South Sudan – Africa’s newest country

Just over a week ago, the Republic of South Sudan (ROSS) officially became independent. Thousands of people went out on the streets to celebrate this historic moment.

A man waves South Sudan's national flag as he attends the Independence Day celebrations in the capital Juba, July 9, 2011. (Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)

Click on the image to see the full gallery of the celebrations.

Yet, independence is only the beginning of a new era for south Sudan, one full of hope, but also important challenges. Last Friday, EurActiv published an op-ed I wrote wondering about these challenges, and more specifically how European foreign policy could help the new nation overcome these. You can read it here (also copied after the jump).

South Sudan: A new chapter begins

The continuous celebrations in Juba reflect how long the population of South Sudan had waited for independence. After having been sanctioned by 98.8% of the voters in the referendum held in January, the Republic of South Sudan (ROSS) finally became official on 9 July. The international community has warmly welcomed the new state. On 14 July, the ROSS became the United Nations’ 193rd member.

Europe’s message to the new country expressed the hope that ‘South Sudan’s leaders will take full advantage of the unique opportunity’ before them and are able ‘to meet the needs and expectations of its people’. Building a new country is not easy and South Sudan’s leaders not only have the task of launching a new currency, opening embassies and signing contracts with key investors and service providers (an ‘attractive’ mining act is expected by October).

Internally, the state faces huge challenges derived from an extremely low development level, an illiteracy rate of 85% and 90% of the population living on less than one dollar a day. Externally, securing a peaceful relationship with Sudan is crucial as important social and economic dynamics extend across the border.

The challenges are huge, but there are also reasons for optimism. Despite uncertain prospects, the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) through which the North accepted to let go of the South was finally respected. But this did not come easily. The South represented one third of the country’s revenue and possessed most of Sudan’s oil fields.

President Al-Bashir, pressured by hardliners, played an unclear game in the run-up to 9 July in an attempt to strengthen his negotiating position. Khartoum also launched violent attacks on the border areas of Abyei and Southern Kordofan, which resulted in an unclear number of deaths, the destruction of villages and tens of thousands of displaced persons.

However, international actors made the option of violence extremely costly. The greatest diplomatic efforts came from the African Union’s (AU) negotiating panel, led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki. Meeting in Addis Ababa, Mbeki secured a demilitarised border zone and the North’s acceptance of the deployment of 4,200 Ethiopian troops in Abyei under UN command.

China and the US also helped the efforts to reach an understanding. Washington’s hostility towards Al-Bashir has been tempered, and the US even offered Sudan important ‘sweeteners’, such as removing the country from its ‘terror’ list should it let go peacefully of the South. China is Sudan’s main ally, but given its interests in Sudanese oil, the Chinese are stepping up its investments in the South and wants to avoid any conflict that may disrupt production.

Now, the ROSS’ relations with Sudan remain decisive. In the short term there are important outstanding negotiations regarding issues such as citizenship rights, border demarcation, sharing of oil revenues, water resources and the $37 billion debt burden. It is crucial that the international community continue to exert pressure to ensure that these are successfully concluded.

Largely absent from front line diplomacy in the run-up to independence, there is room for the European Union to step up its engagement. Speaking in Juba, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton acknowledged that ‘creating a new state is never easy’ and reaffirmed the EU’s will to remain a partner ‘not just now, but for the long term’.

This partnership should have a double focus: diplomatic efforts aimed at securing peaceful relations with Sudan and other neighbours on the one hand, and development assistance on the other (the EU recently pledged 200 million euros in aid) to help the country provide basic services to its citizens, including water and sanitation, education and health services, especially for women and children (South Sudan has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world).

Also, after decades of war, militias constitute an important threat to peace and security. Over 40% of the country’s budget goes to a bloated army whose size, according to the UN, should be halved. EU involvement should focus on effective security sector reform and on boosting the campaign for disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration.

North and South Sudan have failed to co-exist within one country; it is now their task (with the international community’s support) to make the split contribute to peace, good governance and prosperity.

The ROSS’s independence inaugurates a new chapter in the history not only of Sudan, but of the entire region. It is vital that European engagement goes beyond South Sudan’s immediate challenges.

Important problems still remain in Darfur. Also, Sudan lies at the crossroads of two key African regions. The food crisis and regional dynamics in the Horn and East Africa on the one hand, and the impact on the Sahel region of the Libyan war on the other, mean that Sudan and South Sudan will remain a key focus for EU foreign policy in the foreseeable future.

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