Global Policy Forum

Southern Sudan Prepares for Freedom


By Xan Rice

March 30, 2010

On the early days of the war, with weapons supplies short and the odds of achieving independence impossibly long, the southern Sudanese rebels composed songs to keep up morale. Some were battle anthems, designed to inspire bravery against the Arab enemy from the north. Others, like the one sung to the women worried about losing their husbands in combat, reflected hopes of life in a time of peace.

"It said that whoever survived the struggle would be driving cars and living in skyscrapers," said Zalson Khor, an official with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), which led the rebellion then took on the task of building from scratch what is expected to become the world's newest nation next year.

Nowhere were the postwar expectations higher than in Bor, the capital of the largest state in Southern Sudan. It was in this Nile river town that the SPLM was born in 1983 when soldiers staged a mutiny against the government in Khartoum, kicking off one of Africa's longest civil wars.

Bor was also the home of the rebels' revered leader, John Garang, who signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with President Omar al-Bashir to end the conflict five years ago. The deal granted the south autonomy and mandated for the first time since Bashir seized power more than two decades ago that multiparty elections should be held, with the poll now scheduled for 11 April.

Most importantly, however, the agreement also offered southerners the chance to realise their dreams of secession from the north through a referendum in 2011. That vote, which is certain to be in favour of independence, is nine months away.

There are no skyscrapers in Bor. There is no electricity or clean water either. Navigating the dirt roads are some cars, mostly large four-wheel drives; they belong not to individuals, however, but UN peacekeepers, humanitarian organisations or the military.

There is a crumbling hospital built under British rule more than half a century ago, a makeshift high court that sits in a tumbledown house, a large covered market, and a police station and prison at the far end of town.

Arriving at Bor after a six-hour, 100-mile drive in a minibus taxi from the capital Juba, none of this seems much - until you realise what it was like when the war ended.

"There was almost nothing here," said Maker Thiong Maal, who assisted the mutinous soldiers in 1983 and is now an MP. "This was a helpless place."

That was true to an large extent even before the war - marginalisation by the authorities in the capital, Khartoum, was one of the main reasons for the rebellion, along with the imposition of an Arab-Muslim identity on people who were culturally sub-Saharan and held Christian or animist beliefs.

But what little there was had been run down or destroyed during the 21 years that Bor was a tightly controlled garrison town. The hospital was reserved for the northern military, the secondary school became an ammunitions store. The only "improvements" added were the shipping containers sunk into the ground to serve as foxholes.

Since the war ended the market, police station and prison have been built. Schools are overcrowded, but at least they are open.

A formerly one-street town now has intersections; hotels called Freedom and Liberty have sprung up. A power plant is under construction and a water treatment facility planned.

"Within a night you cannot meet the expectations of people," said Maal. "But things are changing gradually."

For Bor, read much of Southern Sudan. Even during the heyday of decolonisation in the 1960s few African countries started from such a low base, or with so few tools to do the job. Unlike some other liberation movements, the SPLM had never administered any real territory before taking power as an autonomous government in 2005. Many of the senior ministers under President Salva Kiir - who succeeded Garang after he died in a helicopter crash in July 2005, just months after the war ended - had spent most of the conflict as generals in the bush.

Short on skills and knowhow, the SPLM did at least have money flowing in. A key provision of the peace agreement stipulated that revenues from the lucrative oil fields situated in Southern Sudan be split equally between Khartoum and Juba, and this has worked remarkably smoothly, given the mistrust between the parties.

But even spending the cash carried practical challenges. There was no treasury in Southern Sudan, so ministers walked around with briefcases full of notes. Civil servant salaries were paid in brown paper bags. A lot of dollars disappeared - stolen or simply unaccounted for.

One of the urgent priorities was opening up transport links across the vast south. About 2,500 miles of dirt roads have been de-mined and repaired, helping 2 million people who were internally displaced or refugees to return home. But a large chunk of money spent by the government - more than 40% of the budget, by some measures - has gone to strengthening the 100,000-strong army. That angers aid workers but seems accepted by many southern Sudanese, who fear that President Bashir will try to block secession.

"It's impossible to talk of real development before the referendum," said Andrea Minalla, who runs the Juba office of IKV Pax Christi, a peacebuilding organisation. "The government's focus is military, military, and people have accepted that. They say 'Just take us there [to the referendum], and then we will decide what is to be done'."

The result is that most people's basic needs are still far from being met. Only a quarter of the population has access to primary healthcare - and NGOs provide 86% of those services. More than two-thirds of the population are illiterate; the figure rises to 90% for women. Southern Sudan has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the world. More than 4 million people require food aid.

Rising violence is another concern, particularly in Bor's Jonglei state. While cattle rustling among ethnic groups has gone on for generations, the raids in 2009 were the deadliest in years, with seven massacres - each leaving 100 people dead. The government is worried - it launched a big disarmament drive a few months back - and so are many ordinary citizens, but few share the view of some foreign observers that the clashes have the potential to threaten the overall stability of the south.

Indeed, despite the slow pace of change, and all the challenges that remain, it is hard to find any southern Sudanese who believe that staying united with the north would offer a better life than in an independent state.

"People are furious with our politicians for not doing more in five years," said Stephen Tut, editor of the South Sudan Post magazine, in Juba. "But the south is gone, and the north knows it. The only connection is the oil pipeline and political links. We have our own trade with east Africa, and our army."

And, even more importantly, a strong feeling of liberty, whose value for now remains greater than any number of skyscrapers. John Mac Acuek, a Bor native who served as a child soldier in the SPLM's "Red Army" before becoming a refugee and leaving for Australia, recently returned to Southern Sudan to set up a car business. What he noticed when coming back was "a sense of the ownership of the state, and the land".

"Before, people could not sit like this and breathe in the sweet air of the Nile," he said one evening. "That's freedom."

War and peace

• North Sudan and South Sudan were administered as separate regions by Britain until 1946 when they were merged.

• In 1955, a year before Sudan's independence, soldiers from the mostly Christian and animist south began an insurgency to protest at domination by the Arab-led north, with the conflict lasting until 1972.

• Just 11 years later the second Sudanese civil war began when the southern soldiers from the army's 105 Battalion staged an uprising in Bor. The war continued for more than two decades. More than 1.5 million people died as a result, with 4 million forced to flee their homes.

• The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement ended the conflict and granted autonomy to Southern Sudan. Its people were also given the option of choosing independence in a referendum scheduled for January 2011.




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