When I arrived in South Sudan in November 2005, the scars of war were everywhere.
Intermittent power came from generators, there was no clean drinking water, schools were little more than benches under mango trees, and the telecommunications system relied on expensive satellite phones. For the first six months of my four-year stay, I lived in a tent, albeit one affording me more protection than the millions of Southern Sudanese displaced by conflict between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.
With the ink just dry on the much-anticipated Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed on 9 January 2005, jubilation and a sense of possibility prevailed.
Six years later, on 9 July 2011, the Republic of South Sudan became the world’s newest independent state. After a difficult birth, borne out of decades-long conflict and immeasurable suffering, the nation celebrates its first birthday today.
Congratulations are due to the South Sudanese people for showing the world that having held the country together during the six-year long peace agreement period, they have been able to face the challenging transition to becoming a democratic nation. But South Sudan is not out of the woods yet and as a country with one of the largest South Sudanese diasporas, Australia has a special role to play in nurturing the new nation’s development.
The road to Juba
In 2005, South Sudanese refugees who had been in camps in neighbouring countries, or living as displaced people in Sudan’s capital Khartoum for decades, were making plans to return home on barges down the Nile river or trekked perilous roads southward.
What they returned to find was a region long neglected from years of civil war. South Sudan had less than 50 kilometres of paved roads, many littered with landmines and unexploded bombs. In addition to non-existent infrastructure and an urgent need to improve critical health, social and educational indicators throughout the country, South Sudan faced many political tests during the peace agreement period.
Perhaps the most serious was the sudden death in 2005 of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement leader – Dr John Garang, just weeks after he was sworn in as President of South Sudan. Dr John, as he was known to all, was the charismatic, unifying figure during the civil war. He negotiated the Comprehensive Peace Agreement on behalf of South Sudan. His place was filled by Salva Kiir, who remains the current President of South Sudan.
Many doubts about the future for South Sudan disappeared last year as we watched the jubilation of South Sudanese who, from the world’s newest capital city of Juba, to the Melbourne suburb of Footscray, voted in last year’s referendum for independence from Sudan.
A parlous state
As the flag of the Republic of South Sudan was raised on 9 July 2011, I was reminded that independence is merely another stage on South Sudan’s path to peace with an incredible amount of work still to be done.
Reaching agreement with Sudan on territorial rights to oil fields and sharing oil revenue has quickly risen to the fore as critical issues in need of a resolution. Sudan and South Sudan are rich in oil resources and although some privately call this a curse rather than a blessing, oil provides a sizeable revenue source to both the north and south, with a small proportion distributed to oil producing states, such as Abyei.
In spite of much effort, including international arbitration, the promised north-south border demarcation has not happened and in recent months tensions have spilled over into conflicts that have seen more lives lost. With oil-rich Abyei on the border, demarcation must be resolved as a matter of urgency.
Abyei itself is a potential flashpoint. The planned referendum to determine if it would join Sudan or South Sudan, has been postponed indefinitely due to disputes over the voting rights of nomadic groups in the area. That South Sudan’s referendum for secession took place as agreed on 9 January 2011, shows that where there is the will, matched with strong international support, there is a way. But history tells us that even greater scrutiny is needed where oil rights and unclear borders are concerned.
We should not forget that the South Sudanese are negotiating with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, the first head of state indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur more than two years ago. Bashir currently faces his own challenges with rare public expressions of dissent on the rise in the capital Khartoum.
Australia’s new diplomatic presence in Ethiopia, the headquarters of the African Union, provides an opportunity to influence developments in the region. Thankfully the South Sudanese Australian community, who often express an affinity with the people of Darfur, will also assist us to keep a watchful eye on events in the region.
The first year of South Sudan’s life has seen mixed results.
Starting from a very low base with some of the worst development indicators in the world, there have been significant improvements in South Sudan’s school enrolment rates, strengthening of health care services and reductions in child and maternal mortality rates.
At the same time, the rapid scale-up of government has been plagued by accusations of corruption, jeopardising people’s confidence in the government. Worse still, the consequences of over-looking justice and reconciliation during peace efforts are now being fully grasped, with rising inter-ethnic conflict displacing tens of thousands and the cause of more than 3000 deaths in 2011.
Ensuring security and protection for civilians in an environment where small arms and light weapons are prevalent should involve the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission which includes Australian defence force personnel.
During my time in South Sudan I was captivated by people’s commitment to make the most of their costly struggle for peace. It would be a shame for us to mistake the referendum as the end point.
As Australia considers its relationship with the countries of Africa, the support that aided Southern Sudanese to have their say at the ballot box, must be maintained to help South Sudan reach beyond independence.