The streets of Juba, South Sudan’s capital, were filled with jubilation this month as the world’s newest nation formally declared its independence after a decades-long war that claimed more than 2 million lives. Certainly, the long dark night is over for now. But the dawn’s early light reveals a land that still faces significant existential challenges.
For one thing, the fundamental problem that made Sudan’s history so fraught with ambivalence remains; most of its natural resources are in the south, while trading routes, industrial infrastructure and ocean ports are in the north. Even though both sides are proclaiming independence, the very survival of each depends on the other. It is estimated that at least 75 percent of Sudan’s oil is in the south, while the only means of exporting oil is along a pipeline that goes through the north to the Port of Sudan.
It is not just a matter of sharing resources, however. The reason why the two sides could not agree to coexist in peace, despite so many obvious reasons to do so, comes down to culture. The north’s culture, largely Muslim, Arab and nomadic, is a trading one that has traditionally relied upon arbitrage and war to survive. The southern culture, insular and pastoral, is based on a strong connection to the land and an intricate system of tribal identity. The big question remains whether the two countries can remain culturally and politically distinct while being economically connected.
Then there is the reality that climate change (whatever its causes) is rapidly transforming the landscape. Each year, the Sahara Desert encroaches further upon the southern border, making water, grazing land and farmland more scarcely available to the northern populations. The outlying conflicts in the north, first in Darfur and most recently in Southern Kordofan, highlight such stark realities - and add a dimension or two of their own.
The north-south divide was traditionally described as a clash between Muslims and Christians, with some elements of racial antagonism thrown in. The north-north conflicts are raging are among Muslims themselves. These new conflicts within the north have exposed the racial antagonism between the “Arabized” Muslims in and around Khartoum and the dark-skinned Muslim tribes in the outlying areas. If things get worse, these disaffected groups might opt to join the south or, worse, attempt to splinter into their own nations.
The south’s own fragmented existence also bears mention. South Sudan is a vast, sparsely populated and largely undeveloped country. Until now, the largely dispersed and independent tribal groups there have joined together for the purpose of defeating a common enemy. But it remains to be seen whether they can actually form a strong enough national identity to survive as an independent nation. The disparate groups will especially need such unity if they are to effectively negotiate the oil pipeline stranglehold currently employed by the north.
At the end of the day, the logic of two Sudans is hard to fathom. They share many natural networks, rivers, trading routes and vital oil pipelines. The stakes are high for economic cooperation, especially around oil exports, which form the largest share of each economy.
The optimal scenario is that the two countries eventually will develop a pragmatic approach to matters of mutual concern. But for now, good fences will have to suffice. For the south, that means a resolution of the contested Abyei, the oil-rich region along the north-south border. For the north, it means that the south must largely stay out of the internecine conflicts brewing in Darfur and Kordofan - something that will be difficult for southerners given the support they got during their own struggle for independence.
Finally, there is the matter of the southern Sudanese diaspora. Countless refugees are spread all over the world, and one wonders whether they will be interested in going back and starting from scratch in a land that lacks all the amenities to which they have become accustomed.
• Armstrong Williams is on Sirius Power 128, 7-8 p.m. and 4-5 a.m., Mondays through Fridays. Become a fan on Facebook at www.facebook.com/arightside, and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/arightside. Read his content on RightSideWire.com.