South Sudan's next task: build a nation from scratch

South Sudanese voted overwhelming in January for independence. Now, they face the reality of building the world's newest nation – from printing new currency to collecting taxes.

By , Staff Writer , Correspondent

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    Boys sat in a tea shop in Abyei, Sudan, Jan. 14. The independence referendum for
    Abyei – which straddles the disputed border between North and South Sudan – complicated voting here.
    View Caption

South Sudanese have waited a long time for their freedom.

After 22 years of civil war – Africa's longest conflict – in which 2 million people were killed and 4 million displaced, semiautonomous South Sudan is now on the brink of full independence from the Arab-dominated north.

But as the euphoria from January's historic vote, for which 99 percent of voters in the south turned out to vote virtually unanimously for separation, to secede begins to fade, the reality of building the world's newest nation from scratch will come into focus.

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When South Sudan officially becomes independent in July, the to-do list will be daunting. While creating a government administration; printing new currency; building roads, schools, and hospitals; and collecting taxes in one of the world's least developed areas; the country must also prepare to demarcate a disputed, oil-rich border region with its historic enemies to the north and guarantee its security.

Building the capacity of government workers to handle these challenges will be a top priority, and one helped by the return of refugees who've gained skills during exile in developed countries. Thankfully for the fledgling country, it will have at least a few skilled administrators like Malul Ayom Dor on hand.

"We don't dream of fighting in the bush anymore. We have had enough," says Brig. Gen. Dor, one of the most highly educated men in the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, the military wing of the South's ruling party.

"Of course fighting is still relevant. We avoid war by preparing for it and we will continue to do that, but we also have to branch out. Now we need conventional skills, too, like how to sit in offices and make things function."

The future of an independent South Sudan will depend both on the leadership of men like Dor and on the hard work of its citizens. Blessed with crude oil reserves, nearly 70 percent of the former Sudan's total reserves, South Sudan will have potential wealth, but as a landlocked country, it will still need to cooperate with the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum to get the oil to market through the North's pipelines.

"The first challenge is to manage the high expectations that the [Southern People's Liberation Movement] has created by campaigning for independence in the referendum," says Fouad Hikmat, senior researcher and Sudan expert for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

The good news, he says, is that it seems the South realizes that they have to "continue negotiations with the party of the North. They will not relapse to violence – peace is a win-win situation for both sides as far as oil is concerned; nobody wants to risk losing that income."

Transition in Sudan

As the relatively peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union shows, there is often a 10-year transition period from independence to sustainable nationhood that can take longer for countries that lack vision or leadership.

"When I was in Juba, there was a lot of pride, and justifiably so, for the three or four paved roads they had," says Simon Freemantle, Africa economist for Standard Bank in Johannesburg, South Africa. "So the first priority for this country to start unlocking sustained economic growth is to focus on building infrastructure."

Much of that infrastructure growth will probably be directed down south to the nations of East Africa, including Kenya with its port access, as well as to Uganda and Ethiopia. South Sudan knows that it will have to maintain a good working relationship with Khartoum, and perhaps continue its current 50/50 oil-revenue sharing agreement with the North for the next five years or so, Mr. Freemantle says, because it has no other way of getting its oil out to markets without Khartoum.

But while South Sudan will certainly have its challenges, it may have an advantage over other African countries that gained independence in the early 1960s. It will have a lot more choices of economic partners to choose from, including India, China, and Malaysia, and "they are able to bargain from a better place now that there is some competition for the goods that they have to sell."

Building up a proper skills base among its low-, medium-, and upper-level government officials will have to be another major priority, Freemantle says, and southern Sudanese authorities are quick to point out the number of skilled administrators they already have.

Two hundred and four southerners served as diplomats in the foreign service of the Republic of Sudan, among them 24 ambassadors, says Deng Alor, the highest ranking of the bunch – and the man slated to become South Sudan's first foreign minister.

"So far we are dealing with returning diplomats, and the question of who owns embassies and other Sudanese property abroad," says Mr. Alor. "But most importantly, in the interim period we will develop our foreign policy, and decide with whom to forge relations, and on what terms."

Encouraging Sudan's expats to come home

One way to start filling up the vacuum of skills in South Sudan would be to encourage expatriate Sudanese to return. Twenty-two years of civil war – which ended with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement hammered out between the north and south in 2005 – left a generation of Sudanese undereducated, but it propelled thousands of others into exile. Many of these went on to higher degrees, started their own businesses, raised families, and set down roots in their adopted countries.

Bringing even a few of them back will go far, Alor says, in helping South Sudan take ownership of its own development.

"These returnees can be very helpful to us today," says Alor. "They bring back ideas and investment and language. They are an asset." All refugees are welcome here, says Alor – even northerners, including Darfuris, who cannot return to their own regions.

One man who did come back is Subek David, and the route he took to get back home is worthy of Odysseus.

The outbreak of war in the mid-1980s pushed him out of Sudan into a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo. From there he moved to Uganda to attend missionary school; then to Russia on an academic scholarship; then to Libya to learn how to fly helicopters; then to Malta to seek asylum; and finally to Australia, a country that accepted his asylum application.

"Coming here is a sacrifice for people. It is hard to start fresh," admits Mr. David, who returned to Juba last year to work in security at the airport. "You can eat and sleep well in Australia. But I was always longing for my home. It feels different being here. It is home. Now we just need to put it in order."

Elijah Meen, a civil servant in Juba, says the returnees "have a lot to offer us."

Last month, Mr. Meen picked up his younger brother Gordon at the airport, reuniting for the first time in 18 years.

"We were wishing he could come home with knowledge of school," Elijah says of his brother. "But even without [education], these people have seen the world. They have been exposed. Even if they don't know how to build a road, at least they have seen what building a road looks like. They have seen good houses and good bridges and they can now help us here."

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