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Out of the Earth: Nation-Building in South Sudan

ISSUE:  Winter 2010

Wheels only inches above the runway, the old plane shuddered and accelerated sharply, and we began climbing back into the sky over Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Looking down, I saw the turret of what I hoped was an unmanned anti-aircraft gun poking out of the grass. We had barely cleared the airport when the plane began to bank dramatically, and we slid into a tight u-turn over the Nile River. When we leveled off we were again on approach, this time from the opposite direction. The brush surrounding this end of the runway was free of heavy artillery, but festooned with the unmistakable charred remains of a plane that hadn’t made it.

I wondered if I should have taken the road. Much had changed since the 2005 peace accord brought a halt to the twenty-one-year war between North and South Sudan, a conflict in which over two million people died and four million more had been displaced, and the once-mined and dilapidated dirt roads from neighboring Uganda and Kenya were now passable. The peace had also led to a growing number of commercial flights between Juba and regional cities, and I had chosen this option—in retrospect, perhaps a bit too hastily.

Earlier that November morning, I had boarded my flight in Nairobi. We had flown northwest over the Great Rift Valley and cut across the green mountains of Uganda; as we descended through the clouds I had caught my first glimpse of South Sudan. It is one of the least developed regions in the world, with less than ten miles of paved roads across its 227,000 square miles—an area nearly one-and-a-half times the size of California—and as I peered out, I had seen nothing but dry red earth dotted with occasional clusters of mud huts. There were no roads, no vehicles, and no buildings. The only indication that we were nearing Juba, South Sudan’s urban center, had been a slight increase in the number of huts and the appearance of a few dirt roads.

Facing this barren landscape, it was hard not to be awed by the magnitude of the human and infrastructural development challenge facing the young government of South Sudan. The former rebels had assumed responsibility for a population estimated by the UN Population Fund to be anywhere between 7.5 and 9.7 million, of which as many as a third were believed to be displaced. In an age when “nation-building” had come to mean something done by outsiders, the Southern rebel movement had refashioned itself into a civilian government. It was trying simultaneously to build its own administrative structures, provide basic public services, and facilitate economic development, all while contending with the threat still posed by the North.

I was on my way to Juba to explore what this process meant on the ground, as rebel soldiers became government bureaucrats, battle-worn citizens awaited the promised benefits of peace, and a bombed-out garrison town became their first capital. Was it possible to build a government and develop a nation out of little more than dirt and determination? And could it be done while the threat of renewed war hung overhead?

In the days leading up to my trip, this threat had become ever more real as a political crisis between Juba and Khartoum escalated. Just a few days before my flight, the South had publicly accused the North of “mobilizing for war,” and there was mounting concern that the peace deal might be about to collapse. If it did, it would have devastating consequences for the South Sudanese and for an already highly troubled region. I was anxious to get on the ground.

Defying expectations and apparent past precedent, we landed safely and rolled to a stop beside a line of white UN planes. I walked across the tarmac into the one-room arrivals terminal, a chamber that was bare but for a long table in the center and a dozen battered black armchairs lining the back wall. Two men in uniform sat behind the table and as I approached, one pushed a Dickensian ledger towards me. I wrote down my vitals—name, passport number, nationality, and so on—while the second officer examined my documents. I was a bit nervous; my Travel Permit listed my nationality as “AEMRICAN” and misprinted some of my passport details—but he was unperturbed. He stamped my passport and turned to the passenger behind me.

Across the room, my bag had been passed through an opening in the wall and deposited on the floor. I picked it up and presented it to a third officer behind the same long desk who, looking intensely bored, glanced inside and slapped a sticker on its side. I walked to the exit, had my sticker verified by a man in civilian clothes, and stepped outside, dazed, into a dirt parking lot. I was facing a line of parked SUVs, nearly all white with “UN” stenciled on their doors and hoods. Behind them was a short line of small billboards. One advertised the “New York Hotel and Discotheque: Coming Soon!” and another the “Summer Palace Business Hotel: Life is a status!”

The remnants of war—the dilapidated airport, the nascent immigration authority, the armada of UN aircraft and vehicles, the hints of a burgeoning hospitality industry, the fact that mere life itself qualified as “status”—all reflected today’s South Sudan. My “Travel Permit” was particularly telling; I had entered South Sudan not with a visa from a Sudanese Embassy, but a square piece of cardboard affixed with my photo, a stamp, and a silver star sticker that had been issued with few questions by the Nairobi office of the government of South Sudan. It was reportedly only recently that the Juba authorities had begun also accepting official Khartoum-issued visas.

The arrangement reflected the political ambiguity of South Sudan today. Under the terms of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA), Sudan effectively became a loose confederation of “one country, two systems.” The new government of South Sudan was given near total autonomy to manage their affairs while remaining formally a part of the Republic of Sudan. The president of South Sudan—who assumed the office by virtue of his position as head of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and Army (SPLM/A)—was to serve simultaneously as the First Vice-President of Sudan. In Khartoum, the SPLM joined the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) to form a Government of National Unity.

It’s an arrangement that will likely prove short lived. The latest installment of the North-South war began in 1984, when Southerners, who are predominantly Christian, took up arms against a Khartoum government that had imposed strict Islamic law across the entire country. The initial Southern goal was reform and greater representation in Khartoum—to create what their charismatic leader John Garang called a “New Sudan”—but as the conflict wore on, there were increasing calls for southern secession. The Peace Accord reflected this, and promised the South a referendum on independence in 2011.

In these interim years, both sides are committed to making unity “attractive” to Southerners, but after decades of oppression by and war with Khartoum, this will be a hard sell. A focus group study—the closest thing to a public opinion poll in South Sudan—was conducted by the National Democratic Institute in 2007 and found public support for independence to be “overwhelming.” Salva Kiir Mayardit, who succeeded Garang as president of South Sudan after he was killed in a 2005 helicopter crash, is also believed to favor independence.

Indeed, the only scenario in which Southerners might be persuaded to change their minds hinges on the successful conduct of national elections now scheduled for April 2010. If the SPLM is allowed to compete nationally and if the elections are free and fair, it is conceivable that Southerners might decide they would benefit from remaining within the union—particularly in the unlikely event that a Southerner assumed the Presidency in Khartoum. But with the NCP widely expected to circumvent an election it would almost certainly lose, Southerners will almost certainly proclaim their independence within the next two years—through a vote if given the chance or, if not, through a unilateral declaration.

Driving into town from the airport that morning, I could see that South Sudan was already a sovereign state in everything but name. I passed the headquarters of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the South’s own military force, while a short drive further down the road were the ministries for everything from Education to Health to Agriculture. The South boasts a separate legislature, as well as a judiciary independent from that in the North. Although foreign affairs remain the purview of the “national” ministry, the South nonetheless operates a “Ministry of Regional Cooperation” that maintains nine missions in foreign capitals (including Washington DC).

In one critical way, however, the South remains dependent on the North: under the terms of the Peace Accord, Khartoum controls all of Sudan’s considerable oil resources. It is required to give the South half of all revenues earned from southern fields, which amounts to more than $1 billion per year, but the transfers vary considerably from month to month. The vast majority of this money goes to pay government salaries, with the remainder of the government’s budget covered by foreign donors, who at the time of the CPA pledged a total of $4.5 billion to the South’s reconstruction and development and deployed a small army of international aid agencies and development organizations to help spend it.

There are more than 10,000 UN peacekeepers in the South, but even they may not be enough to keep the CPA intact.

The oil revenue sharing system is fraught with problems, beginning with frequent delays in transfers and Juba’s inability to ensure it receives its fair share. But it is particularly contentious because of the disputed North-South border, around which much of Sudan’s oil is concentrated. The CPA created an international commission to determine the boundary, but the NCP rejected the original ruling. In May 2008 fighting broke out between Southern and Northern troops in the border town of Abyei, killing dozens and displacing an estimated 50,000 civilians. Subsequent international mediation produced a new border demarcation to which both sides have agreed, but tensions in the area remain high.

In an attempt to maintain this fragile peace, there are more than 10,000 UN peacekeepers in the South, but even they may not be enough to keep the CPA intact. In the weeks before I arrived, a sudden political crisis revealed the peace’s continued vulnerability. For months, the government of South Sudan had complained that Khartoum was dragging its heels on key CPA obligations; it was particularly aggrieved by Khartoum’s rejection of the border commission ruling, its tardy transfers of oil revenues, and its failure to withdraw troops from the South according to schedule.

To protest this intransigence, the SPLM abruptly withdrew its ministers from the Government of National Unity. Relations between Juba and Khartoum steadily deteriorated, and in the following month Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir delivered a fiery speech to the People’s Defense Force, a Northern militia originally founded to fight the South, calling on them to “open their training camps and to gather mujahideen . . . to be ready for anything.”

A week before I flew to Juba, Salva Kiir returned from a visit to the United States. He met first with his senior leadership and then drove to the tomb of John Garang in central Juba. Crowds lined the streets, and a police band sang, “We shall never, never . . . never surrender.” Diplomats feared the worst, but on this sacred ground and before his troops, Kiir vowed, “The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement is committed to peace . . . The SPLM under my leadership will not and shall not take people back to war.” A new war had been averted—but North-South relations were as tense as they had been at any point since the signing of the CPA.

As I began to explore Juba, I came quickly to see the magnitude of challenges facing South Sudan as it sought to build both a government and its capital. During the war, Juba had been a central Northern garrison into which Khartoum funneled men and material, and as the war dragged on, Juba was subject to heavy Southern artillery barrages that damaged or destroyed most of the few buildings that had once stood. When the guns quieted, Juba was left with just a couple of potholed paved roads and a handful of crumbling concrete buildings.

It had grown rapidly since the SPLM named it their capital in late 2005, inundated with a flood of SPLM cadres, Southern returnees, and international aid workers. From around 65,000 people in 2005, the town’s population is now estimated to be somewhere between 250,000 and one million residents. Its expansion is taking place with only the barest of supervision, and the town’s infrastructure is only beginning to catch up.

Just four years ago, a senior government official estimated, there were perhaps ten cars in Juba. Today, the red dirt roads are crowded with growing numbers of cheap Chinese motorbikes, hulking SUVs, and overloaded trucks, along with scattered packs of goats, cows, and donkeys. In the weeks before I arrived the government had launched a laborious effort to pave the central thoroughfares, forcing most of Juba’s growing traffic onto even smaller roads, confusing drivers and worsening the clouds of red dust which had settled over town. With new commercial destinations sprouting up in isolated corners of town, SUV trails were being blazed around people’s huts and across dirt fields to provide access.

In the war’s aftermath, standard road rules had yet to emerge as a priority. Rumors of local regulations were spread by word-of-mouth; the week I arrived, it was being whispered that vehicles approaching intersections were now expected to use their signals when turning and to flash their hazard lights if plowing straight ahead. While out walking, I came across traffic policemen manning major intersections for what must have been the first time. Dressed in bright white uniforms, they stood not in the intersection but under trees by the roadside, almost entirely out of sight. Standing rigid, looking miserable, they occasionally dipped a gloved hand as though to signal the traffic. The drivers, entirely oblivious of this new authority figure, drove on undeterred, hazard lights blinking.

Along the largest of these roads were a near constant series of construction projects, the bulk of which were offices and the occasional commercial enterprise. There were still few solid residences to go around, although there was a short string of dilapidated mansions that lined a road near my compound and served as the official residences of senior ministers. The situation was of little concern to the vast majority of locals living in huts, but it was of great interest to the expatriate development workers, most of whom lived, as I did, in safari-style tents raised within a dozen or so walled compounds. The most notable exception to this housing crunch were the blessed residents of the compound of the US Agency for International Development, which boasted one of Juba’s two pools (the other belonged to the Norwegian Embassy, which invited the local Nordic community over for a swim each weekend).

Between the peace and the foreigners, Juba was experiencing an economic boom like never before. Available at its two markets was anything that could be trucked in from Uganda or Kenya—clothes, beer, electronics, toiletries, household goods, traditional medicines, and more. There was also a second parallel economy that had formed around the foreign community and its generous hazard pay. Most visible were the tented compounds, run by foreign companies and able to charge upwards of $100 per night for a safari tent with little more than a cot and a fan. There were also a dozen restaurants and bars, offering expatriates living in one of the world’s least developed towns the chance to sip glasses of fresh orange juice (ten dollars), enjoy slices of fresh apple pie (twenty dollars), and dig into homemade pizzas (twenty-five dollars). An old family mansion had been refurbished and unveiled as a “boutique hotel,” and, by providing simple but comfortable rooms with big beds, air conditioning, and hot water, was charging upwards of $300 a night and enjoying full occupancy. Like most of the lucrative enterprises targeted towards the expatriate community, the hotel was owned by foreign investors and staffed predominantly by Kenyan or Ethiopian employees. There was growing frustration within the government that so much of the enormous sums being spent by the expat community was going straight into the pockets of other foreigners and out of the country.

Despite its dirt roads, crumbling buildings, sporadic cell phone coverage, and scattered access to electricity and clean water, Juba boasted the most advanced development in South Sudan. Outside of Juba and a few other urban centers, there was virtually no modern development and only the loosest of administrative frameworks through which services and resources could be delivered. Most communities continued to live in near-total physical isolation, often in areas still littered with mines. Surveying the situation in 2005, the Minister for Finance predicted that “all of South Sudan will be a construction site for the next six years.”

The development challenges are much greater than lack of infrastructure; the government of South Sudan is trying to serve some of the world’s most desperate people. The vast majority of South Sudanese will spend their lives in rural areas as subsistence farmers, deeply vulnerable to droughts, with an average life expectancy of just forty-two years. More than 75 percent of the rural population lacks access to safe water, with terrible consequences; of the quarter of all Southern children who don’t make it to the age of five, an estimated 48 percent die from water related diseases. Nearly half of all children under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition, while at the time of the CPA there was less than one doctor for every 100,000 people in South Sudan. Only 24 percent of adults and 12 percent of women are literate. Complicating any provision of services is the continued fluidity of the population; more than 350,000 refugees and internally displaced returned to their homes across the region during 2007 alone. Major efforts to bring home more refugees have continued, but at least one international refugee organization has publicly called on the government to slow mass returns and focus instead on reintegrating and providing services to those who have already come home.

The government’s ability to address these dire needs is hampered by the lack of qualified staff to be found amongst this impoverished and uneducated population. Its ministries were established in October 2005, but more than a year later some were still operating with less than a dozen employees. To staff this new civil service, the government has turned to returnees, the South Sudanese who left during the fighting and earned degrees abroad of varying quality and relevance, and to former rebels, soldiers-turned-bureaucrats who earned their positions not by their expertise in, say, health services or financial management, but through their military service. Together, these teams of locals, returnees, and ex-soldiers are attempting not just to run a bureaucracy, but to build it from scratch: to propose laws and regulations, determine policies and priorities, establish mechanisms and procedures. And to do it all without working phone lines.

This is where the international assistance comes in, at least in theory—to provide critically needed technical expertise to fill the wide gaps in local knowledge and training. I counted twenty-one UN agencies and seventy-two international NGOs operating in South Sudan, working in sectors ranging from basic infrastructure to good governance, education to mine action. Many provide expert staff to work within the ministries, with varying degrees of success. One technical expert I spoke with had been hired by the UN to advise a government ministry in his field of specialty, but instead found himself helping with more mundane issues, like preparing a schedule for vehicle maintenance.

Walking around Juba, it is impossible to miss the more visible of the government’s achievements—the vibrant market economy with its imports from Uganda and Kenya, the enormous level of international assistance, the small but growing influx of foreign investment, and the steady transformation of the town itself. The government and its international partners have also had some successes in the delivery of public services, as President Kiir noted in detail during an address celebrating the third anniversary of the CPA:

Our Ministry of Education, Science and Technology succeeded in increasing enrollment of pupils by almost three times, from 343,000 in 2005 to over 1 million in 2007. The enrollment of female pupils increased to over 31 percent in 2007. Also, the Ministry of Health managed in 2007 to supply essential medicines to over 1,000 health facilities being managed by over 1,600 health professionals, while over 60,000 treated bed nets were distributed. The Ministry of Cooperatives and Rural Development managed in 2007 to construct about 306 new boreholes and rehabilitated 231 water sources, making the total number of operational water sources in South Sudan about 4,264. Our Ministry of Roads and Transport has de-mined and rehabilitated about 1,862 kilometers of roads in 2007 . . .

It’s an impressive list given the circumstances, and indeed President Kiir is generally respected as both committed and competent by outsiders, and as a strong and able leader by his people. The rest of the Government, however, is much less admired. There are widespread complaints about its questionable competence and excruciatingly slow pace, and there have also been serious allegations of corruption, some of which drove Kiir to sack senior officials—including the Minister of Finance—and to establish a national anti-corruption commission.

Even with the most capable of leadership, it will take years to build a competent administration, identify and enact effective policies, and cultivate a professional civil service able to carry them out. Kiir has urged patience: “South Sudan has never been developed since its creation. It is not really a miracle that I can turn the south to paradise in one day, or in one year. It is not possible.”

Early one Saturday morning, I hitched a ride to Juba University to see a march through town marking World AIDS Day. I arrived to find several hundred armed men and women wearing colorful t-shirts marching around the university’s playing field. They turned out to be the contingents from four different government branches: the Army, Police, Fire Brigades, and Wildlife Services. Each had been given a banner advertising their commitment to fighting AIDS: the police promised to “Take lead and arrest the spread of HIV,” the fire brigades urged, “Put out the fire! Abstain: Be Faithful: Use Condoms.” All of the participants, including the firemen and the wildlife officers, were carrying rifles or machine guns. “We asked them not to do that,” sighed one of the march’s organizers, an energetic woman with the National AIDS Commission who was sipping a Red Bull.

As a crowd began to gather, the four groups took turns parading in formation around the field. A marching band materialized, its musicians clad in starched white uniforms with red braids, and began warming up in the middle of the field. Meanwhile, the 200 or so soldiers representing the army began to sing fight songs and shout slogans, waving their guns rhythmically in the air. It emerged that the march was running behind schedule because the different service branches were arguing about which would lead the procession.

While this was being sorted out, a small group of young boy and girl scouts in green uniforms arrived, many of them no older than six or seven. They were about the only participants who had come unarmed, but did not lack for military professionalism. They approached the field in tight formation, feet stomping, arms swinging, stopping and turning on a dime. When they halted, the crowd applauded appreciatively. I was reminded that until just a year earlier, the local school uniform had consisted of camouflage fatigues.

Eventually the march began with the army in the lead and the others trailing behind. Like their elders, the kids continued to march in formation as the parade left the university and headed into the street. I followed near the back, behind the wildlife services and ahead of a pack of students whose banner proclaimed “Children: We the future leaders dream of a future free of HIV.” The road, dusty and covered with the crushed water bottles that litter Juba like fallen leaves, quickly became snarled in traffic; a long line of hulking SUVs, battered pickup trucks, and local minibuses soon stretched the length of our parade.

Crowds gathered at the roadside to watch the spectacle as it crept slowly past the Customs Market and east across town, took a turn at a central roundabout, struggled over a particularly potholed and rutted road, and finally, nearly two hours after it began and a solid ninety minutes behind schedule, entered Juba Stadium. There the president and vice president of South Sudan, standing on a small stage at midfield, formally reviewed their tardy troops while the rest of us looked for shade from the scorching midday sun.

After an hour of speeches, the president returned to the stage to deliver the keynote address. Switching between Juba Arabic and English, he spoke for more than thirty minutes about his administration’s commitment to fighting AIDS, describing in detail the role he felt should be played by each in a long list of government agencies, international actors, and civil society groups. When he was finished, he awarded medals to the winners of that morning’s Cross Country Run For Peace, climbed into a waiting SUV, and took off in a five-car motorcade, led by what were surely Juba’s only marked police cars.

Afterwards, I reflected on what a remarkable affair it had been. It was encouraging that the government was paying attention to an important public health threat, but it was particularly striking that it had managed—albeit with considerable help from the UN—to organize such a major public event and had won the public support of its most senior leadership. No doubt part of this interest was donor-driven, conviction inspired by the prospect of generous international AIDS funding. But it was nonetheless a significant sign of the times that the president and his government were paying attention to a disease which, a few years earlier, would have seemed a remote concern at best.

The whole spectacle also underscored just how close South Sudan remained, psychologically and literally, to a state of conflict. There were the armed soldiers, police, firemen, and wildlife officers with their guns and chants, and there were the unforgettably militarized boy and girl scouts, Spartan children raised with a military ethos. Together they had transformed a march against AIDS into the only form of public performance anyone knew: a military parade.

But there were other signs as well: on the parade route, for instance, we had passed under a billboard which showed a uniformed soldier putting his baby to bed under a mosquito net; the caption read: “You defended your country / Now protect your family.” Even the speeches in the stadium employed military rhetoric; a woman living with AIDS rose to say of the SPLM, “They led us to victory and peace in the first conflict—and now they will do the same in this one against AIDS.” The collective portrait was of a society that remained fully mobilized and ready to fight, but it wasn’t clear if people were prepared to fight anything other than another war.

A few days later I went to visit the tomb of John Garang, the founder and visionary of the SPLA/M, the first president of South Sudan, who had been killed just six months after the signing of the CPA. His body was buried in a simple, open mausoleum built in a field in the center of Juba, to which politicians, school children, and citizens came to pay their respects.

“Someone wants to see you,” the soldiers said. I tried to decline, but they were insistent. They escorted me across the field toward a line of sinister-looking shacks.

I was the only visitor around when I arrived early that morning, but the tomb was guarded by three soldiers sitting in plastic chairs, their machine guns leaning against a rotting wooden desk. One was seated beside the short red-carpeted walkway that led to the foot of Garang’s tomb, and he stared at me as I approached. He asked about my background and my intentions—Where was I from? What was I doing here? How long was I staying? He scrutinized my driver’s license and business card before finally, reluctantly, allowing me to approach the tomb.

Afterwards, I went and sat beneath a tree in the nearby field and began jotting some notes. I had been there just a few minutes when I was approached by a man wearing civilian clothes. “Someone wants to see you.” I tried to decline, but then the soldier from the mausoleum appeared. They were insistent: “Someone wants to see you.” They escorted me across the field toward a line of sinister-looking shacks, but we stopped short of one in its courtyard. I found myself before a three-star general who had apparently spotted me writing. He was polite but suspicious and asked the same litany of questions; he and a colleague also rifled through my notebook. After conferring with an aide for a moment, he returned my book, shook my hand, and sent me on my way.

On the walk back to my compound, just out of sight of the tomb and revealing a remarkable lack of judgment, I tried to take a surreptitious photo of the national legislature. A few minutes later, I was approached by an older man wearing a tan safari suit; he was missing his right eye and his forehead was marked with tribal scars. As we talked, another man approached and saluted. He ran through the same questions, and also demanded, “Who gave you permission to take photos everywhere?” He seemed satisfied with my answers, but warned me sternly “It is not a good idea to take photos alone. You must be careful. People are scared here. You know what has been happening.” He continued, “Now that I know you are American, there is no problem—our countries are not enemies. But other people don’t know that—and if you are taking photos and they catch you . . .” His voice trailed off.

It was disconcerting but hardly surprising that the military was so jittery during these tense times, but I was struck by this allusion to the public’s equally intense vigilance. Later I came across a speech in which President Kiir addressed his people, “I am alerting you to be on the watch out for the security of our country . . . Security is not the concern only of soldiers but is the responsibility of each and everyone in South Sudan.” A society fighting for survival lacks the luxury of distinguishing between military and civilian. The guns may have gone silent in South Sudan, but this boundary still remains blurred.

Born of war and sustained by the Khartoum threat, the South’s militarized citizenry have yet to demobilize. This serves a necessary security function to be sure; the possibility of renewed war is all too real. But it also offers encouragement to the government that it just might succeed at retaining this mobilization and redirecting it to a new end: what Kiir calls the “battle for development.”

Many post-conflict governments, particularly those propped up by a foreign power or the UN, suffer from a lack of legitimacy or absence of authority, and quickly find themselves at odds with a population invariably disappointed by the shortcomings of the long awaited peace dividend. In countries like East Timor and Kosovo, Congo and Iraq, weak leaders spend as much time trying to retain control and fend off power grabs as they do providing the benefits of peace.

But in South Sudan, the SPLM has become the government and its legitimacy and authority are uncontested. As a consequence, when Kiir declares that “we will not mobilize the people again for war but urge them to join us in our new struggle for development, reconstruction and provision of basic services,” he is not calling merely for public participation in individual programs, but for the people’s continued active backing for the government and its policies.

It is certainly helpful to be able to secure heightened citizen participation in the development process, particularly for projects like the national census or local health initiatives (to say nothing of the upcoming election, or the future referendum). But for the vast majority of South Sudanese, there are few opportunities for them to personally contribute. For them, there is often little they can do but wait and hope the government builds a school or a clinic nearby or develops a road to their market. Indeed for them, Kiir’s declaration of a new struggle is something else: a call for them to now give their faith to their government just as they previously did to their army. By presenting it in these familiar terms, Kiir is trying to leverage the social cohesion and communal mobilization born of war into a new force for development.

Is it working? As the AIDS Day parade demonstrated, Southerners clearly remain mobilized in the military sense, but it’s too early to tell whether this sense of solidarity will survive its translation into the civilian sphere. It has yet to be really tested; the government has to date benefited from the absence of any viable political opposition. There are other political parties in South Sudan, but the SPLM—which has claimed that its membership roll exceeds five million supporters—is still the only one that matters, having led the people to peace and autonomy.

The first real test may come in April 2010, when elections originally scheduled for 2009 are set to be conducted for all positions in the government of South Sudan (and in the rest of the country). The SPLM will almost certainly win handily in the South and with little opposition, but the introduction of electoral competition may begin to strain this social cohesion. The prospect of a more conventional civilian political society poses real concern, particularly given South Sudan’s enormous vulnerability to corrosive tribe-based party politics.

In far too many emerging democracies, politicians have found their fastest route to power by leveraging traditional ethnic or tribe-based fears and resentments. South Sudan, where tribal rivalries run deep and sometimes turn violent, is deeply vulnerable to this threat; more than 187,000 people were displaced by tribal and armed conflict in 2008, while at least 1,000 people were killed in ethnic fighting during the first ten months of 2009. The government has accused the North of arming and encouraging rival militias; more than a few observers suggest that the North may be aiming to destabilize the South in order to provide a pretense to delay or undermine the April election.

But not all of these troubles can be attributed to Khartoum’s machinations; even the SPLM has been susceptible in the past to tribe-based schisms. Kiir and much of the SPLM’s senior leadership are members of the Dinka tribe, the South’s largest, to the particular frustration of the Nuer tribe. It is inevitable that rising opposition leaders will seek to play on these tensions; neighboring Kenya stands as an entirely too painful a demonstration of how quickly a country (and one with far stronger government institutions) can be torn apart by these politics.

As long as Khartoum poses an imminent threat, President Kiir is likely to enjoy the loyalty of a broadly united citizenry, who will again put their faith in his leadership.

But if Kiir does succeed in reducing the long-term threat of war—whether through a successful election, or following the 2011 referendum—then the public body will eventually start to evolve into a more traditional civilian society, with significant implications to South Sudanese politics and to its internal stability. Tribal politics aside, how will frustrations with the government, inevitable under these circumstances, be channeled? Will grievances give rise to street protests, to internal challenges, to new armed factions? Will the government be able to cope with these challenges, will it be able to continue to progress?

The threats to South Sudan’s future as a stable independent state are thus more than just the Northern military. Indeed, the tragic paradox is that securing South Sudan’s external security may heighten the threat to its internal stability; it is possible that these few years of semi-autonomy under the shadow of Khartoum will turn out to have been South Sudan’s greatest window of opportunity to build the foundations for a strong and effective government, one able to withstand the political threats of the future.

It’s hardly clear that this opportunity has been seized. Walking around Juba, I couldn’t help but think that every bit of Juba’s physical progress seemed reversible, that behind the veneer of physical development, little of substance has changed. It takes time to develop a country economically and politically, to instill real and permanent change able to withstand future setbacks. Kiir has pleaded for patience, and by mobilizing the public for this new “battle,” he has managed largely to win it—but for how long? With so far to go before South Sudan can stand on its own, Kiir and the government of South Sudan may be running out of time.

A few days before I was to leave Juba, Presidents Kiir and Bashir emerged from a conference in Khartoum to announce they had resolved their differences. The SPLM would be returning to the Government of National Unity; the funds promised for next year’s census had been transferred to southern coffers; northern soldiers would be redeployed from the South before a new deadline; and some sixty laws would be reviewed. There was one critical issue that remained in dispute, but the contested North-South boundary, they agreed, would be considered at a future meeting.

This was no small omission; the boundary remains the issue most likely to bring the two sides back to war. Some analysts fear the inadvertent escalation of an incident along the border, while others predict a military campaign by both sides to take the contested oil fields when the South tries to secede.

Still, there are others who hope a compromise can be reached before a crisis; a senior SPLM official I spoke with said he was “optimistic” about the possibility. There are compelling reasons for both sides to avoid war: the South because it has won virtually everything it sought, and the North because it would be risking a potentially devastating conflict (I spoke with one expert who described a plausible scenario in which the South would align with rebels in Darfur and in eastern Sudan to attack Khartoum on three fronts). The NCP might be willing to allow the South to slip away, ridding itself of the SPLM’s political opposition and leaving it in full control over a rump Sudan. Ultimately though, there is no predicting the calculus of survival which will drive the NCP’s actions, and the lengths to which it will go to retain control of the Southern oil fields.

As I drove to the airport to catch my departing flight, the possibility of war seemed far removed. Another road had been closed for construction, and so we took a circuitous route, past the gleaming and newly constructed Joint Donor Office, beside the newly opened city hospital, and around the forthcoming office for veterans’ affairs. The airport was just as dilapidated as when I arrived, but on the adjacent plot the foundations had been laid for a new Juba airport.

It was just before Christmas and my plane was packed for the pre-holiday rush, filled with aid workers, businesspeople, government staff, and other travelers. We managed a smooth take off, and I watched as Juba fell beneath us. I was struck by how, beyond and between every new road and building in Juba, there was still nothing but mud huts. And then, before too long, the huts thinned out and soon there was nothing to see but dry, red earth stretching out as far as the eye could see.


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