South Sudan: Opposition Alleges Harassment

After the referendum vote in January 2011 that gave South Sudan its independence, International Crisis Group’s Zack Vertin pointed to some of the challenges that lay ahead for the new country. One of the most important was the issue of internal political pluralism:

The rebel movement turned governing party — the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement — dominates the political arena. Since the end of the war, opposition voices have suppressed grievances and taken a back seat to the SPLM so as to preserve the goal shared by all southerners — self-determination. But now that the vote has been cast, that common denominator is gone. When the jubilation of last week’s vote subsides, the political environment will slowly begin to transform. The current leadership must respond accordingly, recognizing that a genuine opening of political space is both necessary and in their long-term interest. They must find a way to equitably manage the South’s own diversity, lest they simply duplicate the sort of autocratic regime they’ve finally managed to escape.

Nine months later, the issue remains. Over the weekend, the South Sudanese opposition spoke out, alleging that the ruling party was harassing its members:

A major South Sudanese opposition party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement for Democratic Change (SPLM-DC) on Sunday protested against the “targeted” arrest of its members.

Onyoti Adigo, who leads the largest opposition party in the National Legislative Assembly, told Sudan Tribune on Sunday said that three diplomats aligned to his party were picked up at gunpoint on Friday while leaving the ministry of foreign affairs and international cooperation.

He named James Okuk as one of the members being held in undisclosed location by South Sudan’s security services for allegedly for writing against president on the internet. Some other SPLM-DC members including Sabino Tom who were arrested with James have been freed.

As the head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan said in September, the world will be watching to see how the new country performs on pluralism and other issues. I doubt that autocratic behavior by the ruling party would jeopardize funding from donors immediately, but in the long run outside observers may grow increasingly frustrated if the ruling party proves unwilling to open the political space to a greater degree. Internally, moreover, unmet political demands may give rise to violence; the country is already dealing with several rebel movements.

The region surrounding South Sudan is flush with former rebels, revolutionaries, and military leaders who are still in power – President Idriss Deby of Chad, President Omar al Bashir of (North) Sudan, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, to name a few – but there is a lot of pressure on the SPLM in South Sudan to take a different path.

South Sudan Braces for More Rebel Attacks

South Sudan will become independent in ten days, but its future stability is far from guaranteed. In addition to the host of final status issues (oil revenues and borders, for example) that remain unresolved between North and South Sudan, there is turmoil in South Sudan itself. Some seven rebel movements operate in the South, their grievances fueled in part by ethnic tensions and competition over resources. Now the regime in Juba is saying that the most famous of the South’s rebel leaders, renegade General George Athor, is plotting new attacks with Northern support:

Philip Aguer, the spokesman of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA [the armed wing of the ruling SPLM party – Alex]), in a televised message on SSTV on Monday announced the intention of the militia leader, Athor, allied to the Khartoum government to destabilize the region.

Aguer said the army has reliable information that forces loyal to George Athor are being assembled and organized in the North Sudan’s Senar state which borders the Upper Nile state of South Sudan to launch attacks targeting the disputed areas between North and South Sudan as the region prepares to formally become independent in less than two weeks time.

The army spokesman accused the Khartoum government of supporting and arming the rebels and unleashing them to disrupt the process of smooth road to independence of the region.

Sorting out what is true and what is not in such allegations, particularly when it comes to the question of Northern support for Southern rebels, can be difficult. What seems absolutely clear, though, is that officials in Juba are worried about the prospect of further rebel uprisings, and that South Sudan is likely to enter independence still gripped by substantial violence.

Sudan: Keep An Eye on South Kordofan


Heavy shooting broke out on Monday in Kadugli, the capital of Sudan’s volatile oil-producing border state of South Kordofan, amid soaring tensions ahead of southern independence, witnesses and the UN said.

“The fighting appears to be between elements from the SAF and SPLA,” said Kouider Zerrouk, a spokesman for the United Nations mission in Sudan (UNMIS), referring to the respective armies of north and south Sudan.

He added that the fighting had stopped, but gave no information on casualties.

When South Sudan becomes formally independent on July 9, South Kordofan State will remain part of North Sudan. South Kordofan lies on the border between the two countries and is a zone of, as you can see, considerable tension: gubernatorial elections that ended there on May 4 resulted in a victory of the North’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) over the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which rules South Sudan but has a significant presence in parts of the North, including South Kordofan. The NCP victory in South Kordofan produced considerable bitterness among SPLM partisans, exacerbating NCP-SPLM tensions nationwide as well as within the state itself. The SAF and the SPLA (the army of the SPLM) are taking the political conflict to the battlefield once more.

The region of Abyei, control of which is formally disputed between the North and the South, has received tremendous attention in recent months. What happens in Abyei will help set the tone for relations between the North and the South after the latter gains independence. But South Kordofan is important too; even though its status is not disputed, its cultural and political identity is, and that dispute could lead to conflict just like the one in Abyei has to some extent already.

As I and others have said before, the secession of South Sudan will give birth to not just one new country, but two: North Sudan has been changed already by the process, and will continue to change post-separation. Old tensions have flared up in new ways, as the North – which is more internally diverse, ethnically, ideologically, and politically, than many people realize – confronts its problems once more, but this time in a political and geographical space that is being reconfigured before our eyes. The conflict in South Kordofan will not be the last of such struggles.

North Sudan: Southern Kordofan Elections Increase NCP-SPLM Enmity

From May 2-4, residents of Southern Kordofan State in North Sudan voted in an election for governor. The outcome – a triumph for the ruling party candidate, and outrage among the defeated candidate’s supporters – threatens to further strain relations between North and South Sudan, and also to increase political tensions in North Sudan itself.

The contest primarily involved two contenders. The first was Ahmed Haroun, a member of North Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) who served as Minister of State for Humanitarian Affairs from 2006 to 2009. In 2007, the International Criminal Court (ICC) charged Haroun with committing war crimes in Darfur and issued a warrant for his arrest. Despite this, in 2009 Haroun was appointed governor of Southern Kordofan. The second contestant was Abdelaziz al-Hilu, the state’s deputy governor and a senior member of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the party that controls the soon-to-be-independent country of South Sudan.

Haroun won. Many news outlets are concentrating on his ICC indictment, but in my view the more relevant story for Sudan itself is how the outcome of the election will affect relations between the NCP and the SPLM. These two parties are not only set to govern neighboring countries, they are also competitors for the future of North Sudan. The bulk of the SPLM’s strength is found in South Sudan, but a significant component of the SPLM will remain in the North, where it hopes, as the “SPLM-N,” to speak for North Sudan’s marginalized groups. The SPLM-N saw the gubernatorial elections in Southern Kordofan as a major step toward reinforcing its strength in the North, and also toward establishing political pluralism there.

This helps explain why the SPLM-N has reacted with such anger to the National Electoral Commission’s announcement of Haroun’s victory:

“We will not accept these results because the vote was rigged,” said Yasir Arman, head of the SPLM in the north.

(Arman, it should be noted, was the SPLM’s presidential candidate in the elections of April 2010, prior to the referendum that gave South Sudan its independence. Arman is a Northerner.)

From the same article, we hear further analysis of the SPLM’s feelings:

The SPLM fought the north for two decades before a 2005 peace deal, which paved the way for independence for the largely Christian and animist South Sudan from the mainly Muslim, Arabic-speaking north.

But many residents of the Nuba Mountains region of South Kordofan also fought for the SPLM and it is feared they could take up arms once more.

“These people were fighting for 20 years and their aspirations are not fulfilled,” Hafiz Mohamed of the Justice Africa think-tank told the BBC’s Network Africa programme.

“The way things are going, it’s leading to a deadlock, which will end up with people carrying arms to release their frustration,” he said.

“If it starts, no-one can stop it – it will affect the south, it will affect the north. With the war in Darfur, we are heading for dangerous times.”

The BBC has more analysis of how the Southern Kordofan elections will feed North-South tensions here.

These tensions are already partly confirming fears expressed by the international community before, during, and after the elections. The Carter Center, the UN, and US Special Envoy to Sudan Princeton Lyman all urged the different factions in Southern Kordofan to refrain from violence, though some violence did occur. On May 10, the Sudan Troika (United States, United Kingdom, and Norway) issued a statement on Sudan’s crises that included remarks on Southern Kordofan:

We welcome the peaceful completion of polling for Southern Kordofan’s elections, but are concerned about rising tensions in the state due to a delay in the announcement of preliminary results. We call on local and national leaders to take immediate steps to improve the security situation and exercise control over all armed security elements. We also call on the parties to work together to maintain calm as the preliminary results are announced and to refrain from prematurely declaring electoral victories. The parties should work together to resolve any election disputes peacefully through the courts. In order to maintain stability and promote long-term cooperation, they should build an inclusive government no matter the outcome. It is critical that the elections pave the way for the start of Southern Kordofan’s popular consultations, which remain an important outstanding element of the CPA.

Journalist Alan Boswell, writing before the elections, noted both international concern and the simultaneous presence of international “fatigue” after “intervening in Sudan’s myriad crises.” This fatigue has meant that Southern Kordofan’s problems have largely been overshadowed by other concerns relating to Sudan, such as Washington’s focus “on normalizing battered relations with Sudan’s northern regime and bolstering the nascent government in the south.” If matters heat up in Southern Kordofan, and if NCP-SPLM relations deteriorate more broadly, we will see how the international community reacts, both to events in Sudan and to its own fatigue.

Are Rebels Destabilizing South Sudan?

South Sudan will officially become independent on July 9. Already, the world’s newest nation enjoys substantial autonomy. Its government, controlled by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), has been working to build a state for some time. With independence approaching, though, an uptick in rebel activity has some observers wondering whether South Sudan will become “destabilized” before it even has a chance to function as its own country.

Last week, I profiled two commanders, George Athor and Peter Gatdet, who have broken from the SPLA (the army of the SPLM) and formed rebel movements. The forces of Athor and Gatdet – which are separate, but have sympathy for one another – have inflicted significant casualties on the SPLA in a series of clashes.

Over the weekend, Gatdet and another rebel commander in South Sudan, Gabriel Tang, made more news. Fighting between Gatdet and the SPLA in Unity State resulted in over 100 deaths, while clashes between Tang’s forces and the SPLA killed dozens in Jonglei State. Tang (also called Tanginye in some sources) has since surrendered to the SPLA. Tang, unlike Athor and Gatdet, is not an SPLA dissident, but rather “a warlord sponsored by the north during the decades-long north-south civil war…[who] accepted amnesty from the southern government” last year but returned to fighting last week. Athor and Gatdet remain renegades for now.

The magnitude of the violence and the proliferation of rebel groups is leading some news outlets to talk about “destabilization” in South Sudan. The New York Times, citing human rights violations, North-South border tensions, and the failure of programs aimed to demobilizing combatants, writes: “The closer southern Sudan gets to becoming the world’s newest country, the less stable it appears.” Reuters counts seven rebel groups at work in South Sudan, and adds that disruptions in oil production “underscor[e] the threat insecurity poses to the economy.”

In addition to the economic and military toll of rebellion, other potential factors in destabilization are civilian suffering and political tension. Regarding civilians, the fighting has displaced perhaps 100,000 people. Watchdog groups have reported human rights violations by both the SPLA and the rebels, and these abuses could weaken the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of many ordinary people. Violence is also interfering with aid groups’ efforts to help civilians; the World Food Program has had to reduce its activities in South Sudan. As these problems interlock to make ordinary people’s lives desperate, it is again the government that stands to lose major credibility. That could even feed rebel recruitment.

Politically, the rebellions have begun to affect “mainstream” politics as well. Party politics are already tense. As the Government of South Sudan (GoSS) works on the new country’s constitution, opposition parties are denouncing the draft version, calling it “dictatorial.” The SPLM’s response to the rebellions and to opposition criticism, Sudan Vision says, has been to link the opposition with the rebels. “GoSS has accused these very political forces of providing support to the militia and threatened to prosecute their leaders.” Whether these accusations are true or not, the rhetorical lines between non-violent political opposition and violent rebellion are beginning to blur, at least in the Government’s eyes.

Finally, the draft constitution opens the door to greater violence by claiming the disputed region of Abyei, which sits on the North-South border and has been the site of significant conflict. Control of Abyei could give the GoSS jurisdiction over yet another rebellion.

Does all this add up to destabilization? Destabilization is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot, but whose meaning is often unspecified. Chris Albon, writing at UN Dispatch, puts the question in specific terms, headlining his post, “Civil War in South Sudan?” Albon argues that with international support, South Sudan can neutralize the rebels who see the new state as an “easy target.” Given that South Sudan does have powerful friends, and given the SPLM’s long history and strength as an institution, full-scale civil war may not break out. Still, there are other, less severe but still serious forms of destabilization short of civil war. One scenario involves intermittent conflicts between rebels and the state, with civilians caught in the middle. Whatever the case, the next two and a half months will help set the tone for what a formally independent South Sudan will look like.

South Sudan’s Rebel Groups

The world’s soon-to-be newest country, South Sudan, faces a number of challenges, including severe under-development and tensions with North Sudan on border demarcation, oil revenue-sharing, and others issues. But it is the growing challenge from rebel groups that most threatens the political stability of the new state. Several rebel movements have clashed with the troops of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM, and the army is called SPLA). It does not seem likely that these rebel groups can topple the SPLM, but they are making life difficult for the leadership in Juba.

Here is an overview of two important leaders, George Athor and Peter Gatdet, and their forces. I refer to various states in South Sudan: see this map for help in visualizing the geography. At the end, I offer a few thoughts on what these rebellions mean for South Sudan.

George Athor and the South Sudan Democratic Movement

South Sudan has never been completely united under the SPLM, and the SPLM has faced rifts before, but the defection of George Athor from the SPLA in April 2010 has proven to be a serious headache for the SPLM. Athor, a former Lieutenant General within the SPLA, was angered by the SPLM’s decision to nominate another man for the 2010 gubernatorial election in Jonglei State. He stood as an independent and lost. Shortly afterwards, his forces began to attack SPLA outposts in the area.

In January 2011, shortly before the referendum on Southern Sudanese independence, Athor signed a cease-fire with the SPLA. But it did not last. Since February, Athor’s men have perpetrated several attacks on the SPLA. Athor expressed willingness to make peace earlier this month, but the SPLM leadership doubts his sincerity. In March, the SPLA began moving to retake territory from Athor. Some reports have identified Athor as the leader, or at least the center, of a network of rebel groups (see below).

Peter Gatdet and the South Sudan Liberation Army

Peter Gatdet held the rank of Major General until his defection from the SPLA in March. The Sudan Tribune describes his chaotic career:

Peter Gatdet was the deputy SPLA divisional commander in Northern Bahr el Ghazal [State] before his defection but has a long history of switching sides.

During the Sudan’s second civil war (1983-2005), he became militia leader under Paulino Matip’s top commander in the battles for Unity state and its oilfields. Nonetheless in 1999, he then returned to the SPLA before defecting back to the Khartoum government’s side in 2002.

His defections during the war always drastically shifted the balance of power over who controlled Unity state. Since 2005, he was used by the SPLA as a field commander both in Abyei clashes in 2008 and the clashes in Malakal with forces loyal to Gabriel Tanginye in 2009.

Gatdet’s forces are based in Unity State, which borders Jonglei State. Dissidents in Unity State object, like Athor’s men in Jonglei, to the current state governor. Gatdet’s soldiers are now attacking the SPLA:

Twenty southern army soldiers were killed on Tuesday in a clash in the oil-producing Unity state with fighters loyal to Peter Gadet, a former senior southern army (SPLA) officer who rebelled this month, the military said.

“They (the rebels) overran a village in Mayom county. They burnt it to the ground before the SPLA chased them off,” said southern army spokesman Philip Aguer.

Gatdet’s South Sudan Liberation Army is distinct from Athor’s South Sudan Democratic Movement, but the two groups share common goals and a spokesman for Gatdet says that the two rebel armies are coordinating. For more on Gatdet and the latest attack, see here.


Reading the reports I’ve linked to above, three themes have leaped out at me. First, Athor and Gatdet both have formidable reputations as battlefield commanders, and both have decades of fighting experience. Defeating them will be difficult for the SPLA. Losing senior commanders, moreover, seems to indicate that major sections of the SPLA’s officer corps are politically frustrated.

That leads to a second theme – the political disputes that lie behind these conflicts. All rebellions have something to do with politics, of course, but in South Sudan’s case there are widespread grievances concerning how the SPLM apportions power and handles dissent. The multiplication of rebel movements, and the persistent violence, says to me that the SPLM must address those grievances before there can be peace. That in turn will likely necessitate a greater opening of the political system.

The third conclusion is that North-South tensions cast a heavy shadow over the conflicts in South Sudan. The SPLM accuses Athor and Gatdet of receiving support from the North, and both deny it. The Southern leadership certainly has reason to distrust Khartoum, and conflicts in the South and in border regions could draw the North and the South into direct conflict. However, I hope distrust of the North does not prevent the Government of South Sudan from addressing the local grievances I mentioned. With serious rebellions and violent battles happening in multiple states, much is at risk in South Sudan.

Sudan: Keep an Eye on Abyei

Because reports are raising fears of imminent violence:

Satellite images indicate a major deployment of military hardware by the [North] Sudanese army, including helicopter gunships and tanks, near the flashpoint Abyei border region, a monitoring group said on Thursday.

The Satellite Sentinel Project said that, according to the newly acquired images, the introduction of two attack helicopters and at least nine battle tanks within the range of Abyei constituted a major escalation in the military capacity of the northern army (SAF) in the disputed area.

Last month, at least 70 people were killed in Abyei and two villages razed in two days of clashes between fighters from the Misseriya tribe, which supports the Khartoum government, and the Ngok Dinka people, who back the south.

The rhetoric from the North is worrying too:

A senior figure in North Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) has asserted that his party will not offer any compromise over the issue of Abyei whether to the U.S government or South Sudan with which it contests the oil-producing region.

Speaking at a rally inaugurating the NCP’s election campaign in the country’s flashpoint state of south Kordofan on Monday, NCP’s deputy chairman Nafie Ali Nafie said that Abyei would not “be paid as a price to satisfy America or [south Sudan’s ruling] SPLM.”

Reuters has more.

Sudan: The SPLM in the North

_MG_4451 | Kurmuk BlueNile Sudan

Blue Nile State, North Sudan

This week I’m in Washington, DC. Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a presentation at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars entitled “The Future of Northern Sudan: An SPLM-North Sudan View” (event notice here; video to appear soon). The event drew at least eighty attendees, by my estimate, testifying to the strong interest Washington has in the future of Sudan. Here’s my takeaway:

In July, South Sudan will become an independent country. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), long the dominant voice of Southern Sudanese, will rule the new nation. But the SPLM has a significant presence in North Sudan, and this wing – let’s call them the SPLM-N for now – will have to negotiate their identity in the new North even as the new South decides its own identity.

The event at the Wilson Center featured Yasir Arman, a Northerner who was the SPLM’s candidate in the April 2010 presidential election, and Malik Agar Eyre, current governor of Blue Nile State, which remains part of the North. The two politicians represented an openly partisan standpoint, and denounced many of the policies of North Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP). So their viewpoint was not objective, but it offered important insights into the challenges facing North Sudan.

As Alan Goulty, the event’s moderator and the UK’s former ambassador to Sudan, reminded the audience, with the conclusion of the January referendum “we are looking at two new states.” The South will remake itself, but so will the North: the NCP’s vision of an Arab Islamic state is already competing with the SPLM-N’s aspirations for an ethnically diverse and politically and religiously plural nation. Arman and Agar repeatedly stressed the argument that the balance between Khartoum and the regions must change, with states and regions gaining a greater say in North Sudan’s affairs. South Sudanese secession will help resolve some of Sudan’s political tensions, Arman said, but some underlying issues remain: populations in south Darfur and in states like Blue Nile and South Kordofan comprise “the new South of the North,” and if Khartoum does not listen to their desires, there will be conflict.

The SPLM-N has serious political ambitions in North Sudan: they have begun a process of “delinking” themselves from the SPLM in the South (though a common political and intellectual vision endures), and they hope to position their party as the major opposition to the NCP. The SPLM-N wants what what Arman calls “real democratization,” including constitutional reform and free and fair elections.

Arman and Agar both urged the US and the Obama administration to pressure the NCP to undertake democratic reforms. Arman said that Washington has privileged stability in Sudan over democracy, but contended that neither element can exist without the other: Washington’s willingness to normalize relations with Khartoum, he added, should hinge on Khartoum’s efforts to democratize, to reform the North’s constitution, to establish lasting peace with the South, and to resolve the conflict in Darfur without violence.

The event, both because of its content and because of the fact that it took place, demonstrates the SPLM-N’s intention to remain politically relevant in North Sudan. The SPLM-N is looking to Washington to support this effort. Whether the Obama administration listens to these desires or not, the event highlighted the complexity of politics in North Sudan: efforts to deepen the Arab and Islamic character of the state in Khartoum may proceed, but they will not proceed uncontested. Challenges for North Sudan are, as Agar noted, just around the corner: an upcoming gubernatorial contest in South Kordofan State will test the strength of the SPLM-N and shed some light on the future of political pluralism in the new North Sudan.

SPLM Fights George Athor’s Rebels in South Sudan

George Athor, a former lieutenant-general in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA, the military wing of South Sudan’s ruling party, the SPLM), defected from the SPLM during last year’s election season. Athor “felt overlooked when the party nominated candidates for last April’s presidential and legislative elections. He stood as an independent for the governorship of the south’s swampy Jonglei state and lost to SPLM incumbent Kuol Manyang.” Following his defeat at the polls, he and his men began attacking SPLM targets.

On the eve of this year’s referendum in January, Athor signed a ceasefire with the SPLM. Now that the referendum is over, Athor has broken the ceasefire. “Fighters loyal to Athor captured the town of Fangak in Jonglei on Feb. 9 and attacked an SPLA base,” killing some two hundred persons. The Economist‘s Baobab blog commented that the attack “bodes ill for the soon-to-be created country. In fact, this may be the single worst bit of news since the referendum.” The author added

The greatest threat to the creation of a state of South Sudan comes from internal conflicts. The civil war with the north, where the central government is based, ended in 2005 and while fighting has flared up on occasion, the peace has held overall. At the same time, tensions between the various armed groups inside the south have remained high. The South Sudanese are perhaps their own worst enemies.

Grim predictions about internal conflict in South Sudan received further corroboration this week when Athor’s rebels clashed with the SPLM again.

The fighting began on Sunday in Fangak county, the same area where more than 200 people were killed last month.


[The BBC] correspondent in the southern capital, Juba, Peter Martell, says the battles are localised and are very unlikely to affect the rest of the south, but it is one more sign of the challenges the south faces to improve security and bring its people together.

The BBC’s take differs somewhat from the Economist‘s, but both see Athor’s rebellion as a bad sign for South Sudan.

The possibility and the precedent exist for political reconciliation between the SPLM and Athor, but successive battles, especially ones that bring mass casualties, could harm the chances of a negotiated settlement to the conflict. A persistent internal rebellion could in turn hamper the SPLM’s ability to build a stronger state. Finally, Athor’s rebellion might foreshadow further dissent in the future. Some analysts have said that opening the political space is one of the foremost challenges the rulers of the world’s youngest country face. Not all dissidents will take up arms, of course, but opposition to the SPLM will be a significant issue in South Sudan going forward.

Five Challenges for South Sudan’s Future

Attention is turning from South Sudan’s referendum on independence, which yielded a nearly unanimous “yes” vote, to South’s Sudan’s future. Here are five challenges the new country will face:

1. Borders

Even though North Sudan appears resigned to the South’s secession, the two countries will still have to agree on the precise border that divides them. One major piece of that puzzle is Abyei, an oil-rich region that was supposed to hold its own referendum and decide whether it would secede along with the South or remain with the North. Due to disagreements between North and South Sudanese leaders, Abyei’s referendum was postponed indefinitely. Verbal and physical conflict in Abyei (between the largely pro-secession Ngok Dinka farmers and the largely pro-unity Misseriya Arab pastoralists) punctuated the voting earlier this month.

Now that the voting is over, Abyei remains a “potential tinderbox.”

On the southern side, the secretary general of the ruling party, the Southern People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), Pagan Amum, has said that if the Abyei referendum is not conducted, the only remaining option is for Abyei to be transferred to the south by presidential decree. On the northern side, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has said he will not accept Abyei being part of the south.

The Ngok Dinka say they fear that if they do not make their declaration before the votes are counted in the southern referendum, they will miss their chance to join the south.


The Ngok Dinka were ready to make their declaration before voting started on Jan. 9. But two high-level officials from the SPLM persuaded them to hold off.

The officials said a declaration before the referendum would give the north “an excuse to disrupt” the vote, said Juac Agok, deputy chairman of the SPLM in Abyei.

The SPLM is now asking them to wait until after July 9, when southern independence would formally begin.

But Agok said, “I don’t think it will be possible for me to convince the people of Abyei to wait.”

The seriousness of the situation in Abyei is so great that one analyst calls it “the key to South Sudan[‘s] stability.” Without a solution that both governments and the people of Abyei can accept, violence may escalate.

2. Oil

Oil is the primary driver of Sudan’s economy. The US Energy Information Administration says, “In 2009, according to the International Monetary Fund, oil represented over 90 percent of export earnings. For South Sudan (Juba), oil represented 98 percent of total revenues for the year compared to Khartoum at 65 percent.” The Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 (which provided for the referendum) established a 50-50 revenue-sharing agreement between North and South, but now the two countries will have to negotiate a new agreement on revenues. Addressing issues like transparency, a report released in early January argued, will be key to establishing trust and peace between North and South, who must rely on each other when it comes to oil: Three-quarters of the oil is in the South, but the North has the pipelines and refineries.

In addition to this challenge, South Sudan has its own internal challenges when it comes to oil revenues: accusations of government corruption and continued poverty in the midst of rising government income threaten to increase public discontent with the Government of South Sudan. Fast growth has led to income inequality and a sense of chaos in Juba. South Sudan will have to use oil revenues carefully in achieving development and building a unified society.

3. Integration and Citizenship

Who is a citizen in South Sudan? With refugees and members of the diaspora returning from near and far, and with everyone in the new country pondering its political future, South Sudan will need to develop a basis for national integration, citizenship, and unity that relies on more than just opposition to the North. Maggie Fick captures this problem poignantly:

A Southern Sudanese told me that “the referendum is the only thing that united us southerners.” He believes that one of the hardest tasks of the southern government in the coming years will be to create the idea of being a Southern Sudanese citizen—an idea that will arguably be foreign to many ofthese citizens.


After my friend made the above comment, he proceeded to give me an extensive history lesson on “the struggle,” speaking with pride and deep knowledge about the causes of the south’s two post-independence rebellions against regimes in Khartoum. He drew upon stories of battles fought in areas of the south that he has never visited but that appear vividly in his oral retelling of years of bloody conflict that eventually led to the south gaining the chance to decide its own destiny in a self-determination vote.

If this isn’t pride for a nation and in a group of people than I don’t know what is.

But the new Southern Sudan will be about more than the struggle of the past, and it will be a new struggle for the new country’s leaders to forge a path that includes not only those groups who fought in the war but also those people who were born in refugee camps in East Africa, who grew up in Nebraska, who studied at Oxford and who drive motorcycle taxis in Juba.

Picking the country’s name (it may well remain “South Sudan”), national anthem, flag, and emblem is a first step, but crafting national unity and integrating newcomers will take a long time.

4. Political Reform

This point is related to the last point. Along with building a sense of one nation, South Sudan will face the challenge of allowing multiple voices to speak. South Sudan will face international and internal pressures to move beyond the one-party model that allows the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) to dominate. The International Crisis Group’s Zack Vertin ably explains the issue:

The rebel movement turned governing party — the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement — dominates the political arena. Since the end of the war, opposition voices have suppressed grievances and taken a back seat to the SPLM so as to preserve the goal shared by all southerners — self-determination. But now that the vote has been cast, that common denominator is gone. When the jubilation of last week’s vote subsides, the political environment will slowly begin to transform. The current leadership must respond accordingly, recognizing that a genuine opening of political space is both necessary and in their long-term interest. They must find a way to equitably manage the South’s own diversity, lest they simply duplicate the sort of autocratic regime they’ve finally managed to escape.

Allowing political pluralism means more than just who wins at the ballot box – it also means addressing human rights issues (h/t Rob Crilly), managing dissent, and promoting positive relations between ethnic groups. None of that will be easy.

5. Development

South Sudan’s development challenges are wide-ranging and stark. A Reuters report from 2010 puts South Sudan’s predicament bluntly: “By many yardsticks, it is the least-developed place on earth: 70 percent of its people have no access to any form of healthcare, one in five women die in childbirth and one in five children fail to make it to their fifth birthday.” UNDP provides alarming statistics on education, disease, sustainability, and other issues in South Sudan. These problems are not just economic – they also threaten to undercut political stability. The worst outcome, as Rob Crilly says, would be for South Sudan, burdened by economic crisis and political failure, to join the world’s failed states.


This list is not comprehensive, and I hope commenters will weigh in on these issues and others. What have I missed? What challenges do you see ahead for South Sudan?