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South Sudan: the dangers within

Nicholas van Praag's picture

 

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    Rational exuberance? Photo: RRS

With a large majority in favor of independence in South Sudan, according to preliminary results from the independent poll body in Juba, the threat of conflict with the North is receding. The main challenges the country faces going forward are likely to come from within.

As we have seen, from Timor-Leste to Liberia, it takes time, strong national leadership and appropriate international support to escape the kind of violent conflict South Sudan has known for more than half of the past 60 years.

We also know there are many false dawns. Fragile states are wracked by repeated cycles of violence that come in a dizzying array of forms—with civil war often coexisting with criminal or gang-related violence.

How to stop these cycles of violent conflict is the focus of the 2011 WDR. Its central thesis is that resilient institutions are the best available antidote to the economic, political and security stress factors that overwhelm fragile states and trap them in repetitive violence.

But before you can start bolstering institutions with any likelihood of success, you need to win public confidence. In most places this means instilling a sense that things will change for the better.

That’s hard when hopes have been dashed many times over. Finding the right narrative and taking actions that will persuade people to suspend their disbelief is a huge challenge for leaders trying to prevent further violence.

In South Sudan, at this point, the problem is less about kindling public trust through confidence building measures than it is managing the exuberance that has been whipped up on the road to independence.

For most people in South Sudan, the horizon stretched no further than the referendum on January 9, according to survey data. The rest was a sub-Saharan version of manifest destiny.

If, as now seems assured, South Sudan becomes an independent state in July 2011, the newly-minted government in Juba will face sky high expectations. This is a daunting prospect for an executive that, fairly or not, is seen as having been slow to deliver since coming to power in 2005.

After all, this is a country that lags on every measure of human development, from child and maternal mortality to the number of kids in primary school and people with access to clean water. 80% of the population lives in absolute poverty.

The problems they face are not only, or even primarily, developmental: differences between South Sudan’s many ethnic groups, which were glossed over during the years of struggle against the common enemy in the North, have already started to loom larger.

Demobilizing part of the large Sudan People’s Liberation Army—and finding jobs for its mostly young veterans—is another challenge, as it is in the aftermath of conflict everywhere. Meanwhile the familiar scourge of corruption weighs upon this resource-rich state.

As the new country sets about a major game of development catch-up, successive polls over the past year show that a majority of the public believes that an independent South Sudan will be able to plough the totality of oil revenues into its own development efforts—despite lack of agreement with Khartoum on revenue sharing or the demarcation of the border in the oil-rich region around Abyei.

For the moment, the people of South Sudan are lined up behind what France’s General de Gaulle described as “a certain idea” of their nation. But history tells us that the window of opportunity can close quickly and the authorities need to seize every opportunity to deliver citizen security, justice and jobs.

We often overlook the fact that passengers in one car are not hurt by hitting another one, but by hitting the inside of their own vehicle. The people of South Sudan, after a long liberation struggle, must now focus on the challenges inside their own country.