Sudan's Pyrrhic independence

8/24/2011, 3:29 p.m.
The streets of Juba, South Sudan's new capital, were filled with jubilation last month, as...
At Thanksgiving, embracing the winds of change and increasing our faith

The streets of Juba, South Sudan's new capital, were filled with jubilation last month, as the world's newest nation formally declared its independence after a decades-long war that claimed over 2 million lives and left countless refugees scattered all over the world. Certainly, the long, dark night is over for now. But dawn's early light reveals a land that is far from peaceful, and faces significant existential challenges in the months and years ahead.

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 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 production capability is in the South, while the only current means of exporting oil is along a pipeline that goes through the North to the Port of Sudan. But it doesn't end there. Sudan's other major resources--agriculture, water (the source of the Nile is in the south) and human capital--are largely concentrated in the South. Each of those resources relies upon the North's facilities and infrastructure to become productive.

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 culture that has traditionally relied upon arbitrage and military prowess to survive. The South's culture, insular and pastoral, is based on a strong connection to the land and an intricate system of tribal identity. The big question that remains as far as independence goes is whether these two countries can remain culturally distinct while being essentially 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 that are currently raging are between Muslims themselves. Those differences mask the underlying resource constraints as previously mentioned, but also unmask racial differences between those who have been described as "Arabized" Muslims in and around Khartoum and the mostly dark-skinned Muslim tribes in the outlying areas. If it comes down to an outright racial conflict in the North, these disaffected groups might easily attempt to join the South or, worse, attempt to splinter into their own separate nations.

The South's own fragmented existence also bears mention. South Sudan is a sparsely populated, largely undeveloped land full of lush savanna, jungle and the famous Sudd, a vast collection of swamps that form the source of the Nile River in Sudan. Until now, these largely dispersed and independent tribal groups have been joined together in hopes of defeating a common enemy. However, it remains to be seen whether they can actually form a strong enough national identity to garner the political and economic capacity they will need to survive as an independent nation. Especially now, any decline in national unity or collective purpose will weaken the new country considerably. The disparate groups will particularly need such unity if they are to effectively negotiate the oil pipeline stranglehold currently enjoyed by the North.