Friday, 1 July 2011

South Sudan's stormy birthday

After a long, always troubled and often bloody journey, South Sudan's independence is just days away. For many it understandably seemed that this moment would never come. After all, January's decisive referendum to divide Africa's largest state, whilst one of the final pieces in the 2005 treaty that formally ended two decades of civil war, did nothing to halt the fighting.

Various warlords, most likely armed and sponsored by the North's despotic president Omar Al-Bashir, wrecked havoc throughout the state-to-be. By April over 1000 were dead, the World Food Programme had pulled out leaving 240 000 more facing starvation and Northern rhetoric over the disputed region of Abyei threatened further conflict.

Shortly after tension boiled over, with Al-Bashir's troops illegally moving into Abyei and later clashing with Southern forces. Fighting spread to South Kordofan, which falls North of the border line but has a high population of ethnic Nubans loyal to the South: they are still being targeted in what has already been described as ethnic cleansing. This latest round of conflict was compounded by clashes in Unity State and Blue Nile State, bringing the total number of displaced persons to over 100 000 before tenuous agreements were reached, committing all sides to pulling back and setting up committees to address territorial disputes. A treaty and unanimously adopted UN resolution also provides for the demilitarisation of Abyei and the deployment of a 4200 strong Ethiopian peacekeeping force to monitor Northern withdrawal and the human rights situation.

Whether the fragile peace will hold remains to be seen. But with unresolved questions over oil revenue, a fear amongst Al-Bashir and his henchmen that opposition to their rule will spread, and the ever-unpredictable factor of violent local militias such as the Lords Resistance Arm (LRA), nobody doubts that the worlds youngest state will face tremendous and violent challenges from the moment it comes into being.

The final sovereignty of Abyei must be resolved as a matter of urgency - and the peacekeeping force's mandate must be extended until this happens, lest the ongoing dispute deteriorates once again into violence. The international community must ensure the protection of groups loyal to the South but based in the North - firstly to prevent massacres and secondly to avoid Southern intervention across the border that could trigger a fresh conflict. And the North must be prevented from funding, arming and training militia seeking to destabilise the South; Al-Bashir's involvement with vile and ruthless groups including the LRA and the militia of George Athor- simply with the aim destabilising his neighbours and enemies, has gone of for far too long. Should South Sudan collapse internally that would ultimately not bode well for the people of any state in the region - including North Sudan.

Finally the South's rebel-force-turned-government, the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement, must be held to account. Whilst facing threats from an array of abhorrent forces including Al-Bashir and various rebel groups, it must meet the standards of human rights and democracy that its people deserve. Too many African governments have come to power as liberators, only to become oppressors themselves. Positive moves such as the demobilisation of child soldiers should be commended and supported; slides towards authoritarianism must be condemned.

July 9th will be a historic day for Sudan, for Africa and for the world. It will mark the end of a long, hard struggle. And the start of a new one.

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