The world's newest nation

The map of Africa changed last month when South Sudan split from Sudan. What are the country's prospects?

South Sudanese fly the country's new flag and celebrate the recent secession.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah)

Why did Sudan split?

As an artificial construction of British colonialism, Sudan was always an unwieldy country. The northern two thirds, mostly desert, are populated primarily by Muslim Arabs. The jungles and swampland of the southern third, which has now become South Sudan, are home to mostly Christian or animist blacks. The northern-dominated government in Khartoum exploited oil deposits in the south but discriminated against southerners and tried to impose Islamic law on them. Not surprisingly, the north and south fought each other almost continuously after Sudan became independent from Britain and Egypt, in 1956.

Did South Sudan fight its way to statehood?

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Essentially, yes. The first civil war was already underway in 1956 and lasted until 1972. The southerners enjoyed limited self-rule as the Southern Sudan Autonomous Region until a second civil war broke out, in 1983. The 2005 peace deal that ended that war, brokered largely by then Secretary of State Colin Powell, provided for a referendum to be held on southern secession. Many feared that Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir, who is accused of war crimes stemming from an unrelated conflict in Sudan’s western Darfur region, would block the vote. But it went ahead this year, and the people of South Sudan voted overwhelmingly for independence, which was proclaimed on July 9. The country has a new flag and a peppy new anthem, “South Sudan, Hooray!”

Is the country ready for independence?

Sadly, no. The decades of fighting have blocked development and made South Sudan one of the world’s poorest countries. It has barely any infrastructure to support its 8 million people. Roads are few and treacherous, and most villages lack schools. At least three quarters of the population are illiterate. There is almost no health-care system, and disease runs rampant. The South Sudanese suffer not only from the malaria, malnutrition, and diarrheal illnesses common in sub-Saharan Africa but also from gruesome tropical diseases that have been largely eliminated elsewhere, such as deadly sleeping sickness, Ebola hemorrhagic fever, and Buruli ulcer, a leprosy-like condition. There is a persistent infestation of guinea worms, which reproduce in the human body and emerge by boring holes in the tops of people’s feet. “There are a lot of very easily treatable diseases,” said Jose Hulsenbek of Doctors Without Borders, “but because they cannot make it to a clinic, there are so many children who die.”

Who is in charge?

South Sudan has had a semiautonomous government in place since the 2005 peace deal, so the transition to self-rule last month was fairly straightforward. The president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, was the longtime military head of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement; when the movement’s political leader, John Garang, died in a helicopter crash, shortly after the peace deal was signed, Kiir was his natural successor. Kiir was re-elected last year in the Sudanese general elections, and like other South Sudanese representatives elected at that time, he has simply continued in power after independence. One hopeful sign is that the new government has a fully functioning Finance Ministry, able to collect taxes and administer the budget. A new currency, the South Sudan pound, has been introduced, and there’s talk of moving the capital from the sprawling city of Juba in the south to a more centrally located new city, if there’s money to build it.

Will anyone invest in South Sudan?

China is already there. While the West has had strict sanctions on Sudan for years because of its violent actions in Darfur and the south, energy-hungry China has been eagerly investing in the Sudanese oil industry, which produces about 375,000 barrels a day and provides almost all of the new state’s revenue. Before the split, Sudan exported 60 percent of its oil to China, and China has already drawn up deals with the new government of South Sudan for trade and infrastructure projects. India, too, is involved there, but it appears more interested in agriculture. South Sudan’s fertile land is mostly given over now to subsistence farming. With modern agricultural methods, some experts believe South Sudan could become a major food exporter. But economic development requires peace, and relations with Khartoum are extremely tense.

What are they squabbling over?

South Sudan accuses Khartoum of trying to destabilize the new nation by funding seven separate ethnic rebellions, and the two countries are already fighting low-level skirmishes in the border regions of Abyei and South Kordofan. But the most contentious issue is oil. South Sudan has the oilfields, but the export pipelines and refineries are in Sudan. Since the 2005 peace deal, the two sides have been splitting oil revenues equally, but Juba wants a better deal. Khartoum is resisting, and last week it sought to impose a $22.80 per barrel transit fee, which one South Sudanese official characterized as a “declaration of economic war.” If north and south reach an equitable deal over how to split them, “shared oil revenues could give a strong incentive for keeping the peace,” says Rosie Sharpe of the campaign group Global Witness. If not, more war is a real possibility.

George Clooney and the evangelicals

Pressure to support the South Sudanese in their struggle for independence came from an unlikely alliance of two American camps: evangelical Christians and Hollywood. Christian groups were outraged at the Arab Muslim attacks against black Christians in the south of Sudan, and in 2004 they pressured then President George W. Bush to impose crippling sanctions and strong-arm Khartoum into a peace deal. Actor George Clooney, aka Mr. Sudan, then got involved, using his star power to draw international attention. Clooney took multiple trips to the south, delivered a speech at the U.N. touting the independence referendum, and even sent up his own satellite to monitor northern compliance with the peace deal from space. “The referendum would not have taken place without his involvement,” says Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee whose story was told in Dave Eggers’s What Is the What. “He saved millions of lives.”

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