x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

South Sudan's success lies not only in Juba

Nation building in south Sudan will only succeed if Juba distributes its wealth and resources.

Two days before south Sudan's referendum last month, the former African Union President, Thabo Mbeki, delivered a congratulatory message to an eager audience at the University of Juba. A veteran statesman on a continent too familiar with jubilant new nations quickly unraveled by conflict, Mr Mbeki warned of the sobering challenges of nation-building which lay ahead. He asked: How will Juba avoid becoming another Khartoum?

Sudan has announced the results of the January referendum, with an overwhelming 98.83 per cent vote in favor of separation. When the celebration quietens down, the leaders in south Sudan's new capital, Juba, must step up to the daunting challenge of consolidating this nation fractured by tribe, religion, mutual distrust, and the memory of fresh violence. Echoing Mr Mbeki's warning, after almost three decades of fighting off the government in the north, how will south Sudan's freedom-fighters-turned-ruling-elite avoid the same sins of their oppressors?

For the past century, Khartoum has kept virtually all of Sudan's public revenue and power for itself. The central government paves wide roads and builds multi-storey buildings in the capital, while state offices responsible for building schools and roads are falling down and virtually abandoned by their untrained and intermittently-paid staff. Citizens living outside of Khartoum remain illiterate, hungry, and powerless. One extreme result of this phenomenon of Sudan's centralisation of power and money is war. Tired of being ignored, the periphery has fought back. This is evident by the violence raging on all sides of the country: war against the south for decades; the much-publicised fighting to the west in the three Darfur states, and the armed movements in Sudan's eastern states which have been overlooked by the international media.

In 2007, Juba paved its first tarmac road in front of its tiny airport. Residents can now motor about from markets to churches to dwellings and the construction will not slow down anytime soon. Juba is booming, and it is fuelled by international aid and investments, as well as shared national oil revenue negotiated during the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement.

But leaving Juba, the rest of south Sudan has not changed much. Moreover, the rest of south Sudan has seen no improvements in its alarmingly low levels of nutrition, literacy and life expectancy. Already, the contrast between Juba and south Sudan's 10 states rivals the disparity between Khartoum and the rest of Sudan. Whether this contrast increases or diminishes will be the single most telling indicator of south Sudan's success.

In the next few years, it will be tempting for Juba's leaders to make a grab for the spoils of peace. Juba will be hard-pressed to divide up its power and revenue to hand over to the states, and even harder pressed to ensure that both are administered responsibly. In countries where power and revenue are centralised in the hands of a few ruling elite sitting in the capital, it is due in part to political will, or lack thereof (ie, greed and corruption) but also in large part to administrative weakness. Simply put, if the elected government decides to build a primary school in the rural state Northern Bahr-El, at the very least, a capable and responsible finance officer must be available locally to receive the funds, put it into the state coffers, and keep track of where it goes. After that, the state must employ effective local administrators, finance and procurement officers, engineers, and builders to carry out the project. The fact of the matter is, after three decades of debilitating war and stark poverty, these essentials are not in place in south Sudan.

The good news is that there is a real opportunity for President Salva Kiir and his state to build a strong foundation for a healthy and autonomous government. The leaders of south Sudan will enjoy immense domestic popularity and international support following the referendum. The president must ensure resources and power are shared with the states to build offices for elected representatives, to recruit and train qualified administrative staff, to ensure regular payment of salaries, and to weed out corruption and graft among the ranks. While much international attention will focus on hot topics such as the drafting of a new constitution and defining a clear north-south border, the real work of nation-building is administrative. The job is extraordinarily un-sexy, tedious, and without early rewards, but it is central to genuine stability and lasting peace.

Of course, only the south Sudanese can ensure the success of their new nation, but international influence will play a part. From 2000 - 2009, international support to south Sudan totaled $8.7 billion. International actors, through diplomacy and development, can prioritise state-level government and administration to ensure that the benefits of peace are felt by south Sudan's citizens throughout all 10 states, and not just in Juba. In this way, south Sudan can take its first critical step in ending the cycle of oppression from which they struggled and sacrificed tremendously to be free.


Mary T An was based in Khartoum for two years with the United Nations and was a consultant in Juba during the referendum