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SOUTH SUDAN: Looking to the Future

Laura Lopez Gonzalez

JOHANNESBURG, Jan 14 2011 (IPS) - The peaceful achievement of an independent South Sudan could have economic and security benefits for its East African neighbours in particular. Analysts say it may also shift the balance of power in controlling vital water resources in the region.

An independent South Sudan could influence the geopolitics of the Nile River Basin and beyond. Credit:  Zack Baddorf/IPS

An independent South Sudan could influence the geopolitics of the Nile River Basin and beyond. Credit: Zack Baddorf/IPS

Speaking at a debate hosted by the Johannesburg-based South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) on Jan. 13, senior researcher Petrus de Kock says Uganda and Kenya are poised to build on their existing economic presence in southern Sudan.

Uganda is currently southern Sudan’s biggest trading partner and the main conduit for large amounts of imported goods, including foodstuffs. Ugandans also play a major role in construction and may see a spike in business as a newly independent southern Sudan rushes to develop infrastructure, he adds.

Meanwhile, Kenya remains hopeful that South Sudan will look at its eastern neighbour as an alternate route to export its oil, which accounts for 90 percent of the south’s foreign earnings. To reduce its dependence on the north’s refineries and ports, the underdeveloped south has discussed building a 3,600 kilometre pipeline to the Indian Ocean port of Lamu, Kenya, said de Kock.

While the economic viability of such a project remains in question, he added that Sudanese media have already reported Chinese interest in bidding for the project.

Gaps in the south’s infrastructure and expertise in the oil, gas and mining sectors may also provide an opportunity for South Africa’s extractive industries to enter southern Sudan with new technologies and business proposals – a move that would fit well with South African president Jacob Zuma’s push for stronger economic relationships with other African countries.

“If you look at President Zuma’s diplomacy in Africa, he has an economic bent,” says Dr Kathryn Sturman, head of SAIIA’s Governance of Africa’s Resources Programme. “The Zuma presidency’s first step would be to pay a state visit to a new country and take a big South African business delegation with him. It’s about opening up opportunities for South Africa in a new country.”

Security essential

But gains like these hinge on a peaceful secession, which may be threatened by tensions in Sudan’s oil rich Abyei region, warned Sudanese ambassador to South Africa, Dr Ali Yousif Ahmed Alsharif.

Sudan’s 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement originally provided for a parallel referendum to allow the people of Abyei to decide whether they wish to join the south, however disputes about who should be eligible to vote have delayed the process and sparked violence.

According to Dr Leben Nelson Moro, a professor at the University of Juba’s Centre for Peace and Development Studies, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia all have a vested interest in facilitating peace in southern Sudan to avoid a repeat of the large influxes of refugees they witnessed during Sudan’s civil war.

He added that Uganda and countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) will be keen to partner with southern Sudan to control armed groups like the Ugandan rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Following a failed peace negotiation and military reverses in northern Uganda, the LRA has spread its activities into southern Sudan, the Central African Republic and the DRC. The group has been alleged to have ties to the government in Khartoum.

“The DRC has an ongoing problem with its porous border,” Sturman said. “From a security perspective, you’re looking at rebels moving between the countries so the DRC would want to initiate close security cooperation with the new government to trade and control each other’s rebels in that very dense forest in the Ituri region and southwestern Sudan.”

Changing the river’s flow

The place of an independent South Sudan in the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) is also an intriguing question. Formed in 1999, the initiative seeks to foster a more equitable allocation of the river’s waters than that established by colonial-era treaties, which not only assigned Egypt the majority of the river’s water but gave it veto powers over other countries’ use, according to de Kock.

Egypt relies on the Nile for an estimated 95 percent of its water needs. With a new southern Sudan likely to join the NBI and require its own allocation of the Nile’s water, there will not only be additional pressure on the river but also an additional ally for eastern and central African countries challenging Egypt’s control of the Nile through currently proposed frameworks, he added.

“The question is whether southern Sudan will join – and that could potentially shift the balance in the Nile Basin,” de Kock adds. “South Sudan, as a new state, will also want to access the Nile waters for agriculture, industry and hydro-electricity so the geopolitics of the Nile River Basin will more likely become more intense.”

The future of the Jonglei Canal is also expected to remain a contentious issue between Egypt and a newly created southern Sudanese government, says Moro. The canal was supposed to reduce water loss due to evaporation; construction was halted in 1983.

Egypt continues to back the project while southern Sudan maintains it needs to be revised in order to minimise negative impacts on communities and wetlands that would be affected by the canal’s construction in southern and central Sudan.

The referendum in which southern Sudanese will vote on whether to secede from the north is the final step in the implementation of the country’s 2005 peace agreement, which ended a decades-long civil war between northern and southern Sudan. If, as expected, southern voters cast their ballots for independence, north and south Sudan will have until Jul. 9 to formally separate, according to Alsharif.

Among the issues expected to top negotiations over secession are its implications for Sudanese currency, citizenship and distribution of revenues derived from national resources, including oil and water.

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