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South Sudan: A window of opportunity, or a door back into the past?

August 23, 2011

I just spent a week in Juba, and was struck by two apparently opposing views of the future I heard from South Sudanese people. On the one hand, a fairly predictable pessimism – or perhaps it would be better described as realism. From this perspective, South Sudan faces a troubled near- and medium-term future, beset by problems with its neighbour to the north, and by a host of internal difficulties so vast, they seem beyond the capacity of a new nation to resolve. Meanwhile others expressed their view of the future in terms of what seemed at first to be cautious optimism, along the lines of “if the government gets it right over the next few months, we should be OK”.

This apparent dichotomy is reflected more broadly. At one extreme we find views such as that expressed by Dennis Blair, former head of US national intelligence, who told US Congress last year that among countries at risk of outbreaks of mass violence, “a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in Southern Sudan”. While at the other extreme we find the delirious enthusiasm which greeted South Sudan’s independence last month, after decades of civil war and dashed expectations, and a feeling that it’s now full steam ahead for a brighter future; accompanied by a genuine sense of goodwill within the international community, and a desire to support the world’s newest nation in its first few years of independent existence.

The reality presumably lies somewhere in between. If one examines the “optimism” camp more carefully, it tends to be conditioned by qualifiers such as “if the government gets it right”, and “if Khartoum doesn’t interfere” – neither of which inspires massive optimism based on recent history. Indeed, President Kiir’s 8th August speech to the Legislative Assembly in Juba was sobering, setting out the need to build a new nation by putting the people’s well-being and needs first, through service delivery in education and health, infrastructure development, justice and the rule of law, peace and security, underpinned by a culture of transparency and honesty. He ended with the exhortation to “start work right away”.

President Kiir’s speech was interesting for the balance he sought between what one might call a technical, problem solving approach – providing services, building police posts, fixing the things which new countries need to fix, etc. – and the more inspirational idea of re-creating South Sudan in a new image, characterised by honesty, altruism and putting an end to corruption. I am not sure he got that balance quite right.

Development as a technical challenge

Looking at the challenge of building a prosperous and peaceful South Sudan – starting from a low baseline – I am reminded of the origins of the international agreement (or at least intention) by rich countries to spend 0.7% of their GDP on overseas aid. The source of this figure is clouded by various myths of origin, but one of the more credible is that it was calculated back in the 1960s, based on the need to invest in infrastructure in poor countries. The idea was that, once the infrastructure was in place, development would surely follow; and 0.7% of OECD annual income was approximately what was needed, over a decade or so, to meet this investment deficit in what was then known as the Third World, and bring poorer countries up to par.

It is tempting to apply this model now to South Sudan, which lacks even the most basic all-weather infrastructure of intra- and inter-city roads (it is often said there are less than 100km of paved road in the country), let alone the secondary and tertiary feeder roads needed for the reliable transport of inputs and produce in an agro-pastoral economy. Given the complexities of the political economy in South Sudan, a simplistic formula like this would surely be a welcome relief to government, civil society, businesses and international donors trying to chart a way forward.

Of course one would need to add the human dimension, and invest also in health and education services: clinics, schools, training, educational and health materials, and so on. Quite a challenge in the vast and under-served territory of South Sudan.

Problem solving

Meanwhile the new country’s leaders have some pressing problems to solve. Negotiations with Khartoum over their mutual border, over the cost of exporting southern oil through northern pipelines, over separating the two countries’ currencies, over sharing the national debt, and over the rights and responsibilities of and towards each other’s citizens, to name but a few. Fighting on both sides of the border appears to have been stimulated by secession, and the disputed territory of Abyei remains a potential flashpoint, whence thousands of people have been displaced by violence in recent months.

The police service needs a complete overhaul, and massive investment in training and new police posts. The army needs to be rationalised as a single force and brought under proper civilian control, and ghost soldiers removed from the payroll. New contracts need to be agreed with oil companies. Internal borders need to be clarified. A massive decentralisation process is foreseen – redefining the roles and competencies at different levels of government. Corruption needs to be stamped out…. And so the list goes on.

Setting out a more complex idea of progress

One can look at this long list of challenges and problems (the actual list is far, far longer), and see it as a set of technical accomplishments to be ticked off on a long checklist: perhaps starting with infrastructure and continuing from there. In so doing one can imagine the government and the international community – donors, United Nations agencies, etc. – planning a programme of fund transfers and technical “capacity building” until the list is exhausted. Overall, I’d say this is how President Kiir’s speech sounded: although he started with an exhortation to nation-building, and later made excursions into issues like values, his speech in the end seemed mainly to be about “getting things done”, and was laced through with words like delivery, deliverables, services, etc.

Such things are clearly critical, but they don’t fully describe the challenge facing the South Sudanese, any more than the challenges faced by poor countries in the 1960s could be met by the simple injection of 0.7% of rich country GDP to meet their “investment deficit”. Solving the problems which present themselves – the phenomena of fragility and poverty – is not the same thing as building peace and harnessing South Sudan’s and the South Sudanese people’s development potential. Based on some of the ideas I heard from South Sudanese in Juba last week, I had the impression that the challenge can partly be defined along the following kinds of lines.

Creating a vision and sense of nation. South Sudan has been defined in public discourse as much by what it is not – the Sudan from which it has now seceded – as what it is and can become. A great deal of leadership time and effort at all levels will be needed to create a shared long-term vision, towards which South Sudanese can aspire, and to which they can hold their leaders for making progress. There are many ways to do this, and the process is probably never-ending, but the comments I heard last week in Juba suggest that a great deal of dialogue and debate is needed, focused loosely on the question “what kind of nation do we want to build, and how to get there?”

An evolution in the culture of power. Many of the conflicts in the country are defined around access to political and economic power. The length of time President Kiir is taking over his cabinet reshuffle is a good indicator of how tricky a subject this is: exclusion from the halls of power may push some disaffected members of the elite back to the bush, and the threat or use of the gun. This has already happened.

But it is not just at national level that violence is intertwined with politics: young men in cattle-herding tribes traditionally raid cattle from neighbouring clans or tribes as a way of increasing their economic standing and power in the community. Ethnicity and identity, rather than policy differences, are major factors in determining political alliances locally, and at state and national level. South Sudan has in any case emerged from Sudan, and thus reflects the Sudanese culture of power, characterised by violence, patronage and exclusion, among other factors. As Ugandan Professor Mahmoud Mamdani asked recently “Will the South establish a new political order, or will it reproduce a version of the old political order, such as the old state we know as Sudan?” Perhaps this is what Salva Kiir had in mind when he exhorted members of the Legislative Assembly:

“Let us recreate ourselves, let us find new ways, new thinking and be ready to learn in order to adequately meet new challenges.”

And a nation which is born of violence – civil war with Khartoum, as well as between various southern factions over the years – has a culture of power which is bound up with notions of violence as a means of political expression.

Like it or not, culture expresses the values held in society. It is difficult to change, and there are no blueprints. Indeed, it is particularly difficult for those who have only or mainly known a culture of power tied to violence, to take the lead in changing it; what practical models do they have to draw on, especially locally where people have been less exposed to outside influences and have neither seen nor experienced other cultures of power? But difficult or not, it seems critical for South Sudanese leaders (at all levels, in government, in civil society, and in business) to focus on this issue from now on, and identify ways to begin promoting and instilling a culture of inclusive power, and more functional non-violent relationships between people and peoples.

These measures do not in themselves have to be deeply structural, or huge: many small steps can add up to a decent distance covered. There are many ways to increase the level of popular participation: e.g. when negotiating new contracts with oil companies, involving civil society and local representatives from the different groups in the oil areas, and paying attention to their concerns about pollution, jobs, revenue sharing and infrastructure development; or including opposition politicians in the reshuffled cabinet. There is a lively debate going on about the decentralisation of governance to be as close as possible to the grassroots, and the concept of subsidiarity seems highly relevant, i.e. that decisions should be taken at the lowest appropriate level. This offers the best opportunity for transparent and responsive governance.

Livelihoods. One of the great challenges is the need for decent livelihood opportunities across the country, so that as many South Sudanese as possible benefit sustainably from the peace dividend. This means figuring out – through participatory processes – what kind of economy will best promote peaceful development.

Currently the country is too highly dependent on oil, which accounts for 98% of government revenue, and other extractive sectors like gold mining also beckon. It is of course crucial to obtain government revenues, but an economy dominated by oil and mining supports a political economy which tends towards violence. It creates vast disparities in wealth, yet few jobs, thus fuels a sense of exclusion. It is vulnerable to corruption, skewing political choices towards the self-interest of the elite, ignoring the interests of the majority, and thus undermining moves towards democracy. Meanwhile there are many stories of large tracts of land being bought up by outside investors – perhaps unlawfully sold to them by those who have no right to do so – which risks alienating rural people from the land, and from both its livelihood and its cultural value.

In the short term, there is likely to be a rise in agricultural production provided there is enough stability, as an automatic peace dividend. Infrastructure projects can be designed to be as labour intensive as possible, as a way to create paid work for as many hand as possible. It’s also critical for infrastructure investments to be chosen with an eye on their contribution to peace: e.g. it is important to avoid giving the impression that certain geographic areas linked to particular individuals or groups are more favoured than others, so as to avoid entrenching exclusion or the perception thereof.  Outside investors need to be required to take their time, so their plans can be subject to full, informed scrutiny by all those likely to be affected, and mitigation measures put in place where there is a risk of social or economic disruption. Contracts with oil and mining companies will need to be negotiated firmly, to ensure they pay adequate attention to their corporate responsibilities – and some existing contracts will need renegotiating.

Security and justice. In President Kiir’s speech he highlighted the need for improved security and justice. His focus was on improving the professionalism of police and security institutions, and on building police stations and prisons. He did not mention the plans – which are quite well developed – to work at a very local Payam level, to find ways to enhance the security of people in their communities.

In the discussions I had, people were keen to look beyond the formal justice and security services: recognising the importance of the “traditional” and less formal mechanisms on which South Sudanese often rely, while also aware that such mechanisms are often quite unfair, and can also entrench dysfunctional relationships between communities.

Last week there were relatively large scale armed clashes between Murle and Lou-Nuer, in which many people died, continuing a recent trend. The authorities and communities have to find ways to reduce the likelihood and intensity of these kinds of “tribal” conflicts, and prevent them from being manipulated and escalated by militia leaders; this is not just about forcible disarmament, since new weapons will easily become available to replace the ones taken away.


The window of opportunity, and how to seize rather than squander it

One way to see the situation in South Sudan is as a window of opportunity: new nation, enthusiastic people, plenty of international support and goodwill. It is of tremendous importance not only to seize this opportunity now, but also to define carefully and accurately what the opportunity actually represents, as this time will not come round again.

The lesson for me, from listening to discussions among South Sudanese in Juba last week, is that it seems essential to broaden the discourse – frame the opportunity – to include not just what I have called technical challenges and problem solving, but to embrace a genuine and honest vision of what a peaceful South Sudan might look and feel like in the future, and then start to map out the pathways towards that vision. There is no lack of ideas, but they need framing in a way which creates useful clues about what progress will look like, so that it can be measured not just by technical jobs done, and practical challenges met, but also by incremental movement towards that vision.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Philip. permalink
    August 30, 2011 10:42 am

    Does IA have a role there, and are there many other NGO’s actively helping?

    • September 1, 2011 1:28 pm

      Yes, there are many NGOs and others actively helping in a lot of different ways; meanwhile Alert is currently implementing a research project there, looking at opportunities for peacebuilding, on behalf of one of the donors and an international NGO, and working with South Sudanese researchers.

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