As agreed in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended one of the bloodiest and longest wars in Africa, South Sudan will hold a referendum on self-determination between January 9-15 2011. The southerners will be asked to decide whether to remain in a united Sudan or form an independent country.
It is widely expected that the majority of the registered voters will chose separation. While a lot may happen in the next few months leading up to the likely proclamation of independence in July, it is important to start looking at the challenges the new country will face in the short, medium and long-term.
Even if the referendum goes peacefully and Khartoum and other governments quickly recognize an independent South Sudan, the amount of work that needs to be done in the south is enormous. South Sudan had been blatantly marginalized first by the British colonial administration and then by the various military and civilian governments in Khartoum. Whatever little development the region saw since 1956, it was largely destroyed during four decades of war.
Apart from the reconstruction and development that has to take place, the government of South Sudan will have to carefully manage the expectations of its population. Southerners, who for generations fought for freedom and hoped to get a chance to decide their destiny, will expect that their lives will improve once they get independence.
This, however, will not be easy and quick as the needs on the ground are immense. The politicians in South Sudan will have to be careful with what they promise. At the same time, they will have to quickly improve the delivery of basic services such as water, electricity, health care and education.
In addition to economic development and the need to diversify its economy and move away from over-dependence on oil revenues, the south will have to work hard on state- and nation-building. The southerners will have to create a nation and build a common identity that is based on more than the animosity towards the north. They will have to manage ethnic diversity of South Sudan, create an open political space, decentralize governance, share power and resources equally among regions, fight corruption, protect people’s rights and improve the capacity of the people working for the government and ensure that the qualified, not the connected, get positions.
Many around the world wonder if South Sudan will be able to govern itself in case its people vote for separation. Instead of asking this question, they should ask who else but the southerners should govern South Sudan. The British did it and left behind an awful mess. Northern Sudanese took over from the British and went on a genocidal rampage, killing a few million people in the process. After so many decades of oppression, marginalization and neglect, it is time to give a chance to South Sudanese to decide their destiny and build their own state, economy and nation.
Since 2005, South Sudanese have made great progress, creating institutions and a fairly stable region almost from scratch. However, there is still a very long way to go and so much work to be done. To succeed, people in the south will need a lot of help and assistance from Africa and the world but the southerners themselves will have to lead the state- and nation-building process.
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Savo Heleta is a DPhil candidate in Development Studies at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, focusing on post-conflict reconstruction, development, peace-building and state-building. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org