sixth floor of an office building at 20th and M Streets, or will be relocated to a mansion along Embassy Row. Interestingly, unlike many African embassies that suffer from peeling paint and general neglect, the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) office here is new and sharp-looking, and the mission boasts a sophisticated, user-friendly website that puts the sites of many larger, wealthier nations to shame.

Gatkuoth refused to say how much the Washington mission’s annual budget comes to, but insisted that it does not employ lobbyists. “We have no need for a lobby,” he said, noting that a New York-based firm, Independent Diplomat, provides his government only with strategic advice and assistance. “You hire a lobbyist to repair relations that are worsening. But we had excellent relations with the former president [George W. Bush] as well as the current president.”

The Government of Southern Sudan’s official budget is now $2 billion a year, Gatkuoth said, but “after independence, it’ll go up to $8 billion” thanks to an influx of oil revenues. After independence, southern Sudan would be able to keep 100 percent of the revenues generated by the petroleum extracted from its territory. Currently, it must split those revenues 50-50 with the central government in Khartoum.

“This is our oil. We’ll just need to pay Sudan fees for the pipeline and using the refineries,” Gatkuoth explained. In fact, some 80 percent of Sudan’s oil lies in the south, but it all gets shipped through the north for export — which means the two sides are joined at the hip for the near future, offering hope that they’ll be forced to cooperate regardless whether they like it or not.

“Our relations with the north will be excellent, because we are interdependent,” Gatkuoth said. “The oil is in the south, and the pipeline is in the north. The north needs oil and we need the pipeline. This mutual relationship will link the two countries together.”

When asked how south Sudan would avoid the “resource curse” that has plagued so many other Third World countries awash in oil wealth — Angola, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria and Venezuela come to mind — Gatkuoth assures The Diplomat this won’t be an issue.

“One thing we have done is establish an anti-corruption commission with the power to arrest, prosecute and investigate. This commission will be fully in control of fighting these vices.”

And unlike those oil-rich African states where the wealth tends to end up in the pockets of cruel and corrupt dictators, leaving the vast majority of citizens impoverished, Gatkuoth insists south Sudan will be different.

“We have been fighting for democracy, so ours will be a democratic country — a secular system that respects the rights of individuals, and a multiparty system where everybody enjoys freedom and human rights.”

As rich as south Sudan may be in petroleum, Gatkuoth says his new country’s mineral potential can bring in even more money — not to mention exports of gum arabic.

Harvested commercially from wild trees, gum arabic is used in the food industry as a stabilizer; it’s also a key ingredient in lithography and is used in printing, paint production, glue, cosmetics and various industrial applications. Southern Sudan accounts for at least 50 percent of the world’s gum arabic production.

“We also expect tourism to take off. We have lots of animals and our Boma National Park is second only to the Serengeti in size,” Gatkuoth told The Diplomat, noting that East Africa’s largest, most intact savannah ecosystem covers 77,000 square miles, about the size of New York state. “So tourism in Boma and our other national parks will boom.”

That leaves one final issue: what to call the new country.

“I’m a member of the Nuer tribe, and in our culture, you don’t name your babies before they’re born; you name them after. So because southern Sudan has not yet been born, we cannot name the country yet. But of course our parliamentarians are discussing some options,” he said.

Those options include the Republic of Kush — the Biblical name for the ancient land occupied by present-day Sudan — as well as the catchy-sounding Nile Republic, a reference to the famous river that forms its eastern border (although Egypt would most likely object to that name).

A third option, of course, is to simply call the new entity South Sudan. Gatkuoth promised the name issue will definitely be settled by July 10, when independence will be declared.

“Southern Sudan will have relations with all countries in the world. We are a peace-loving nation and we’ll have relations with anybody who is interested in having relations with us,” he said.

That includes Israel — where thousands of Sudanese, especially from the Darfur region, now live as refugees, having fled across Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in recent years.

In the meantime, while initial reports following southern Sudan’s historic referendum look quite promising, the United Nations isn’t taking any chances. As of press time, the 11,000-strong U.N. Mission in Sudan is intensifying its peacekeeping patrols in the troubled border area. The mission is on standby to reinforce its presence if needed and is urging all parties to defuse tensions and prevent a further escalation of hostilities.

In his report in late December, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that tensions were building on the ground in Abyei, and that historical complexities are making it difficult for either party to consider options that could be viewed as concessions by their constituents.

“In this charged environment, any major security incident could be damaging for the last stages of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement process,” he said, warning of the disastrous humanitarian consequences of renewed conflict.

“In the unlikely event that the referendum leads to large-scale violence, approximately 2.8 million people could be internally displaced and another 3.2 million affected by breakdowns in trade and social service delivery,” Ban said.

Gatkuoth suggested that the consequences for his nascent country could be far worse than that.

“If this agreement is allowed to unravel, then you’ll have another Rwanda,” he warned. “The war we’re going to have if the CPA is not implemented fully will be bloodier than the first war.”

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