During a four-day consultation hosted by the IJR in July with community leaders representing three ethnic groups from the southern Sudanese state of Upper Nile, participants were asked to identify major developmental challenges they currently confront. An elder and paramount chief, who had walked for two days to attend the meeting, William Deng Abol, stood up and explained, ‘God had two sons and promised his old cow to Dinka and its calf to Nuer. But Dinka went to God’s cattle pen at night, imitating the voice of Nuer, thereby managing to get the calf. When God realised what had happened he was very angry and urged Nuer to raid Dinka for cattle as revenge.’
This frequently told, age-old anecdote reflects the many challenges South Sudan faces today. Months away from a long-awaited referendum to decide whether or not to secede from the Arabic North Sudan, now set to take place in January 2011, it outlines some of the difficult tasks a potential new government of South Sudan will face. The anecdote tells of the breakdown of trust between ethnic groups, of the ancient cattle raids, of the clash between old and new cultures and traditions. But most importantly, Abol’s anecdote refers to the vast and nation-wide, low-scale conflict that receives virtually no international attention, but that continues to cost thousands of lives annually.
Cattle raids are part of many Sudanese cultures. Sparked by disputes over grazing land and water, these raids are increasingly violent due to continued arms possession. Sudan’s disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programme – so vital to the country’s post-war reconstruction – has largely failed. According to the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based NGO, gun possession has become a rite of passage in areas of South Sudan. Coupled with the major socioeconomic crises ravaging the South, prospects for peaceful coexistence, nation-building and reconciliation are looking dire.
The January referendum will enable the people of South Sudan to decide on whether to stay unified with the North or secede and form an independent state. Referred to frequently as the ‘final walk to freedom’, the referendum presents the chance to finally be free from northern rule and systemic oppression. Signed in 2005 with the assistance of – and some will argue, under extreme pressure from – the international community, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) brought to an end Sudan’s second brutal civil war, which began in 1983.
At a public meeting held in September in Cape Town, Francis Deng, the special adviser to the UN secretary general on the Prevention of Genocide and Sudanese minister of state for foreign affairs, referred to the CPA as ‘the peace agreement of all peace agreements’. Deng went further to say that if the CPA does not bring lasting peace to Sudan, no agreement can.
Less than one hundred days before the referendum, fears abound that the government of the North will intentionally delay the referendum, thereby sparking a revolt in the South. Given the fact that Sudan’s vast and mostly untapped oil reserves are located in the South, this would come as no surprise. Serious delays have marred the setting up of the South Sudan Referendum Commission. Voter registration for a population estimated between 8.3 and 11 million has officially been postponed to November 2010. Southerners are anxious yet resolute – in their hearts and minds they have already seceded. The referendum is merely a formality, albeit one that promises to be turbulent.
Mustafa Omar Ismail, adviser to President Omar al-Bashir, recently called on Sudanese youth to prepare for war to defend the country against cessation from the North. This was echoed by other senior officials in the ruling National Congress Party, who have publically stated the referendum’s outcome will not be recognised.
In the context of this increasingly hostile rhetoric, political will to prepare for a smooth transition and improve living conditions is in critically short supply in South Sudan. As the threat of hostilities lingers, the incentive to spend the South’s limited budget on reconstruction and development rather than weaponry is minimal. The need could not be more urgent: 90% of the population of South Sudan live on less than one dollar a day. Chronic hunger stands at 33%: in early 2010, the town of Akobo in South Sudan was named the ‘hungriest place on earth’ by the United Nations. The country still suffers one of the worlds’ highest infant mortality rates. Ninety-two percent of women in South Sudan cannot read or write. Tellingly, these statistics originate from a summary sheet issued by the office of the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator for the Sudan entitled ‘Scary Statistics – South Sudan’.
All this presents a gloomy picture for the future of Africa’s largest country. Community leaders in Upper Nile State explain that reconciliation and healing are far-off ideals when everyday life is a struggle. Though they will vote for cessation, they have little confidence that the leadership of an independent South will be able to provide the large-scale reconstruction programmes that are desperately needed. After citing the Dinka-Nuer anecdote, William Deng Abol again stood up and added, ‘Our children are hungry and uneducated, our cattle are sick and our crops are failing. We have no clean drinking water; the hospitals and schools are understaffed and under resourced. We don’t trust our neighbours. It is hard to build peace under these circumstances. How are we meant to reconcile like this?’