South Sudan gets a chance to make its own mistakes...

Monday January 10 2011



Any day now, we shall learn the results from the January 9 referendum vote in South Sudan on secession.

Short of Jesus Christ returning and miraculously altering the result, the vote will be in favour of secession, and the birth of Africa’s 54th nation (counting, as I do, the Sahrawi Republic).

The challenges facing “New Sudan,” are massive.

In nearly all respects, South Sudan is worse off than basket case Somalia. It barely has an education or health system.

In the remote parts, the people have never seen money; they use barter and live in medieval conditions.

The government will have to resettle tens of thousands of internally displaced people and returning refugees.

It will have to set up a central bank. It has to ensure that old rivalries and hostilities among Southern communities don’t flare up into war.

And, critically, that its arguments with Northern authorities in Khartoum don’t blow up too.

That said, it is important to make the point that nations don’t exist to succeed.

South Sudan, therefore, has the right to make its own mistakes, and go to hell and back on its own steam. That is the joy of Independence.

Indeed, South Sudan is cashing in its mistake chips like very few African countries did after Independence.

Barely six years since the peace agreement, and the SPLM taking over in the South, corruption has reached levels other African countries took 20 years to achieve...

When many African countries became independent, they were heavily reliant on a few agricultural commodities (sisal, cotton, coffee), or natural resources (copper, gold) for their national income.

It was easy money, and since the governments didn’t have to mollycoddle the population to be productive, they quickly became dictatorships because they did not need taxes from the people’s produce to keep the politicians, police, and army well fed.

Going by that scenario, one would think that South Sudan, which has oil. is likely to become just another corrupt African dictatorship.

Probably not. South Sudan’s disadvantages are also its blessing.

Its mostly illiterate population is not just an additional burden. This is a stubborn lot who are suspicious of government.

They believe it wants to take away their old ways that served them well in times of difficulty, so they tend to resist it.

The SPLM is also not inheriting well-established state institutions like most African countries did.

Using those institutions, the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s Independence parties quickly expanded their reach into national authorities, with branches and agents in every village.

The SPLM is partly an alliance of tribal and regional warlords, whom it has to continuously mollify.

The lack of established colonial-era institutions means that large parts of South Sudan have the possibility to organise civil society, business, and many other social institutions without the government in Juba meddling.

In that sense, much like the Somalia of the future, South Sudan has a great opportunity to be a country where the people are more powerful than the government.

When I last checked, they called that a democracy.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group’s executive editor for Africa & Digital Media. E-mail: [email protected]