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In South Sudan, a Nation Is Born — But With Troubles

July 11, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
On Saturday, South Sudan officially gained independence with its creation as the world's newest nation. Judy Woodruff discusses the challenges that the young country faces with the Pulitzer Center's Rebecca Hamilton, who has covered Sudan for years. She recently reported from there for the NewsHour and The Washington Post.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And we turn to Africa, where a nation is born, but with many troubles.

At midnight Friday in Juba, the capital of the new South Sudan, this sign said it all: Free at last. The turning of the clock to July 9, Saturday, meant independence, and the creation of the world’s newest nation.

WOMAN: I am sending good luck to all the South Sudanese.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the jubilation in the streets of Juba came at a brutal cost. Civil war killed two million people throughout Sudan, spread across five decades.

A 2005 peace agreement set the stage for an independence referendum this past January. Southern Sudanese, largely Christian and animist, voted overwhelmingly to secede from the Muslim and Arab North.

The new president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, spoke of the bloody past after taking his oath of office.

SALVA KIIR, South Sudanese president: We have to forgive, although we will not forget.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Indeed, the run-up to Independence Day in South Sudan had been marred by violence along the border in the Abyei region claimed by both sides and in the Nuba Mountains of the Northern state of Southern Kordofan.

SUSAN RICE, United States Ambassador to the United Nations: People of South Sudan, congratulations!

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Saturday’s 10-hour-long independence ceremony was held in blistering heat, with a large U.S. delegation on hand, led by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice.

She also opened the new U.S. Embassy in Juba, along with former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who helped broker the 2005 accord also there, the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir. He remains under international indictment for alleged war crimes committed in Darfur, to the west.

OMAR AL-BASHIR, president of Sudan (through translator): For the sake of peace, we have accepted the separation of the South out of the united Sudan, so that they can form a new country, although we believe that the unity of Sudan was best for the North and the South.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The new nation of South Sudan instantly became one of the world’s poorest, despite extensive oil reserves. Bashir’s government in the North has controlled the oil industry for years.

For more on what the new nation faces, we turn to Rebecca Hamilton, a Pulitzer Center reporter who has been covering Sudan for years. She recently reported from there for the NewsHour and The Washington Post. And she joins us now from New York.

Rebecca Hamilton, thank you for being with us.

REBECCA HAMILTON, Pulitzer Center: Pleasure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Other than religion, tell us what makes this new country of South Sudan different from Sudan, the country it broke away from.

REBECCA HAMILTON: Well, firstly, I think it’s orientational.

The orientation of its leadership is certainly going to be looking towards joining the East African community, whereas the government of Sudan in the North tends to orient itself more towards the Arab League. So, in terms of just where it positions itself regionally, I feel that the new country is going to be seen as more part of East Africa.

Then, it’s landlocked, which is going to be a huge challenge for this new country and in particular when it comes to oil. It has 80 percent of the oil that was in the unified Sudan, but the only way that that oil gets out to export is through a port that is in the North, up to the Red Sea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that oil, in fact, is an issue that is unresolved. How do you see them working through this?

REBECCA HAMILTON: Yes, it is unresolved. And it’s one of those issues where both the North Sudanese government and the government of South Sudan are going to have to cooperate to keep the oil flowing.

It is sort of a mutually assured destruction where, if either of them disputes, then the oil flow could be cut off. And both of them need it. But the government of South Sudan is particularly vulnerable in this regard, because the Southern budget is 98 percent dependent on oil. So, unless that oil keeps flowing, they are very, very vulnerable. And they really have a huge need to diversify their economy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rebecca Hamilton, what are the other main challenges facing this new country?

REBECCA HAMILTON: Can I just say before the challenges that it’s a huge moment of hope and expectation? Because I think we can get so quickly bogged down in the challenges, and what you have here as the greatest resource is a people among whom everybody knows someone who died in that war. And so the stakes are so huge to make this project of South Sudan work to honor the memory of those who were killed.

But you’re right. The challenges are enormous. And I think the first one is whether this government, this new government is going to be able to deliver on citizen expectations. If you go and interview people who are not in the capital city, who are out in the rural areas, and you ask them what are their expectations of the new nation, they don’t talk about an abstract sense of nationhood. They talk about real concrete change in their daily lives.

Are there going to be hospitals? Are there going to be schools that are not under a tree? Are there going to be roads? And they have been blaming the North, the Sudanese government in the North, for not having those things. That’s certainly been a huge part of the story, but it’s not the only thing.

And the question now is whether this new government is going to be able to deliver services to the population before they get frustrated. If they do get frustrated, there is every chance they won’t channel that frustration through a political channel, but will instead resort to arms that are prolific across the region.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, there’s still conflict in the region, in the North unresolved. We touched on some of those in the piece just a moment ago.

How much does all of that around this area, unresolved — and the other unresolved issues affect the health of this new — new country?

REBECCA HAMILTON: Yes, it’s intimately involved.

I think it’s worthwhile seeing the success of this new country as based on three buckets of issues. The first is what happens inside the South, those governance challenges I was speaking of. What happens inside the North, because if you have an unstable northern neighbor, there is no way that the South is going to be stable. And then what happens between North and South, issues like you mentioned in the introduction of Abyei, still unresolved between the North and the South as to what will be the final status.

But it’s also why what is happening in the Nuba Mountains, which is in Northern Sudan, is relevant to the ultimate success of the South. If you have these kind of conflicts in these border areas, the South is not going to be able to be stable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, if you look at what has happened, is this a stabilizing thing that independence has now come to fruition, or is it a destabilizing thing?

REBECCA HAMILTON: I think that the jury might be out on that.

But you would have to say that, after generations, literally, of civil war, this seems, for the moment at least, to be the best solution, that there was the option to try and make a unified Sudan work. It hasn’t worked. You heard the vote of the people very clearly, 98.5 percent of them saying, we need to separate. So, I think it’s the only option for the moment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I ask because we heard the new president saying, we will forgive, but we won’t forget. And then we heard Bashir quoted as saying something to the effect that unity would have been better.

REBECCA HAMILTON: Well, that’s his position, and — and perhaps not necessarily based on the best interests of the Southern Sudanese people, I think they would argue.

If there had been unified Sudan, then, from Bashir’s perspective, his economy would be in a much better shape than it is now. As it is, 80 percent of Sudan’s oil is going to be under the sovereign control of the government of South Sudan.

But, look, there is a diversity of views of this across Sudan, but what very clearly the Southern people had the right to was self-determination. And when they were given that choice, they decided that they wanted to separate. So, that — that is the right result to honor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Rebecca Hamilton, what do you look for in the months to come to see whether this new country is getting on its feet or not?

REBECCA HAMILTON: Yes. I think we have got to start firstly by changing the way we look at the new government of South Sudan.

For a long time, the international community has seen the South as the victim, which it has been the primary victim in the war years. But now we have got to be able to hold it just as accountable as we would any other government to make sure it lives up to the expectations of its people. That means dealing with issues that are already a problem, like corruption, a huge amount of corruption in the Southern government right now, about making sure that it is putting in the work to start diversifying its economy, because, if you are 98 percent dependent on oil, you are in a very risky situation.

And the good news is that South Sudan is this incredibly fertile territory. If you go, it is not the image that you have of Sudan. It’s green and it’s lush. It really could be a breadbasket for the region. But it means that they need to shift their focus and start developing the agricultural industry.

And then I think the other key thing is whether they are going to avoid the fate of so many liberation movements, which is that, when they get into power, they don’t live up to the ideals that they were fighting for. And that means increasing political space in South Sudan. It’s very much controlled by one party at the moment, and they need to open up that space, so that, when there are inevitable challenges and frustrations, they get channeled to a political system.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rebecca Hamilton, thank you for helping fill out the portrait of this new country. We will be watching.

Thank you very much.

REBECCA HAMILTON: Thank you.