Not Everything is a Celebration as South Sudan Prepares for Independence

As South Sudan prepares for its official independence from Sudan, there is currently little cause for celebration.

South Sudan overwhelmingly voted for independence in January 2011, fulfilling a peace agreement that ended a decades long civil war between the Arab north and the predominantly Christian and Animist south. Despite the scenes of jubilation that followed the official announcement in February, tension and violence remains in the region, with both sides blaming the other.

There are lingering issues that have not been resolved. Most prominently is the status of Abyei, the oil rich region that was supposed to vote in its own election the same day as the referendum to determine if it was going to be a part of Sudan or South Sudan. However, this election failed to take place due to a disagreement over who was eligible to participate in the vote. While the region is primarily Christian, there is a Sudan-based tribe, the Misseriya, that grazes in the region periodically throughout the year. While some thought the Misseriya should be included in the election, others opposed their voting.

Because of this failed election, Abyei still remains a highly contested issue, with both sidesincluding it in their newly written (or rewritten) constitutions. Sudan President Omer Al-Bashir has announced that if South Sudan's constitution keeps this inclusion, he would no longer recognize its independence.

Why is Abyei so important? Simply speaking, oil. South Sudan holds almost all of the oil. While Sudan has the refineries, they lack any of the reserves. Add to this the poorer soil quality, as the country is mostly desert, and the growing tensions over Nile water rights, and the economic prospects for Sudan look grim.

On the contrary, South Sudan has both oil reserves and lush soil. While they currently claim torecognize existing Nile River treaties, these usage rights could need to be completely renegotiated, especially considering there is a growing chorus in against them. It would not be surprising to see Juba side with their African neighbors. This agreement has unfairly resulted in Egypt and Sudan receiving a disproportionate amount of the water allowance, leaving the neighboring countries in precarious water situations. 

Khartoum has little reason to be satisfied, but Juba shouldn’t be too happy either. With growing internal conflict and rising political opposition to the SPLM and arguably Silva Kiir himself, the state of South Sudan could be in for rough roads before it even officially gains its independence.

Cattle raids and increased militia attacks are further marring the earlier jubilation. Estimates place more than 1000 dead since January. While Juba blames Khartoum for trying to destabilize South Sudan, it is equally possible that the lack of support for Kiir is finally being clearly expressed. With the vote for independence cast, and the civil war over (at least for now), attention can now be paid to the internal issues that have remained relatively silent for years: the general dislike of President Silva Kiir.

Silva Kiir took over as head of the SPLM after John Garang, the former president died in 2005 shortly after signing the peace agreement. While Garang is often remembered fondly and beloved by the people of South Sudan, Kiir has not experienced the same level of overwhelming support. For this reason, it comes as no surprise that opposition groups have rejected his intentions to include a clause in the constitution stipulating he would be president for fours years following the independence. Furthering the opposition quarrels with Kiir and the SPLM are claims Kiir has violated rules of procedure while drafting the constitution.

While the relatively peaceful elections and the confirmation of an independent South Sudan are deserving of accolades, there are still many unresolved issues that can lead to further conflict in a country that has seen more years of war than they have peace since the end of British rule in the 1956.

Photo Credit: UN Multimedia

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Kathleen O'Neill

Kathleen O'Neill is interested in migration and refugee issues as well as international politics, with a particular interest in the Middle East. She has a double BA in economics and international studies with a concentration in Middle East studies from Washington College in Maryland. She has an MA in Middle East studies and a graduate diploma in migration and refugee studies from the American University in Cairo, Egypt. Kathleen has co-authored two short articles published by the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC and London Middle East Institute at SOAS. She has lived in the MENA region for more than seven years.

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