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Breadbasket or battlefield? South Sudan is still a guess

Don't call Sudan Africa's next failed state just yet; there is too much at stake for both Sudan and the outside world not to make a post-referendum Sudan work.

Their referendum on independence successfully concluded, most south Sudanese are in a euphoric mood, brimming with hope and optimism for the future. Votes have been cast overwhelmingly for secession, and in all likelihood on July 9 a new African nation will officially come into being, the first since Eritrea in 1993. Endowed with rich oil fields and freed from domination and humiliation by the Arab north, economic prosperity and social progress will flourish.

Let the party begin, right?

Well, maybe. First of all, it should be acknowledged that the fact that the referendum occurred at all is astonishing; only a month ago many serious observers were predicting a resumption of the vicious north-south war that killed two million Sudanese over four decades.

Indeed, the stage was set for renewed hostilities, with both sides rearming and moving troops and proxy militias closer to their border. Instead, bowing to massive international pressure (and certainly in the hopes of having sanctions lifted), President Omar al Bashir travelled to the south just before the vote and, with what would have been admirable statesmanship had it come from someone with less blood on his hands, announced that he would respect the will of the people.

The result was that, with a few ugly exceptions, the poll was conducted peaceably in most areas.

It's also crucial that the new country will have the support and good will of much of the international community. The United States in particular has been a strong backer of the ruling Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement (SPLM) for decades and now has a consulate in the presumptive capital Juba, ready to be transformed into an embassy in a few months.

Even the African Union supported the referendum despite a long history of opposing the redrawing of colonial boundaries. The south would share strong cultural and commercial ties with its southern neighbours, Kenya and Uganda, promising fruitful partnerships. Intriguingly, there is serious talk about building a pipeline from the south's oilfields to the Kenyan coast, thus bypassing northern Sudan.

In addition to petroleum, there are proven deposits of gold, iron ore, chromite and other riches under south Sudan's soil. And mineral wealth aside, the area has vast arable lands and plentiful water, meaning it has the potential to become the bread basket of North Africa and the Middle East. Tourism also holds great promise. Despite the ravages of the war and poaching in this gun-ridden region, three years ago researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society discovered a virtual Eden in southeastern Sudan with herds of game that the New York Times described as "rivalling those of the Serengeti plains".

Unfortunately, there are a plethora of problems with these rosy scenarios, ranging from a lack of infrastructure to dismal health statistics. But the most daunting obstacles are tribalism and talent - or rather, the lack thereof. Deliberate marginalisation of the region by Khartoum combined with three generations of war have chased out many of the best and brightest and left behind a largely unskilled and unschooled population. The UN estimates overall literacy in the south at 24 per cent, and for women it's a pathetic 12 per cent. As a result, international relief organisations, among the main employers in south Sudan, are forced to import their drivers and cooks from neighbouring countries. Even the ruling SPLM suffers from this shallow talent pool. While there are some outstanding individuals in its ranks, they are far outnumbered by the untrained and inexperienced.

As a consequence, corruption is high and efficiency is low. The SPLM secretary general, Pagan Amum, among his party's brightest lights, admitted in a 2009 BBC interview that "corruption is a serious problem".

Leadership is another cause for concern. One wonders, for example, how easily south Sudan's leader, Salva Kiir, a man few would accuse of intellectualism and whose principal experience has been on the battlefield, will make the transition from soldier to statesman.

As worrying as the competence question is, it pales in comparison to the potential for tribal conflict. Even with a common enemy to unite them, southern ethnic groups were often at one another's throats. The best-known example is the so-called "Bor Massacre", when Nuer militiamen are said to have slaughtered tens of thousands of Dinka civilians in 1991. However, in any given year there are many smaller cases of carnage throughout the south, with ethnic, criminal and political roots. With separation from Khartoum in the offing, smaller groups like the Nuer, Shilluk and Bari are understandably anxious about what they see as the disproportionate political and military weight of Dinkas in the SPLM. Sadly, problem solving through non-violent means tends to be rare in places as blood-soaked as south Sudan.

Don't call south Sudan Africa's next failed state just yet; there is probably too much at stake for both Sudanese and the outside world to make that the likeliest scenario. But by the same token, it's far too early for anyone, including the south Sudanese themselves, to celebrate.


Chris Hennemeyer is an international consultant focusing on the Middle East and Africa

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