Sudan: Unpaved Present, Shaky Future

On February 7th, South Sudan held a referendum deciding the fate of its planned succession from Sudan proper. The vote followed a 2005 peace agreement between the Christian animist south and conservative Islamic north, which outlined a process for the reconciliation or peaceful divorce between the haphazardly connected groups. After decades of civil war, predicting the future of the state is a complicated enterprise. However, the combination of a caustic political environment at home and abroad, coupled with recent indicators of factional domestic unrest point to a troubled existence for the new state. The border region of Abyei, a hub of oil deposits in Sudan, was not included in the vote. Its future remains to be discerned, which may prove a source of lasting instability in the region. Flashpoints of violence have already alighted.


Highly Likely South Sudan maintains peace and independence but Abyei border skirmishes continue and corruption stifles development

Likely A trigger will cause South Sudan to descend into a state of consistent, medium intensity conflict. Neither the US nor China commit troops

Unlikely South Sudan breaks free of Sudan and manages to carve a niche for itself in Africa as an imperfect model of development

Highly Unlikely South Sudan burgeons into a model democracy


cia factbooksudan-ciafactbook

(Image: CIA The World Factbook)

The challenges facing South Sudan assail the state from many directions. From northern Sudan there is the danger of both commercial and military sabotage, and perhaps even abandonment by the involved great powers. Whilst both China and the US have been quick to recognize South Sudan, if the state should collapse or jeopardise interests in the region physical manifestations of the US commitment to self-determination may mysteriously disappear, as may China’s steady flow of investment. Internally, South Sudan faces a myriad of internal issues extremely difficult to surmount; there are no institutions or development of human capital, corruption runs rampant and internal conflict simmers under the united facade. All these crises are underscored by an entrenched culture of tribalism which quagmires attempts at breaking free.

From the North, conflict and controversy reverberates. Just because South Sudan achieved independence from the north, does not mean Khartoum will chivalrously abandon its choking embrace with its fair maiden divorcee. Omar al-Bashir was not for the move towards independence. The peaceful vote was more a matter of carrot and stick diplomacy; al-Bashir has been charged with war crimes in Darfur, and is in serious need of a feather in his cap. Furthermore, Obama offered to remove Sudan from the list of terrorist sponsors should South Sudan’s bonds be cut. One can safely assume he didn’t let the south go independently of the arranged incentives, or that he was beaming as he cut the bonds. Rather, al-Bashir is probably optimizing his losses; he wants to take as much ground as he can whilst keeping his head above water. This means that once the south is “independent”, he could foment southern tribal conflict indirectly, through the gelling of financial or weapons flows. The bound on this course of action lies in the need for a porous border to the south: Sudan’s holds an estimated 6.7 billion barrels of oil reserves, as well as uncharted but definitely extensive mineral wealth. South Sudan will own about 80 percent of the country’s oil resources, but lacks the refineries and control of the 1,500-kilometre pipeline, built by China National Petroleum Company (CPNC), which transports oil to Port Sudan. Plans to bypass the North in favour of a direct pipeline through Kenya have stalled; it appears peace and flexible borders are a requirement for both states to maintain the status quo.

bbc-worldwideserviceDoes this make north/south conflict impossible? No; pressing interests may crowd out the forest of the big picture for the trees of immediate imperatives. The pressures on al-Bashir to keep his government united – a government that relies on interlocking webs of patronage – may force his hand in the matter. He does not want to portray himself as a weakening ruler in a ruthless political landscape, one sharply divided and galvanized along religious lines. In a state as weak as Sudan’s, all grips on power are unavoidably tenuous, and opponents immediately pounce on any concession as grounds for the status quo’s dissolution and replacement.

Within their own borders, the South Sudanese face problems both manifold and complex. The new state will cover roughly 640,000 square kilometers, housing a population of between 7.5 and 9.7 million inhabitants. In the next six years the population is estimated to increase by 3 million as refugees and the internally displaced return home. Demographically, this population is divided into almost fifty tribes and over four hundred dialects. The Government commissioned with feeding and clothing these people is starting, almost literally, from scratch. There are next to no institutions, including basic health and sanitation services. 16% of the population is malnourished, and nine out of ten people live on less than $1 a day. About three percent of people have access to sanitation. The region has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world, with 1,700 maternal deaths per 10,000 births. There is one doctor per 500,000 people and three surgeons in the whole country. There is only 50km of paved roads in the state, all of it constructed by Chinese investors. Human capital development is faring no better; enrolment in school is up, but graduation rates down. There are 1000 primary school students for every teacher, who is often woefully underqualified. Female illiteracy is 92%, with aggregate illiteracy totalling 76%. In all respects, South Sudan is a growing country dependent almost totally on foreign aid.

With such natural wealth, how can Sudan be so poor? One must realise there is not a total stall of development in Sudan; for the past decade Sudan’s growth rates have wavered between five and ten percent. The continuing poverty is a reflection of the benefits of growth being enjoyed mostly by the upper cream of officials, military men and politicians. The reason behind this inequality lies in the rampant tribalism ingrained in the political culture of South Sudan, which is dominated by the Dinka tribe. In the whole of Sudan the Dinka are a major minority, comprising roughly ten percent of the population. However, they are localised entirely to the region covering South Sudan. Whilst many Dinkas lead a pastoral life using cattle as a unit of exchange, they have also managed to secure important posts in Government and in military posts. The upshot of this is that Government is reflective of tribal and not state interests. Ensuing are problems of corruption and the marginalisation of other clans. According to Transparency International, Sudan ranks a score of 1.6 out of 10 for corruption, 145th on the list of 176.  Rather than using development money for development, it is syphoned off to the back pockets of political allies upon which the official is dependent. The political environment further encourages militarization of marginalised tribes who cannot have their interests addressed in formal political channels.

“Rather than using development money for development, it is syphoned off to the back pockets of political allies upon which the official is dependent.”

In this mixing pot the main powers involved (namely, the United States and China) generally want stability. The United States remembers Sudan fondly as a haven for Al Qaeda training camps, and so wishes to harness a foothold in the region (in the form of South Sudan) or at the very least deflect power away from Khartoum to other poles. Should South Sudan fail as a state or fall under the aegis of some other power, the US’s mission is complete anyway and their further presence cannot be counted on. Due to embargos there is next to no commercial link between the US and Sudan. Trade is measured in millions, not billions, of dollars. The US doesn’t need another Somalia or Bosnia (or Iraq, for that matter). Self-determination is by nature a flimsy norm, too invitingly ambiguous to worry about consistency in application. For the US, cost-benefit strategic concerns can take prominence over the vagaries of global governance in this instance.

“China’s arms sales to Sudan have been exaggerated (in fact, 87% of Sudanese arms actually come from Russia)”


China, on the other hand, has a much larger stake in the new state. China controls sixty percent of oil production in Sudan and virtually all of its institutional development, essentially driving growth. In return China receives 50% of its oil from Sudan and is Sudan’s largest export destination. One would believe that, as in the past, this would mean China’s hand is forced in offering support for Sudan. Emerging currents predict otherwise. China is rapacious in its desire for multiple and stable sources for oil, already offering to build a pipeline for South Sudan to Kenya. Indeed, the South’s succession was vocally supported by the usually tight-lipped and uber-pragmatic People’s Republic. China’s arms sales to Sudan have been exaggerated (in fact, 87% of Sudanese arms actually come from Russia) such that China is more interested in stability than an active conflict to market for. These dynamics mean that the US will leave Sudan to its devices even in the short term, whilst China will support it in the short to medium term until it can either stabilise its investments and/or hedge against the risk of collapse in other states.

Most recently, Abyei saw attacks from militants connected to Khartoum. Also, inflation rose as a result of the vote alone, mostly on subsistence goods. Prices on bottled water alone have doubled. Politicians have claimed this is a result of border flows dropping with the split, but some Sudanese pundits have claimed that politicians are already undertaking a pattern of corruption to extort the populace and fatten their wallets. These are not positive indicators. A trigger may cause South Sudan to descend into a state of consistent, medium intensity conflict, with al-Bashir kicking back his heels and fanning the flames. Neither the US nor China would commit troops, although the US will increase sanctions as a token of its leadership and China may use carrots to guard its investments. More likely, however, South Sudan will wobble along incompetently into the foreseeable future as tribal border skirmishes and corruption stifles development in the region; the needed cooperation over oil and al-Bashir’s problems in Darfur should guarantee that.

About the author: Aleksandar Gujas

Aleksandar Gujas - Dual Bachelor Degree of Economics/Arts majoring in International Relations at the University of Queensland. Sphere of Interest: Political economy. Forethought: "A man should be upright, not be kept upright." -Marcus Aurelius. "So long as poverty forces men to be bold, so long as insolence and pride of wealth nourish their ambitions, and in other accidents of life they are continually dominated by some incurable master passion or another, so long will their impulses drive them into danger.” -Diodtus, in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War.

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