At a roundabout in Juba, southern Sudan’s capital, stands a digital clock. It has four faces, each titled “Countdown to Southern Sudan Referendum — Period Remaining.” The referendum on Jan. 9 is part of the peace agreement signed in 2005 ending the civil war between northern and southern Sudan, and its outcome will determine if Sudan remains one country or becomes two. Each side of the clock has a drawing of a pair of hands wearing broken handcuffs, chain still dangling — a not-so-subtle comment about what the southern Sudanese think of being ruled by Khartoum. Below the hands are boxes to designate the remaining days, hours and minutes.
In December, exactly a month before the referendum, the boxes on one side showed only a row of eights and the other sides showed zeros. Though the clock is useless at showing the time left before what most predict will be an overwhelming vote for separation from the north, this deficient contraption is a perfect symbol of the problems looming as the “grand divorce” approaches. The will is there; the means, not yet.
Southern Sudan, emerging from 20 years of civil war that cost 2 million lives, is one of the least developed regions in the world, and yet it is likely to become the newest country on the planet.
What statehood requires is now fully if belatedly recognized. The international community — the United Nations, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the main donors, chiefly the United States, Britain, Norway and the Netherlands — has decided to do everything possible to make the birth of this state a success. The authorities in Juba have identified “core governance functions” that require donor support. The list has been cut, first from 22 functions to 19, then to 17 and now to seven. On the 57 pages of an elegant PowerPoint-style presentation, detailed tables with headings of “key deliverable” and “what is required” and “what is feasible” offer a road map.
What is not deliverable in the short term — and the underlying problem — is a factor called “capacity building” in humanitarian lingo and “skills needed” in layman’s terms. In this case, that would be almost any skill.
For two decades the southern Sudanese have been either fighting a war or fleeing it, so there has been no time or opportunity to learn anything, let alone how to run a state. Some leaders of the south’s armed forces may be able to transfer military command skills into managerial ones, but most skills are nonexistent.
Further, millions of southern Sudanese were displaced by the war, and many are now returning to find nothing standing. Juba may be a boomtown these days, but during my few days traveling in the countryside, I saw abject poverty: broken water pumps or no water sources, roads barely usable or nonexistent, and destitute people unsure how they will feed themselves after this year’s sorghum crop was eaten by locusts.
Meanwhile, about 80 percent of services (health, education, water and sanitation) in southern Sudan are provided by nongovernmental organizations. But you will look in vain on the 57-page donor support presentation for the words “education” or “health.” The international community here is putting all of its focus on state-building. But the humanitarian agencies are trying to insist that the donor community not forget about the services. A state that cannot meet its people’s basic needs will not be a viable country.
When our International Rescue Committee team surveyed people in the countryside, all the respondents said they were sure the referendum would bring separation and that schools and clinics would come with it. But a separation alone does not a school build. At least not automatically.
In Juba, the slogans stress the positive: “Vote for Your Freedom” and “Vote for the Independence of Southern Sudan.” But in the countryside, posters are more pointed and direct: “Unity between South Sudan and North Sudan Is Dead”; “Forced Unity Means War.”
Southern Sudan definitely wants independence. When northern Sudan says, “Let us be one country,” the south is clearly saying, “No, thanks.”
It’s not so clear that southern Sudan and the donors committed to helping it stand up and walk understand how much more than a vote successful independence requires.
• Anna Husarska is senior policy adviser at the International Rescue Committee (theirc.org). She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.
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