Poverty, few roads in what could be Africa's newest nation
Lual Dau Peter was barely 3 years old when the war in Southern Sudan erupted in 1983. He survived when his father and many relatives were killed during the war, braved chilly nights and scorching sun trekking through the Sudan and worked in shifts while attending school in Uganda.
Now, he is one of the almost 4 million Southern Sudanese who are expected to vote before week’s end on a decisive referendum that could bring about Africa’s newest country.
“I am voting for secession,” Peter said. “This journey has come to an end.”
This week, Southern Sudanese like Peter are changing not only Sudan but the region and possibly the world. The referendum is expected to spark economic and political change throughout Africa.
“The question is no longer about secession,” said Caroline Njuki, a Kenyan scholar who has specializes in conflict management and humanitarian intervention, “but rather, how the new country will move on after the vote.”
Key among these changes will be on how the oil reserves of the south will benefit the region, especially in the way in which it is exported and sold. Oil in the south runs through pipes in the north and is exported through Port Sudan in the Red Sea.
However, a proposed port in Lamu, Kenya could transform that. Kenya could be in a strategic position to benefit from a new southern Sudanese country. There are an estimated 70,000 Sudanese in Kenya in transportation, hospitality, banking and construction.
The Kenya National Examination Council is offering education curriculum to students in southern Sudan, while there are plans under way to help Southern Sudan establish a similar education system.
In Juba, the infrastructure is modest at best. Basic necessities such as water, electricity and drainage systems remain on blueprint and largely absent in reality. Diesel generators team up into a cacophony of rumbling noise and choking smoke. A new power plant, commissioned 1 1/2 months ago has come to a grinding halt. There’s no diesel fuel to run it, a government official explained.
After all the cameras and news crews covering the referendum have left Juba, the south, already crippled by widespread illiteracy and nearly no infrastructure, will be forced to forge a working relationship with the northern government in Khartoum.
“There’s no enmity between us and the north,” said Gai Chatiem, an adviser in the Southern Sudanese government. “The people still feel that they are brothers, brothers of the Nile. But political forces want to manipulate this and use to their advantage.”
In the coming months, the oil-rich enclave of Abyei will keep both sides restless. A successful resolution will ensure stability for both governments and especially for the south as it takes its first baby steps towards nationhood.
The referendum was peaceful in its first day, but the threat of violence remains. The Kenyan government, alongside the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, set up contingency plans to receive up to 20,000 refugees if the referendum doesn’t go as planned. Besides, a further 80,000 refugees will be received within the year if the violence goes on after the referendum.
There is also intensified security along the border between Kenya and Sudan, where the refugees would be processed if they flee.
“The mood so far suggests that it will be peaceful,” said Zach Vertin, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. “Nothing can be allowed to go wrong in this referendum; in fact it is long overdue.”
But if the vote ends in yet another war for trauma-weary Sudan, it could mean, in addition to widespread loss of life, a loss of $25 billion in gross domestic product for Sudan’s neighbors and a bill of $30 billion for humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts by the international community, states “The Cost of Future Conflict in Sudan,” a report by a partnership of European and African researchers.
Another challenge to south Sudanese leaders is how to deal with Somalia, another area of ongoing violence. If Southern Sudan officially recognized Somaliland, which has long sought autonomy from Somalia, the balance on regional geo-politics could tip.
So for, Southern Sudan is playing the neutral card.
“We won’t interfere,” said Chatiem. “We know what war means and we want to get people out of it, not sink them deeper.”
Instead of dabbling in the affairs of other nations, some say South Sudanese leaders should focus on the problems at home.
“There’s no running water and electricity and the people may not even be mentally prepared,” said Imad Fahim, a Egyptian who has lived in Sudan for six years. “You can’t promise people cake and cream when you can only afford bread and water. The government has to be realistic enough and avoid raising false hopes.”
But the government has high hopes.
“We are going to deliver,” Chatiem said. “The people of South Sudan can expect to see a change in their lives.”
Countless Southern Sudanese are taking Chatiem at his word.
“We have been waiting for so long,” said Peter Ruei excitedly, as he showed his voter’s card and his blue-dipped index finger. “We are going. We are going out of colonialism and discrimination. We are going home.”
(Abdi Latif Dahir reported from Nairobi, and Suleiman Abdullahi reported from Juba, Sudan.)