Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A New South Sudan

Darlene Hilburn


February 25, 2011
by Darlene Hilburn

On July 9, 2011, the world is set to welcome South Sudan as the newest nation among its ranks, representing the culmination of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the latest war between north and south after fifty years of deadly on-again, off-again conflict.  The announcement of the results of the referendum on South Sudan’s independence from the north led to mass celebrations in the southern capital city of Juba and throughout the region.  Observers of the referendum voting period, which occurred on time and peacefully despite extreme obstacles, say that the voting process looked more like a giant party than a poll, as Southerners voted joyously and overwhelmingly for self-determination through separation.  To many who endured years of civil war through bereavement, hunger, and displacement, a measure of justice finally seemed within reach.

Yet the post-referendum period in South Sudan is not without significant challenges.  A common simplification of the north-south conflict—that the conflict was between an Islamist north and the Christian south—belies a much more complex web of relationships and conflict dynamics that will continue long past Southern independence.  While a majority of Southerners claim Christian faith, some practice traditional animist religions and still others practice Islam.  Ethnic loyalties often run as deep or deeper than religious ties, and experts have noted that the lack of a unifying “Southern” identity could present significant challenges to the stability of the new nation-state.  Localized skirmishes, which can begin with competition over scarce resources, livestock raiding, and any number of longstanding rivalries, have the potential to spark wider conflict.  Allegations of government corruption and malfeasance, as well as playing ethnic favorites, can cement dividing lines.  South Sudan must either embrace its formation as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society or face severe hardships.

The nascent government of South Sudan, which has had six years practice in governing the semi-autonomous region, now faces a nation and people with high expectations but little infrastructure to meet these aspirations.  Many Southerners have already returned from more than 20 years in the north rudely awakened to lack of livelihoods in their areas of origin, while war veterans must now find a new identity centered around the demands of peace rather than those of war.  Ebullient joy could quickly turn to resentment and frustration if people’s expectations are not tempered with sound policy and evidence of real change on the ground.

Indeed, like its war veterans, the government of South Sudan will require a new identity based on well-developed policies rather than mere opposition to the Khartoum government.   And while South Sudan will no longer be governed by the central government in Khartoum, the newly formed state will be reliant on north Sudan to undertake routine activities such as transporting its revenue-producing oil.  Both states will need each other to survive. 

All of these challenges and the many more that face the new state indicate that the requirements of justice go far past the chance for self-rule out from under the thumb of the Khartoum regime.  Self-determination is only the beginning for South Sudan, and if the state and its people stop there, justice will not truly reach the millions of South Sudanese spread across its vast area.  The responsibilities of justice include establishing the rule of law and stamping out corruption, graft, and nepotism at the local, state, and national level.  Justice entails respect for human dignity—including for the thousands of women who die in childbirth each year and the many children who do not reach their fifth birthday—through need-based, sustainable basic services.  Justice means drawing on, but not over-exploiting the rich natural resources of the new country, while investing in its future human resources through increased literacy and job development.  This new nation will be born in much hope—and Christians around the world should pray that South Sudan will also be born in justice and peace.

 —Darlene Hilburn is a Disaster Operations Specialist for the U.S. Agency for International Development Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.   

The views expressed here are those of the author alone and are based on public information. Her views should not be construed to be those of the U.S. Government or any entities therein. 




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