The stirrings of a new nation in South Sudan
by Stephen Chan
In a way, the largely uncontested nature of the Sudanese elections (11-15 April) was a blessing to the West. It meant the 'democratisation' of the dictator, President Omar al-Bashir, would not be sufficiently extensive to warrant any interference with his indictment before the International Criminal Court. The 'Butcher of Darfur' could remain a pariah, albeit one who had taken a step towards a problematic relationship with the West.
Simultaneously, the election as it affected South Sudan saw clear unity in the electorate there that, if carried into the January 2011 referendum, could see South Sudan become an independent state. It would be Africa's 54th state and would become a precedent for the stable Somaliland, the northern part of Somalia, being recognised as an entity independent of the turmoils of the south. Suddenly the map of Africa could begin to change.
For Sudan, hitherto the largest African state - where half of the old 'Western' Europe could fit and Darfur alone is the size of France - it would mean a separation between the loosely-labelled Arab and Islamic north and the African and Christian south. The south would choose English as its official language.
But there is the small problem of how the oil wealth is shared between north and south. There is the related problem of where exactly the new national borders would be. There is the question of whether al-Bashir would really let the south go, if the West does not grant immunities from the ICC. And there is the huge problem of South Sudan, having endured 50 years of civil war, almost half of which was fought recently with the SPLA (Sudan People's Liberation Army) as the southern champion, being a prospective new country bereft of infrastructure, development, and trained personnel across the whole range of necessary sectors. It is the country where masses of child soldiers were used; where, unlike the Western image of victimhood, many were also educated; but, all the same, the integration of young people, whose only life-experience has been war, into a society which does not yet have a developmental direction, is going to be a huge problem.
I was in Sudan, mainly South Sudan, for the elections. The south is beautiful. Kites, storks, herons, scarlet bee-eaters and a huge variety of other species inhabit the country and line the banks of the Blue Nile. But there are less than 10 kilometres of sealed road in the capitol, Juba, and no sealed roads anywhere else in a territory almost the size of Germany. Cell phone coverage is not available in vast parts of the rural areas, and even satellite phones do not always work. There is no municipal garbage collection in Juba, the water - despite a new treatment plant - is contaminated, and even the bottled water and beer will foment diaorrhea in the unseasoned visitor. Malaria is common and no one really knows what the HIV infection rate is like. The University of Juba is full of idealistic students, working under primitive conditions, and the reason for the plenitude of private medical clinics on the dirt streets of Juba is because the public hospital is not a place for those seeking reliable help.
More to the point, the SPLM (Sudan People's Liberation Movement) which has evolved from the SPLA is not exactly democratic at all times. Its decision to boycott the national elections, thus removing al-Bashir's only credible opponent, was not made in consultation with its own grassroots structures. Its own President, Salvar Kiir, overwhelmingly re-elected President of the Government of South Sudan, was a fighting general, still not used to the demands of office and the administration of peace and development. The fear of another Eritrea, a country that begins amidst great hopes and idealism, and which draws back upon its liberation ideology and the restricted practices of wartime decision-making, is a real one.
But, having said all that, the election - although deeply flawed in its original organisation and in its execution of accurate registration procedures - was in fact quite wonderful as a spectacle. Not that seasoned election observers should be moved by spectacles - but the sight of long and patient queues, of elderly illiterate people determinedly trying to make their hands coordinate as they grasp pencil and put it to several separate papers, and of endless polling stations under trees (with everyone praying, for once, that it would not rain), is something that would move any but the most cynical soul.
As for the multitude of ballot papers, they were for National President, the National Assembly, Southern President, National and Southern Assembly, Governorships, Municipalities, and a proportionally-elected women's list. Women could stand, and did, in the other categories, but the dedicated women's list was to guarantee 30% female representation at all levels. For the state of Sudan as led by al-Bashir, someone who came to power upon an Islamicist platform and with Islamicist alliances, that was actually something. And the sheer complexity of the vote, with so many ballot papers, meant that the electorate, whether sometimes illiterate or not, is sophisticated.
If al-Bashir lets the South go, what will happen? Will this allow al-Bashir to free his resources for another military initiative in Darfur? Or will it give the Darfurian rebels a model under which they would be willing to unite and negotiate? If al-Bashir decides to dishonour his promise to let the South go after a referendum that decides on independence, will it mean war again? Probably, although this time it will have to involve a conventional tank and air-led invasion of the South by the North. The South has brought in tanks since the 2005 peace agreement, but it has no airforce. But now it controls territory in a way it never did before. Under such conditions, a ceasefire would be easier for the international community to force through.
What of the Chinese? Contrary to popular Western opinion, the Chinese don't need Sudanese oil now. The huge amounts it currently buys from Sudan tends to be sold on the Amsterdam market. China needs oil for the future, so it buys up the rights now. The West also wants future oil, so the whole campaign to tar China with the al-Bashir brush has been part of the warming-up for the oil wars of the future. China, in its bloody-minded way, will find ways to work with both North and South.
And so will the West. Provided al-Bashir does not reinstigate his military assaults on Darfur, there will be diplomatic movement towards working out a way of accommodating him as an unwelcome national President, but one who is left alone. As for the rebellion in Darfur, the West which berated Thabo Mbeki for his diplomacy in Zimbabwe (too soft on the persecutors of white farmers and black democrats in the Western mode), has scarcely noticed his tentatively successful diplomatic efforts in bringing the Darfur rebels to the negotiating table.
Much is happening in Sudan - not all good, and almost all problematic. It is a vast beautiful country. I was part of an observation effort that targeted those parts which we were sure that the Carter and EU observers would not reach. One day, crashing around the corner of another endless dirt road, I saw a crack in the hillside and, beyond the brief opening, a lake. Perched around this lake was what looked like a Parliament of 200 storks. At least, in my tiredness, I took it as a Parliament. It had all the aspects of a grand deliberative assembly. On these missions, exhaustion makes you see mirages. We didn't take it as a mirage; we kept going by looking for visions of the future. The South has been doing that for decades.