Will South Sudan Survive?

By Meredith Potter

Generals of South Sudan's army celebrate during official independence day ceremonies

SIX years ago, the civil war that ravaged Sudan from 1983 to 2005 came to an end. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the conflict, provided the people of southern Sudan an opportunity to vote in a referendum scheduled for January 2011; that referendum would decide whether southern Sudan ought to be independent from its northern counterpart. Last January, 99 percent of southerners voted to secede. On July 9, 2011, South Sudan became the newest sovereign nation in the world.

The world has watched South Sudan with trepidation. Before July, all of Sudan was governed by the northern city of Khartoum, so South Sudan has no pre-existing political institutions. Most of its eight million people are impoverished, surviving on less than one dollar a day, and only fifteen percent of them are literate. Though it boasts lucrative oil reserves, it lacks the infrastructure necessary for refining and exporting its oil; before the country became two, northerners handled those tasks.

South Sudan depends on oil revenue for 98 percent of its national budget. In Unity State, where South Sudan drills most of its oil, production has declined by 25 percent since July. Oil workers have become sparse because northerners fled southern oilfields when South Sudan declared its independence.

Today, roughly 75 percent of Sudanese oil fields lie in Southern Sudan, but their pipelines flow north to ports there. Because Sudan refines and exports the oil collected in Southern Sudan, the two countries are dependent on one another. John Daly of the Jamestown Foundation says, “like Siamese twins, Sudan and South Sudan need each other” to survive.

The two countries have yet to agree on how to share their oil wealth. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement stipulates that northern and southern Sudan will split oil revenues equally, but Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for his atrocities in Darfur, controls the pipelines that run to the Indian Ocean coastline. So far, he has been unwilling to compromise with South Sudan.

A man wielding the flag of South Sudan

In November, the South Sudanese government seized Sudan’s share of southern oil production and announced its intention to construct a new pipeline that will not traverse Sudanese territory. South Sudan divested Sudapest, Sudan’s oil company, of its shares in South Sudan’s oilfields, transferring those shares to Nilepet, South Sudan’s state-owned oil company. Khartoum, it seems, will have no hand in managing South Sudan’s natural resources.

South Sudan’s decisions will negatively affect ongoing negotiations, which seek to benefit both countries by splitting oil revenues ‘fairly.’ Though South Sudan claims that their divestment of Sudapest was implicit in pre-secession negotiations, Sudanese officials expected any divestment to be discussed during negotiations. The African Union is facilitating negotiations as part of a broader effort to address grievances about oil, as well as boundaries and demarcation, that have been voiced by both countries.

Negotiations are failing. A new round of talks sponsored by the African Union and mediated by former South African President Thabo Mbeki has not commenced as scheduled; because South Sudan’s obstruction of northern efforts to capitalize on oil, Mbeki-led negotiations may not occur at all.

Sudan and South Sudan are unlikely to resolve escalating oil-related tensions, which will impede the efforts of both nations to stabilize their economies. In addition to settling the splitting of oil revenue, Sudan and South Sudan must divide and pay their $35 billion debt, much of which they owe to the United States. Both countries say they plan to circulate new currencies, which will complicate their economic rebuilding efforts.

“A Crude Awakening,” a 2006 documentary by Basil Gelpke and Raymond McCormack about the realities of oil, calls it “black blood,” but in Sudan and South Sudan, the world is likely to witness the spilling of more red blood before oil-related disagreements are to be resolved. Neither country is willing to compromise, but both are hopelessly invested in capitalizing on oil; both economies are dependent on it. Both countries are politically unstable, so they may resort to violence, which veterans of the two-decade Sudanese civil war know all too well.

Though South Sudan plans to construct new pipelines, Adelaide Schwartz, an analyst at Stratfor, a private intelligence company in Austin, Texas, calls such infrastructure “a literal pipe dream,” given that it would take years to construct new pipelines. It would also require money South Sudan simply does not have.

Despite these considerations, it would be a mistake to underestimate South Sudan’s determination to control its own destiny, including its oil. Though the country is still struggling to define itself, and though some of its citizens have competing identities and interests, the South Sudanese people are united in their opposition to the north. Unfortunately, their demonization of the north will continue to prevent the African Union from making any progress toward an oil settlement.

Meredith Potter is a junior in Saybrook College.

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