Five challenges South Sudan will face after referendum

Although some results from South Sudan's referendum still need to be made official, Sudanese and international observers are beginning to look ahead to what comes with independence.

Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters
Southern Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC) chairperson Mohamed Ibrahim Khalil (L) speaks during a news conference following the end of referendum votes on southern secession as he prepares to announce the results in Khartoum on Jan. 25.

Attention is turning from South Sudan’s referendum on independence, which yielded a nearly unanimous “yes” vote, to South’s Sudan’s future. Here are five challenges the new country will face:

1. Borders

Even though North Sudan appears resigned to the South’s secession, the two countries will still have to agree on the precise border that divides them. One major piece of that puzzle is Abyei, an oil-rich region that was supposed to hold its own referendum and decide whether it would secede along with the South or remain with the North. Due to disagreements between North and South Sudanese leaders, Abyei’s referendum was postponed indefinitely. Verbal and physical conflict in Abyei (between the largely pro-secession Ngok Dinka farmers and the largely pro-unity Misseriya Arab pastoralists) punctuated the voting earlier this month.

Now that the voting is over, Abyei remains a “potential tinderbox.”

On the southern side, the secretary general of the ruling party, the Southern People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), Pagan Amum, has said that if the Abyei referendum is not conducted, the only remaining option is for Abyei to be transferred to the south by presidential decree. On the northern side, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has said he will not accept Abyei being part of the south.

The Ngok Dinka say they fear that if they do not make their declaration before the votes are counted in the southern referendum, they will miss their chance to join the south.


The Ngok Dinka were ready to make their declaration before voting started on Jan. 9. But two high-level officials from the SPLM persuaded them to hold off.

The officials said a declaration before the referendum would give the north “an excuse to disrupt” the vote, said Juac Agok, deputy chairman of the SPLM in Abyei.

The SPLM is now asking them to wait until after July 9, when southern independence would formally begin.

But Agok said, “I don’t think it will be possible for me to convince the people of Abyei to wait.”

The seriousness of the situation in Abyei is so great that one analyst calls it “the key to South Sudan['s] stability.” Without a solution that both governments and the people of Abyei can accept, violence may escalate.

2. Oil

Oil is the primary driver of Sudan’s economy. The US Energy Information Administration says, “In 2009, according to the International Monetary Fund, oil represented over 90 percent of export earnings. For South Sudan (Juba), oil represented 98 percent of total revenues for the year compared to Khartoum at 65 percent.” The Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 (which provided for the referendum) established a 50-50 revenue-sharing agreement between North and South, but now the two countries will have to negotiate a new agreement on revenues. Addressing issues like transparency, a report released in early January argued, will be key to establishing trust and peace between North and South, who must rely on each other when it comes to oil: Three-quarters of the oil is in the South, but the North has the pipelines and refineries.

In addition to this challenge, South Sudan has its own internal challenges when it comes to oil revenues: accusations of government corruption and continued poverty in the midst of rising government income threaten to increase public discontent with the Government of South Sudan. Fast growth has led to income inequality and a sense of chaos in Juba. South Sudan will have to use oil revenues carefully in achieving development and building a unified society.

3. Integration and Citizenship

Who is a citizen in South Sudan? With refugees and members of the diaspora returning from near and far, and with everyone in the new country pondering its political future, South Sudan will need to develop a basis for national integration, citizenship, and unity that relies on more than just opposition to the North. Maggie Fick captures this problem poignantly:

A Southern Sudanese told me that “the referendum is the only thing that united us southerners.” He believes that one of the hardest tasks of the southern government in the coming years will be to create the idea of being a Southern Sudanese citizen—an idea that will arguably be foreign to many ofthese citizens.


After my friend made the above comment, he proceeded to give me an extensive history lesson on “the struggle,” speaking with pride and deep knowledge about the causes of the south’s two post-independence rebellions against regimes in Khartoum. He drew upon stories of battles fought in areas of the south that he has never visited but that appear vividly in his oral retelling of years of bloody conflict that eventually led to the south gaining the chance to decide its own destiny in a self-determination vote.

If this isn’t pride for a nation and in a group of people than I don’t know what is.

But the new Southern Sudan will be about more than the struggle of the past, and it will be a new struggle for the new country’s leaders to forge a path that includes not only those groups who fought in the war but also those people who were born in refugee camps in East Africa, who grew up in Nebraska, who studied at Oxford and who drive motorcycle taxis in Juba.

Picking the country’s name (it may well remain “South Sudan”), national anthem, flag, and emblem is a first step, but crafting national unity and integrating newcomers will take a long time.

4. Political Reform

This point is related to the last point. Along with building a sense of one nation, South Sudan will face the challenge of allowing multiple voices to speak. South Sudan will face international and internal pressures to move beyond the one-party model that allows the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) to dominate. The International Crisis Group’s Zack Vertin ably explains the issue:

The rebel movement turned governing party — the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement — dominates the political arena. Since the end of the war, opposition voices have suppressed grievances and taken a back seat to the SPLM so as to preserve the goal shared by all southerners — self-determination. But now that the vote has been cast, that common denominator is gone. When the jubilation of last week’s vote subsides, the political environment will slowly begin to transform. The current leadership must respond accordingly, recognizing that a genuine opening of political space is both necessary and in their long-term interest. They must find a way to equitably manage the South’s own diversity, lest they simply duplicate the sort of autocratic regime they’ve finally managed to escape.

Allowing political pluralism means more than just who wins at the ballot box – it also means addressing human rights issues (h/t Rob Crilly), managing dissent, and promoting positive relations between ethnic groups. None of that will be easy.

5. Development

South Sudan’s development challenges are wide-ranging and stark. A Reuters reportfrom 2010 puts South Sudan’s predicament bluntly: “By many yardsticks, it is the least-developed place on earth: 70 percent of its people have no access to any form of healthcare, one in five women die in childbirth and one in five children fail to make it to their fifth birthday.” UNDP provides alarming statistics on education, disease, sustainability, and other issues in South Sudan. These problems are not just economic – they also threaten to undercut political stability. The worst outcome, as Rob Crilly says, would be for South Sudan, burdened by economic crisis and political failure, to join the world’s failed states.

This list is not comprehensive, and I hope commenters will weigh in on these issues and others. What have I missed? What challenges do you see ahead for South Sudan?

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of Africa bloggers. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here.

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