News / Africa

After Independence, South Sudan Faces Serious Challenges Ahead

Refugees wait for food aid to be distributed near the volatile border with the north, in Yida refugee camp in South Sudan, November 16, 2011.
Refugees wait for food aid to be distributed near the volatile border with the north, in Yida refugee camp in South Sudan, November 16, 2011.

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Gabe Joselow

As the euphoria from a hard-won independence subsides, South Sudan now must turn to face enormous development challenges. Meanwhile, the threat of a return to war and outstanding political and economic tensions with the north remain the darkest clouds hovering over the world's newest nation.

When South Sudan declared its independence on July 9 of this year, it entered into sovereignty as one of the world's poorest nations lacking basic infrastructure, industry and health care.

One startling statistic that was frequently quoted by the United Nations and the international media around the time of independence is that a 15-year-old girl in South Sudan has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than of completing school.

South Sudan's first president, Salva Kiir, presented this sobering reminder of the challenges for the country during his inauguration address.

President of South Sudan Salva Kiir Mayardit (file photo)
President of South Sudan Salva Kiir Mayardit (file photo)

"All the indexes of human welfare put us at the bottom of all humanity," said Kiir.  "All citizens of this nation must, therefore, fully dedicate their energies and resources to the construction of a vibrant economy."

To pull itself out of poverty, the country is calling for greater investment from its international partners.

Kiir recently attended a conference in Washington encouraging businesses and governments to invest in South Sudan.  He said in particular, the country could use more investment in technology, banking and agriculture.

As of now, 98 percent of South Sudan's revenues are derived from oil exports.  And the country, at its creation, inherited three-quarters of the known oil reserves in the former united Sudan.

Drilling tubing is piled next to the drilling site number 102 in the Unity oil field in South Sudan (2010 file photo).
Drilling tubing is piled next to the drilling site number 102 in the Unity oil field in South Sudan (2010 file photo).

Speaking at the investment conference, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned the country's oil wealth is either a blessing or a curse.

"We know that it will either help your country finance its own path out of poverty, or you will fall prey to the natural resource curse, which will enrich a small elite, outside interests, corporations and countries and leave your people hardly better off than when you started," said Clinton.

While South Sudan may control oil production, all of the refineries and export capacity are still controlled by Sudan in the north.

The two nations are now in negotiations about the cost of a transit fee that South Sudan will pay to the north for the use of two cross-border pipelines.

Jennifer Christian of the Enough Project says while a transit fee is common practice, the north may be trying to exploit the south.

"The government of Sudan very much would like to see a transit fee imposed on South Sudan and has requested some very, very high numbers, as high as $32 a barrel which is, if you look at quote on quote industry standards throughout the world, this is a very high fee," said Christian.

The oil dispute spills into other conflicts remaining between the newly divorced countries, including the status of the oil-rich Abyei region.

The northern army overran the region in May of this year, displacing the entire population.

Fighting has also continued between northern and southern forces in other areas including the Nuba mountains and Blue Nile states.  The north as also been accused this year of bombing refugee camps in the south.

Underscoring the threat of a return to war, the chief of staff of the Southern People's Liberation Army (SPLA), General James Hoth Mai, recently told graduates from a military officer's college in Lakes State that the country is still in a "confrontation stage" with its northern neighbor.  He said the young officers should be prepared if "worst comes to worst."

But one of the more hopeful developments this year for South Sudan has been the re-engagement of its massive diaspora community.  Many of the young South Sudanese who fled war and found education in other parts of the world, say they want to be involved in building their country.

Lual Dau is the chairperson of the South Sudanese Students Association of Kenya.

"Actually we don't encourage people to wait because the more you wait the more there is nobody to do it," said Dau.  "As there is nothing at home I always encourage people, what do you feel as an individual that you will contribute to that empty land. Take your chair that you're going to sit on, it will be a development. Go and build your tukul [hut] that you'll be sleeping in, that will be a development. So that is why we encourage everybody to come back home. There is no development without people."

It was a historic year for South Sudan.  Independence brought pledges of goodwill and good intentions from across the international community.  But now that the celebrations have started to die down, we may finally be able to see if the country can stand on its own feet.

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