South Sudanese at home and in the diaspora voted overwhelmingly in a referendum on January 9, 2011 to secede from the rest of Sudan. With the exception of a few violent incidents in the disputed Abyei region and areas along the North-South border, the voting process proceeded peacefully at polling stations across the country, debunking the dire predictions of chaos. The largely peaceful vote is a great achievement for the South Sudan Referendum Commission, Sudanese leaders in the North and South, and non-governmental and civil society organizations involved.
The quest for independence was fueled by the North’s economic and political marginalization of the South. This led to a North-South war that started in 1955, stopped temporarily between 1972 and 1982, resumed in 1983, and continued until the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) six years ago.
For many South Sudanese voters, a vote for secession is viewed as a means of unyoking northern political oppression. Secession is also perceived as a ticket to develop the South’s economy without relying on the North. The quest for the South’s economic independence, as well as political freedom implies that the government of a sovereign South Sudan should strive to deliver equitable economic development and offer political freedoms to its citizens in order to avoid the mistakes of the Khartoum government.
This is a tall order given the current indicators in South Sudan.
On the economic front, the baseline on which the government of an independent South Sudan will launch its developmental effort is grim, even by African standards. The region’s infrastructure—roads, bridges, and electricity—is poor or non-existent. South Sudan relies heavily on oil revenues. About 98 percent of the government of South Sudan’s income is derived from the sale of the South’s share of oil. Oil profits are currently divided between North and South. Other sectors of the economy, such as agriculture, are under-developed. Landlocked and with no productive industries of its own, South Sudan imports everything from Khartoum and Eastern Africa, while exporting nothing in return.
Economically, the current government of South Sudan, under the aegis of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), has squandered the opportunity to improve livelihoods in the five years leading up to the referendum.
An estimated US$7 billion in oil proceeds was spent in the last six years with little to show for it. Endemic corruption is to blame. To be fair, the government of South Sudan has established an anti-corruption commission. Led by Dr. Pauline Riak, an experienced Stanford-educated academic, the commission is yet to succeed in curbing corruption—partly due to its inability to prosecute perpetrators. Even with a mandate to prosecute, it would be difficult to detect and investigate incidents of corruption without the necessary institutional frameworks, systems and processes that allow corrupt practices to be identified and tracked down.
The ruling party, the SPLM, has dutifully supervised the implementation of the CPA protocols over the last six years, yet it does not have an articulated policy, strategy, and action plan to realize equitable economic development in South Sudan.
Regarding political freedoms, the government of South Sudan, currently dominated by the SPLM, would need to open up the democratic space, and create an inclusive government. It will have to convince various militia groups, some currently bearing arms against the government, to lay down their arms.
South Sudan’s population currently sits at 8.26 million, according to a December 2010 World Bank census. About 90 percent lives on less than one dollar per day, and 33 percent classified as chronically hungry. Only six percent has access to improved sanitation, 85 percent of adults are illiterate, and there is only one teacher for every 1,000 students. One in six mothers die during childbirth, and 135 out of 1,000 children die before the age of five.
The government of South Sudan will be faced with the task of improving on these dismal indicators. And if the past and present government's performances can provide any guide to the future, then the leaders of an independent South Sudan have a great challenge on their hands.
As the people of the South Sudan prepare for statehood, it seems the road to freedom will be a long painful one, littered with revolutionary slogans that are not backed by solid strategies, policies, and implementable action plans. The CPA bears testimony to the utility of a documented roadmap on which the stakeholders can fight and argue over implementation details.
As Malik Agar, a senior SPLM leader observed, the SPLM would need a 180-degree turn to improve scenarios in South Sudan. Even a 30-degree turn would still be better than the current directionless path to endemic poverty.
The SPLM, which is bound to dominate in an independent South Sudan, will need to look beyond the narrow fences of the party to the greater South Sudan in order to achieve the true dream of freedom, prosperity and happiness.
Dr. John Akec is the Vice-Chancellor of Northern Bahr-El-Ghazel University in South Sudan.