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March-April 2012

Vol. 37, No. 2


South Sudan: Give government a fair chance

The following update is provided for NewsNotes by John Ashworth, who has worked as a missionary in the two Sudans since 1983. He is now an advisor to the Sudan Catholic Bishops' Conference and a peace facilitator for the Sudan Council of Churches; we deeply appreciate his analysis on Sudanese issues.

South Sudan flagSeveral months after independence, the world's newest nation continues to develop, following an upward trajectory which began with the signing of a peace agreement in 2005. There is a functioning government; most people go about their business in relative security most of the time; communications have been revolutionised by mushrooming cellphone networks, domestic airlines and improved roads; banks are operating in most major towns; and there is a vibrant trade with Uganda and Kenya. There is an air of hope and optimism.

Of course none of this is happening as quickly as many would like. Delivery of basic services still tends to rely on the aid community. Development is concentrated on the capital, Juba, to the detriment of outlying areas. The transition from an armed liberation movement to a democratic government is a challenge, and the struggle against corruption and for good governance is ongoing. The development of a new constitution is proving controversial. Nevertheless, the Catholic bishops have advised people to manage their expectations and, while insisting on accountability and progress, to give the new government a fair chance. Rome was not built in a day.

There is still violence in certain parts of this huge country, which is perhaps not surprising given the trauma of decades of war and the wide availability of weapons. The government has proved weak in providing security for its citizens. The conflicts have different roots: inter-communal, disaffected militia leaders who have formed their own "rebel" groups, the international Lord's Resistance Army. While not a threat to the state, they cause death and suffering, and retard development. The hand of the former enemy, Khartoum, is suspected of fomenting much of this violence.

Disputes with South Sudan's northern neighbour and former master continue, particularly over borders and oil. South Sudanese oil has to pass through a pipeline in the Republic of Sudan for export, and Khartoum has allegedly been "stealing" it, while insisting on transit fees that are up to 30 times the international norm. The government in Juba has now shut down the oil wells and signed memoranda with Kenya and Ethiopia to build new pipelines. This has increased tension between the two former enemies, and will have economic implications for both. There are also concerns for the South Sudanese who remain in Sudan, as they are likely to lose their Sudanese citizenship in April 2012.

Conflict also continues along the border between Sudan and South Sudan. The people of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, although part of Sudan, fought alongside South Sudan during the long liberation struggle. They are now fighting Khartoum again in an effort to retain their identity in the face of government statements that there will be no room for ethnic nor cultural diversity and that Islamic shari'a will be strengthened. Khartoum has refused to negotiate, nor to allow humanitarian aid, and is seeking a military solution to these conflicts. With the ongoing war in Darfur, there are now three full-scale civil wars in Sudan. The enclave of Abyei, a Dinka area of South Sudan which was transferred to the north for administrative reasons in 1905, was due to have a referendum on whether it should remain in Sudan or join South Sudan, but this was blocked by Khartoum which then occupied the area militarily. Khartoum's forces have bombed refugee camps in South Sudan and its troops have crossed the border but were beaten back by South Sudanese armed forces.

The Catholic Church in the two nations has decided to remain a single bishops' conference, in recognition of its shared history and of the particular challenges which will face the Church in Sudan. However it will set up two secretariats, one in Juba and one in Khartoum. The Church occupies a unique position in South Sudan as it is the only institution which remained on the ground with the people throughout the war, providing basic services that one would normally expect from a government, and also providing leadership. It is also respected for its role in peace-making and advocacy. All of this was done on an ecumenical basis with other churches. The Church is determined to continue to play a public role, guiding the new nation in light of Catholic Social Teaching and Gospel values.

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